Friday, May 30, 2008

Invasive Destiny

Writing about the threat to biodiversity posed by our dispersal of species into non-native environments, it occurred to me that human history might be explainable in terms of our own role as an invasive species. If so, it is tempting to consider the possibility that our collective goal, indeed the whole “meaning of (human) life,” is the replacement of other species with human biomass (that is, we want to be the most successful invasive animal species ever).

Our intellects and resulting technologies have enabled humans to colonize virtually every area of land, reducing biodiversity in the process. Even those parts of the world we haven’t personally occupied (especially the oceans) have seen dramatic population losses and outright extinctions due to indirect effects of our actions such as pollution.

Of course, our predations haven’t been limited to just other species. History contains many examples of how members of our population have treated other members as though they were part of another species (non-human), resulting in death or enslavement. This intraspecific competition is aimed at having a small subset of humanity dominating (if not destroying) everyone and everything else.

There are people who do value other life forms and others of our own species (“cooperators”), providing some counterbalance to the “competitors” in our population (while realistically we are each likely a mix of cooperator and competitor, one characteristic may tend to be more dominant than the other over a range of situations). Cooperators tend to tolerate complexity much better than competitors, and are therefore more capable of creating and living in highly diverse ecosystems.

As we ride down the ecological slide the competitors have created, cooperators will hopefully be able to shift the balance in time to keep us from going over. My best guess, however, is that the competitors will continue to dominate, using force as necessary (something cooperators are loath to do). The competitors will have the simpler world they have been working toward, impoverished like a lawn overcome by weeds that are unable to handle all their needs by themselves and primed to be taken down with nothing left to survive them.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Invasive Species

One of the greatest threats to biodiversity in an ecosystem is the introduction of non-native species. If biodiversity improves the chances that life in the ecosystem will survive into the far future by not having most of it susceptible to a small range of threats, dominance by a single (or limited number) of species makes it far more likely that life will have a shorter lifespan. In addition, critical functions performed by extinct or weakened native species will not be performed, increasing the vulnerability of the ecosystem.

We humans, in addition to being the greatest agent of the introduction of invasive species (accidental or on purpose), have become the world’s most successful invasive species. In the HIPPO acronym that describes our influence on biodiversity (Habitat, Invasive species, Pollution, Population, and Over-harvesting) all but the “I” applies to our own role as an invasive species. Taking over habitat or fouling it with our waste and using other species as “resources” to the point of their extinction has drastically reduced biodiversity; and the loss of those other species is now being felt, especially in alteration of the climate and lack of protection from weather events like hurricanes.

Applying an industrial model to agriculture has decreased the number of species we depend on for food and increased our susceptibility to starvation as a result. Partly in response to the threats to our limited food species, we have begun creating radically new invasive species using biotechnology. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may end up doing far more damage than good as a result.

In an ideal world where the long term survival of life is a goal, we will need to examine our apparent desire for simplicity in the environment and accept the possibility that lack of direct control over it (and its attendant dependence on our own limitations) may be a good thing. As a result we may, as a species, have to consciously determine what niche or niches we will occupy in a world we can not and should not dominate along with the small number of species we are comfortable with.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


In his book The World Without Us, journalist Alan Weisman describes several nasty legacies of human activity that could wreak havoc on the world if we all disappeared tomorrow. They represent the beginning of a list of pollutants I believe we should try to clean up regardless of our own future, thus helping in the realization of an ideal world.

Near the top of the list would be nuclear material, most of which will take many thousands of years to cease being radioactive enough to cause near-immediate death, cancer, or dangerous genetic mutations. In addition to many tons of material currently used in nuclear power plants and weapons that could be exposed to the environment when the systems protecting them fail, there is a growing amount of “waste” that has been properly or improperly isolated or shielded.

Of more immediate danger is the carbon dioxide we continue to add to the atmosphere; which, in addition to altering the climate, is more insidiously acidifying and reducing the oxygen in the oceans (destroying the base of the food chain and potentially enabling sulfur bacteria to damage the ozone layer and make the air un-breathable). Global warming could drastically intensify if increased temperatures cause permafrost to melt, exposing huge amounts of the methane, which is a far more effective greenhouse gas.

