Thursday, December 11, 2014

Values For An Ideal World

The British-based organization Common Cause provides an excellent, formal discussion of current research into world values, and how it relates to issues of social and environmental health. By comparison, I have tended to be pretty loose in my treatment of the subject of values, citing specific applications interchangeably with their deeper motivations. For example, my valuing the maximum amount and thriving of life over time and space is a special consequence of action based upon the formal "self-transcendence" group of values; it is also closely related to what I have been calling "global responsibility." Not surprisingly, the opposite group of formal values, "self-enhancement," corresponds to maximizing personal "happiness" and meeting "personal responsibility." There are two other, opposing formal groups of values, "openness to change" and "conservation," which in my world-view are more aligned with the "openness" dimension of personality that prefers certain "environments" over others (in this case, dynamic vs. static). As Common Cause points out, we all have these values to varying degrees that depend on specific situations, but we also have preferences (much like we have preferred personalities) which will make us more or less inclined to change our circumstances.

In the context of creating a healthier world that approaches the ideal, where humanity doesn't suffer major population loss and it gives other species more power so they can reduce the threat of uninhabitability, self-enhancement and conservation can no longer be dominant. More variability in the environment is inescapable whether or not we pursue this course, since a significant amount of climate change is already locked in, so those of us who prefer change will tend to benefit more than those who don't. If we choose to let pursuit of personal power dominate, conditions will only get worse; because people with power will benefit from further limits on resources and therefore promote more, until they can't, and we will all fight to the death for the remaining scraps.

The requisite change in dominant values can occur voluntarily or not. In my concept of an ideal world, the change is voluntary, proceeding from a fact-based civil discussion of what our dominant values will be and the preferred consequences of living by those values. Reality is likely to be a lot messier, even if we do readjust our values in time to avoid calamity, which I consider a long shot worth taking.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Requirements For Another Ideal World

In "Money and Responsibility" I mentioned my latest vision of an ideal world, whose focus is on preserving and proliferating life, especially ours, through commonly held values, understanding, and management of resources. It can be described, with some refinement, by a set of requirements that would apply wherever humans are (on Earth and in space):

  • V: All of us agree to a common set of basic values and standards for developing them
    • The main value, which dominates all others, is the preservation and proliferation of life for as long as physically possible
  • U: All of us agree to a common understanding of reality and standards for developing it
    • That understanding will be based on observation, logic, and verifiable predictions
  • M: None of us can take, or render useless, the means of basic survival ("the commons") used by anyone else, including members of other species critical to maintaining those means, beyond the constraints of natural predator-prey relationships
  • E: Everything not in the commons may be distributed among people in a socially acceptable way, such as in an economy
    • This includes rewards for risks incurred in expanding the commons, which may be kept for a fixed time (not to exceed one lifetime)
  • R: We are all responsible for maintaining the commons

For convenience, I'll refer to these requirements by the acronym VUMER, and its implementation "VUMER World." The main value is the driver for all of the requirements; and an accurate and commonly-held understanding of reality is critical for taking appropriate and effective action in implementing values, especially those involving survival, and well as maintaining a cohesive society. Values "V" and understanding "U" therefore take precedence over the other requirements, which deal with implementation.

It is of course possible that an actual global agreement about values and understanding (which itself is pretty "ideal," and would involve everyone, rather than just officials of dominant political entities) would preclude my preferences for them and everything that follows from them. I wouldn't be surprised if such an outcome represents a compromise between VUMER World and the "Dead World" we are currently creating, which might delay our demise by a few more years, but at least we would all be invested in the outcome rather than, as many of us are, going along for the ride.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Death Stoppers Imperative

Last week I published my new book, Death Stoppers Anthology, along with related music. Included with my favorite fiction and poetry are essays drawn from blog posts that, in my opinion, best address the most pivotal issues I've thought about. The last one, Options For A Reluctant Planet-killer, ended on a somewhat hopeful note when I wrote it back in June; but afterwards I fell again into despair, this time the deepest I have ever felt. A combination of factors contributed to it, which I was able to understand as I completed the memoir that ends the book. My life wasn't objectively worse, but my attitude was. With critical deadlines approaching or already past for transformation of our global culture into something much healthier in order to avoid catastrophe, I felt helpless to make even the slightest contribution, and my self respect was plummeting.

