Friday, December 31, 2010

Common Knowledge

Communities depend on a common base of knowledge and values to maintain cohesion. To use just two examples of why: common knowledge enables its members to communicate, and common values keep them from killing each other. This is true regardless of the community's size. The community's environment (in the general sense) determines to a large extent the kind of knowledge that's useful, both in form and content, especially in those aspects on which the community depends for survival. I offer these observations without proof, though I believe I can make a convincing case for each of them.

There are likely no effectively isolated communities left. This is mostly due to technology informed by science (a form of common knowledge), and the dominant value system's stated goal of subduing the Earth, which has been very successful. To the extent that the resources that drive that technology are becoming more scarce, our global community will become less viable. Anticipating that, the Transition movement is getting (barely) ahead of the curve, so-to-speak, and attempting to create smaller communities that can thrive on local resources, making the inevitable disintegration more controlled and, as a result, less painful.

Contrary to the view of conspiracy theorists on the “right” side of the political spectrum (in the U.S.), those who identify themselves as environmentalists are not driving this transition in the pursuit of power. They are trying to confront perhaps the greatest existential threat to humanity, caused by the systematic plundering of the biosphere which the dominant value system promotes, and avoidance of basic knowledge about the world exacerbates by keeping people ignorant of its consequences. This clearly significant problem with the quality and pervasiveness of our community knowledge and values needs to be fixed, even if we do splinter into smaller groups, because those groups will likely still need to interact, if for no other reason than to share and help develop resources critical to survival.

As smaller communities become more viable, their common knowledge and values will likely evolve to adapt to their local conditions. Ideally, they will maintain, intact, parts that enable them to contribute to a healthy planet (and keep from harming other such communities).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

As one year ends, it is traditional to look ahead and set some objectives for the coming one. Here are a few of mine for 2011, chosen according to how relevant I think they might be to the lives of readers and related to the other material I've discussed.

Get healthier. Like many people in my country, I am overweight and out of shape. One reason is my sedentary lifestyle: I spend way too much time in front of computers, books, and television (or, as I like to rationalize it, trading an active body for an active mind). Another reason is that I don't like the taste of healthy food, and consider it a waste of time to cook. Intellectually, I know these “reasons” are actually excuses for living inside my head instead of in the world, and allowing myself to be spoiled by a culture of convenience that's killing the planet. In the coming year, I'm going to change all that. Really.

Pay off debts. Traditionally, debt is used to either deal with problems we haven't planned on (like sudden car repairs), finance future growth, or buy things we don't need but expect to be able to pay for later (such as a house and education). I've used debt for all these reasons, and when possible, paid it down. As soon as I get a job, I plan to use as much as possible of my income to do just that, and make a stronger effort to pay as I go.

Consume less. One good thing about being unemployed is that you don't have a lot of money to use for buying stuff you don't need; unless you use debt. Of course, the social pressure to buy more still exists, aided by an entertainment and advertising industry that knows exactly what psychological and biological tricks to use. I'm not immune to such pressure, but I am getting better at shrugging it off (vilifying the whole concept of excess consumption helps). I know that when I get a decent-paying job (he says optimistically), the pressure will intensify. One approach I'll use to offset that is to become an active part of a social network of like-minded people who can provide healthy feedback and persistent social pressure to do the right thing.

Be more positive. I'm self-aware enough to know that I've been a bit of a “downer” since I started studying the potential futures of humanity. It's hard to be cheerful when you think the world may end in your lifetime. I also realize that my personality has something to do with it, feeling the need to explore and probe and test wherever I go. Recently, I've tried to define what a positive future might look like, and focus on actions that can be taken to create it. In the coming year, I'll redouble those efforts, and also try to get better at knowing the truly good parts of the world around me, especially the people, and find ways to do good and create beauty wherever I can.

Whatever your circumstances, I hope that over the next year your life will improve (or at least get no worse), and that time will be a transition to the kind of future you want.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christianity vs. "The World"

It has now been more than a decade since I gave up my identity as a Christian. Over that time, the number of Christmas cards I receive has dropped exponentially as friends and family learned about my current views on the subject of the existence of a deity and apparently became uncomfortable with them. Ironically, I still celebrate Christmas as a holiday, but without the religious overtones.