Persistent organic pollutants (“POPs”) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins are nearly indestructible toxic substances that have negative effects even in small doses and are now found almost everywhere in the world. POPs are products of industrial organic chemistry that includes creation of plastics, aiding agriculture (pesticides and herbicides), and weapons (Agent Orange). The toxic effects of POPs may be enabled by the ingestion of tiny particles of plastic, the result of degradation of our plastic products by natural forces and the deposition of much of this waste into the oceans by wind and river runoff.

Heavy metals such as zinc, copper, lead, and chromium are, in high enough concentrations, toxic to humans and other animals. They are integral parts, or emitted by, much of what our economies produce, including power plants, cars, and fertilizers; and they are likely to be around for thousands to tens of thousands of years.

Weisman’s research suggests that Nature will eventually adapt to most of these pollutants, though there will be much pain and death along the way. He concludes his book with one major suggestion for dealing with most of the ills we face: reducing the world’s population humanely by limiting the birth rate to one child per mother. Fewer people would produce less waste and give the biosphere room to recover from our assault.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Morality of Business

If, as I have argued many times, intentional actions that hurt people are evil and the root of all evil is the inclination to treat people as objects, then what is the moral status of business in a capitalist economy, especially since businesses are increasingly considered the equivalent of persons? The answer to this question depends on the intentions of the people involved, and what it takes to hurt people.

A key element of business is competition, whose economic purpose is to efficiently distribute scarce resources within a population in forms that people most want. From the perspective of competitors, this amounts to maximizing economic power: the ability to acquire the most of whatever they want. As with the common sports analogues used by many business leaders, there is a unit of achievement (money or points), and the person or group with the most number of units at a given point in time is the “winner” who then receives a reward greater than the others (“losers”). The reward in this case is profit, which is acquired by providing more of a product or service for the least cost. If demand for a product or service is limited, one group’s success may be at the expense of another’s success; if demand grows (on its own or as the result of someone’s efforts), all businesses seeking to supply it have the opportunity to grow.

If a competitor wants to increase efficiency and meet demand for their own sake without hurting people, the motivation is neutral; if the goal is to help people, then it is good. The motivation is bad if the goal is to limit other people, whether they are fellow competitors or the customers (in terms of choice, quantity, or value).

“Hurting people” involves, in the worst case, limiting their ability to meet their basic physical and psychological needs (to an extent that such things can be influenced); otherwise, it is the reduction of their current ability without providing an equivalent alternative (similar to stealing of property that is the personal equivalent of capital). Any of several groups of people could be hurt by a business: those who are part of its activities (labor); recipients of its products and services (customers); and those who are indirectly affected by its actions or its products and services. If we continue to treat businesses as people, then we must also consider another group that could be hurt: other businesses.

My opinion is that businesses should be considered as tools, not people, and that those who use those tools should be held accountable for the impact they have on people. One of the most disturbing characteristics of businesses is their systemic reduction of everything to monetary terms; specifically, they objectify everything and everyone so that “hurt” is redefined as a violation of rules rather than a real effect on real people who have more intrinsic value than the businesses themselves. If businesses are treated as tools, then the people who use them cannot hide behind abstraction but must take full responsibility for how people are affected by their actions and those of their tools.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Need for Government

Given that people can only track between four and seven pieces of information at a time, we are fundamentally incapable of independently dealing with the complex environment we find ourselves in. We are especially vulnerable to long-term threats that we all can’t individually anticipate and that require immediate, collective action to thwart. Even the threats we can identify are often ignored by many of us because they are not felt viscerally, perhaps because for most of human history people lived fewer than forty years, and the greatest threats over a typical lifespan were starvation, predators, and disease.

We are instinctively inclined to follow leaders, beginning with our parents, who by virtue informed judgment (gained on a larger scale through the luxury of research afforded by abundance that does not require some people to directly support themselves) can keep us from harming ourselves or others by establishing and enforcing rules. We may not personally be aware of an emerging threat, but by following the rules laid out by groups of people who are, we can still avoid it. We can handle the level of complexity involved in following rules, even if we can’t individually comprehend the body of knowledge and reasoning that led to them.