I pulled out of my tailspin and resolved never to let it happen again. The solution and its consequences are what I have been focusing on ever since. Essentially, I accepted that it's better to do whatever you can to solve the problems in front of you, than to hide from them or try to live with them, and it helps immensely to have a plan – even if it's one that needs changing later on. My old poem "Death Stoppers," included in the book (and where it got its title), is an outline of such a plan.

Key to the plan is fearlessness. When you've faced the reality that your life isn't worth much if you keep going in the direction you're going, and the security you expected from doing so is a hollow promise used to control you by people to whom you're just a thing (the root of all evil, as one of my essays explains), then going another way doesn't feel as scary. Knowing this, and feeling it at the deepest level, enables you to buck the system you've been depending upon for your survival, beginning with a fight for transparency and accountability for the damage being done to the world, by yourself and all of us, but especially the people who are most actively and willingly tearing it apart for their personal gain.

As my mathematical model of global population and consumption explains, our present crisis is a result of the relationships between personal happiness, consumption of ecological resources that meet our needs and wants, and population size, coupled with the fact that we have consumed a critical fraction of the ecological resources provided by our planet. This situation has made a few of us effectively too happy; and with no new resources to fuel their very human lust for more happiness, they are tapping into what the rest of us are using. Acceleration of this trend, and the depletion of limited resources used by us and other species who maintain our world's habitability, will cause more and more people to be deprived of their most basic needs, leading to their death and a decline in our overall population that we may never recover from.

Understanding this dynamic supports my argument that evil is a characteristic of actions, not people. We all have the drive to exploit our environment, and the power of physical and cultural technologies has enabled us to do so far more efficiently than our biology allows by forcing us to increasingly treat everything as abstract entities. We can – and must – be forgiven for following our nature and using the tools at our disposal to do so, but it must be accompanied by a commitment to offset it by adopting a set of values, such as love and health of all life, which translates into maintaining a habitable world for our population and the populations of other species whose own happiness is tied to their roles in maintaining its health.

Since we are currently at or near our maximum population, and climate change threatens to reduce ecological resources (including members of other species) regardless of our actions, we need to rapidly convince ourselves and others that: we are facing an existential crisis; we are responsible for it; we can be forgiven for our contribution to it (and thus avoid depression leading to suicide); we must adopt a new set of values that keeps it from accelerating and happening again; and immediate action is imperative. Then we have to take the action, beginning with cleaning up our collective mess and giving natural systems room to recover. That's a tall order, but if we are to be death stoppers instead of death enablers, we need to fill it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Political Responsibility

The elections over the next two years will be critical for the future of humanity and the other species we share the world with. Government, as the cultural institution entrusted with providing the basic needs for a healthy, thriving society, needs to focus on dealing with the imminent and existential threat of catastrophic climate change, as one of several mechanisms reducing the habitability of our planet. The people we elect to manage our governments (especially here in the U.S.) will be responsible for providing that focus, and doing whatever they can to ensure the survival of people alive today, and improve the chances of survival for at least the next fifty generations.

With the stakes so high, we can't afford to have people in government who are ignorant of the threat, deny its existence, choose to ignore it, or prefer to actively make it worse. Given how little time is left to act decisively and effectively, such people will become literally murderers on the largest of scales; and by allowing them to serve, the rest of us will be complicit and very likely suicidal.

