Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fatal Optimism

President Obama's recent State of the Union address came across as the unveiling of a plan to reestablish the status quo, circa 1990, albeit with much better technology and natural gas replacing oil. This shouldn't have been surprising: It is his job to manage government resources to provide the social and physical infrastructure necessary for the kind of life most citizens expect to be able to have. In this, a presidential election year, he needs to at least give the impression that he's capable of doing that job better than anyone else.

Unfortunately, his vision of what's possible is out of synch with what our much-fuller and ailing world will allow. Thirty years of exponential consumption and concentration of social and economic power have sabotaged Earth's natural life support systems and society's resiliency, respectively; this is a fatal combination, since as a consequence of the former we will require a huge amount of the latter if we are to survive. The world needs to consume half as much natural resources as it does now, an amount that is one-fifth what the U.S. currently consumes. Rather than increasing the economic production and consumption of our population's majority, we should be working as hard as possible to increase the efficiency of how all of us use everything, from energy to water to minerals, resulting in a net decrease in the amount we use while increasing its ability to keep us and the rest of the world's population alive in the rapidly changing world we face.

The time for an easy transition from the life we know to something radically different is practically gone. A confluence of impending critical resource shortages and accelerating climate change are likely to force us into a much more austere lifestyle, if not a global death spiral, well within two decades. The world's population can't afford for us to waste any of that time by taking a "drill, baby, drill" stance, even if it does appear to be much more politically feasible (though improbable).

As disappointing as the president's proposals are, his political opposition has far worse ones. While he acknowledges some of the problems (such as climate change), if not their magnitude, they speak and act as if none of the problems exist at all. They are focused on taking even more of the actions that created the problems in the first place, and creating additional problems in the process.

It is tempting to just give up on the political process altogether, to try to go it alone (or at least with as many like-minded friends as we can find). However, the changes we make to ourselves must match the changes we face, and enough of us must change to keep the storm that's coming from totally overwhelming us. Such organized effort requires government, both as an enabler and as protection against the forces whose power derives from the current system and who will try to preserve that system, no matter who or what else may die as a result. Those forces specialize in squashing the most local of efforts to control personal fate, and know full well that a strong government is the best protection people have against their predations. Strong government requires political involvement and participation in the constant fight against its corruption. Meanwhile, the people must attempt to steer the government toward taking action that will truly preserve the commonwealth, and to determine that action they must also take the local actions many would prefer.

We have a big job with a short timeline, and the State of the Union just added some valuable resolution to just how far we are from achieving it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Basic Needs

A recent news story clarified for me the fundamental need for society to provide, as much as possible, for the basic needs of all its members. By "society," I mean any group of people who interact with each other, which is effectively the entire world's population. "Basic needs" include what's necessary for survival (primarily air, food, water, protection from environmental extremes such as heat and cold, and health care), education (about how the world works, and minimal shared values that enable people to live together without harming, future generations, or the ability of life to be maximized over time), and security from any threats to the means for meeting the other needs.

The story that prompted this discussion is about an outbreak of totally drug-resistant tuberculosis in India which is 100% fatal. Drug-resistant TB has been around for several years, an evolutionary response to the global effort to wipe out TB. This response has been enabled by inadequate detection, treatment, and education about the disease, mostly in poor regions of the world where resources are limited to deal with these issues. Clearly. meeting basic needs for everyone would go a long way toward eliminating this disease, and very likely many other diseases as well. Not helping people who can't meet their basic needs forces the rest of us to deal with consequences that could be a lot more costly, such as: infectious diseases that are out of control and threaten everyone; and wars that threaten resources that are needed by many more people than those who are fighting over them.

Because we depend on Earth's natural processes for meeting both our needs and our wants, we have a strong self-interest in maintaining them; the alternative is to do everything ourselves, which is practically impossible. Other species already perform most of that maintenance, so from even such a narcissistic perspective we have a strong interest in keeping them healthy as well (beginning with not driving them to extinction). Again, the consequences are potentially horrific, among them: contaminated water, food, and air that kills millions; and climate changes that threaten our food, water supply, and physical security from natural disasters, and numerous other aspects of our lives.

When what we do – or don't do – causes people to be unable to meet their basic needs, or impacts the functioning of Earth's natural systems, or causes the death of other creatures without supporting the overall goal of life to be maximized over time, we are responsible for the consequences, whether we intend them or not. Our culpability is etched into history, whether or not someone recognizes it or holds us accountable for it. Responsibility, defined in this way, is absolute, as are the values it represents.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Science and Commons

In the book "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America" (which I reviewed on, Sean Lawrence Otto describes how the U.S. is facing a major crisis brought on by its growing unwillingness to embrace the freedom of inquiry into objective reality, a basic prerequisite for science and democracy, and the use of its results to inform and ground discussions of public policy. With politicians and citizens alike increasingly unable to discern opinion from fact on a range of issues (not the least of which being greenhouse gas-induced climate change), our access to vast technological and economic power coupled with near-ideological pursuit of the tragedy of the commons on a global scale has made the U.S. a (if not the) key player in an unfolding disaster that may doom most of life on Earth.

Otto argues that the best way to deal with this is for scientists to actively promote awareness of the process of science, which would add credibility to the knowledge it produces and make it more meaningful and useful to the majority of citizens. I have no doubt that this is true: it was the basis of much of my work with my father on attempting to transform math and science education in the 1980s. If you can enable people to observe and respect objective reality, understand how it works, and appreciate the value of testing their most basic assumptions, then you are empowering them to achieve their maximum happiness without compromising the ability of others to do the same.

The role of government as protector of the commons is explored in the book, as a means to prevent the tyranny of the few, with the power to consume more, over the many who either cannot consume as much (or choose not to out of respect for others). I look at it as the equivalent of preserving enough resources for everyone to meet their basic needs, and enabling them to do so, with the remainder as open to basic market competition subject to personal ability and effort. Critical to this is the universal availability of knowledge about what people's needs are, what it takes to meet them, and what variables in nature and human behavior may change these; science is a valuable tool for providing this, and therefore should be nurtured.

In my own work, I've tried to be careful about identifying what is conjecture and what is fact. However, much of what I write, this entry included, is a mixture of both which I don't pretend is strict science, but rather a collection of ideas that can be used to spur further investigation into the areas I've explored. The freedom to hypothesize, to play with ideas, is as important as the freedom to test one's beliefs and identify how the Universe really works, but we must exercise both in order to create something truly worthwhile. If you're familiar with complex mathematics, I see it as the equivalent of operating on imaginary space to derive an object or relationship in real space that can actually be observed. Just as entertainment provides pretend experiences that can inform how we live our lives, we still have to live our lives and be able to understand the difference. This is a facility we appear to be in the process of losing, a process which must be reversed if we, and those who depend on us, are to survive and thrive.