Friday, January 30, 2009

The Need to Love

Just as there is a part of any population that is so uncomfortable with variability that it must vilify people who are different, there is another part that thrives on diversity, is uncomfortable with predictability and conformity, and considers everyone to be of equal value. These people prefer to let their lives be full of love and anticipation rather than hate and fear, choosing to make the world better for everyone than for just people like them. They tend to be political liberals because government as an institution affects all its citizens, and has the potential to do so positively.

Societies are perhaps just as successful accommodating the needs of those who desire diversity as they are accommodating those who can’t stand it.

A representative democracy like the United States explicitly grants equal rights to many, if not all, of its citizens (women and African-Americans were exceptions until recently). Laws are then enacted to protect those rights. Unfortunately, laws can only regulate specific behaviors, not intentions, and therefore cannot ensure cooperation.

Socialist societies are to diversity-seekers what fascist societies are to uniformity-seekers: dismal failures of extremism in the face of an unyielding reality. In this case, government attempts to do something it is structurally incapable of doing, which is the total management of an economy to ensure that no one has an advantage over another – equal outcomes are confused with equal rights – and diversity ends up suffering.

Communism, the conservative’s bogey man, is in its strictest theoretical form a forced distribution of wealth to meet the needs of the population; which is not the same as socialism, except perhaps in the rare case where a society has barely enough resources for its population to survive. Diversity-seekers like me would argue that this form is a rational foundation for any society, but is not sufficient by itself; rather, there should be a regulated form of capitalism built on top so that people can maximize their individual happiness to the extent that additional resources are available and such activity doesn’t take away from the needs of others.

Problems are perhaps most likely to appear when “needs” are redefined to include “wants,” and people who know their own wants better than anyone are forced to attempt meeting the wants of people they don’t know. Someone who is inclined to cooperate rather than compete will compromise willingly, without being forced to; but those who are more inclined to compete should have the right to do so (ideally, just with people who also like to compete).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Are You Crazy?

Have you ever had someone look at you with a blank stare (what I call “the look”) that silently asked, “Are you crazy?” Or have you been in the middle of a conversation where someone interrupted, began talking to the person you were talking with, and you were ignored after that? I’ve had this happen a few times in my life, enough to question what caused it and whether it was justified.

Many years ago, after a celebration with some fellow students who had just done some serious social drinking, I was asked why I had been the only one not to drink. I could have brushed it off with a lame excuse, but instead I gave an honest and complete answer: I’ve never consumed more than a few sips of alcohol because it diminishes one’s ability to act responsibly, which is something I’ve always aspired to do (though not as successfully as I would like). From that point on, I got a cold shoulder from these people I considered friends, most hurtfully from the women. I was emotionally aware enough to guess that the reaction was based on a perceived insult, that I felt somehow better than them, though I thought I had been clear that it was purely a personal preference.

Another time that stands out was at a party a few years ago, when I mentioned to the head of a prominent environmental organization my notion that space activists and sustainability advocates have a common goal, the long term survival of mankind. He gave me the look, muttered something unintelligible, and walked away while I was explaining my reasoning. I suspected that it was because I was challenging one of his most fundamental beliefs, that growth in consumption is wrong, and that we must learn to live within the constraints of our own planet’s biosphere. If he had heard me out, he would have learned that I believed we must do both: learn to live within our means AND settle other planets far enough away to escape extinction by a warming Sun.

Most recently, I brought up ecological economics with the leader of a local renewable energy group, and was interrupted by the head of the national organization. After their discussion, the person I was talking to pointedly chose to avoid me. The intentions here were a little harder to read, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had once again offended someone because I questioned a core belief. The organization is focused on the promise of a technological fix to our emerging environmental and resource crisis (most directly, global warming and peak oil). Ecological economics, however, argues that we need a more systemic change to overall economic theory and activity, treating economics as a subset of ecology. Ironically, another group we both belong to rejects the idea that there is enough time to implement large scale solutions, focusing instead on helping communities become as self-sufficient as possible. (For the record, I favor all of these approaches simultaneously, including the settlement of space, though to different degrees depending on available resources and how soon they can yield results.)

These and other similar experiences have taught me that challenging a person’s values or world view, no matter how innocently, can cause them to become rude or choose to ignore you. Such a reaction may be justifiable from an emotional perspective as a response to a perceived insult or threat; or from an intellectual perspective, as recognition that you are too ignorant to be worth spending any time with. I reject such an assessment. In my opinion, being rude is morally unacceptable, no matter what the provocation. Ignoring the views of others, if honestly and constructively presented – no matter how radical or ridiculous they may sound – limits one’s ability to learn, grow, and enable them to do the same. This is because ultimately we all have blind spots, things and ideas we are unaware of and may need to know for survival (ours and everyone’s) and we need each other to help us see.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Need for Hope

Based on recent election results and the approval ratings for George W. Bush, there may be as many as one in four people who have such a low tolerance for social uncertainty that they are threatened by anyone who is markedly different from them. If the fraction is indeed this high, then to function, a society must find ways to minimize this uncertainty that do not adversely affect (and, preferably, positively affects) the remaining three-quarters of its population. One way to do this is to offer credible hope for a better future.

Hope, like the faith that enables religious behavior control (another approach to increasing predictability in the social environment), diminishes fear by focusing people’s attention on a set of positive conditions that they believe are attainable. Especially in times of great uncertainty for everyone, stress can be reduced by assurances that no matter how hard things are, they’ll be better in the future.

Unlike promises of eternal life, hope is testable. That is, real-world outcomes prove whether hope is justified. A leader who offer hope must therefore be competent enough to achieve results, or risk losing this important tool for maintaining a manageable level of stress among followers (unmanageable stress can lead to violence and poor health, especially among the sensitive quarter, who at a bare minimum might be induced to overthrow the leader).

