Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Avoiding Harm: A Primer

Who or what is likely to do you harm, and how can you keep them from doing so? This question, always a pervasive part of our lives, has been amplified in public discussion by news of killing by both individuals and groups, and restrictions placed on freedom by governments.

The worst kind of harm is death, followed by physical impairment and pain, denial of resources needed for sustenance, and degradation of lifestyle above and beyond what we need to survive. Each has its own range of possibilities, including who is targeted and why.

Sources of harm are threats, and they can vary from specific individuals, to groups, technologies (physical and cultural), other species, and non-living natural phenomena. The particular threats that might affect you depends on where you are and what relationships you have with each of those potential sources – including how much you know about them.

How we avoid harm depends on the threats and our own capabilities, but tends to involve either confrontation, mitigation, or escape. Confrontation is elimination of the threat, while mitigation is an attempt to limit the harm it causes while living with it, and escape is separation from the threat.

Errors in threat identification and application of avoidance strategies can themselves cause harm, including the creation of new threats, so it is critical that they be minimized as much as possible. This requires robust acquisition of accurate knowledge and understanding of the world around us, and the formation and maintenance of healthy relationships with the people, species, and objects we might interact with. Taking such action has the added benefit of reducing the possibility and magnitude of harm under any circumstance, though of course it can't be expected to totally eliminate it.

When we experience non-lethal harm, we will naturally attempt to discontinue it and then recover from it. We must be just as careful in this process as we are in avoiding it in the first place. This includes learning from the experience so we can reduce errors in avoidance after our recovery.

These basic concepts will hopefully provide useful context for thinking and discussion about related issues.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Diminished Futures

My latest research confirms that humanity remains on track to go extinct within a few decades as the result of our consumption and degradation of the natural environment, both directly and indirectly.

If our survival depends on keeping other species alive (those that directly support us, and those that support them), I now estimate that the combination of our consumption and worst-case global warming impact will drive us extinct by 2032; if not, then we'll have only another seven years. Without global warming impact, I expect humans will be gone by 2124 if killing those critical other species kills people; but if people can survive killing those species, then by 2160 over 29 billion people will be forced to live on fewer resources per person than anyone in history (with that consumption dropping rapidly).

The most reasonable expectation is that global warming will continue to increase for at least several decades, both in magnitude and impact; only how much and how fast is open for debate – until it happens, of course. While much attention has been rightly placed on this particular influence on our future, it is critical to keep in mind that it is a consequence, rather than the cause, of our imminent demise. The cause is humanity's pursuit of total dominance over the world, using its resources (living and not) to create environments suited to people's needs and wants. That pursuit unleashed the greenhouse gases now driving global warming, and it has diminished the ability of natural processes to compensate and keep that warming in check, all the while driving other species extinct at a rate that hasn't been experienced on our planet for many millions of years.

I was reminded recently of the slight chance for extending the lifetime of our species by leaving Earth, with the ultimate limits being the distribution of matter in the Universe and the laws of physics. Meanwhile, my research added a potential clue that humans might have natural limits built into our biology – first suggested by my study of the apparent relationship between happiness and consumption of natural resources – that will effectively cause us to starve ourselves under the most optimistic circumstances.

Use of this clue was behind my latest projections of population and consumption: that annual rates of change in world population and consumption (less so) are correlated with the total amount of those resources that we collectively consume. Those rates reached a peak in the 1960s, when we consumed two-thirds of the production of renewable resources by other species, and the consumption rate would plunge consumption to zero if we ever have the same amount left of total resources – which we won't because of how much we've already consumed, even if global warming spares us. Correlation is course not synonymous with cause, but it does beg for an explanation; and the hypothesis that our speed of growth is based on a basic sensitivity to how much of the world we use is tantalizing, to say the least.

We are still left with a range of stark options in the future of our species, just as each of us individuals must face the many different ways what we could die. The disturbing part now is how much they have in common, including timing, a conclusion I have been unable to shake after years of study and analysis.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Declaration of War

Yesterday, the president of the United States issued what was, in effect, a formal declaration of war against life on Earth. In a speech based more on ideology than reality, he firmly placed the economic growth of the United States based on fossil fuels as a higher priority than trying to limit the high risk of extinction imposed by one of the most destructive consequences of using those fuels: global climate change.