There are more insidious threats than the obvious ones that most of us are more than vaguely aware of (such as foreign armies bent on domination). Traffic fatalities, for example, would be much higher if we did not have rules governing how and where we can drive our vehicles. Disease would lead to more pain and death if we did not require sanitation, enable quarantine of infected people, and demand vaccinations for our children.

This points to a need for collective control of individuals in a society to ensure its very survival, and the common cultural representation of this is government. A functioning (useful) government has the resources to anticipate threats, create rules to mitigate them, and enforce those rules (especially since some critical fraction of any population will choose to ignore or perhaps even increase the threats).

People who would arbitrarily disable government because they hate being subject to rules should consider the alternatives. Even if they and their own small groups are smart and powerful enough to deal with much of their part of the world, there is a vast majority who is not. If we value lives – all lives – then we must embrace the reality of our dependency on each other, and the fact that the limitations of the least powerful among us will inevitably limit us all; any population will have this characteristic, and can most effectively reduce its impact by collectively ensuring that everyone has a minimal level of capability.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Network Marketing

Network marketing (also called “multi-level marketing”) is one of the most pervasive systems for working at home. Commonly considered a “pyramid scheme,” it has been given an air of legitimacy by several prominent economic experts such as Paul Zane Pilzer. Network marketing’s primary claim is that people can get rich very quickly, virtually independent of the product being sold.

In this system, a person recruits other people to sell a product and collects a percentage of their sales receipts (as well as the sales of anyone else they recruit). In effect, everyone in the chain is collecting a royalty on the product, restricted to the sales of people they have directly or indirectly recruited to sell the product. The success of the system depends on continuous recruitment and continuous sales, which likely explains why there is so much emphasis on getting rich (providing a strong incentive to recruit others) and the prevalence of products that are used up quickly and need to be replaced (others, such as self-help products, come with a hefty price tag to offset this deficiency by increasing the money made on each sale).

For a producer to make money, the payments to the marketers must be reflected in the end price of the product, an increase that would be proportional to the maximum number of marketers in a chain. Because products must be grossly overpriced, the natural aversion to the lack of associated value (demand) is offset by the promise of high profit for those marketers/customers toward the end of each chain, which to be realized depends on growing the chain as fast as possible. A chain will stop growing at the point where the potential gains are perceived as less than the cost of entry (the price of the product).

Network marketing is fundamentally unethical for at least two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that it is based on an economic lie: each marketer adds value to the product which justifies earning a royalty on future sales. The second reason is that it promotes rapid growth in material consumption, which in today’s polluted and resource-constrained world is harmful if not deadly to us and other species (unless it is used to distribute some ultra-beneficial or lifesaving product that many people would need to have in a hurry).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Visualizing an Ideal World

What would the ultimate incarnation of an ideal world look like? In my opinion, it would have the following characteristics:

  1. Everyone has at least their basic physical needs met (such as food, water, shelter, health care) for their entire lives
  2. High average human life expectancy (between 75 and 100 years)
  3. Other species have enough resources to survive and maintain diversity
  4. Human species lifetime maximized (while meeting all other conditions)

This list is an amplification of my primary definition: Maximum happiness and amount of Earth life over time, with deference to humans.

For basic physical needs to be met, people would have access to both raw resources and the means of transforming those resources. To be able to do so over the longest time, the resources should be reusable with minimal losses (especially in energy). Since transportation is energy intensive, people would probably be located close to the required resources.

Since conditions can change dramatically, it makes sense for optimizing species survival to have many independent communities (groups of people organized around sufficient resource bases) that are each at least large enough to breed a self-sufficient population if the others are destroyed.

Life expectancy depends on both meeting basic needs and minimizing deadly violence, so cultural controls on behavior will be as important as ever. Because stress (a precursor to violence and many health problems) tends to increase with involuntary exposure to other people, both physical and cultural infrastructure would be in place to assure adequate privacy.

Finally, we would cease (and indeed roll back) our acquisition and spoiling of natural resources so that other species can survive and thrive. Here, a reversal of the ecologist’s HIPPO acronym could be a guide: Create and preserve habitat (“H”); reduce invasive species (“I”); do not pollute, and clean up existing pollution (“P”); keep population growth to a minimum (“P”); and responsibly hunt and harvest other species so they do not precipitously decrease (“O”).

