Monday, April 18, 2011

Relative History

In 2001, for the first time in history, total life satisfaction became possible for at least part of the world's population. That part of the population had characteristics that enabled it to most effectively alter its physical and social environment to meet its wants, mostly by creating an artificial world out of the natural world. Until the limit was reached, each of these people's part of that conversion (consumption) had been increasing by an average 3.3% per year, corresponding to an increase of 0.004 in happiness (on a scale from 0 to 1), which they knew qualitatively if not quantitatively.

People with different characteristics don't experience life the same way, as if they inhabit different, yet similar environments. The others have tried to modify their environments, but they have fewer options, physically or by choice, and therefore compromise in meeting their own wants. Those closest to Nature, unable or unwilling to live above basic subsistence as humans had until the advent of civilization, saw almost no change at all in their environments; until, that is, they got a lot of help.

Acquisition of money has long been associated with consumption. Expecting their happiness to continue rising, those at its peak continued accumulating money and gambling it on the prospect of future growth. The money was gained by finding lower costs of labor (the poorest people) and lower costs of resources (the resources that had sustained them). Physical consumption among the poor began growing at the rate that the richest had previously enjoyed; but the total was still relatively much smaller, by a factor of about 600. This mismatch led to a decrease in the world's overall consumption rate beginning in 2004, which was soon followed by a global recession as it became clear that the anticipated growth wasn't going to materialize.

That's my current version of recent history, anyway, based on recent research into the range of possible “environments” that people can experience and how observable variables such as happiness are changing over time. I remain uncertain about the nature of the happiness maximum, whether it's a biological failsafe (as I speculated in “Two-Thirds Happiness”), or a mathematical oddity (see “Prime Happiness”), but its existence does continue to have explanatory value, as this narrative illustrates.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Environment Control

In our pursuit of more happiness and longer lives, we humans have been modifying our environment, gradually bringing it within our control. My recent research suggests that in 1943, as the world's industrial base was ramping up in the midst of war, humans for the first time could control the average environment. Our control increasingly accelerated until 1965, as world oil discoveries were approaching their peak. We haven't been able to maintain that level of acceleration since then, and recently – 2007, as the world economy was tanking and we had arguably hit peak oil – our control began to actually decelerate. If current trends continue, I project that we will stop being able to control the environment at all in 2022, corresponding to when the world's population is expected to peak.

The research is based on a premise I've explored in the past, that we each have a set of conditions under which we thrive the most – are the most satisfied with our lives. Simplistically, this might be correlated to our personality, which expresses how we prefer to deal with the rest of the world. If our environment is matched to these preferences, then we will have maximum control over our lives and be as happy as possible and live the longest; to the extent that it isn't, then we are unhappy and don't live as long.

If we simply consider an arbitrary continuum between two extremes for the human population that represents our preferences, the average for the random population will likely correspond to the center (if the extremes are arbitrarily given values of zero and one, then the average of the population would be one-half). The environment (technically, the part that affects us) would have a similar continuum, but not be necessarily bounded as we are; that is, it could have a value less than zero or a value greater than one. Using these definitions, we have maximum happiness (and life expectancy) when our “value” and that of the environment are equal, and happiness decreases as the values get further apart.

With some reasonable assumptions, I used my historical estimates of happiness and their projection into the future to derive how the average of the environment's continuum might be changing over time. The small and virtually constant happiness in the earliest part of my simulated history forced me to accept the idea that the environment's continuum would largely be out of our control, represented by how much of it didn't overlap with the population's continuum. As the population has consumed more, corresponding to its growth in size, the overlap (control) has increased. Unfortunately, we are unable to continue this process for much longer, since the resources we depend on for that control are becoming harder to get and process.

The historical summary at the beginning of this post is my first attempt to assess how this new viewpoint relates to actual events, and the first evidence I can recall of a direct correspondence between my models and peak oil theory. What we may actually be seeing here is a glimpse into the difference in effects on consumption growth between energy supply and the depletion and degradation of the biosphere, which I expect to expand on further.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Artificial Resistance

As I've mentioned elsewhere, most of us seem to have developed a relationship with our artificial world similar to what we might with a natural ecosystem. We pursue their self-interest as defined by their equivalent of a niche – characteristics and activities that efficiently use a subset of the resources available to the system. In the artificial world, we display the amazing adaptability of our species by differentiating ourselves as predators, prey, parasites, or grazers, depending on the situations we find ourselves in.

This observation may explain the resistance experienced by those of us who question the sustainability (and even validity) of the artificial world. People react as if we are questioning a natural law, which from their perspective we probably are. There is also a lot of investment to defend, and expectations that drive virtually every aspect of their behavior. Even many of us who have glimpsed the larger picture find it very easy to lapse into such thinking, especially where we remain embedded in the artificial world and depend on it for our survival and the survival of those we care the most about.

In previous discussions, I've focused on the raw consumption aspect of sustainability, and in a crude way, what that consumption supports: increasing “happiness” along with its proxy, life expectancy. Those discussions have mostly ignored the real experience of life in our society, the complexity of interactions and environments that both create our artificial world and are created by it. The abstractions have real and ultra-significant counterparts in what is the essence of many people's lives, of my life. It is therefore no surprise that they are viewed warily, at best as thought experiments, at worst as sedition (for example, a conservative friend once told me that the reason I could continue writing such things was because I was too powerless to be considered a threat).

In my cynical moments, which are becoming more frequent, I'm inclined to view recent economic and political events is as a preemptive power grab by those with the most to lose if the artificial world is significantly modified. I have no doubt that many of them are smart enough to see the inevitability of such modifications if anything resembling civilization is to survive this century (or even, as I've argued, the next couple of decades).

By watching what they're attacking, it's obvious that they understand at least the outline of the modifications that need to be made. The Achilles heel of our system is arguably its promotion of hoarding and waste, which enables a decreasing number of people to have an increasing amount of personal power at the expense of everyone and everything else. By contrast, in a sustainable system (such as a healthy, natural ecosystem) very little is wasted, and everything else is effectively borrowed. To defeat any transition to sustainability, those who choose to hold on to power (or want some day to attain it) would try to maintain people's dependence on non-renewable resources for as long as possible, destroy or manage to own the elements of natural systems that might be enlisted to provide free resources and services, and undermine cooperation among people that can't be controlled economically or otherwise (thus enabling people to find more natural niches than the ones provided by the existing system). All these things are being done, with already devastating consequences.

When I'm feeling extremely cynical, I imagine (and write) that the people who worship power are simply following the logic of competition to its ultimate conclusion, where only a few people (“the winners”) survive, and everyone else dies. Whatever their motivation, the end result may actually be worse: with no one to take care of them, and the natural world in decline, they'll just be the last ones to die. To avoid total depression, I spend some quality time in denial, then resurface with hope that somehow enough people can be educated about the fatal flaws in their worldview that we can work together to create a future for all of us and maybe a few more generations.