Thursday, July 31, 2008

Diminished Xpectations

For several months, my wife and I looked forward to seeing the new X Files movie. Having bought and watched the entire nine seasons of the series (including the first movie) on DVD as a substitute for going to the theater – and lately, on our second round of watching, subscribing to cable – we were hooked on the endearing if quirky characters, finely drawn plots, and both thought-provoking and entertaining themes. Now it’s all we can do to try to forget the latest installment and hope for something more fulfilling in the future.

Reportedly, creator Chris Carter wanted to make a standalone movie that required no previous knowledge of the series, harkening back to the spirit of the earliest episodes. What he came up with was a two hour version of what might have been the worst of the series’ 45-minute episodes. The main characters were caricatures of the ones we knew; and instead of carrying the arc of the last set of episodes forward, “fighting the future” of an imminent alien takeover, they inexplicably acted as though it had all been just part of one character’s obsession.

With as many resources as it takes to make and market a movie in theaters these days, not to mention how much it costs people to attend it, the story better be compelling, worth telling, and the implementation artistically well done. All but one of the reviewers whose opinions I consulted after watching The X Files: I Want to Believe agreed with my assessment that this movie met neither of these criteria.

I blame the movie’s mediocre quality, in part, on the trend that seems to have engulfed so much of news and entertainment these days: the targeting of the least informed and least critical members of the public. This may sound arrogant, but I believe as my parents’ generation did, that our culture should set a high bar for all of the people who share it, forcing us all to grow toward something better. When the economic principle of serving demand invades every aspect of our lives, we are pre-empted from getting higher quality than we can currently imagine, ultimately diminishing our lives along with our expectations.

Monday, July 28, 2008


In the book Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, Authors Dan Chiras and Dave Wann emphasize the need to re-establish true communities as a way for Americans to live safe and healthier, without damaging others and the environment. The facts and logic behind this observation are indisputable. We get more lasting emotional value out of relationships than fleeting entertainment; borrowing items that are used infrequently anyway is much less wasteful than trying to own everything we might conceivably use; and communities are much more resilient than individuals in a host of circumstances.

Chiras and Wann quote Margaret Mead as observing the historical (and perhaps optimum) community size as been between 12 and 36 members (p. 26). It’s not unreasonable to suppose that larger groups would invite centralized leadership, regardless of the ownership model being used, diluting the input of individuals and therefore the integrity of the relationships, a mechanism that may well lead to the mismanagement found in all large, centralized governments. In contrast, the success of capitalism depends on small, independent producers and consumers, all with access to total and accurate information about products and services, suggesting that economies might best function at the same scale (or at least with units that aren’t any larger).

I have noticed considerable confusion between the concepts of community and both communism and socialism, especially among political conservatives. I suspect that this confusion comes from the cynical co-opting of community terminology by dysfunctional, socialist economies and governments such as China and the former Soviet Union. The growing failure of U.S. politics and economics can be traced to the same cause: too much power in the hands of too few people. While distributing power too diffusely could lead to an equally bad outcome, anarchy, the institution of operational community sizes might prove to be a good middle ground for efficiently organizing society. Having communities of communities, each interacting as “super-persons,” might provide a useful medium of dispersing necessary information and coordinating action among large groups.

To some extent towns, cities, and states approximate this model; but I would argue from their observed failures that their components are too large and therefore their relationships too complex to be functional. Beginning at an informal level, it would perhaps be wise to begin building communities again, breaking down barriers to communication and interaction, and working from the local level “up” to find the most fair and efficient granularity of relationships among people to deal with the issues that confront us at every scale.

Monday, July 21, 2008


For the first few months of this year I worked toward the goal of determining what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The strategy for meeting this goal had several parts: Complete and test the latest version of my consumption model; bulk up my creative writing portfolio with a completed novel, short stories, poems, and essays; and identify various ways of contributing to a sustainable future, including a definition of what such a future would entail.

