Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fundamental Politics

I recently attended a debate and book signing event featuring the two radio talk show hosts I respect most, Thom Hartmann and David Sirota. The subject was whether the Democratic Party is capable of being progressive enough, and what if any alternatives are available.

The night before I had begun reading Hartmann's latest book, “Threshold,” which deals with the issue I think should be at the top of everyone's agenda: enabling humanity to avoid extinction by removing the multiple threats we have created for ourselves and the rest of the planet. I hoped this big picture topic would be brought up in the debate (it wasn't), and contributed the following handwritten question, which wasn't asked: If, as Thom says in his book (and I agree with), our way of life is unsustainable, how can we convince the majority of the electorate to accept the radical solution (a steady state, in equilibrium with Nature) when our system of governance is focused on the opposite (outgrowing Nature)?

I felt a little uncomfortable with the last part of my question, because I hadn't fully thought it through. Is our form of government, by design, incapable of limiting growth and therefore our destruction of the biosphere? On the surface this appears true: we promote and protect people's right to acquire and hold onto property, effectively taking land and other resources out of common use by other species (as well as other people) for an indefinite period. In a closed system with technology that exerts great power over people and species all around the world and into the future, the harm we can do (unknowingly in most instances) is a growing thing, which can be offset by educating people about their effect on others; and where harm persists, imposing restrictions on their behavior – limiting liberty, which our system appears designed to increase rather than decrease.

The consequences for the political debate in this country are obvious. Any limitation on ownership or people's ability to do whatever they want will be perceived as unacceptable by a large part of the population, and not just conservatives. In response, some question why we should even care about our impact on people (not to mention species) that aren't like us, and don't share our immediate interests. The answer – in Hartmann's book and others – is that we all share a common heritage, a common identity, and a common fate; to believe otherwise is both inaccurate and fundamentally suicidal.

I just wish we could talk about this more.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Legitimate Profit

My recent writing might lead readers to conclude that I am against all profit taking, with some suggesting that communism is the only alternative, which I must therefore favor. None of these statements is true. I am simply arguing that if we value everyone, believe that we must all be able to at least meet our basic needs over the course of a reasonably long lifetime, and accept the fact of ultimate limits to accessing and replacing resources that enable our meeting those needs, then there will be a loss of life (unacceptable by definition) associated with attempting to endlessly increase our rate of consumption. The urgency and judgmental quality of my writing follows from growing evidence that we are rapidly approaching an access limit and have already passed the replacement limit, thus making our relentless pursuit of growth imminently suicidal.

I and others have argued for increasing replacement without increasing access to compensate for the apparent addition of resources. Others have argued for decreasing access as well, at least to the point where people's needs can still be met; this would be the physical equivalent of communism, which I believe is both impractical and ultimately would cause the same loss of life we face with unrestricted growth. It is likely that waning energy reserves and the non-renewable resources needed to distribute and use it (“accessing” it) may cause access to decline necessarily, which is why I support altering our culture as fast as possible to value more what we can expect to be able to consume in the future – that which can be replaced.

On a personal level, there is a minimum amount of resources we would want to keep in reserve for the years when we can no longer produce what we need on our own. If, for example, we consume a constant amount per year as adults, live to age 90, and work from 18 to 65, then we would need (90-65)/(65-18) = 53% extra. For a comfortable (if not extravagant) future, then we should consume no more than two-thirds what we are able to access, and if we have a child then the fraction is about half (adding effectively another 18 years, we need to access nearly twice the amount we use). In this light, it is quite reasonable to try to acquire as much as we can, especially if we want more children. Since conservation can only contribute a limited amount to our savings, convincing others to give us more for the same amount of work (profit) is an option we can hardly dismiss.

If we had no waste, saved as much as we used (which at least met our needs, however those needs are defined), and kept the total consumption less than the amount of resources that could be replaced, then we would have a sustainable economy serving a roughly constant population whose members lived to a decent old age. Subject to the values I listed earlier, this is the most desirable goal to strive for. If we want a larger population, more comfort, or both, then we need to increase the amount of replaceable resources without adversely affecting health (which may be mostly helped by not using non-replaceable resources, which are currently those that can't be biologically processed). If we have less replaceable resources than we consume, then we must increase the amount of replaceable resources or find a way to reduce our consumption of them without killing people.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Responsible Job Hunting

A little more than a week ago I became unemployed for the first time in over a year (which is not a very strange thing these days). From the perspective of a normal career, I am in better shape than the last time, having updated two basic skill sets (technical writing and test engineering) and provided significant evidence of a “new” one (creative writing). Unfortunately, my rapidly evolving value system and additional research are conspiring to limit my options for further work.

I remain more convinced than ever that without major changes to our economic system, the world is headed for a major population crash by the time someone my age would normally retire. My entire remaining work life covers the period we have to do what it takes to stop the greatest cataclysm in history.

I have two choices, as I see it. The first is easy: I can go along with our planet killing system, meeting the needs of my family by helping to destroy the world while making incremental changes to my lifestyle and maybe doing some feel-good activism (including writing on the side) that might convince others to change. The second is hard, but potentially more satisfying: I can spend the majority of my time trying to change or replace the system, reconciling my family's needs with those of the majority of others.

Like many people, I have a mountain of debt and am dependent on growth-hungry corporations (and a government bought by corporations) for my survival. In an effort to try getting out from under, I've started my own business – selling my writing (and an ancillary product, music) – and invested valuable time in trying to make a profit from what I've already created. Instead of making something better, I'm focused on increasing quantity, precisely the tradeoff that the profit motive proliferates and which leads to the increasing consumption and waste that is killing us. I console myself that what I'm selling is nonetheless worth it, because it has the potential to educate people about the critical issues I care about while entertaining them, which could possibly lead to some positive changes over the long term.

Meanwhile, I see government and non-profit jobs as a possible if imperfect alternative to profit-seeking slavery. Both are ostensibly engaged in helping people for its own sake, but there are very few of them, especially those that can significantly fight the world's impending doom by eliminating both the conversion of limited non-renewable resources into poisonous and unusable forms, and the sabotage if not outright destruction of natural systems that all life depends on. There is another major problem with these alternatives: they depend on the larger profit-making economy for support, through donations and taxes respectively, and that support is dwindling due to the economic consequences of the unfolding crisis (resource depletion leading to higher prices, and a combination of pollution -- particles, gases, chemicals, radiation -- and older populations leading to rising health care costs).

I am in fact looking at all options. This includes the worst, as a way to buy time for finding the better ones; but I'm afraid there just isn't any time left to buy.