This isn't to say that government is the only determinant of our survival. All of us need to begin reducing our contribution to global warming greenhouse gases such as those used for energy (coal, gas, and natural gas) by at least 5% per year just to have a chance, albeit a small one, of avoiding the worst effects. We need to also reduce other activities that are killing off other species that help keep our planet habitable, such as appropriating land that they need for habitat. This will be a huge challenge, given that most of us are hooked on increasing happiness through domination of Nature, and doing the exact opposite to serve that purpose. As a prerequisite to meeting hat challenge, we need to at least acknowledge its existence and the value of meeting it; this is a test that should apply to all us, but especially our leaders.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Responses To The Habitability Threat

Earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by humans and many other species. Lately, and most critically for humans in near future, the climate is changing for the worst. Scientists interested in the truth are in the process of determining its exact trajectory based on what they continue to learn about the complex variables and systems that affect it, but they have no significant doubt about the general direction and the major reason why it is headed there: the atmosphere is trapping more and more heat due to humans releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We are also influencing the climate in other ways, directly and indirectly; some effects are positive (such as pollution causing more sunlight to be reflected into space, having a cooling effect) and some are negative (darkening ice, causing it to melt and reflect less sunlight into space). The net effect is negative from the viewpoint of our ability to live here, which includes: contributing to greater uncertainty in availability of food and fresh water; increasing the amount and severity of floods and storms; and increasing temperatures so that more of us die from heat exhaustion.

The most obvious response to this existential threat is to stop doing what we're doing to cause it. This means abandoning our use of fossil fuels, which is the main source of greenhouse gases. It also means stopping our wholesale pillaging and destruction of other species and their habitats, species who have evolved to keep the planet habitable for themselves and others. On a deeper level, it leads to rewriting the definition of civilization to prioritize coexistence over exploitation, setting limits on our pursuit of resource-intensive happiness so that members of all species, including our own, can contribute constructively to maintaining a healthy, shared home.

Another response to the threat is to try dealing with the direct impacts, expanding our access to resources even more, so we can continue growing both our numbers and the creation of environments that maximize our happiness. Included in this response are various forms of geo-engineering, such as the development of new foods using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that can live in the inhospitable environments we've created; removing excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; and blocking sunlight to manage temperatures at Earth's surface. Because this response doesn't account for the complexity of the systems and processes it affects, and proliferates the very approaches that created the current threat in the first place, it has the potential to itself create many more threats.

We could, alternatively, try to escape the threat. This might involve anything from building huge, underground habitats, to moving some people to another world where they have a better chance of survival. Neither option is practical for a significant fraction of our population, even if they could be exercised at all (or safely) in the time we have left before the threat becomes overwhelming, which could be anywhere from one to eight decades.

A fourth response is to deny that the threat even exists. This response includes dealing with the threat's consequences without knowledge or preparation, except to the extent that those consequences resemble otherwise acknowledged conditions. It also involves opposing any use of resources to support the other responses. Such a response has the effect of increasing personal jeopardy and the jeopardy of others who can be influenced to respond the same way.

If, as some scientists fear, we have activated multiple natural processes that are accelerating climate change, making it already too late to take any action that avoids the total extinction of our species, several other options present themselves. We could resign ourselves to that fate, like someone with a terminal disease, and try to have as much quality of life as possible until the end. For some, this will be too much to bear, and they could consider suicide before conditions become unbearable.

Based on population collapses of the past, the "unbearable" conditions following lack of success in reducing the threat (and avoiding worse ones) would be accompanied by increasingly violent competition for the remaining resources needed for survival. This fate is a certainty if it's either too late, or enough of us postpone significant remedial action until it becomes too late (such as if we are in denial, or if we believe failure is inevitable when it is not).

To take remedial action, it is psychologically necessary to have some hope that it will be successful. Among a growing number of people who are convinced that our extinction is practically inevitable, this is called "hopium," a drug that just makes us feel good. I suggest that the alternative be referred to as "mopium," because acceptance of the ultimate failure can lead to listlessness, depression, and in some cases suicide. Treating the symptoms of moping toward oblivion may deal with the feelings, but it also contributes toward making that fate more certain by inhibiting action to deal with the cause, both directly and indirectly (by criticizing others who threaten the failure worldview by believing action may succeed).

