Sunday, July 31, 2011

Power and Responsibility

As of this writing, the U.S. Government is dangerously close to defaulting on its debt, which would likely be devastating to a lot of people. The compromises I've heard about are less harmful, but harmful nonetheless. In my opinion, this entire brutal exercise is proof that our political system, like our economic system, has lost a fundamental level of reliability in performing its core mission. This is not because the concept of government is fundamentally flawed, as the political Right would have us believe. It is, like many of the world's problems, because the acceptance of responsibility has not scaled up with the exercise of power.

By “responsibility” I mean an obligation to maintain the life-giving functionality of the systems our actions affect, and accept personal blame or credit for the consequences of our actions on the people and other creatures within those systems. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals, whether those organizations are businesses or governments. As individuals who are parts of organizations, the increased amount of power that comes from working with others becomes part of our personal power, and our responsibility extends to its use.

In the rest of Nature, responsibility is part of biology: creatures get what they need from an ecosystem in return for innate behavior (filling a niche) that keeps the ecosystem functioning. If they don't fill a niche, they can't survive and procreate. We humans are capable of a wider range of behavior, and therefore a greater amount of control over ecosystems, which we have typically used by reducing their complexity. Effectively, we have simultaneously increased our impact on other species and attempted to avoid our responsibility for that impact. As a consequence, we have progressively degraded the health of the world's ecosystems so that we are now threatening the health of the entire planet, which, if we continue, could ultimately result in our own demise.

The core mission of a government is to provide the basic needs for a functioning society, such as resources, security, and both physical and social infrastructure. Businesses, on the other hand, have a core mission to maximize the economic power of their owners by efficiently providing products or services to the rest of the economies of the societies in which they operate – the equivalent of an ecological niche. Each type of organization serves its own constituents, and has traditionally limited its accepted responsibility to those constituents regardless of their potential for harming others.

In healthy societies, like healthy ecosystems, survival takes priority; and government's mission – where it has the power and accepts responsibility for executing it – supersedes that of business wherever they are in conflict (in an artificial ecosystem like an economy, government enforces the equivalent of natural laws, which, unlike Nature, it gets to change). In unhealthy societies, on the other hand, the wants of the few supersede the needs of the society, making it – like an ecosystem with little diversity – vulnerable to collapse.

In an ideal world built from scratch, we would all accept responsibility as I've defined it. We would learn as much as possible about the way the world works so we could assess the impacts of our actions. To the extent that we couldn't do so, we would create and support organizations that could make up the difference and inform us in terms we could use, while also accepting responsibility for their impacts. Such a world is the only kind I can imagine where total freedom of the sort preferred by ultra-conservatives could survive. In the absence of universal acceptance of responsibility, we are bound to be stuck with something else, which is either healthy or unhealthy; and based on what I've been seeing in the news, it looks like we're settling for the latter.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tests of Survival

One of the common retorts to warnings of resource exhaustion and environmental catastrophe is that humanity has overcome similar problems in the past, and will continue to do so, primarily through innovating and exploring that is driven by the promise of great rewards for those doing both. This ignores the historical record of collapsing civilizations, the huge advantages accompanying our access to cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels, and the growing signs that we have merely postponed the worst consequences of our excesses, not eliminated them.

The bottom line is that every civilization – and every species – has lived or died based on its ability to solve two basic problems: matching resources with demand, and safely disposing of waste. It is far from a sure thing that our global civilization will solve these problems, though plenty of potential solutions are known. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future may, at some level, depend on your confidence that solutions will be implemented before resources run out and we are overwhelmed by our waste.

Given the stakes – entire species at risk – it is tempting to think that motivation won't be an issue. Those who acknowledge the stakes and are advocates of capitalism, even the distorted form currently dominating the world, expect that the price associated with demand exceeding supply will be enough of an incentive to spur discovery of new resources and innovative new ways of using the ones we have. This is certainly happening in the “green” industries, which are also taking on the waste issue by creating connections between waste and production, and increasingly altering the nature of ownership so that they can control everything but the use of the products, which is leased to their customers. To anyone who knows – or is – a true innovator, the majority of incentive to create comes from the innovation process itself; but true innovation is all-too-often a very minor part of industrial systems, where it is far cheaper to exploit workers and customers' ignorance than to provide quality, long-lasting products.

That so many people remain in ignorance or denial of the critical condition we're in by definition suppresses innovation. Not surprisingly, the people most responsible for disinformation are those whose personal power derives from the status quo, which in addition to causing the looming shortages and excess waste that is sabotaging Earth's life support systems, has no constructive alternatives to provide. Instead, all they can do is reap the profits of diminishing supply, and promising what they can't deliver (and convincing people that no one else can) while appearing to try by further exploiting the resources in decline.

Really sustainable solutions, because of the universal availability of resources and durability of products, will not ultimately lend themselves to profit-taking and power concentration. This is understandably unacceptable to those who have learned to value the maximizing of personal power. One tried-and-true alternative, which provided legitimately high rewards in the past, is to locate other sources of nonrenewable resources that can be controlled. Since such resources are limited or too dangerous to exploit here on Earth (whether people accept that fact or not), it is natural to try to find them on other worlds.

Various nations have space exploration programs, well-funded private groups not far behind. As noble as the search for scientific knowledge is, there is a strong component of the space community that has argued strongly and explicitly for the exploitation of other worlds. Now that NASA is terminating its Space Shuttle program and looking for a grander mission than remote observation and measurement, the space exploitation advocates (one of whom I used to be) see an opportunity to gain traction in the exploration and eventual settlement of Mars. I now find myself in the strange position of offering lackluster, if any, support for the idea, mainly because I fear that humanity hasn't learned the lesson of respect for other life that would keep us from spreading death and destruction as far as our technology can take us.

Not that long ago, I found people with attitudes like mine to be dangerously naive, idealistic, and maybe a bit crazy, mainly because I figured that our unique opportunity to transport life outside the death zone of our expanding Sun was worth the risk, and not likely to be available for much longer. Besides, I reasoned, we might still learn the life-respect lesson along the way. Now I figure that if we're bound to kill everything in our path anyway, it's probably good for the Universe if we stay right here and limit the damage. Of course, I hope that I'm proven wrong, but we should take the time to find out. A sustainable civilization is likely a good civilization, at least to those who value life and quality of life beyond our own experience.