Monday, May 28, 2012

Identity and Purpose

This Memorial Day is one of the few opportunities for people in the United States to bond as a community to thank other members of their community – posthumously – for sacrificing their lives for us all. It is particularly meaningful, since that sense of being part of a larger group with a common identity and purpose seems to be under assault.

The diversity of cultural background in this nation has always been as problematic as it is celebrated. Merging different values and backgrounds requires a willingness to learn and compromise our own, which can be particularly difficult for a sizable fraction of any population that is easily stressed by unpredictability.

Lacking sufficient identity, a common purpose can unite people – at least until the purpose is reached. Eliminating a threat is one such purpose, but the threat must be recognized as such by everyone to be an effective uniter. Wars define a society in this way as long as the memory remains, which holidays like Memorial Day are a means of assuring.

Communications and transportation technologies have enabled diverse people from around the world to get to know each other, promoting among many a common identity as part of the human species. It has promoted in others a desire to take advantage of a unique opportunity to collect and exercise huge amounts of personal power over the rest of the population.

Complicating this dichotomy is a set of natural resource crises that threaten the livelihoods of large parts of the human population, many of them precipitated by the dumping of astronomically large amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Mass movements of people will almost inevitably result, threatening the existing socio-economic power structure and potentially leading to far more wars than what we're used to. This will happen if we don't all embrace our species identity and adopt a common purpose of distributing power so everyone can at least meet their basic needs and stop contributing to the core problem: creation of waste faster than it can be reprocessed into something useful – if at all.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Arid Despair

Well, I finished reading Merchants of Despair a few days ago, shortly after completing A Great Aridness; and I walked away from both feeling pretty depressed, even though I had a good idea what to expect from them when I started.

A Great Aridness delivered on its close-up look at the likely future of the American Southwest in the face of climate change, drawn within the context of this region's relevant history. Bottom line: it's going to be very hot and very dry, with opportunistic species like bark beetles and mosquitoes making life very much worse. Tales of skeptical professionals in a number of disciplines, including climate science, who have been forced by overwhelming evidence to both accept and help prepare for the effects of climate change are particularly powerful in driving home the harsh reality we're facing.

This stands in stark contrast to the glowing assessment of climate change portrayed in Merchants of Despair, whose author expects natural balance to ultimately be maintained, counter to the claims of environmentalists who want to limit humanity's power out of a mistaken belief that the resources we need are limited relative to population. Indeed, the author portrays environmentalists as the latest members of a worldwide conspiracy dating back to Thomas Malthus that has justified depriving, killing, and forcefully limiting the birth of people deemed by pseudoscientific reasoning to be unfit to survive by themselves. Innovation, manifested as technology, will save the day as it always has, he argues, and anyone who holds it back is guilty of the greatest evil, intended or not.

I've studied, thought, and written a lot about climate change, species loss, and sustainability over several years, with a focus on understanding the drivers of humanity's future. While there are certainly some people with similar interests who hold a low opinion of humanity's intrinsic value, even to the point of hoping for a limited pandemic to "cull the herd," the vast majority are searching and advocating, as I am, for solutions that maximizes people's happiness with no casualties. Counter to the conspiracy theory, the people profiting most by harming the poor are in favor of curbing controls on environmental degradation, not getting more of them.

One of the main non-pseudoscientific principles guiding environmentalists and sustainability advocates is an understanding that exponential growth is fundamentally unsustainable; my own exploration of the validity of this principle in large part converted me to my current views. Malthus was indeed wrong: consumption has been able to keep pace with population growth, thanks to human ingenuity and some damned good luck – such as finding large sources of cheap energy, and it too has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, as I found out when I focused on both ecological impact and conversion of mass into less useful forms ("waste," a crude form of entropy), this has accelerated the extinction of species, many of which we depend on for free services that keep the world habitable for creatures like us. Merchants of Despair suggests that ingenuity can deal with this too, through soon-to-be ultra-powerful manipulation of matter and genes; but I would suggest that only a fool or a megalomaniac destroys something he gets for free while trying to develop the power to make it himself. The world seems to have an unhealthy supply of both fools and megalomaniacs these days, which is one of the reasons I get depressed when thinking of these things.