Friday, May 9, 2008

WE Are the Asteroid

I have taken an admittedly negative tack in my discussions of the future, mainly due to scary projections of world population gleaned from lots of reading and reproduced by my own simulations based on readily available information. The fear and loathing that has crept into my thoughts and writing is enhanced by my awareness that humanity has caused the extinction of more species than the largest asteroid impacts. That this extinction event is likely to claim our species means that WE have effectively become the equivalent of a large asteroid that some fear might cause the collapse of civilization.

My recent goals have been to understand the causes of these horrific developments and to identify ways to keep the worst from happening. The proximate causes are well known to ecologists, exemplified by the acronym “HIPPO”: Hunting, Invasive species introduction, Pollution, Population, and Over-harvesting. Behind these causes, I believe, is an insatiable desire to grow exponentially in almost every respect of our lives. To extend our future, I have determined that what we need is strong growth (what I call “opportunistic growth”) to explore and develop new resources and habitats, followed by periods where we seek equilibrium with those environments. That many of us refuse to acknowledge that the entire Earth has become such an environment is behind our current crisis.

I was recently reminded that over the long term people respond more effectively to opportunities than to threats. I see this as a restatement of the false choice between growth and death that appears to be built into nearly everyone’s world view. My response was that we must all learn to decouple material consumption from happiness, recognizing of course that there is a minimum level of consumption we all need to even have a chance at happiness. In the present climate, my observation is next to meaningless and misses the point that at a visceral level we all perceive changes to our lives in relative rather than absolute terms, and on a short-term basis (perhaps because we don’t know how long we are going to live). Doing the right thing needs to feel good, and soon.

Many in my father’s generation, faced with war and economic hardship, redefined happiness as the pursuit of solutions to their problems. Creativity put into action was their greatest reward. Similar motivation drives today’s entrepreneurs, who are tackling the problems of diminishing fuel and global warming by growing new technologies and markets for those technologies. The problems are indicators of a new “space” they can grow into. Meanwhile, real space is the setting for another set of entrepreneurs who see other planets as growth opportunities. These examples of opportunistic growth are healthy so long as they do not transcend their goals and render resources unusable by others when the goals are achieved, resulting in undesirable entropy rather than desirable equilibrium (or “balance”).

Ultimately to survive and thrive we must try to create a perpetually functioning and fulfilled society capable of dealing with changing conditions as necessary, rather than changing conditions just to have something to adapt to. Instead of being an asteroid that totally shakes up what it hits, we must become another natural cycle in whatever environment we find ourselves.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Ecological Debt

Assuming that a kilowatt of energy from the U.S. electrical grid requires the same amount of ecological resources anywhere in the world (measured by the ecological footprint), then at the end of 2007 the cost per global hectare will be about $770 by the end of this year if my estimate for inflation ends up being correct.

Applied to my projections of inflation, footprint, population (based on footprint), and Gross World Product, the cumulative cost of the world’s excess consumption of ecological resources is expected to be double the GWP just as the population peaks in the early 2030s. This “ecological debt” will likely exceed the GWP within two years.

If the implied causal relationship between cumulative ecological debt and population decline is real, then we can identify the constraints on how much and how fast we must divert our economic activity to replace Nature’s functionality (ability to both regenerate the resources we consume and process the waste we generate). By 2030 the GWP is expected to grow from $65T to $123T (2005 dollars); over the same period the cumulative ecological debt will grow from $62T to $233T, and the population will grow from 6.7 billion to 7.8 billion. To cancel our debt by 2030, we will need to decide how well we want people to live (available GWP per person, with the rest going to the environment), and change both our consumption patterns and our remediation of Nature accordingly.

One of the takeaway messages from Leonardo DiCaprio’s excellent 2007 film “The 11th Hour” is that the world doesn’t have five years to create a movement; change needs to happen much sooner. This message is consistent with my projection that our cumulative ecological debt will equal GWP by the end of next year ($68T in 2005 dollars): beyond that point, to survive, we may literally be forced to create a new economy without Nature’s help.