Discussions of the consumption model and sustainability definition have appeared as short essays in IdeaExplorer, examining these issues from a variety of viewpoints which have recently converged so much that I have become repetitive. My latest efforts have focused on how to contribute to a sustainable future, examining the merits of developing new technology versus more utilization of Nature’s existing technology (exemplified by permaculture). With insights from my power model that support academic research into consumption, I’ve argued that increased transparency into the social and environmental impacts of product and service creation, as well as use, would go a long way toward improving humanity’s prospects for a long and healthy future.

It seems to me that everyone should become self-sufficient in terms of basic needs to the maximum extent possible, relying on local renewable resources and depending on the smallest community necessary to achieve this. The community should only trade with other communities for resources that do not affect this basic self-sufficiency. I've decided that I want the majority of my future efforts to support this philosophy and its implementation, since it is the core of a rational future that will serve everyone.

As my autobiographical essay Niches details, I have been strongly drawn to the idea of using creative writing as a means of education (for myself and readers) as well as promoting sustainable living. My novel, short stories, and poetry all demonstrated that I had the talent and the material to do this, though I have yet to sell any of it. Research into the writing market confirmed the assessment I made five years ago: that other than technical writing, it is very difficult to make a decent living as a writer. While the relative comparison of writing types still holds, the absolute condition of the profession is getting worse as apparently globalization is depressing pay rates across the board.

With my wife now also unemployed and prices rising, survival is subjecting my new-found purpose to its first practical test. Despite the potential personal peril, I am heartened that more and more Americans are becoming receptive to the idea of limiting consumption of products coming from distant – and therefore more costly – sources. Unfortunately, all of us are still dependent on those sources, and will probably continue to be while we build local communities and resource bases. This means that in the near term we still need to “feed the beast,” which for me translates into getting another technical writing job while I develop the skills and local personal relationships necessary for taking the next step.

On a national level, Al Gore is arguing that global warming’s accelerating progress demands that we totally replace fossil fuels with renewable energy within a decade. If such an ambitious program is adopted, there will be plenty of jobs available in creating a new built infrastructure. Writing, technical and otherwise, is likely to be among the skills needed in this transitional phase to a truly sustainable society. I’ll be available to help, if I’m not busy doing something at least as useful on another front.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Unfathomable Evil

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had one indelible effect on me. I became viscerally aware that there were people in the world capable of the greatest evil. This effect was no doubt largely due to my relatively safe life history as a middle-class Baby Boomer in a relatively free country with a greater than average amount of affluence.

I had only recently become politically uncomfortable, having been shocked by the installation of the obviously inept George Bush as president and the string of actions since his inauguration that confirmed my assessment. As history later showed, the president had employed that great enabler of evil, delusion, in response to warnings about the terrorist threat, and three thousand Americans paid the ultimate price.

Variants of Bush’s behavior played out to similar effect in at least two national tragedies afterward: the war in Iraq and the flooding of New Orleans. At least two global disasters in-the-making were also made worse by the president’s unwillingness or inability to accept reality: over-population and over-pollution (most notably manifested by the climate crisis). By pursuing military adventurism, instilling incompetence in government, fighting birth control, refusing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and a host of other actions such as institutionalizing torture and chipping away at the right to privacy, Bush and his enablers (Republican and Democrat) in Congress are arguably responsible for harm far in excess of what the terrorists achieved in 2001.

The best response to unfathomable acts of evil is to hold their perpetrators responsible; to determine and share with the world the how and why, and use deterrents (punishment) against them or others performing similar acts. The form of this response in the administration's case is spelled out by the Constitution, impeachment, but unfortunately the enablers are in a position to disable this response. This final insult to the rule of law is the ultimate act of evil, because it creates an atmosphere where much more harm can be done.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Last night, I attended a meeting of one of many groups attempting to create a more sustainable future. The aim of this particular group was to enable the business efforts of entrepreneurs (or “ecopreneurs”) by providing a forum for networking, attracting investment and employees, and education about current technologies.

As a former businessman and engineer, I am no stranger to the idea that technology and business can solve many problems. The current ecological crisis, on its face, appears to be well suited for such solutions. All we need to do is develop the right products and build demand for them (a task which will be aided by the growing cost of existing products).