Advocates of remedial action have focused mostly on reducing what I call "dopium": intentional ignorance characterized by belief that the threat isn't real, and that remedial action itself represents a threat. Its causes are many, including misinformation campaigns intended to maintain the status quo, operated by a relative few who stand to lose substantial economic and social power that the status quo affords them, and stand to gain the most (in the short term, anyway) by panicked responses to future disasters. We need to instead focus on reducing both dopium and mopium if we are to marshal the human resources necessary to deal with the imminent threat at hand.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Quality of Understanding

The world is a complex place. Our ability to survive and thrive depends on our understanding of the parts of it we experience, as well as the power we have to change it, because our understanding determines how accurately we can predict the results of the actions we take. The better our understanding, the more likely our actions will have the desired results.

Understanding is an interpretation of observations that identifies what the parts of the world are, how those parts are related to each other, and how they and their relationships tend to change or stay the same. Its quality and usefulness is therefore highly dependent on the quality and amount of our observations, and our ability to correctly interpret those observations. Science is society's most successful means of building quality understanding, in large part because it uses strict rules of evidence which filter out observations that cannot be verified.

Technology has enabled a vast increase in the number and verifiability of observations, while logic and mathematics have enabled us to create and test interpretations of those observations that will have maximum accuracy and reliability. It has also, as a byproduct, enabled people to have more power, unfortunately without an associated requirement for understanding its full impact beyond its intended and very specific applications.

Alternative approaches to science for building understanding, such as religions, tend to depend heavily on hearsay, reported observations that cannot be independently verified; and their interpretations cannot be rigorously tested, if at all. That many people use the interpretations that result from them is evidence that the interpretations have enough quality to be useful in various situations, typically ones where success in surviving and thriving is not increased by having more quality.

Humanity is now at a point where our impacts on the world require a high quality of understanding to manage without extreme harm to us and other species. Those with the most influence (power) must either acquire that understanding, or reduce their power to a level they can manage safely. To do so voluntarily, they must also value the others they influence, and values are in large part a function of culture – especially religion. If our values do not motivate us to mitigate the harm we cause, and if we insist on holding onto power without adequately understanding the complex interrelationships and interactions that it can disrupt, then we will be entirely responsible for our doom as a species.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


There is a fixed amount of time any of us can do something. We also have a limited range of abilities, partly innate and partly determined by experience. Knowledge is often incomplete, and not always accurate. Even if we have the knowledge and abilities, we may not have the opportunity to do it, depending upon conditions that aren’t under our control. If we are successful in doing that “something,” it will almost certainly cause other things to happen, which we may or may not be able to anticipate, fully understand, or control: things that could either support or get in the way of meeting the goals that govern what we’re doing in the first place. In short, we’re pretty much stuck with the fact that our decisions will be imperfectly conceived and executed, and have unintended consequences.

In a complex system like a business, a government, a society, or a natural ecological community (“ecosystem”), there is a lot of activity with a lot of consequences, intended and unintended. The system survives if, on average, the healthy consequences are greater than the harmful ones; and it dies if the reverse is true.

Nature deals with the problem of survival by spreading out risk. In a healthy ecosystem, no individual or species has too much power over the others; so that if something happens to it, something else can pick up the slack. There are also many interactions, but none that will have such a large impact on the entire community that everyone will suffer if its consequences are unhealthy. Because each individual is both a consumer and a resource, the amount of life in the system increases to a maximum; and because there are many types of resources (species), the longevity of the system is also increased.

For most of humanity’s existence, hunter-gatherers lived in small groups that used what they found, and limited their populations accordingly, resulting in a trade of population for longevity. Since the beginning of civilization, perhaps out of necessity stemming from changing conditions, and aided by improvements in technology, we reversed that trade by enlisting more people to find resources and then used them to create artificial environments increasingly tailored to the wants and needs of individuals. Today’s organizations (such as governments and business) are the latest innovation in “cultural technology,” systems that have enabled this dynamic to proceed exponentially.

The complexity of our organizations (indeed, civilization as a whole), is exactly what we need it to be, as long as we can count on getting more people and more resources to help make up the difference between what we’ve actually got and what we want to get. What’s causing pain now, is that we’ve hit a limit in resources and people, and the unhealthy consequences of our actions (especially those of a few people who have a large amount of power) are not being entirely offset by healthy ones.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


One potential future for humanity I hadn't considered before was revealed recently by my Population-consumption model: population decline followed by oscillation around a new average value (what I'll call "popscillation").

