Friday, July 31, 2009

Unhealthy Community and the Health Care Debate

Few things define a community more than its members’ support of a minimum level of well-being for everyone within it. When they have taken care of basic needs such as food, water, shelter, and protection from large-scale threats such as hostile invaders, fire, and poisoning of necessary resources, the members of a community must deal with the maintenance of their health, which is affected by all of the rest (especially defense against microscopic “hostile invaders”). The debate about community-provided health care in the United States is therefore fundamentally about how much of a community we really are.

In several other countries, this is a no-brainer, as it should be. But here, we have a culture which celebrates competition between people and groups for dominance over everyone else. Everything -- including fulfillment of our basic needs and use of basic infrastructure, natural and built -- is up for grabs. In short, we have chosen the maximizing of personal well-being as our highest value, undercutting our identity as a community and, because it maximizes consumption in resource-constrained world, jeopardizing the long-term survivability of our population.

We have become so pathologically disconnected from our community instincts that many of us who yearn for the sense of community that universal health care symbolizes have resorted to the selling tactics of competitive corporations, including telemarketing and e-mail campaigns. Having forgotten how to interact with fellow human beings, we treat each other as tools to attain our objectives rather than as people whose interests are mutually entangled because we genuinely care about each other. It seems that the only time we see our neighbors is when we’re trying to get them to vote for something or someone with their money or their ballots.

Recent reports about people stocking up on guns instead of basic necessities in anticipation of a worsening economy highlight the threat we face by continuing our disintegration as a community. As conditions worsen, communities with strong bonds endure and find solutions, while others end up either fighting among themselves or suffering from too little personal power to survive or thrive on their own.

To confront this threat, we must reengage each other on the core issue and decide whether we will split off into smaller but more sustainable communities that interact in a healthy way, or whether we will recommit to supporting each other as a larger community that values every one of its members. The health care debate is a good place to start this discussion.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Twisting Paths: A Perspective on Space Exploration

I was a child in the 1960s as the United States manned space program was just getting started, and arguably reached its peak in the landing on men on the Moon. My father was active in the program as a lead engineer for RCA, so I was able to learn as much as my preteen mind could handle about what was involved. As Apollo 8 circled the Moon, I already knew more about the features of the Moon than I knew about my own country, whose political torment I witnessed firsthand during the Washington, D.C. riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Like many Americans, I saw the space program as a transcendent human activity, seeking knowledge and a foothold in the settlement of the Universe for everyone’s benefit. My lifelong interest in astronomy and science was sparked at this time based on what I later learned was a venture laced with much darker motives.

First, and foremost, the drive to the Moon was a thinly veiled attempt to prove the technological superiority of the U.S. over the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, which included the civilian development of weapons delivery and intelligence capabilities. When the bulk of this development was over, so too was the main thrust of the space program. Space enthusiasts have since lamented that it we could have moved on to Mars within 20 years of the last Apollo flight, that a great opportunity was wasted; and if our leaders had been as great as our citizens believed (and still believe) our nation to be, the future of humanity would have been their focus and we would likely have a permanent presence on Mars and we would not face the possibly premature death of our species along with the actual extinction of far too many others.

I abandoned astronomy as a career in the bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence. As part of a National Science Foundation program to educate about 30 high school juniors about the ongoing energy crisis, I was the only student in the group to ask why we needed so much energy in the first place; and posited as the premise of my term paper for college credit that our population would be like gas in a heated bottle, prone to explode from too much pressure if we didn’t either limit the energy or release part of our population into space. I realized that the search for knowledge about space, while honorable, was far less important than try to forestall such a disaster.

The manned space program searched for meaning after Apollo, and so did I. As limited minds tried in vain to make space profitable instead of developing this vast new commons for everyone, I worked with my father to remove some of the limits on our minds. Our educational research company sparked creative yet disciplined thought, teaching math as an intuitive language instead of as a set of facts and rules, which opened up a universe right in our own back yards. As a small business, we learned to live on very little, yet we felt that we had so much more than others. This was a welcome contrast to the life I could have led as befit my day job at the time: finding problems with missile radar antennas used to show the Soviets just how tough we were as they starved to death under the weight of their own repressive government. While we were making do with less, so was the robotic side of the space program, and making remarkable progress in its purely scientific missions; for the most part cataloguing the solar system and gaining a better understanding of its dynamics, including the workings of its greatest constituent: the Sun.

As the Shuttle sucked money with little to show for it, so did the company I helped nurse through that period. Both ventures suffered from too much optimism and a lack of demand for their products. The Shuttle program’s optimism led to the Challenger disaster and years of needed organizational restructuring. My father and I couldn’t get schools or investors to accept our approach, so we field-tested products and restructured our company, moving to a more business-friendly state and bootstrapping a mail order augmentation of existing programs with local tutoring paying for research and development. The need to meet schedules and follow a business model lowered everyone’s sights, it seemed.