The meeting was dominated by business strategy: Finding compelling value propositions and developing the appropriate market spaces with adequate funding and supply chains. As is usual in such discussions, focus was on the cost and benefit of products from the perspective of end-users, while externalizing costs as much as possible to increase profit.

In private discussions with several participants, it became clear to me that any consideration of overall reduction of consumption and adopting solutions in tune with natural systems involved the equivalent of marketing science fiction, too “out there” to be worthwhile. I felt like an atheist in an evangelist church, a feeling I know well from literal experience.

I hung in there anyway, hoping to find some inkling of hope that I could contribute to the next industrial revolution while accommodating my new-found grasp of the larger reality. The closest I could come was an assessment that these ecopreneurs are building a bridge between existing approaches and the nature-bound solutions people will be forced to embrace in several decades. They are attempting to sell novelties to a public that understands novelties, without getting caught up in the broader issue of total resource use that should be part of product demand.

Tugging at the back of my mind was the urgency of reducing the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentration by 2050 as well as restoring part of the biosphere we have disabled or destroyed, and unanswered questions about the pollution and social damage that might be created by carelessly designed production practices and the extraction industries they depend on. I had the growing suspicion that all these things were not being taken into account by these innovators.

I decided afterward that perhaps the greatest contribution I could make in such settings would be to bring up my questions, and present for debate the idea that a different, simpler strategy would be more effective: Working with and emulating natural systems as much as possible while taking a hard-core value engineering approach to the definition of the problems being solved.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stress and Privacy

Yesterday the U.S. Senate passed a controversial bill to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In addition to expanding the federal government’s ability to spy on American citizens, the bill provides retroactive immunity from civil prosecution to telecommunications companies for unspecified actions they have taken since 9/11/2001 at the request of the government. Constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley has a convincing case that the new law does extensive damage to the Constitutional guarantee of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

The originators and supporters of the law apparently view privacy as a convenience that can be stripped away when the government becomes sufficiently paranoid about the people it serves. Unfortunately for those people, it is much more than that: it is a critical part of cultural infrastructure which reduces the chances of a population crash.

There is good reason to believe that humans, like other species, may be subject to increased stress as conditions force us to interact too much with each other, threatening to dramatically reduce our population through violence and vulnerability to disease. (This is likely the primary mechanism behind the decrease in population growth and predicted decline associated with noticeable resource depletion that underpins my consumption model.) In the absence of culturally enforced rights to privacy, such stress could easily increase, as anyone knows who is conscious of strangers constantly observing them.

When we don’t trust the people observing us, or believe they have a nefarious interest in doing so, the stress will be even greater. The growing evidence of criminal behavior by the current administration (led by a megalomaniacal bully who seems to care only about a small number of sociopaths) suggests that the degradation of privacy protection enabled by the FISA law could amplify this effect.

One way to sidestep the public’s negative reaction to their vulnerability is to control their awareness of just how bad the situation is. I suspect that media consolidation has been part of a larger strategy to keep people in the dark; but a growing unease among those who do know what’s going on is gradually disabling this firewall, aided in large part by the Internet.

Transparency and accountability, two key innovations embodied in the Constitution, must be asserted in force to counter the backlash that is building. I fear that the instincts of our leaders will argue for more intrusion, not less, which could be far more damaging in the long run as the stress is pushed over a threshold that leads to a fight-or-flight response.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We Should All Be Environmentalists

Environmentalists have not successfully convinced everyone that Nature needs preserving. I believe that this is mainly because many of us perceive the rest of the natural world as something of lesser value than ourselves and what we can make from it.

We are also apparently either unaware or in denial of the fact that other species provide critical infrastructure for our activities. Breathable air, drinkable water, livable temperature, and fertile soil are but a few of the “products” we get for a modest cost: namely, letting other species live without interference. Even if we had the technology, energy, and will to replace this infrastructure, we would need to more than double the size of the world’s economy; and all we would get for the effort is what we already have.

One argument for continuing our decimation of other species is that there are so many of them that they won’t be missed. Such an argument is based on a faulty premise; in fact, we are responsible for the largest rate of extinction known, equivalent to that of a large asteroid impact. Whether or not global warming adds to the effect, which it almost certainly will, the loss of natural infrastructure is already large enough to be hurting us.

