Saturday, September 17, 2011

New Infrastructure

It's no secret that the physical infrastructure of the United States is in bad shape. Recent predictions about global climate change show that even if it was up to par it would still be inadequate. Meanwhile, the president is pushing a jobs bill that would, in part, spend money on rebuilding the infrastructure which, like the economy it was designed to support, depends on cheap access to fossil fuels and other oil derivatives. Unfortunately, peak oil is here, which makes that dependency problematic.

Clearly, any efforts to build infrastructure must take into account the new reality we've created: one of scarcity and unpredictability as blowback from our sabotage of natural and cultural systems for short-term gains in personal happiness. This means not only assessing the impact on our current way of life, but having an honest, nationwide reassessment of our basic values and the kind of lifestyle that can support whatever we decide. The result of that assessment can be used to drive the design of the new infrastructure.

If we value life, including the community of other species that keeps our world habitable, we will favor a culture and an infrastructure with no negative ecological impact. This would require that we all at least become knowledgeable about the basics of how the natural world works, especially in our own regions. We must also work to understand and respect each other and other species, with a concentration on enabling all of us to meet our basic needs. Our physical infrastructure may become almost indistinguishable from the rest of Nature (and certainly usable by it, while we are using it or afterwards).

To the extent we don't value life, we will have to learn to deal with the consequences, which we will be doing in the extreme if we keep on our present course. Anything we build will need to survive worst-case conditions whose magnitude and probability have been completely and honestly anticipated.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Redefining Loss

In our personal lives, it's practically a given that we need to do everything we can to at least preserve what we have: our possessions, our consumption (starting with energy, food, and water), and our relationships with other people. Our present situation is the baseline for the future; to have less or to use less would be to “go backwards,” to “lose something.” We would be “failing.” As creatures who are sensitive to trends, it is natural and reasonable to be concerned if we have less stuff or capability today than we had yesterday or the day before. If this experience continues too long, we could end up with nothing, which would truly be disastrous.

The same logic applies to growth. If we are uncertain about the variables affecting what we have and what we are using, we will rationally attempt to gain more as a cushion against that uncertainty; and that gain then becomes part of the new baseline. If the uncertainty goes away, we will have become accustomed to having the additional amount. To gain less will therefore be considered a loss, which, if we extrapolate it, could at some point reach zero growth and continue into negative growth – a real loss. Thus we are forced into a pattern of exponential growth, which is inherently doomed to end by reaching a resource limit, sabotaging what we have by not devoting enough resources to maintain it, and by creating waste or competition that interferes with it.

Where a limit exists for what we can safely use, this analysis points to the need to redefine the baseline acceptable amount at a value less than the limit, which could very well be less than what we are currently using. We must therefore be able to redefine “loss” in such a way that it does not trigger attempts to avoid or reverse it.

Several related approaches include “redefining happiness”; calling attention to the diminishing returns in happiness of additional consumption beyond an “abundance” limit; scaring people with potential worst-case scenarios for business-as-usual; and using addiction therapy. Each approach has some success, but none is fully effective, probably because of the uncertainty triggered by new behavior and ideas – uncertainty which tends to have an effect opposite to what is intended.

Another strategy, used by the green movement, involves disguising the loss as a gain that more than offsets its accompanying uncertainty. Unfortunately the strategy risks higher consumption, as growing numbers of people may use more of products they like that individually have less embodied resources. To the extent that these products have an inherently limited consumption rate that is already being reached by the current, wasteful products, then this strategy could work. For products that do not have such limits (or whose limits are too high to benefit adequately from replacement), it likely will not.

These considerations suggest that the majority of us are more likely to approach a limit than to seek out a value below it. The mechanisms of competition, unhealthy waste, and sabotaging what we have in our pursuit of eternal growth may force us toward such a lower value, but we won't seek it out voluntarily.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Invasion of the Plaksorgs

In the classic worst-case sci-fi scenario, alien invaders take over the Earth by first convincing our leaders that they mean no harm so defenses will be lowered. They then demonstrate that they have superior force and destroy critical infrastructure so that survivors are unable to take care of themselves and must become slaves to the invaders just to survive. Not surprisingly, this scenario mirrors an all-too-common theme in human history, which happens to be playing out – today -- on a global scale.

The “aliens” are in fact human creations, organizations that find, use, and then discard everything and everyone who can contribute to their goal of world domination. To justify their actions, the people who identify with them assume that everyone is like them, or should be, and that the very act of competition will automatically make the world better by ensuring that only those who deserve to live in it will survive and thrive.

As it becomes more obvious that critical resources are being used up and our planet is becoming less habitable, competition is increasing and resistance to the planet-killing, sociopathic organizations -- “plaksorgs” -- is also growing. To counter the resistance, the plaksorgs have mounted a misinformation campaign, on the one hand arguing that the large-scale destructive impacts of their actions are instead “acts of God”; and on the other hand providing pervasive virtual experience designed to convince people that the world works in a much different way than it actually does.

The plaksorgs are winning, and we are collectively entering the endgame where the disastrous consequences of our greed, ignorance, and collective ambivalence about the fate of our fellow creatures will be unstoppable.