I was reminded of one of the potential reasons for their discomfort when watching an interview with a newly-minted Catholic cardinal: the conflation of secularism (living with the absence of religion) with hedonism (seeking pleasure, as a moral imperative). Both secularism and hedonism are natural enemies of Christianity, whose worldview is that we are all born evil, and to become good we must rely on guidance from those who have communicated with the creator of the Universe (the founders and leaders of the religion). While a Catholic, and then a Lutheran, I was taught that Christianity was the only thing standing between civilization and total anarchy (the natural state of the world, or just “the world”), where people would pursue personal gratification at any cost, including the suffering and death of others. Wanting to be a “good person” and “do the right thing,” I embraced this line of thought until I became convinced that those who claim to communicate with God are either lying, delusional, or – as I was – not self-aware enough to recognize where their “received wisdom” really comes from. I took the transitional step of joining the Unitarian Universalists, who try to facilitate every person's personal pursuit of spirituality, but I was still buying into the idea that social cohesion depends on some form of religion.

It took me several years to test and tease apart the threads of reasoning and evidence that tied religion to the definition and enforcement of “good behavior.” The bottom line, for this discussion, is that values are a human invention whose main purpose is to enable us to survive and thrive as social beings with an intelligence that can just as easily kill us. Each of us has a different way of learning, maintaining, developing, and using those values, and religion is one of the most successful cultural tools for doing all of that with the most people. It does so by telling simple stories (related together as parts of a myth) that can be easily remembered and connect its values to an understanding of the world that people can identify with. The relationships between people are key to the narrative, because coordinating their behavior is the means to the ends. Mutual respect enables adherents to be happy without interfering too much with the happiness of others, and maximizing population growth is critical to assuring that the “chosen people” ultimately dominate the world.

It is an unavoidable fact that we know a lot more about how the world works than the people who crafted the stories of millennia ago. To the extent that our values derive from an incomplete or inaccurate understanding, those values will inevitably become open to question. The alternatives, unacceptable in my view, are to either enforce ignorance (as religious fundamentalists would like to do), reinterpret the new facts to preserve the values as much as possible (as “apologists” attempt to do), or argue that reality is simply another belief system (which threatens to undermine everyone's survival). That isn't to say that it's unreasonable to fear that some people will jettison their values when confronted with the flawed nature of their derivation, especially since many of our shared values keep us from harming each other. I suspect that the emergence of law-based governments was partly in response to the need for minimizing such harm as free inquiry and access to powerful technologies became more pervasive.

Another result of more (and more accurate) knowledge is the awareness that we are all animals whose biology provides pleasure and pain based on what enables us to live long enough to procreate and assure that our species will survive into the future. As far as we can objectively (that is, collectively) verify, we are not independent of Nature; we are not perfect beings trapped in imperfect bodies as our old narratives would have us believe. Any values we create must take these facts into account if they are to be at all useful and not self-destructive. Consequently, the pursuit of pleasure should not be construed as “bad” if it doesn't interfere with meeting the need to survive (note that this is a lesson of another of our myths, the Siren's song from the Odyssey).

If, as I postulated earlier, values are tools for assuring a certain outcome, then why not make the attainment of that outcome our principal value? I have explored this option extensively in my other writing, arguing that the outcome should be the maximizing of both the life satisfaction (“happiness”) of the largest number of individuals over the longest period of time; this includes, by extension, the family of organisms that we are part of, and that is part of us. Many other values may ultimately be derived from how to achieve that outcome, based on our evolving understanding; and the acceptance of other values may, in part, be determined by how much they contribute to it. Choosing this approach has the additional advantage of directly addressing the ultimate test of any value system we may create: if people do not perceive their lives getting “better” (however they individually define it) as a result of using a system, they are unlikely to voluntarily subscribe to it; and if a system results in the death of everyone, there will be no one left to use it.

I and others have argued at length that our dominant values – the ones resulting in the largest-scale consequences – are causing one of the largest mass extinctions in our planet's history, and may soon result in the demise of our own species. Simplistically, the situation amounts to maximizing the happiness of a decreasing fraction of our population (instead of the entire population), without concern for the longevity of our (or any other) species.  Our present crisis is largely due to the fact that our technology has made us so powerful that we are rapidly approaching physical limits to our planet's ability to meet our desires. In this sense, Christians may be right about the evils of “the world.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Trepidation 2010

As the end of 2010 approaches, I have more trepidation than I can remember.  A large part of this comes from growing evidence that projections of an impending population crash are likely to be accurate.  Critical natural resources are becoming noticeably depleted, such as fossil fuel, fresh water, and phosphorous.  The world economy is still struggling in a recession caused by unbridled greed and unjustifiable speculation about future performance.  Facing incontrovertible evidence of accelerating global warming, nations continue to avoid taking the necessary steps to reduce their contributions to it.  The only viable political party in the United States that has something resembling a realistic view of how the world works has resorted to bribery to keep the government from being totally stymied by the party of greed and delusional denial of the harm it causes. 