The situation will only get worse until we all become environmentalists. We must not only work to preserve what’s left, but allow natural systems to regenerate themselves to repair the damage we have caused.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Changing Focus

Capitalist economics, for all its apparent complexity, can be simply described as a system for creating and distributing goods and services by assigning value to them in terms of a common unit of exchange (money) that is proportional to their scarcity and how many people want them. The focus of the system is the balancing of utility that end-users perceive for a given product or service with the amount of resources (including their own labor) they will have to trade to acquire it.

For transactions where end-users are not intimately familiar with the processes involved in creating the products and services they acquire, the impacts of those processes do not enter into the purchasing decision. Even direct effects such as poisoning will not be considered if it takes a long time for them to be felt by the buyer. I contend that this narrow focus is largely responsible for many of the ills we now face as a society and a species.

What can we do about it? As I’ve argued elsewhere (joining a growing chorus), enforcing honest dissemination of accurate information about these impacts is critical, especially at the point of purchase. The practical difficulties of including this information in labels (for products) and contracts (for services), coupled with human limitations on information processing (our inability to simultaneously comprehend more than seven things at a time), ensure a high degree of failure in this endeavor, and potentially catastrophic consequences when this error is applied to complex and globally affecting industries. Still, large error is better than total ignorance.

Alternatively, we could simplify our lives to the point where we can adequately get and verify the information we need to make responsible decisions about what we use (as well as what we trade). This alternative is yet another reason for energy descent: lowering the amount of input energy required for our activities. The more direct experience we have with the production of what we consume, the more accurate will be the basis for our choices. In the process we are likely to reduce consumption and waste, the proximate causes of our destruction of Earth’s biosphere and the greatest threats to our survival as a species.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Suicide Society

In an effort to become more positive in my view of the world, I’ve spent some time reading about permaculture, specifically the interpretation described by co-originator David Holmgren in his book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Among other insights, the book introduced me to the idea that a significant amount of carbon dioxide could be sequestered in soil, potentially making a large dent in the global warming problem (further research showed this effect to be well known, and that in the U.S. it currently offsets 15% of emissions). With its emphasis on people learning to work with Nature in getting what they need, I found that Holmgren’s version of permaculture offers realistic hope that some of us may eventually be able to live happy and sustainable lives.

Then I read an article in my local paper’s Web site that made me cringe. Studies of sunscreen showed that, at best, much of it was useless against the most damaging radiation from the Sun; and at worst, it was dangerous. Having recently purchased a bunch of it, I visited a Web site referred to by the article (Skin Deep) and discovered that 99% of more than 30,000 cosmetics evaluated on the site had risks associated with health or the environment, many of them very serious. The main problem, apparently, is a lack of testing by industry and the government to determine just how harmful such products are. If I hadn’t read the article, I would mindlessly be slathering on a toxic mixture of chemical compounds that could potentially lead to neurological problems, cancer, and ecological damage.

I woke up the next morning with an encouraging thought. What if everyone suddenly decided to grow as much natively adapted food as possible? The concept of an urban garden is not novel, but a concerted effort by all owners of green space could have a significant effect on our dependence on large-scale energy (and corporate greed) for our most basic needs.

My optimism took another bashing when I happened across another report, this one detailing the poisonous compounds routinely and widely injected into oil and natural gas wells in Colorado with practically no regulation or accountability. It is hard to escape the feeling that the conventional energy industry, like the cosmetics industry (and likely many others), is content with physically harming and possibly killing people as long as profits continue to rise. I can’t help but wonder if this would change if all of us had to depend on locally contaminated ground water for our daily survival.

In the mean time, we live with omnipresent risks of our own making or acquiescence, which are killing us too slowly to care about. Our society is collectively committing suicide, and taking the rest of Nature down with us. Will we stop and try to repair the damage, and if so, in time to avoid the most dire consequences? It’s not because the knowledge and tools aren’t available, because they are; but we can’t count on them to remain that way. Soon, if not now, we need to acknowledge the reality of our situation and our responsibility for it, and then do whatever we can to deal with it.