Substantively, it wasn't a surprise. By word and deed, economic dominance over the world has been the primary goal of the president and his supporters, as a natural consequence of placing one group as "first" and insisting on increase of exponential growth by that group. The main topic of debate has been more around who is really in the group than what its goals are.

Dominance of one group over one or more others without their consent falls within any reasonable definition of "war." Humans have been waging war on other species for millennia, and by now have essentially won. Those who prefer domination over other people have been waging the more familiar kind of war for just as long, but on average have been kept from lowering the overall population by accessing more resources; but now that critical resources are becoming scarce on a global basis, that is about to change.

Those of us preferring coexistence tend to value life over personal power, and have attempted to delay that change for as long as possible. This has been done through development of agreements like the Paris accord and the development of new technologies to get more utility out of remaining resources without causing more damage in the process. Climate change has achieved its current priority due its potential, now actualizing, to reduce resources faster than we are consuming them, taking control out of our hands and forcing competition into primacy – with inevitable, deadly effect.

For several years I have had a creeping feeling of dread, like others whose opinions I have read and discussed personally. This has come from study, analysis, and experience in my own environment as the evidence of growing damage to the world has become pervasive. For some reason I can't yet fathom, the president's decision to openly step away from global cooperation to deal with climate change, even in a largely symbolic way, has amplified that feeling to the point of alternating depression and rage. Dealing with that remains the focus of my creative writing, and is fueling my personal drive to resist in every way that matches my values as the environmental and social crap storm that is now defining our lives continues to grow in intensity.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Losing Weight

For each day over more than a month I tracked my weight and food energy in an effort to empirically discover the basis of a strategy for achieving my ideal weight.

I found that weight in pounds, measured right after waking up, is proportional to the calories consumed the day before, with the calories per pound randomly distributed around almost exactly 10 (with repeatability, measured as the standard deviation, of 1.4). Some research into how many calories are used with varying kinds of exercise showed that this relationship tracks closely with the energy spent on a full day of sleep as a function of weight.

This made the strategy simple: daily consume only the amount of calories needed to maintain my ideal weight, calculated by multiplying 10 by that weight. To improve my chances of not exceeding that weight, I wouldn't consume any more than that; and to avoid getting too much underweight, I would consume no less than 8.6 (10 minus 1.4) times the weight.

I couldn't help but compare what I was learning about myself with what I had learned about consumption of resources by humanity as a whole. The calories needed to maintain ideal weight seemed to correspond to what I had derived as the "minimum ecological footprint," the amount of resources provided by other species that is required for stable basic survival where the resources are reliably available (as became the case globally, on average, about fifteen hundred years ago). The lower value of calories I was aiming for corresponded to the footprint for a hungry state of being, with uncertain availability of resources, which I had calculated as 80% of the "minimum" and was the starting point for idealized groups of people driving historical population and consumption change since the start of civilization.

It is tempting to try making a comparison between being overweight and consuming more resources than is healthy for the world. As we are able to consume more stuff besides food, we are also able to consume more food. Our life expectancy, which tracks with footprint much like happiness (gaining less and less as we consume more), begins to decrease as we become more overweight, implying that doing so overwhelms our inner ecosystem just as increasing our footprint eventually overwhelms the external ecosystems that support us. I have long hypothesized that there is an upper limit to happiness, beyond which we cannot go without self-destructing, and it's not a great stretch to expect that obesity might have a role in this given that heart disease is the top killer in the affluent U.S.

My personal motivation for losing weight is tied to the health risks of not doing so, just as my motivation for downsizing is tied to my awareness of how consuming more stuff is contributing to global extinction. It amounts to a selection of personal limits, much as half of the idealized groups in my reconstruction of world history (one-sixth of the population) chose to consume only one-fourth of the renewable resources available in a healthy world while the other groups chose to consume everything.

I am a latecomer to all of this. Many others have experienced a similar awakening of a desire to live within healthy limits, with common reaction to growing evidence of the alternative's imminent failure. Although we are far beyond the ability to succeed on a global scale, I share the goal to nurture that desire as much as possible, for as long as possible, and with as many people as might choose to share in it.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Respect and a Healthy World

Based on my research, there have always been two groups of people: those who respect other species enough to let them share the world, and those who see them as resources to be consumed and competitors for dominance of the world. These groups each have two subgroups: those who want maximum happiness for themselves; and those who want to have the most descendants.