I had simulated humanity's targeting of alternative worlds with populations at least as large as ours, the center of which seems to track in a predictable way with the total ecological footprint. ("Worlds" are combinations of population, consumption, and environments that people use to maximize life satisfaction, or "happiness"; the total ecological footprint, or "total footprint" is the amount of ecological resources consumed by humanity in one year.) The simulations show that over history (since 10000 B.C.) we have deviated somewhat from the direct route to the target, with that "direct route" changing over time. Every route, however, ends in a similar way, with the main difference being the size of the population.

Eventually our consumption will limit the remaining alternative worlds to those with populations no larger than ours. Since happiness depends on the ecological footprint (how much ecological resources each of us consumes per year), we've also reached a limit to how happy we can get without decreasing the population. The simulations show that we will choose to increase happiness, and with it, total footprint. Increasing total footprint reduces available resources, which decreases the largest population of the remaining worlds we can live in. That decrease drives a drop in our own population, which temporarily decreases the total footprint, allowing a slightly larger population if other species can increase theirs in the interim (creating more resources). We then increase our population, along with our footprint, which increases total footprint again (total footprint is footprint times population). This popscillation continues, with a population whose average eventually levels out at a value around 5.8 billion people, with fluctuations of tens of millions per year (assuming nothing else changes). On average, happiness is only slightly greater, people live about a decade longer, and the populations of other species fluctuate along with ours.

On our current route, we are due to begin popscillation soon, if we haven't already. Leveling out will occur over the next 50 years, unless other variables like climate change reduce the available resources further, both reducing the available population sizes and accelerating the decline. If we abandon our historical proclivities and reduce consumption enough to grow back the populations of other species to healthy levels while maintaining our current population, we risk reducing both our happiness and our life expectancy to levels not seen in a century. Such is the situation we find ourselves in on this Earth Day, according to my calculations.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Targeting Ourselves

Simulation using my mathematical model of global population and consumption revealed something extraordinary recently: an elegant pattern in the evolution of civilization. In essence, humanity appears to be attracted to the most options for living with more people than we have. These options are alternative "worlds" that our real world could become.

Until now, it seemed that population and consumption changed in almost random ways, generally increasing but in many ways subject to accidents of fate. I now understand this behavior to be largely due to the fact that the target is moving. As we consume more resources (destroy the rest of the biosphere, manifested as killing other creatures that keep the system healthy), we eliminate from consideration those worlds that require consuming more than what's left. As a result, the "center" of the remaining worlds changes, and it is this center that we are targeting. Since 1900, our targeting has become erratic as the distribution of remaining worlds changed dramatically and rapidly. The more we've "moved" to compensate, the more worlds we've eliminated and the less predictable our target's position has become.

While it's tempting to simply improve our targeting, there are now very few worlds left that don't involve lowering our population (0.07% of the worlds we started with). My simulation suggests that we may have already gotten as close as possible to the remaining worlds; and further, we may even be the only one left. That is, we'll be targeting ourselves.

What this means for the future is fairly simple and hardly new. Like someone who has overfished a lake, we have to give the fish (other species) time to recover reasonable and sustainable numbers. That is, we have to reduce our "fishing" (consuming so many ecological resources). Unfortunately, in this analogy, we've only got one "lake" where we can get our food – the Earth. If we stop "fishing" altogether, we'll be the ones who die off. If we don't reduce our fishing enough, we'll die off along with the fish. And all this assumes, of course, that we haven't already poisoned the lake (through, among other things, global warming).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Better Worlds

The depressing news about climate change, other pollution, and resource depletion finally got to me a couple of weeks ago, despite my high tolerance for such things. Predictions of the impending end of the world, including my own, were too hard to take without some hope of proving them wrong; yet wherever I looked, things just looked worse. Whenever facing a seemingly intractable problem, I've tended to double-down and get more creative. To me, that's the ultimate benefit to "thinking outside the box": if the box is about to get crushed, it's time to look for another box.