Personally, I am struggling like many others to deal with the impact of sporadic employment and declining wages.  Now officially middle-aged, I would be facing an extremely uncertain future even if civilization wasn’t on the verge of collapsing, especially since I lack the strongly competitive personality that seems to be required for “success” in our growth-oriented economy.  Of course, it doesn’t help that I’ve come to spurn the whole idea of a “growth-oriented economy.”

In my most recent period of unemployment, now three months long, I have developed a better sense of the kind of world I want to live in (“Imagining the Future”), and just begun to discover what will be required to create it.  Comparing this with what is likely just adds to my fear.  At a time when humanity’s survival depends on people coming together and sharing resources, the existing socio-economic system is making its last stand to preserve the artificial isolation that enables a few people to hoard or render useless the resources the majority of others need for basic survival

Many of us are focusing our efforts on increasing how much money we will have in the future, forgetting that money is an artificial creation whose value and use is determined arbitrarily by us; it is not a physical substance subject to the natural laws of mass and energy conservation like the natural resources we are using it to squander.  The collective We, the human species, must “get real” soon, changing the nature of our interactions with each other (which we have allowed money, as a tool, to help shape) so we can responsibly manage our impact on the flows of physical substances we and other species require for our continued existence.  There is no way to overstate the urgency of doing this, and how difficult will be, but we must first agree that it’s necessary. 

Luckily, a growing number of people are agreeing, both in what they say and what they do.  Many are trying to tweak the existing system by increasing demand for “green” products and working to identify, at least in an abstract way, the environmental impact of production, use, and disposal of these and other products.  Others are finding ways to reconnect with Nature in both physical and psychological ways, and a few are attempting to opt out of society altogether.

Despite my trepidation, I’m grateful for the awareness I’ve found, the opportunity to do something important with my life, and the friendships that have evolved along the way.  For me, the best cure for fear is action, and I intend to take much more of it in the coming year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Getting Unstuck

A growing number of us are stuck trying to maintain what we have while laying the groundwork for a new lifestyle that is more sustainable.  Maintaining what we have typically involves supporting an economy that has become dependent on perpetual and inherently unhealthy growth.  The lifestyle we seek would allow us to thrive without such an economy.  Given this dichotomy, it’s no wonder we’re stuck.

Perpetual growth demands unlimited resources, unlimited efficiencies, or both.  If these conditions cannot be met, the number of people must decrease; but with the theoretical (but totally unrealizable) limit of one person having everything.  If we value life, and appreciate the fact that natural law prohibits both access to unlimited resources and unbounded efficiency, then we must reject the goal of perpetual growth.

The economy’s perpetual growth requirement stems from its built-in rewards for increasing the amount and configurations of resources available to its population.  As the number of “pioneers” seeking these rewards has become large in proportion to the total population, acquiring and consuming more has become the norm rather than the exception.  To reverse this trend (or create an alternative), most pioneers must become settlers – learning to live with a fixed amount of resources that, by necessity, are replenished at a fixed rate.  Given these facts, the goal of “maintaining what we have” must be changed to “maintaining what our environment can afford for us to have.”

Unfortunately, many of us – including our governments, and by extension their citizens -- have already promised to pursue more growth as a condition for basic survival.  This takes the form of debt, which increases exponentially until it is paid off by the rewards of being a pioneer.  A  trivial, and therefore least likely, solution to this dilemma is for creditors to forgive all debt and for everyone to commit to the creation of a more sane economics. The least acceptable solution is for debtors to simply leave the economy, which has already started due to deprivation of alternatives for earning the money they need, and the predations of creditors who value property more than people.  Perhaps the most doable and generally acceptable solution is to make money less usable for consumption or spoiling of physical resources.

The implementation of this last solution would need to be done carefully to avoid some very negative consequences, such as slavery.  For example, society could encourage investment of the money in businesses that are more efficient, or use more renewable resources, or clean up pollution.  This is already being done, but still with the implicit goal of unlimited growth.  To keep from merely delaying our demise, we must choose a limit to how far we will go along this path, and a good place to start is to incur no more debt. 