Most people have always been in the second group, consuming and competing with the rest of the Nature, and in the subgroup adding more people. Until the beginning of the oil age, one in six people were in the first group, respecting other species; after that, those who were leaving more descendants moved to the second group rather than die. All that was left of the first group was the few hundred who were maximizing their happiness while sharing parts of the world that could still support them and other species, and even that small population began to dwindle.

The number and populations of other species have continued to fall under the onslaught of those who don't respect them, and now more rapidly as we pass the point where there are not enough of them to support their lives or ours. Arguably this places us in a dying world, as opposed to a heathy world like that which existed when a substantial part of our population was still in the respectful group. If even a tiny fraction of us are to survive the great extinction we have unleashed, we must try to make parts of the world healthier and ensure that they stay that way.

Changing even part of the world begins with changing what causes us to continue doing damage. One way to start is to all agree that the respectful group was right and the majority group was wrong.

This is unlikely since the majority seems to be under the impression that the same approach which enabled them to conquer the world can somehow help them escape the consequences of it, perhaps to the point of moving to another world that can be conquered. This is encouraged by the prospect of super-intelligent quantum computers, lifesaving biotechnology, and cheap energy from fusion. Timing is the biggest problem, since global warming is threatening to reduce our ability to survive before any of these technologies could make a significant difference (assuming they wouldn't cause more problems than they fix).

Agreement about the cause might reawaken respect for other species in more of us, enabling us to explore how we could still meet our basic needs while empowering other species (who employ Nature's own biotechnology) to improve their own chances of survival by repairing some of the damage we have done. Transitioning to a respectful approach toward those other species would also prepare the survivors of our efforts with the basic values they need to continue surviving.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Healthy Is Now Ideal

Two years ago, I laid out a set of requirements for what I called an "ideal world," which in retrospect I could have called a "healthy world." Much of my writing since then has dealt with many of the same ideas, teasing out details, exploring the implications of my evolving model of global variables in the past and future, and sharing personal experiences and expectations that appear to be echoes of each other.

Built into all of it was the hope that some significant part of the population would seize on those or similar ideas and, in the presence of obvious danger, use them as the basis of a way to diminish or escape that danger. The political climate at the time was cautiously reasonable, inching toward awareness and agreement that something major needed to be done to avoid global economic and ecological collapse that was becoming perilously imminent. There remained a chance that the world might succeed in at least delaying that collapse by a few years.

I spent a fair amount of creative energy trying to assess the probability of success. As a trigger for some of that creativity, I simulated people and environments in fictional writing – a tactic that had coincided with previous bursts of insight (most notably in the development of my first novel). My most recent attempt followed a thought experiment in one of my books, and yielded a model of interaction between groups that made some interesting predictions that could be tested; chief among them: that interaction between groups is always destructive to the identity of at least one of the groups through either assimilation or death.

The last election here in the U.S. appears to have rejected global collaboration for mutual survival, and in light of my research suggests that the group most effectively in control of our politics and economy has felt enough of a threat to its identity that it is willing to threaten the survival of everyone in order to ensure its dominance. Use of the word "dominance" is deliberate: my group interaction model defines it as the total control of all resources by one group. Though I haven't as closely studied it, there appears to be a similar dynamic at work in much of the rest of the world. In previous years, this threat might have been dealt with by acquiring more resources and moving people away from each other in order to safely establish group identity ("isolation"); but the world is running out of basic resources, and we don't yet have the ability to settle other habitable worlds – if there are any. Competition will therefore be the driving activity of our future, and competition is the key to dominance.

I brought up the "ideal world" concept again because since the election I have come to a number of realizations, among them that the ideal world I envisioned is in fact what a healthy world would look like, as opposed to the dying world we live in now; and that even if we are beginning the collapse I've forecast and feared, the best we can do is to create pockets of healthy community and environments wherever we can. In future Idea Explorer posts I will dive into what systems engineers might call "derived requirements" for specific situations, and in my other writing (such as Twitter and the Land of Conscience blog) I will explore what implementation looks like.