Realizing that most of us won't have the luxury of settling other planets in the short time we likely have left before catastrophe strikes, I decided to try a combination thought experiment and mode of denial: I wrote short fictional news articles reporting good news, as a foil to the bad news I was reading. There have only been a few so far, and it felt good imagining what a better world might look like, but I needed something more substantial – a set of "worlds" that we might realistically be able to make our own.

Then I realized that I already had a tool for exploring more practical options. The "Population-consumption model" I've been updating since December was originally intended as a tool for forecasting our future and reinterpreting history based on new insights; it could also be used to search for specific alternatives that were not tied to our past. I began running random simulations, a scattershot approach to identifying the possibilities that I had found useful as a test engineer when a system was too complex for simple solutions to be derived.

In the previous version of the model, I discovered what appeared to be a clear relationship between how much ecological resources we consume and the populations of other species: the more we use, the less of them there are. I adapted that relationship to my new data, and used it as a proxy for the maximum amount of resources. Since any given "world" is defined by having a certain amount of resources, it will only exist when that amount is available. As history has progressed, humanity has moved from one world to another, and effectively destroyed many other alternatives that required more resources than we had left. My simulation showed that, since civilization began over 12,000 years ago, we've probably "destroyed" 98% of the alternative worlds that we could realistically inhabit over that period, leaving our current options extremely limited.

Only one of over 7,000 simulated worlds would support a population at least as large as what it was in 2013 and provide at least the amount of life satisfaction (happiness) we enjoyed then. If change occurs at historical rates, we could reach that alternative within two years, about the time my previous attempts at projecting the future showed that our population would peak and begin to decline. The basic premise of the model is that humanity is seeking out greater happiness by creating "environments" that best suit us; this involves seeking resources, distributing environments among us, and changing the number of people to get better use of what we have. On that basis, we can be expected to try to "move" toward alternative worlds that have more happiness than the one we inhabit. Unfortunately, the remaining alternatives with greater happiness have fewer people. There are a few alternatives with less happiness and no loss of people, but they also have lower consumption, which is correlated with lower life expectancy; we will therefore be forced to make a horrible choice.

What's worse, this is probably an optimistic scenario. There is ample evidence that we've already crippled our planet's life support system to the point where its habitability is at risk. Ideally, we should use fewer resources so other species can recover some of their numbers (a healthy fraction would be half what we used in 2013); the probability of us doing so is low enough that its alternative worlds don't show up in my simulation.

Looming as an even greater problem is climate change. If it isn't already self-sustaining, it may be soon, and will reduce the amount of available resources independent of whatever we do. All of the alternative worlds would be gone if we increased our consumption (ecological footprint) by half; it's conceivable that climate change will have such an impact all on its own.

So far, my search for better worlds appears to have turned up more evidence that we're on or near a peak in population, and what's better is between us and where the peak ends.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Happy Environments

My mathematical model of population and consumption now has an economic component that projects Gross World Product (GWP), global wealth, and wealth distribution backward and forward in time. The latter was aided by the lucky release of a new report on global wealth.

As people pursue happiness as defined in the model, they must seek and manipulate sets of conditions (what I call "environments") that maximize it. Economies are cultural tools for enabling this, so it's not surprising that they can be described in the same terms. One such term dominates this new view of economics: "happy environment."

People who have total life satisfaction occupy environments that are matched to all of their needs and wants. Such matches are uncommon, just like finding the perfect house. But if we could disassemble, move, and assemble all the environments we collectively have access to ("inhabited environments") to make environments that match as many people's wants and needs as possible, each of those environments would be a happy environment.

Our world economy doesn't explicitly traffic in happy environments (to my knowledge, this is a concept that I just invented), but it appears to do the equivalent. From what I can tell, it defines one set of happy environments for actual, physical conditions. It defines another set for all the ways those environments can be manipulated. Then it defines a third set for all the ways the environments and manipulations can be manipulated as abstract entities that embody their value. Mathematically, economic activity (such as that measured by GWP) is proportional to the square of the number of happy environments; and wealth is proportional to the cube of the number of happy environments.

