Thursday, March 29, 2012

Community and Uncertainty

Perhaps the most fundamental requirement for a community's existence is for all of its members to know under what extremely limited circumstances one member may harm or kill another member. In addition to the obvious benefits to individuals, this protects the community from self-destruction. For this to work, members must also be able to reliably identify who is a fellow member and who is not.

A community can be a member of a larger community if its survival depends on other communities. The same requirement therefore applies, though the circumstances may be different from those for members in each community. Here, confusion could drive down the overall population, endangering all remaining individuals.

Power (the ability to influence the lives of one or more individuals) can be concentrated so much in an individual or group such that they effectively become a community unto themselves and apply different criteria to the remainder of their original community. Beyond a certain threshold of power, they may become unable to effectively know or control the consequences of their actions, even if they want to; in such a case, their power must be reduced below that threshold for those affected to avoid harm or death.

As a general rule, we could expect all individuals to avoid harm, which can be simply defined as a reduction in power that they don't initiate. Within the context of the community, there may be a level of power (such as the group average, or where basic survival is jeopardized) below which an individual is considered "harmed," regardless of whether the amount of power was restricted involuntarily. If there is the threat of harm, whether direct or through uncertainty, individuals can be expected to confront or avoid the source of the threat.

Several examples from recent news illustrate some of these points.

When President Obama approved the assassination of Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen, without going through a publicly known and acknowledged legal framework for determining the guilt or innocence of a citizen in a capital crime which is punishable by death, he effectively threatened the survival of every citizen using the power of the government. By losing a basic protection of membership in his community, Awlaki could be construed to have lost that membership based on judgment that the community as a whole had no knowledge of, or control over.

Obama himself has been subjected to unfounded claims that he is not a legitimate citizen of the U.S. by an arguably racist group of political rivals. Indeed, racism is practically founded on the notion that slight biological differences should properly define communities, a test applied by some people regardless of whether it is accepted or acknowledged by others who believe they are in the same community. African Americans have clearly lived with threats of harm in a myriad of ways, and the recent death of Trayvon Martin strongly indicates that they still live under the threat of murder in some parts of the country.

The global interdependency of the majority of people due to technology and cultural innovation makes it imperative that people become more, not less inclusive in their community affiliations if we are to avoid massive population loss. Our relationships with other species, defined largely by predation and despoiling of the resources they need to survive, threaten to impede their ability to maintain the habitability of the planet we share with them; they live under much greater uncertainty than we impose on each other, even in the most violent third world nations. We must therefore include them too, at least to the extent that we don't continue driving them extinct -- and potentially ourselves in the process.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Changing Values

A community is held together by shared values, beginning with the lives of its members, and extending to what makes those members happiest. Happiness (and survival) requires resources, which, while being consumed, are not available to anyone – or anything – else.

If the definition of the community is extended to include more members, the community must either make more resources available (such as acquiring the resources already used by the new members), get more use out of the resources already consumed (increase efficiency), or settle for a lower level of happiness. If the amount of happiness is increased, statistical trends indicate that consumption – and the amount of available resources – will need to increase exponentially to compensate.

If the community defines itself more restrictively, then it may view former members as competitors or even resources to be "consumed." This could result in an increase in happiness, an increase in longevity (the amount of time that resources can last), or both, by decreasing the happiness and longevity of the members it shed. A more humane way to shed members is to send them to other areas, voluntarily or otherwise, which has the potential benefit of providing access to additional resources.

Changing values is especially costly if a community reclassifies someone or something it typically consumes (uses and throws away) as a member. Slaves and species used for food are obvious examples. The community's resource base must be redefined in fundamental ways that can fundamentally change how the community deals with itself and its environment. What was good is now evil, and what could be counted on to enhance happiness must either be replaced or happiness must be reduced. Understandably, a reduction in happiness (which is proportional to life expectancy) would be considered unacceptable by many people, so we could expect a lot of resistance to a such a change in values.

With humanity's ecological impact rising so high that it threatens the habitability of our planet, our values must change in such a way as to reduce that impact to a safe level, and this must happen soon – in much less than 20 years. Arguably, all of the alternatives are already being tried. Environmentalists are promoting the redefinition of community to include more of the biosphere (other species), while limiting population growth as a multiplier on individual impact/consumption; this potentially has the additional benefit of growing the resource base, especially when combined with efficiency-increasing measures. Those who favor restricting communities are promoting the "shedding" of members of the population, most without acknowledging the threat, by favoring perpetual warfare and declining working conditions as "others" either become slaves or die. Space enthusiasts are pushing for the settlement of other planets, which is the equivalent of humane population-shedding – though most of the places people might go are uninhabitable wastelands, just as the Earth is in danger of becoming.

Given the urgency of the task of reducing our ecological impact, the first two options have the best chance of working, while the third (space settlement) is at best a desperate insurance policy against total extinction. If all human life is valued, the second option must be ruled out, though it is arguably built into human nature (and some humans more than others). Unfortunately, the environmentalist's approach requires the most change, and is therefore prone to facing the most resistance – which it is getting.

For those of us who favor an emphasis on the environmentalist's approach, reducing resistance to it is critical. Based on this discussion, it should be clear that attempting to counter the resistance without addressing the associated values is likely doomed to failure.