My father died, and eventually I had to give up on our company. The manned space program signed on to the space station, which many space professionals and politicians alike concluded was a boondoggle of enormous proportions. Unmanned missions, with a few spectacular exceptions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars rovers, suffered from cost cutting and a lack of strategic vision. I meanwhile was in the midst of reexamining my entire life, and reactivated my interest in astronomy. Like many others, I was stirred by the widely observed collision of a comet with Jupiter and the possibility that something similar could happen to Earth; this sparked the thought that life needed to be defended, and helped define my ultimate core value as the long-term survival and thriving of as much life as possible, especially human life. In this context, astronomy and space exploration became urgent necessities, especially when the limited lifetime of the Earth was taken into account; and when I connected with space activists pushing the settlement of Mars, I understood instantly why it should be pursued.

Gradually, the Mars activists gained sway with those who could do something about it; indeed, many of them were already part of the professional space establishment. The space program had its strategic vision and was finally moving in a direction that might enable people to again visit another world. The professionals and activists quibbled over the details, arguing whether we should go straight to Mars or first use the Moon as a training and development way station. The latter approach seemed to hold sway.

I considered it ironic that the president who had done the most damage in almost every other respect happened to be the one to sign on to this important goal. George Bush awakened my fear for what humans could do to our planet, and then I learned just how much harm we already had already done. I suddenly felt greatly conflicted. As an engineer and believer in the manifest destiny of our species to take over the Universe, I had shared the conviction of many of my peers that we (humans, Americans) were always the “good guys,” and technical and scientific “progress” was always the way to a better future. My high school questioning of whether more was better came back to haunt me, and I now had to reconcile this point of view with the facts I had learned. It had been easy to scoff at people who claimed we should learn how to clean up our planet before going to another one, because surely all we needed was better technology to do both. What if the desire to take over the Universe was itself wrong, and the application of technology without due consideration for its consequences caused more problems than it solved?

I attempted to theoretically derive the constraints on population size and surviving as long as possible, starting with reasonable scenarios for space settlement, and discovered that the main constraints on both population size and overall longevity of the population are the availability of natural resources and how fast we consume them. Technology affects both availability and consumption rate, but itself is limited by the laws of physics, the most critical being the inability of matter to travel at the speed of light or faster, which fixes how many resources we can consume in a given (reasonable) period of time. Of course other things affect population growth, which sets the scale of resources we need -- the more of us there are, the more we consume -- and I also found a convenient, if controversial, way to model them, which linked back to consumption.

My research showed that if we stop the growth of our population and our consumption without limiting our access to new resources, humanity can last a very long time (the preferred size of the population is then the main determinant of just how long). I also discovered that how much people thrive (which is proportional to how long they live) is increasingly costly in terms of consumption, so we would also need to hold this number near an acceptable value and accept the resulting lifetime of our species.

Since one’s values are the measure of “right" and “wrong,” and I was now equipped with some knowledge about what would bring the world more in alignment with my core values, I could begin to resolve the conflict I felt between the urge to support growth in space and technological advancement, and to make the most of what we have on Earth. I realized that the underlying issue was the common belief that growth -- especially exponential growth -- is always good. Because exponential growth in population, and therefore consumption, tends to quickly burn through resources, it will always cut short the lifetime of most members of a population and is therefore bad. I could, however, sign on to spurts of growth as a way to gain access to more resources (or more efficient use of resources) and to reduce the chances of everyone being killed by a single cause (such as the Sun expanding or a comet colliding with the Earth). In other words, to be acceptable, such activity had to have a defined purpose and be sufficiently controlled to reduce the risk to the population at large.

As the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing approached, the space program and I had each found a path, and for me they were sadly divergent. Further study had convinced me that the world was dangerously close to approaching the limits of its most important resources, from fresh water to precious minerals to energy, and it might already be too late to bring growth of consumption under control before mass death became inevitable. There was some hope that declining birth rates might account for much of the projected population loss, as it did leading up to the population peak, but there was already evidence that civilization was on the brink of something hellish, reflected in the economy, global warming, and a lack of sufficient preparation for survival without the resources it so heavily depended on. With time running short to do such preparation, I considered it irresponsible to support provisioning expeditions to other planets unless they could contribute to the direct and immediate remediation of the problems facing this world. I resolved to focus on the immediate future, and hope that the world could find a better way to live that could eventually allow for the continued expansion into space.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

As the first decade of the 21st century began, most major natural resources were on the verge of becoming scarce; while human-created waste, most of it greenhouse gases, began to overwhelm the biosphere. These factors were both influenced by, and contributed to, a large inequality in both physical wealth and social power on a global scale enabled by the dominant social and economic philosophy of maximizing personal gain. Attempts for more than 20 years by nations and international corporations to secure more access to natural resources led to the century's first wars.

Over the course of the decade, in response to the approaching resource limits, per capita consumption began to slow down. The financial sector of the U.S. economy, having amassed a great amount of debt in expectation of accelerating growth, was caught by surprise and suffered losses that triggered a world recession. Governments led by the U.S. attempted to artificially increase consumption by building infrastructure and assuming the financial sector's debt; but because they only peripherally addressed the resource and waste problems, the recession continued to worsen and by the early part of the second decade became a full depression.