At the same time, we can join groups (“social units”) where some members focus on keeping the creditors happy while an increasing fraction develop the ability to freely and voluntarily meet each other’s needs with a fixed, environmentally sustainable amount of resources.  Instead of everyone trading with everyone else, groups would interact – peacefully, and with minimal exchange of resources.  Such interaction will ultimately be critical to the process of converting to a fully sustainable world by helping to relocate the world’s population to regions where people can meet their basic needs.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

About This Blog

The Idea Explorer blog is now more than four years old.  It started as a formal continuation of a “Thoughts” page that I was posting on my personal Web site.  As the term “blog” (short for “Web log”) implies, it is a place for opinions and observations about a subject of interest to the author, which in this case is how the world shapes ideas and how ideas shape the world.  This is only a very rough description, because as many authors are prone to do, I wandered from the basic premise, in this case morphing the subject matter into “views and speculation about how the world works, what its destiny might be, and how we can change it for the better.” Ideas are still very much a part of the subject matter, mainly because of my belief that how we think about the world is one of the most important variables in determining its destiny.  Exposing, testing, and shaping those ideas is therefore a critical enterprise, and I feel compelled to do what I can to advance it.

Of course, many of the ideas presented here are mine.  The “prism of ideas” referred to in the title could just as easily be called “the filter of Brad’s mind.”  In many cases, I created a myth about something that summarized key features I considered important, and then examined the consequences for whatever I was discussing as a means of testing the myth’s explanatory value.  This is roughly equivalent to the classic “thought experiments” used in science.  Where specific information has informed my comments, I have tried to give proper attribution, typically through the use of hyperlinks.  More often than not, however, the source of speculations and conclusions has been my personal understanding of a subject, accumulated through lots of reading, conceptual and mathematical modeling, and a fair amount of direct experience.

Because this a blog and not an academic forum, I haven’t been shy about sharing my personal reactions to information, events, or the implications of particular trains of thought.  This serves two purposes.  First, it demonstrates to you, the reader, what my biases are so you can judge for yourself the value of what I’ve shared.  Second, it reinforces the notion that what I’m writing is just one part of a conversation between real people about something that has a real impact on how we live.

If you read the posts sequentially, you will see a big part of the evolution of the views represented in the current posts.  There are at least two main components to this evolution:  values and understanding.  At the time I started this blog, I was focused on the importance of maximizing both the quantity and quality of human life (what I valued most), and was working to identify and understand the main variables that affected them.  I struggled with growing evidence that the size of the world’s population would soon reach a maximum and then drop precipitously (along with quality), perhaps even resulting in extinction.  My investigation took on an urgency that colored almost everything I thought and did, and quickly became the dominant theme in my posts to this blog.  To avoid totally overwhelming readers, I started a companion Web site that went into appropriate detail and became the repository for my growing range of efforts to describe the situation and explore potential solutions, while sharing the highlights here.  As I became more aware of the interconnections among all species, and the scope of life’s collaboration in keeping our world habitable, I began to care as much about future of the entire family of life as I did about the future of our own species.  This sensitized me to the catastrophic effect we are having on the members of that family by taking over their habitat, dumping toxins and other waste, and directly killing them on an unimaginable scale.  What started as an existential threat became a source of deep guilt as I realized my complicity in these events, and I felt it necessary and useful to share both the experience and my analysis of it.  From the depths of guilt and angst, I chose to put most of my effort into defining a positive set of goals that could guide both my thoughts and my actions toward a better existence.  The process of creating those goals, and adding detail to how they might be reached, provided a new context for the exploration of ideas I presented in this blog.

The evolution continues, as experience adds information and insights about topics both old and new.  I remain open to new paths of exploration, keeping the discussion fresh and relevant to both me and you.  Thanks for visiting, and I hope you have found something useful to your own idea exploration.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"New" Life

Today, NASA scientists possible discovery of a major branch on the “tree of life.” It is near the “bottom” of the tree, and could dramatically alter our understanding of biology.  It’s existence suggests that life exists in many more kinds of environments than we previously thought.  As a result, there could be much more of it, here and in the rest of the Universe.

Coincidentally, the number of stars in the Universe was recently revised to up to triple what was previously believed, due to evidence that a similar assumption may be wrong: that our galaxy is not necessarily representative of others.  Combined with today’s news, this means to me that the odds of life existing on other planets are at least six times greater than the minimum estimates based on our previous experience.

For anyone who cares about how Nature works, and what our place in it is, this is a big deal.  It demonstrates that life is far more resilient than we thought, and that our species may be part of a much larger family, all due to the willingness of some of us to ask new questions and accept the answers.  

Monday, November 29, 2010

Scared Thoughtless

If you’ve read a fraction of my writing, it should be clear that I have looked extensively for the reasons we continue harming our world despite the evidence.  These included  education (more and more accurate knowledge), technology (using different tools), values (what we care about and why), and psychology (how we think, and how much information we can handle).  Part of this effort was to convince others; but much of it was aimed at figuring out how I could personally change, because despite my knowledge, it’s been just as hard as for anyone else.

