Thursday, April 2, 2015

Complexity, Happiness, and Responsibility

Tying the insights discussed in "Communicating Complexity" back to the work I've done on understanding population and consumption, I found some tantalizing clues about how complexity relates to happiness and our ability to meet our personal and global responsibilities.

One clue involves how the complexity we each experience (complexity per person) tracks with happiness on a global scale. Since it is closely proportional to population size, it relates to happiness pretty much the same way. Until very recently, we could count on happiness increasing along with complexity, which is so intuitively obvious that many of us don't even think to question it: more people can provide more labor and creativity about how to both acquire new resources and use those resources to create environments suited to individual needs and wants.

As we were building environments, we were taking away or fouling the resources needed by other species to survive, including members of those species themselves, and since they were providing services and resources we depend on, it was inevitable that we would get to a point where there weren't enough of them left to replenish what we were using. We seem to have reached that point around 1970, and since then we have been struggling to provide enough environments for the people we've been adding to the world while using up more resources and killing more creatures. World happiness responded accordingly, reaching a peak level as Nature was unable to provide any more that we could dominate without increasingly severe consequences. We started focusing more on creatively using what we already had, which turned what might have been a smooth mountain-like peak into a very bumpy plateau, but we were still forced to deal with the need for some waste, especially of energy, the bulk of which we continued extracting from sources that could not be replaced in anything close to a human lifetime.

Another clue about complexity sheds some light on why we haven't done more to stop this suicidal behavior. One of the most obvious negative consequences of rising complexity is that people have less time to perform the same tasks, which risks (to put it lightly) sacrificing the quality of the results of those tasks. That decrease in time can be easily estimated for the world's population since the beginning of civilization based on population growth, and with reasonable assumptions about the time we are awake and the number of people and environments that would realistically be in our local communities which we could mostly interact with (interactions with the rest of the world's population would be negligible by comparison). One such estimate shows that 12,000 years ago people could have spent an average of about two weeks a year, at 16 hours a day, with each person in their community, along with their associated environments and worldviews, interacting to experience and shape their lives. Today, that time is down to two minutes. Put another way: we went from the time it would take to read a 7,300 page book to just a single page. Multiply these times by 24-millionths, and you'll get the time available for each person (and the rest) in the world.

Arguably, the sum of all of our interactions, directly and consciously with our local communities, and indirectly and unconsciously with the rest of the world, results in our net impact on human experience. Before civilization, when people lived in small groups that were effectively isolated from each other, each community was effectively a world. For the most part, personal responsibility, for oneself and family, was the same as global responsibility. But, on average, there were still impacts that could potentially or eventually affect others, mainly in the form of environmental change, but also in genetic changes that might be transmitted to other populations during chance encounters. Merging communities, as civilization did, enabled a critical divergence of these two kinds of responsibility, and complexity amplified it as people were torn between focusing on their immediate needs and those of people in a growing community. Competition for resources in the form of war simplified life for a while, by reducing population but leaving tools in place that helped the survivors support more offspring. On average, more people lived than died, with the tools, collective knowledge, and already-modified environments providing the means for further growth by dealing with more of the complexity with less direct human intervention. People were having more impact, but were feeling like they were still in small, manageable communities that happened to provide more of what they wanted and needed.

Now our numbers and our tools have created a global community where direct action is required to avoid catastrophic results of our collective impact that include increasing restriction of resources, both from overuse and fouling like that which has doomed too many other animals. Clearly, we don't have the time (and, for many, the inclination) to manage the complexity we already have, never mind adding some new variables to our internal constructs that will temporarily add to the complexity of our lives. Our tools may be able to pick up much of the slack; but by giving them more intelligence to do so, we risk them becoming our first serious competitors in millennia. This adds to the time-sensitivity of taking action, while avoiding the real temptation to accept the new capabilities as an excuse for increasing complexity further.

If we did take direct action, then, based upon my definition of complexity, we might try reducing the number of environments, roughly equivalent to creating less choice in products we can buy and sharing as much as possible. Unfortunately, even if we reduced that number to one for everybody, the complexity could only be cut by one-third, which wouldn't be enough (even if it didn't have the potential for much worse consequences) since we have nearly twice the complexity associated with safe consumption – and I'm not counting the possibly unstoppable and overwhelming effects of global warming.

In the past, we might have bought some time by reducing our population in a non-violent way: sending a large fraction to other, relatively isolated locations. Today our best option for doing so is a mass migration to other planets, beginning with Mars, but those worlds would need to be quickly made habitable, and the technology for transport would need to be created, tested, and put into mass production in even less time. The feasibility of doing so in the short time (less than a decade) we likely have before deadly competition becomes unavoidable is something I continue to reexamine and reject as too small to consider, but so are pretty much all of the other options, including the one I suggested at the end of "Communicating Complexity": cutting birth rates to zero and letting the population decline to a lower, sustainable level while regrowing ecosystems.

I remain committed to the belief that more understanding can lead to solutions that have a chance of working. While my recent research has added to that understanding (and hopefully the reader's), a viable path to solving this most critical of problems remains illusive. But it's good to remember that illusive does not necessarily mean nonexistent, and I plan to keep using some of my precious time to keep looking.

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