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.