Driving this work was a desire to share in a discovery process, where open-minded people could share how they viewed the world, and find and challenge the core assumptions in their lives so they could avoid making mistakes and seize opportunities to live better lives.  I had an underlying hope which bordered on faith:  that everyone would choose to be open-minded if they were exposed to new ideas that exposed gaps in their own.  I didn’t count on the fact that this approach would just as likely scare the heck out of people, resulting in something resembling a fight-or-flight response.

I experienced something like that myself recently, after reading a pair of reports about global warming (yes, “global warming” and not “climate change”).  One of them warned that it may be all but impossible to avoid catastrophic effects, which could be much worse than previously expected.  The other detailed how Canadian diplomats tried to subvert U.S. attempts at controlling global warming so their country could export more oil.  This punctured both my hope for fixing things before it’s too late and my belief that people will do the right thing if the stakes are high enough.  My immediate, gut reaction was the fight response, wanting to shout to the world, “Global warming deniers are either uninformed, misinformed, or greedy monsters who are killing the planet for fun and profit!” In a calmer moment, I realized that the “greedy monsters” are just as likely to be acting out of fear, fear for the loss of livelihoods on which they, their families, and their friends depend, and fear that they will lose whatever control they think they already have over the rest of their lives. 

Resistance to global warming is really just a variant of resistance to challenging ideas, which is manifested as a tradeoff between short-term comfort for individuals and long-term security for the larger population.  Unless we can successfully deal with this fear of change, we will be tragically unprepared when even greater change is forced upon us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Imagining the Future: Economics

In an ideal world, any economy would:

  • Limit consumption (the rate of use of resources) to amounts and types of renewable resources that do not contribute to species extinctions.
  • Maximize the value embodied in what is consumed.
  • Ensure that everyone has access to the minimum amount of resources required to maintain a functioning society (meet basic physical needs and assure basic freedoms; see “Imagining the Future: Meeting Needs).

To do this,

  • Part of the biosphere (the “critical area”) would be permanently conserved to sustain basic planetary functionality, including use by other species.
  • Another part of the biosphere (the “needs area”) would be maintained for use by people to meet basic needs.
  • The remainder (the “wealth area”) would be available for meeting people's wants.

When people can't meet their needs with available resources, they must either move or trade with people in an area with an excess of resources that can meet their needs. What they trade for the excess must be renewable or reusable (as well as the resources used to make the trade); if this is not possible, then they must move to where it is possible, or where the excess resources exist.

To ensure that the wealth area doesn't infringe on the other areas, the cost of each transaction would be proportional to its ecological footprint, with the total “money” in this “wealth economy” fixed and proportional to the total ecological footprint of the wealth area.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Three Weaknesses

For many of us who grew up in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, life was very good compared to other parts of the world. We could, for the most part, count on safe, available food and water; shelter and heat when we needed it; and a growing collection of products and services that met wants we didn't even know we had. We convinced ourselves that we deserved it, due to superior ingenuity, social organization (democracy, capitalism, military prowess), and favor of the Universe's divine creator; there was also no problem we couldn't solve by drawing on these Three Strengths.

As the twenty-first century dawned, some of us were sounding an alarm that we had overreached, that our pursuit of wants far exceeding our needs was not sustainable, and perhaps never had been. These people were at first treated as cranks, then they were gradually taken more serious as the evidence mounted that they were correct.

Still, it was easier for a lot of us to try to tweak the application of the Three Strengths than to question them or contemplate trying something totally different. If our workers weren't producing as much as we wanted, we employed workers from other countries who were hungrier. If regulation was slowing growth, we removed it. If competition was getting in the way of economies of scale, then monopolies were encouraged. If other countries were not sharing their resources, we forced them to be more like us. If people were changing the way they lived, loved, and thought so they less resembled the norms of our successful growth period, then we restricted their behavior and freedom to be part of society.

These efforts made things worse. Globalizing the economy and centralizing command and control among a few large corporations accelerated the depletion of resources and creation of waste that was driving the deterioration of conditions. Increasing the hegemony of the Three Strengths added barriers to considering alternatives and amplified the other effects. Forcing uniformity and penalizing lack of it caused its victims to spend more effort fighting their oppressors than to focus on the problems that were building up.

