Monday, November 24, 2008


One of my criteria for an ideal world, happiness, is mathematically equivalent to life expectancy; perhaps because the longer we live, the more likely we are to achieve what we want to in life. This correlation dodges the question of what “happiness” would specifically require. As I’ve suggested in several different ways before, a possible answer to this question may be that everyone would be able to inhabit an environment conducive to their personality type.

Arguably the most successful model of personality is the Big Five, summarized by the acronym “OCEAN” which denotes its basic dimensions: Originality, Consolidation, Extroversion, Accommodation, and Need for stability. Originality is a measure of openness to new experiences. Consolidation describes how focused we are. Extroversion identifies how comfortable we are with other people. Accommodation involves our willingness to go along with what others want. Need for stability measures how emotionally impervious we are to our environment.

In a society that offers opportunities for people on either extreme of these personality dimensions to thrive, structure and lack of structure would be available in all aspects of life, as would high and low social interaction. Structure would help the incurious, focused, accommodating, and neurotic among us; while lack of structure would serve the curious, spontaneous, competitive, and self-contained. Opportunities to interact with lots of people would be available for extroverts, those who can easily handle stress, and people who prefer to serve the needs of others; while more isolated environments would be provided for introverts, people who are easily stressed, and those who are only interested in their own success.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Vision for America

For the first time that I can remember, a president or president-elect asked the American people to share their vision of what the country should be. Soon after his election, Barack Obama provided a Web page for doing just that; and I added my opinion, as follows.

First and foremost, the United States must be true to its core principles, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Most critical among these is our recognition and respect of the equal value of everyone; given the interdependence and interrelationship of all of us, regardless of where we are in the world, I believe that we should apply this principle to everyone.

We are a nation of laws because our founders recognized that actions, not people, are inherently good or bad based on their positive or negative effects on people. Responding to behavior instead of the characteristics of people will go a long way toward achieving a just nation and world.

None of us can achieve what we want or get what we need, except by accident, unless we have access to accurate information, and as much information as is practical to obtain and process. To this end, we must value and promote forthrightness in all our dealings -- social, economic, and otherwise.

In the resource-constrained present and future that we are facing, we will need to focus on acquiring renewable resources and building infrastructure while controlling (if not outright abandoning) our appetite for unsustainable exponential growth in material consumption. To do otherwise will be to condemn our country and the world to extreme poverty, if not death, in this century (see

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Twenty-Four Seven

The term “24/7” is normally associated with the limit to the amount of work someone can do in a week: Twenty-four hours a day for seven days. By a slightly different definition, this term may also refer to the maximum number of people that can occupy our planet on a sustainable basis.

There are several reasons to expect that the average smallest group size is around 24 individuals. Each small group (what I will call “Level 1”) may be one of a similar number of members of a larger group that enables individuals to identify with the larger group (what I’ll call “Level 2”). The Level 2 group can be one of around 24 members of a Level 3 group; the Level 3 group can be one of about 24 members of a Level 4 group; and so on. These levels are roughly equivalent to the more familiar community types (in order of increasing size): family, neighborhood (or tribe), city, county, state, nation, and world.

Empirically, the minimum per capita global ecological footprint is about 0.1 hectare. It is reasonable to assume that pre-historical values were at least half of this. Applying the first law of consumption to the consumption of ecological resources using either of these numbers (0.05 or 0.1 for populations above 300 million), the entire land area of the Earth would be exceeded with a population around Level 7 (4.6 billion people, or 24 multiplied by itself 7 times). Such a conclusion could be reached even with extreme errors in approximation of usable area (by my calculation, as much as 90%).

It is tempting to speculate about the cultural significance of this insight. For example, when a seven day week was established in early Judaic practice, might the commandment to rest on the seventh day (the Sabbath) have been a recognition that humanity would need to stop working – translating into no growth of per capita consumption and with it, population – at the seventh level in order to avoid exceeding the renewable resource base and causing a population crash?

In this light, Judaic injunctions against trying to become god-like may have been another part of a larger strategy to inhibit potentially disastrous growth. The spiritual (what I would call psychological) component of religion could then be interpreted as a means of providing a way for people to experience the happiness of increased consumption without its physical manifestation; similarly, the promise of “eternal life” may have been a way of faking people into believing that their life would be extended in a non-physical way.

Barring a major technological breakthrough in the time we have left before population collapse, something resembling a religious world-view may be useful in pulling us back from the brink. Whatever our solution we choose, it should be informed by the knowledge that we cannot maintain 24*7 hours or 24^7 people on a sustainable basis while we are dependent on biology for survival.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Holding Out Hope

On Election Day 2008, the majority of citizens of the United States of America rejected fear and selfishness as guiding principles. If we’re lucky, sanity will return to the leadership of our country in a few short months, and our chances of surviving and thriving will take a decided turn upward.

President-elect Barack Obama used his acceptance speech to set realistic expectations for the near future. Our problems will not miraculously be solved. Mistakes will likely be made but then corrected. Cooperation and hard work are required to build a better future. The process is the key to success: working and learning and caring about others.

Is it too much to hope that we will no longer be subject to collective delusion? That we will not blindly follow someone because we are in a crisis? That we will work together, instead of seeing each other as competition to be squashed like the contestants of reality shows and the management of large corporations? That all it takes is education and the right set of leaders to offset the worst of human nature?

While canvassing during the last days of the campaign, I was struck by the ways people have chosen to isolate themselves from an encroaching world. Dogs and signs on gates warned off visitors. “Security” lights made sure that anyone who made it to the door could be identified and dealt with appropriately (often by pretending not to be home). When I did get to talk to people, about a third of them were kind or thankful, half of them were barely polite, and a sixth of them were downright hostile.

I know from my own experience and study that decreasing isolation is a key to establishing a stronger sense of community, which itself is critical to our surviving and thriving both individually and as a species. As a former community organizer, our soon-to-be president apparently knows the same thing. By getting to know each other well enough not to fear each other, and incorporating more effective ways of doing this into our culture, we may together find a way toward a better future. Based on the results of the election, I’m inclined to hold out hope for this.