One of the most controversial issues facing people today is the tremendous inequality in the distribution of wealth. If it was distributed purely on the basis of happy environments, this wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue as it is (though it certainly isn't issue for the few people who benefit from it). However, as I discovered while trying to find out how the model could reproduce the actual distribution, our economy apparently uses both happy environments and consumption to determine who has how much wealth, dominated by the latter. Our exhaustion of sources of new environments (and associated resources) has an already focusing effect on wealth distribution, which I plan to elaborate upon later, but this dependency on consumption makes it extreme.

Projections of our economic future follow the same trajectories as happiness and population, which are the factors that define the number of happy environments. Thus, we are probably at the peak of everything, and can expect it all to drop to zero by early in the next century (at the latest). I'm continuing to explore the alternative "best" case, which unrealistically relies on finding and using millions of Earth-equivalent biospheres over the next 800 or so years, which is what it would take to follow our preferred trajectory. If the model's assumptions are accurate that far into the future, then we will once again be at a peak, but it will be an ultimate one.

Friday, January 17, 2014

View From The Peak

I recently wrapped up nearly six weeks of work developing the latest version of my Population-consumption model. The main goal of the model has always been to provide guidance in how to make our collective future better by providing understanding of how that future is determined. My next step, which I'm starting now, is to share both the understanding and guidance, while continuing to test and and flesh out more useful insights. The details of the new version are spelled out on my Bigpicexplorer Web site, which includes a non-technical overview of how it was developed and what I believe its main lessons are.

In short, I came up with a way of thinking about happiness, population size, consumption, and life expectancy that ties them all together and enables what I think are more reliable projections of each into the future. Those projections show that without access to a radically large set of resources to replace the ecological base we've already nearly depleted, our population is likely to peak in size within a decade, and drop to zero by early in the next century. They also show that there may be an ultimate limit to how happy we can be, as well as how long we can live, and if we further attempt to reach those limits we will complete the job of making our planet uninhabitable.

One intriguing suggestion from the model is that the huge uptick in economic and environmental problems we've been experiencing since 2008 may be symptoms of ecological collapse that has been in progress for thousands of years. Essentially, it's now directly impacting the environments we've built for ourselves, and any attempts we make to get more resources will only make things worse, because they're no longer "out there"; they're here. That intuitively makes sense, given all I've read, but now it can be seen in the numbers coming from simple analysis of some of the most basic, publicly available data. We've gambled everything on growth; and the more we try to grow, the harder it gets, and the more damage we do to ourselves.

Yet grow we must, because we are hard-wired to seek out total life satisfaction. As long as we perceive that there are more ways to find it, a larger set of environments we can inhabit in our pursuit of it, then we will do whatever it takes to get it, including growing our population so our descendants can help and have it too. Those who are happier with more of other species around will try to help those species survive and thrive. Others who prefer to be around people like them will have no problem crowding out everything and everyone else. What and who we grow depends on our particular wants and needs; but grow we will, until we are satiated or we simply can't grow any more.

My model confirmed that we are in an existential crisis, and the most realistic solution I could find – so far – was one I already knew, that we need to use less resources, and soon. The model puts a finer point on that last part: it's sooner than I thought, if not already too late. Instead of 2030, as the last version indicated, we're already on the peak; and it's just a technicality whether our population will reach its maximum size next year or in 2022. A healthy level of ecological consumption (because that seems to be the kind of resource we're most tuned to) is no more than about half what an average person is using now, yet to reach it we would probably decrease life expectancy by 26 years, which is a considerable sacrifice in a world that still looks healthy enough.

I'll finish with a caveat that deserves repeating everywhere this is discussed. The model, like most of the ideas I write about, represents my personal understanding of how the world works. It is a set of hypotheses, with some observations and testing to back it up, which I try to share where appropriate. I share it because others might benefit from it, just as I benefit from what others share, and because I believe that only by helping each other can we offset our own shortcomings and amplify each other's strengths. That's what gives me hope as I take in this new view from the peak.