Friday, May 29, 2009

Blind Spots

We all have the mental equivalent of blind spots -- things and concepts that we are simply unaware of. For some of us, the greatest such blind spot is manifested by the belief that we have no significant blind spots. This is one of the principal reasons that we need to be both open-minded and part of a diverse, honest community, so we have a chance that someone can help us learn to know what we currently can’t, or compensate when such learning is impossible.

The “community” we depend on for sharing and enabling experience may be close and in the present, or, through communications technology, books and other media, far away or in the past. The more immediately accessible members are most helpful in environments that are unusual or rapidly changing, while those we can’t easily interact with can help in situations that are not unusual or changing slowly enough to accommodate the effort of broader understanding.

As part of a community, we help others as much as we are helped, and in the process share a common and longer future since we can collectively “see” where we are going and where we want to go. Alternatively, in small competitive groups or as individuals, we have a higher risk of encountering something we are incapable of dealing with, or being unaware of what actions will best serve our twin needs to survive and thrive.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Buying Responsibly

With diminishing resources and increasing harmful waste threatening the survival of our species and most others, the most responsible thing we can do is to change both what resources we consume and how much we consume. The option most of us prefer is to change what we consume, with any coincidental savings in quantity remaining largely invisible.

I recently bought a handy little book that helps people easily compare the social and environmental impacts of products commonly sold in the U.S. “The Better World Shopping Guide” by Ellis Jones ranks over 1,000 companies across 75 product categories in a report card format. As an ecologically conscientious acquaintance pointed out, the book (and others like it) deals with the “what” rather than the “how much” question, which too him is more important since people will tend to buy more of something they think has higher value, offsetting any gains such a decision might have. A practically-minded family member immediately recognized that the companies with the highest grade in each category were also the most expensive, and in almost direct proportion to their grade, thus making responsible shopping a luxury, especially in a recession.

There is an elegant solution to the apparent dilemma posed by these two objections to buying responsibly: Use the grades to determine how much of each company’s products to buy. For example, if 100% corresponds to a grade of “A” and zero corresponds to an “F,” then we would buy only 25% of that product if the grade of the company making that product was a “D,” 50% for a “C,” and 75% for a “B.” At one extreme, we wouldn’t reduce the amount we bought, but it would be better for people and the rest of the biosphere; at the other extreme, we would have to either cut out buying the product entirely or find free alternatives that had minimal negative effects. This solution also has the benefit of being budget-neutral, even in households where some members insist on buying the cheap (and generally worse) alternatives: the other members can, as much as possible, simply cut back on what they use or how long it takes to use it (such as leftovers of food).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Positive Thinking

I was recently accused of generally having a negative attitude, which caught me totally by surprise. The explanation for the accusation centered on my focus on preparing for bad outcomes instead of a default expectation of good outcomes. My surprise came from my internal reasoning for this bias, a rule my father drilled into me from childhood: Prepare for the worst case and hope for the best case (I’ve modified this rule somewhat over the years to include a provision for working hard to reduce the probability of the worst case becoming reality). If I was spending more time than not in thinking about worst case scenarios, my rationale continued, it was because they were proving uncomfortably likely.

Some honest self-evaluation soon followed, as it typically does when I find a potential problem with my world-view. Testing and refining world-views is something I’ve been doing instinctively for as long as I can remember. Over the years I’ve come to accept that being an iconoclast is in my nature, and a fierce honesty has forced me to do my homework when it comes to challenging what I think I know, and by extension, what others think they know. This life-process validated my father’s rule, since my challenges often yielded critical oversights that threw the most positive interpretations into doubt. It’s what made me a good test engineer and led to novel insights (such as when I helped my father with his rediscovery of basic math concepts). It also led to my separation from my religious and political roots, which seems to have severely limited my relationships with some friends and family.

It doesn’t take a long memory to realize that most of my thoughts and writing has been somewhat dark, especially about the future of the world. I’ve tried to avoid being fatalistic, looking for a course of action that could make a dent in the numerous problems I’ve uncovered both from my own work and that of others. I told myself often that, once I found such a course, I could concentrate on developing positive momentum instead of just making a better case for taking action. I was still reticent, however, a consequence of challenges by those I tried to enlist in the effort, who questioned the basis of my conclusions and thus triggered my persistent (if increasingly attenuated) self-doubt response. Knowing that, like fear, the source was in my own head, didn’t help. While sorting this all out, I followed conventional prescriptions for survival, such as taking any job that used my most developed marketable skills, which brought its own frustrations.

At the end of the day, I decided that what I was hearing was a plea to at least emotionally project a positive, solutions-based orientation. Perhaps by trying to do this, I might be able to make some real progress beyond problem definition and fruitless challenges to the business-as-usual world-view held by the people around me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Crash of the Oligarchies

I was recently exposed to the notion that oligarchies are by nature destined to lead to population collapse. Without even completing the argument of the most recent book I was reading, the simple, elegant logic behind it became utterly clear.

There is a physical limit to how much physical stuff any of us can befit from using, or even put any judgment into using. When we consume more, the rest is largely wasted from our perspective, and from the perspective of others who might otherwise have had other uses (such as survival) for the raw materials and energy that went into making it.

Waste piles up with its attendant health hazards. If only a small number of people have enough power to consume most of what’s available, the people who don’t have enough quality stuff to survive and thrive compete for what’s left. This all results in increasing stress (along with attendant violence) and declining health among the majority of the population.

Processing raw materials into stuff to be consumed is almost by definition done by the majority. This is because no matter how efficient a small number of people may be (with any technology), more can be consumed if more people produce it. As the majority suffers, the quality and quantity of stuff goes down, which makes things even worse as part of a vicious feedback loop. Eventually, most people die.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Three Percent Solution

Where my earlier population-consumption projections indicated that to avoid a world population collapse we could get by with a one percent annual increase in the fraction of renewable resources consumed to total consumption (by weight, per year) while keeping total consumption constant, my latest projections show that the rate must now be about three percent. Constant consumption buys us eight years over business as usual (which shows population dropping after 2021), with each quarter-percent increase in the renewable-to-total consumption rate adding about a year until we reach about two percent. The gain in years increases rapidly after that, reaching a maximum of 300 years at a rate of three percent. Keep in mind that these “rates” must be applied until we are practically only consuming renewables (resources that can be reused in a year). The final state of this trajectory (also called “steady state”) is a condition of constant consumption and population, maintained entirely by a renewable resource base.

One problem with this solution is that my calculations show that even if we used all of the renewable resources the biosphere could provide, we would be unable to satisfy more than about one-third of our consumption this way. We will need to find some other source by about the same time we would start losing population if we kept growing our consumption. If our energy needs were met directly from the Sun or some other non-biological source, we might come close.

I estimate that at the three percent rate, we have less than 35 years to reach total renewably supplied consumption (passing 60 percent in 2030). The fastest and least costly approach would be to rely entirely on Nature as soon as possible, since technological fixes would almost by definition involve the consumption of more non-renewable resources. A better use of our technology might be the controlled shutdown and mitigation of the most harmful products of our civilization, such as nuclear material, plastics, and other chemical compounds that might be harmful to life. We probably don’t have enough time or resources left to serve what is perhaps our most important function: spreading life to other planets, and protecting life here from asteroid and comet impacts. Settlement of space might still be an option if a case could be made that new resources would be made available -- and safely -- before we run out here; such an option, in my view, is the only hope we have of continuing something like our present civilization.