We are in now in a critical period. Every year we wait to radically devalue consumption, waste (mostly in the form of pollution), and the exploitation of people and other species, it will be exponentially harder to make the practical changes that accompany them in time to avoid total calamity. It may no longer be an option to continue business-as-usual while building alternatives in parallel, though some of us still have hope that it is. This will change the way we live our lives, and still possibly for the better – though it will be a different “better.” But first we must all come to terms with the fact that the Three Strengths are illusions, our beliefs in them have become our Three Weaknesses, and that the future we expected at the end of the last century will never come to pass.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rebuilding the Commons

Common values. Common knowledge. Common world. These are required for a society to function. They must be built. They must be maintained. They must be respected.

They are in serious disrepair, and so is the global society that depends on them.

Last year, in a fictional retrospective from the next century (“A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century”) I suggested a “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.” I was thinking primarily of the physical resources we depend on, which are declining at such a rate that, given realistic expectations about people's performance, a goal of 14% annual growth in renewable and reusable resources will be necessary to avoid total calamity. Whatever mechanism we actually decide on, this work on the “common world” must be done on a worldwide basis, but it will be unsustainable without values to motivate people, and knowledge to have a decent chance of success.

Differences in values seem to be at the root of a lot of our problems. To the extent that we disagree, or our values don't extend to all others, we tend to work in opposition instead of toward a future where we can at least survive, and ideally all thrive. Communicating with each other about what we believe is right and wrong is critical to identifying and dealing with the differences that divide us, and finding any common ground that exists. If our values are too far apart, then we should seriously consider creating societies with shared values that do not have enough power to interfere with each other, but provide opportunities for their members to move if their values change (technically we already have such societies – nations and corporations – but many have both the power, and desire, to interfere with others).

The accuracy and accessibility of knowledge determines how well we can define and reach our goals. Common knowledge helps us to efficiently interact with each other and coordinate our activities. Education is perhaps the primary mechanism for creating common knowledge, and it is losing effectiveness for a number of reasons, not the least being that there is far too much disagreement about what should be “common.” There is also the problem that the quantity of information is so great that many people cannot personally verify its accuracy or usefulness, and must therefore depend upon other people to translate it and vouch for it, people who may have an incentive to distort or outright lie.

I have written extensively about each of these elements, and come to the conclusion that everyone should devote some time to “building and maintaining” them, in addition to avoiding their deterioration during other activities. Perhaps one day a week (14% of the time) is still a good target for any or all three, since they do depend on each other. My personal preference is to spend more time, especially on common values and knowledge since their deficit seems to be the greatest impediment to creating a healthy world.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Voting for an Ideal World

Elections in the United States present a regular opportunity for citizens to influence government policy. Following are some recommendations for how we can vote to improve the chances for creating an ideal world, or at least one that will not end in our lifetimes.

Choose candidates who (in no particular order):
  • Accept the conclusions of the majority of scientists about how Nature works and what the likely consequences of our actions will be
  • Have read and understand the Constitution, which defines what they can and cannot do
  • Value all people and creatures, living and yet to live, and are committed to not reducing their numbers
  • Understand basic mathematics, especially relating to exponential growth
  • Understand basic geography (physical and cultural)
  • Are honest, and constantly questioning their beliefs in order to stay that way
  • Understand and accept the need for the preservation of a common set of resources (“commons”) that is freely available to everyone alive and yet to be born so that they can meet at least their basic needs for survival
Vote for ballot measures that:
  • Will not diminish the commons
  • Will not result in loss of human life or health
  • Will not increase the chances of any species going extinct (including ours)
  • Will not put excessive power in the hands of a small number of people
  • Will either increase or not diminish basic freedoms (speech, association, mobility, access to accurate information)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Imagining the Future: Strategic Goals

To create an ideal world, we should work toward all of the following strategic goals:

  • Transitioning to entirely renewable energy and reusable materials
  • Eliminating pollution both at the source and in the environment
  • Emphasizing service more than attainment of personal power
  • Re-humanizing our relationships with each other and the rest of Nature

For a healthy, sustainable society, material consumption should be kept to no more than the biocapacity of local ecosystems and no less than the amount required to maintain a functioning society (see “Imagining the Future: Meeting Needs”). This currently translates into an average world average global ecological footprint of between 1.5 and 1.7 global hectares per person. Because the biocapacity per person is inversely proportional to the ecological footprint per person, which itself is proportional to population, increases in consumption and population should be avoided at all costs.

The goals that I listed support meeting this objective. The first two directly reduce the ecological footprint and its growth by reducing waste, and could eventually contribute to increasing biocapacity if we enlist other species in meeting them. The third is based on my analysis of why we are so wasteful (see especially “Fatal Flaw”).