Desperation led to acceptance that some natural and human services needed to be freely available to everyone without being diminished by their use; this included maintenance of the infrastructure, people, natural resources, and species that those services depended on (“the commons”). As a result, most nations instituted variants of the Commons Development and Maintenance Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (CDMA), which required all adult citizens to give one in seven days of their time to building and maintaining the commons. This joint project largely defined the rest of the century, narrowly averting climate catastrophe due to global warming and leading to achievement of near-total sustenance of the world's population by common services in 2100.

As insurance against extermination of humanity due to extraterrestrial events, a self-sustaining settlement was established on Mars which used and replaced what it needed with minimal impact to its environment based on the new understanding that to qualify as a highly evolved species, humans would be virtually indistinguishable from the rest of nature, whose principal goal is extension of life into the farthest future.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Inner Journey

In “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation,” educational activist Parker J. Palmer makes a good case that to live fulfilling lives we must learn about and develop respect for ourselves instead of catering to other people’s expectations of who we should be and what we should do. This requires brutal honesty about our strengths and our weaknesses, our proclivities and the things we are disposed to avoid. In the process, we are better able to know and respect other people, allowing us to become an integral part of a healthy community.

My own first introduction to Palmer’s premise was in a weekend workshop called “Actualizations” which I took in college at my father’s urging. The workshop effectively created an instant, safe, and supportive community of people who could discover and take control of basic assumptions that had shaped their lives (especially in a negative way) without their conscious assent. I had two such assumptions which it took more than 20 additional years to test and discard: that emotions should (and could) be replaced with objective, logical thought; and, related to the first, that there is an objective way to decide the right thing to do without invoking values.

Taking the inner journey of discovery can be both profoundly rewarding and disturbing, but it is absolutely necessary to uncover the biases that underlie our world views. After starting the journey (which ever ends), it becomes easy to spot others who are suffering from the near-blindness of self-delusion, the most obvious sign being open and unacknowledged hypocrisy. Helping them see -- exposing the “blind spots” I’ve discussed elsewhere -- becomes a natural part of our relationship with them, which, as Palmer warns, must be done respectfully (if not always easily).

The objective of Palmer’s book is to encourage people to be true to who they are in the kind of work that they do; otherwise, they do more harm than good in the long run, to both themselves and to others. One of the greatest tragedies of our economic system, amplified as it now sinks toward depression, is that survival forces people to work wherever they can, accommodating an obsolete and inaccurate factory model that treats people as objects that can be standardized and interchanged to meet the wants, if not the needs, of another set of objects: customers. People as individuals, or members of a larger community that have more value than the things they can produce and consume, have no place in this system that almost by design must eventually self-destruct, along with those who depend on it. This last point emerges from “The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth” by economist Mark Anielski, which shows a decline in well-being indicators over more than 30 years even as the primary measure of economic progress, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has skyrocketed. We are essentially paying for the destruction of the commons -- human, environmental, and built -- that civilization depends on, and it can’t continue that much longer.

To me, the inner journey is intimately connected to the external one. If we are open and honest with ourselves, we will come to know and accept who we are and what we have done. We will be able to choose what comes next, based on a knowledge of what we can and can’t do, what we can get excited about and what we can never sustain enough interest or effort to do well. Recognizing that we require community to augment our awareness and abilities, we will seek out others with similar values and strive together to live according to those values. I hope that to the extent we are part of a world community, one of those values will be the long-term surviving and thriving of the human species; if so, then we will act with mutual support and respect, preserving that which we all depend on, and exchanging that which we can mutually afford without sacrificing the future or our value as human beings.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hostages to Hope

As the United States celebrates 233 years as a unified group of people attempting to live the ideals spelled out in its Declaration of Independence from the British Empire, a growing number of its citizens are discovering that it has become like those who oppressed it. Students of history, this cadre of new patriots understands that, like the British Empire, the American Empire cannot long survive, especially since the cheap energy sources that drove its growth are now on the path to becoming scarce.

As the intellectuals among the Founding Fathers understood, most social problems are not the fault of any particular group of people, but rather the false ideas they live by and the power they have to enforce those ideas on others. Even the most destructive among us tend to believe what they are doing is right, and will seek whatever means are necessary to keep doing it.

Our hierarchical social systems are the main source of power. At work and in public life, we follow the lead of others, executing orders regardless of how we feel about them, and translating any discomfort we may have into a drive to attain a higher position in the hierarchy so we can issue the orders that we want. By habit and training, most of us are hostages to the hope that those with the most power have the wisdom to exercise it (through us) responsibly and with positive effect. Recent events have shown us, as similar events did our forebears, that such hope is unfounded -- yet we still cling to it, hastening our demise and that of the rest of the planet.

For these reasons, we must constantly test the validity of our ideas and challenge our leaders to defend their decisions. But, more than that, we must take responsibility for our own actions and their impact on others, finding the courage to break out of the social systems that we currently depend on for our survival and try to create new ones, like the Founding Fathers did.