In the big picture, global stress will undoubtedly increase as critical natural resources become more noticeably depleted and the effects of waste exponentially degrade quality of life. This stress is likely to be a key factor in total population collapse if we don’t radically alter our consumption patterns and fix the damage we have caused to the biosphere. To deal with this stress, hope should be anchored to a realistic vision of a better future whose details can be reasonably derived by everyone, along with the actions they can take to achieve it. Since the process of living must be changed, this might be aided by creating a set of stories (akin to religious teaching) that provides guidance about how we should deal with each other and the rest of the planet in this new reality.

The quarter of our population most sensitive to change may be viewed as scouts by the rest of us, warning of the need for cultural infrastructure that supports our collective physical adaptation to a variable world. Dismissing their agitation as a deviation from acceptable behavior would be, in this interpretation, potentially suicidal (besides being outright disrespectful of an integral part of humanity).

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Need to Hate

January of 2009 is an historic watershed in our nation’s long fight against its own worst instincts, the need of some of us to hate others for who they are. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a persistent cadre of political conservatives continued to insist that the first African-American president was a closet Muslim with terrorist leanings, determined to overturn democracy and capitalism.

The psychology of conservatives suggests that these bigots are unable to deal with uncertainty in their environment. People who accept, embrace, or symbolize complexity therefore represent a threat because their actions may not be predictable or controllable, and thus uncertain, with potentially negative as well as positive consequences. Uncertainty tends to result in stress, which can be managed or alleviated, in extreme cases involving fight, flight, or death.

One way that societies cope with this is through universally accepted laws that have the effect of reducing uncertainty by providing a means of behavior control. The amount of laws must be carefully managed; too few will allow too much variability, while too many will add too much complexity to life. This is the solution that representative democracies like ours have chosen.

Another way societies arrange to minimize uncertainty is to appoint leaders who can be trusted to properly control the population. In practice, this system tends to break down, because no human is capable (even if willing) to manage the details of many people’s lives effectively. Simplistic methods are often employed with disastrous consequences, such as killing or incarcerating people who are perceived as “too different” to control. Unfortunately for proponents of these methods, the human gene pool has a habit of injecting complexity into future generations (not to mention other societies).

Religion has long been a way to control behavior, and may represent the last, best hope for people who crave predictability: Instilling a fear of divine vengeance and a promise of eternal happiness in the hearts of the populace along with easily memorized stories that help identify the behaviors associated with each. If everyone shares the same religion, regardless of other conditions, they can trust each other more than if they come from different traditions.

Where does this leave us? Despite the new president’s adherence to mainstream Christianity and values, his shared American experience, and his demonstrated commitment to serving every citizen, there will always be some doubt about his motives that is based totally on his multi-ethnic heritage and acceptance of the value of all people. Speculation will fill the gap of uncertainty, as gossip always has, focusing on the worst-case explanations in order to prepare people for potential threats. Hopefully his actions will dull the fear as experience provides a guide to future behavior. In the mean time, we must all hope that the fearful among us will give him a chance to prove himself.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Significance of Torture

The issue of torture is a real and present threat to both our national security and our national identity.

If our government does not prosecute those in the government who ordered it and those who performed it, then we the people, from whom political power flows in this nation, will become complicit in war crimes. Because our laws define our nation, our combined flaunting of them will effectively destroy the country. We will no longer be able to call ourselves “Americans.” Other people will then rightly be able to brand us as international criminals, subject to the harshest of punishments, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Aside from the issue of responsibility, torture is fundamentally wrong, diminishing the moral standing of those who execute and support it. This judgment draws from the fact that it involves harming people who have not been proven guilty of any crime that warrants such harm.

Torture is also stupid. It has been proven ineffective at getting reliable information (its supposed point), and very effective at causing others to retaliate against unwarranted aggression against someone they care about. Note that this is similar to preemptive war, which penalizes many more people for their association with potential attackers.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Ideal Path

On a topographical map where “altitude” is replaced by the time it would take for the world’s population to deplete its usable resources, and “latitude” and “longitude” are replaced by minimum and maximum life expectancy, respectively, we currently sit near the base of an elliptically shaped mountain bounded by a right triangle. Two legs of the triangle meet at the peak of the mountain, forming a 45 degree angle. Depletion time (altitude) decreases exponentially as we move in any straight path away from the peak.

The world’s population prefers to be as low on the mountain as possible, which happens to be in a direction directly “down” from our present position. Very much like sliding down a real mountain, our speed increases as we move along this ideal path; except that we must provide the “gravity.”

The two most prominent competing ideologies in economics and politics appear to favor paths different from the ideal one. In the United States, “conservatives” prefer to increase the maximum life expectancy; while “liberals” want to increase the minimum life expectancy (keeping in mind that happiness – life satisfaction – is proportional to life expectancy). These alternate paths are at a right angle to each other on our topographical map. The fact that the ideal path bisects this angle (at 45 degrees) may explain why a “centrist” approach to economics and politics is often considered the most successful in historical hindsight.

This discussion has presumed a fixed (maximum) amount of resources as well as a constant population; or put another way, a fixed point in time. For our map to be accurate, any movement would need to be instantaneous. In reality, any change in the amount of resources will result in a proportional offset for all altitudes. If we choose to sit at a given spot (consuming a constant amount of resources per year), all altitudes will be offset by an amount proportional to the amount of time we sit there. Population changes are a lot more complicated, since population tends to vary proportionately to the square root of consumption, and radically decreases as the amount of consumption approaches the amount of resources.