According to Global Footprint Network's “Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, 2007,” the average person in the United States had an ecological footprint of eight global hectares in 2007, or five times the minimum acceptable amount.  Because the money we spend is roughly proportional to our ecological footprint, then as a first step toward creating an ideal world, we in the United States could try to limit what we spend to one-fifth of our income in 2007. We could then use the rest of our income to pay off our debts, assist people below the minimum to at least be able to live at the minimum, and contribute to pollution-fighting and habitat restoration and preservation.

An overall decrease in the world's per-capita consumption would seem to require a corresponding decrease in the population, which is why I've shied away from proposing it in the past. The broad goal of replacing current consumption with renewable and replaceable resources, without requiring that those resources come at the expense of the biosphere, left open the possibility that technologies might be developed that could do so. I now have little (less) hope that this could happen before the population peaks. One possible alternative is to increase biocapacity enough to compensate, but this too would require time we may not have.

The fourth goal presents a possible way out of this dilemma. Personal relationships with each other and other species have weakened considerably as our population has increased. To the extent such relationships exist, they have become largely transactional and correspondingly abstract, thus more likely to weaken or break if there is less to trade. Strengthening the non-transactional aspects of these relationships, bringing them closer to what our distant ancestors enjoyed, could conceivably deal with this problem. As we become more familiar with other creatures, they might be perceived as a part of our population (similar to how some people view their pets) who could take of themselves, while helping us. The contribution to happiness – the internal experience of approaching our comfort zone that is probably a major motivation behind our consumption – might offset the perception of loss accompanied by the reduction of consumption. Keeping consumption at or above the minimum would assure that changes to life expectancy (also correlated to consumption and happiness) wouldn't be an issue.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Goals in Education

I recently started applying for a part-time job helping high school kids prepare for standardized tests used for entering college. As I worked through the application, I remembered the lessons of the years I spent as an educational consultant, which directly contradict the entire idea of such competition as a valid method in education.

Competition, by itself, is not a bad thing: it's a tool for reaching an objective. Like our economy, the objective is for people to gain more personal power than others. There are a limited number of colleges (“institutions of higher education”), so only a few students that apply can get into them; tests are a way for colleges to ensure that the students they get are capable of getting the most out of their limited resources. From a student's perspective, it is self-evident that “knowledge is power,” and college provides an opportunity to gain more knowledge. Employers value employees with more knowledge (and the demonstrated ability to gain it), and reward college graduates with better chances of a job, and higher paychecks, which improves the graduates' ability to acquire more of what they need and want.

My main problem is with the goal.

Focusing personal power is a strategy that enables populations to have access to resources that aren't locally available by providing incentives for a small group of risk-takers to search for them elsewhere. But as more people become risk-takers, the overall risk to the entire population increases, not least because the “incentive,” giving people more than they need, multiplies so that resources become depleted faster. In an environment with fixed resources, or a limit to how fast people can access new ones, the most successful risk-takers are able to thrive – for a while – while the rest of the population becomes less able to thrive, and then survive. Our entire planet is now in this condition, with populations of other species already declining rapidly (in large part because we consider them “resources”), and ours soon to follow if we don't change our behavior.

If the overarching goal of a population is to survive as long as possible, which is the most rational goal I can think of, then its members need to learn how to get the most utility out of what the environment can produce on a regular and reliable basis. That last part is what I would recommend as the most basic goal of education.

As to the methodology of education, let me use a helpful analogy. Two people each have a destination they want to reach. One has a map, and the other one doesn't. All things being equal, the person with the map has a better chance of reaching his destination without something unexpected either detouring him or stopping him altogether.

The map is the equivalent of “knowledge,” and the “destination” is the set of conditions that will provide one's needs and wants for a long time. For the map to be useful, it must accurately and readably represent landmarks and other information that correspond to identifiable parts of the real world that are meaningful to whoever is using it. If any of these conditions aren't true, then its user loses his advantage over the person without the map.

Suppose the person without the map knows how to make maps. She translates everything she encounters into a form that she or someone else can refer to later. She has learned on her own how to recognize places where she can meet some of her needs and wants, so she can live off the land if necessary while she searches for a location that provides all of them. If she never finds the ideal place, her maps may be never find their way into the hands of the people who feel the need to use maps. She may even discover that, for her, the “ideal place” is different from other people's, perhaps it is the totality of all the places she's visited, or just the experience of exploration itself.

If everyone is making “maps,” and testing the ones that others have created by using them and making corrections as necessary, then the chances of finding what they all need and want will be maximized. One reason is that more people cover more ground. Another reason is that there is a critical social component to life that is every bit as important as the “environment” we inhabit, if not more so: it is the glue that enables us to work together, and provides the impetus for playing together, which may be the most productive activity we can be part of.

Years ago, when I tutored for a living, one of the most common questions I heard from students was “Why do I need to learn this?” Fortunately, I had some experience I could use to plausibly answer it, but I knew that ultimately the students wouldn't be totally convinced until they had experience of their own. This was one of the reasons why my father conceived our education business: to develop and nurture the ability to synthesize knowledge and understanding from direct experience, to “make maps” and learn the communications skills required to share them with others so we can all benefit.

When my father died, the business effectively died with him, but the lessons live on. With our global crisis requiring us to collectively live within our means (another lesson I learned while running a small business), we need to change our goals from unrestricted growth (profit) to innovative use of what Nature can provide in the long term. This requires that we respect the many species that are part of the web of life we are part of, and must depend on. To do so we must get to know them, from experience; to learn how to “live off the land” -- and find happiness where we can, without stealing it from others now and yet to be born.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Imagining the Future: Meeting Needs

In an ideal world, everyone would be able to meet their needs without resorting to use of non-renewable resources. The easiest way to do this would be to use the free services of their local ecosystems. When populations can't do this, they have several options: They can find a way to live on less, grow the ecosystem, expand their territory, move, or trade something they don't need for what they need.

Living with less can be done by changing choices of food and materials (to get more utility out of a part of the ecosystem that is more plentiful than others), using more efficient methods (such as building smarter or preparing food differently to get more nutrition out of foods), and developing technology that can get more use out of both the ecosystem's resources and human labor.

Growing the ecosystem is another way of saying “increasing its biocapacity,” where biocapacity is the annual ability of the biosphere to provide what we use and clean up what we waste. This could involve importing more (preferably native) species, reducing pollution, and changing the landscape to be more conducive to life (such as growing or importing soil, capturing and routing water, and adding weather protection).

Expanding territory and moving are the easiest ways to get what you need if your ecosystem can't provide it. There may however be physical impediments (places you can't travel) or human ones (other populations already living where you want to move). An efficient way to do this is to provide incentive to a small part of your population to take the risks for you by giving them or promising them more than they need (paid for by having the rest of the population live with less), then moving or expanding the rest of the population when a satisfactory environment has been found and the means for accessing it developed.

If other populations occupy ecosystems with sufficient additional biocapacity to help yours meet its needs, then trade may be an option. What you would trade is resources that you don't need, but which the other population wants. Because there is also risk involved in making such transactions (both in determining what can be traded as well as performing the trade itself), a small set of risk-takers can also be employed by one or both populations.

Now, trade connects practically every population on the planet. Encouraged by the incentives of risk-taking to use more than they need, almost everyone is joining the ranks of the risk takers. This has created a global culture of growth, with disastrous consequences.

According to the recently released Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund, our global population exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth (the biocapacity needed to provide what we use and waste) by half in 2007. This means that if we relied strictly on biocapacity, only two thirds of our population would have been able to sustain its annual resource use and waste (“ecological footprint”). We've made up the difference by “consuming” the very species and systems that do that work. For reference, the report comes up with a minimum healthy, sustainable per-capita ecological footprint (for Peru) that is roughly half of what the world is probably using now if per-capita consumption is still proportional to population. If biocapacity stays constant and the average per-capita consumption drops to this minimum, then our planet will sustainably support no more than eight billion people. (This, interestingly, is very close to the peak population my own population-consumption model projects for business-as-usual with no renewable resources.) The global population is approaching seven billion people; if we all lived like people in Peru, I estimate we would be using seven-eighths of the world's carrying capacity.

If we could somehow manage to redistribute the world's population so everyone could meet their needs using the available biocapacity, grow biocapacity, and limit whatever extra we consume (meeting our wants) to the added biocapacity, then we would probably have the best of all worlds. With more self-discipline, we could set aside a reserve as a cushion against external forces that might reduce what we have (such as global warming, which is almost sure to have this effect).

Implementing this admittedly simplistic plan would seem to require centralizing the population rather than splitting it up (as I've suggested in the past), but this isn't necessarily true. A thorough analysis could theoretically be done to determine the optimal distribution of population on the planet given local biocapacities, energy resources, and projected changes in the environment on both local and planetary scales. The analysis would have to consider how to reduce the vulnerability of connected populations to threats that could imperil them all, which I believe will result in suggesting some degree of isolation.

Far more difficult than coming up with a physically plausible “ideal world” will be convincing the vast majority of people who subscribe to an entirely divergent set of cultural norms and beliefs that it should be followed at all, and then changing their way of life to accommodate it.