Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Martian Scenario

A few years ago, I explored the idea that people's behavior could be described in terms of personality traits interacting with associated environmental variables, directed by knowledge and enabled by power, with the goal of finding the best match that would manifest as maximum attainable happiness. Because, in aggregate, a population's happiness increases logarithmically with ecological footprint, the price of continually growing happiness is faster depletion of ecological "resources" – including other species that provide basic services that keep the planet habitable. Population size multiplies this effect, and exponentially increasing population accelerates our approach to a critical point where habitability can no longer be maintained.

My projections have shown that this point will likely be reached by 2030. As it approaches, the world will get harder to live in as resources become degraded and harder to find and use. But we will keep trying, because more happiness and life expectancy are what drives us. After that point, deaths will exceed births, and our population will drop to zero by 2075, which I now understand will likely be due to our ecological impact having grown due to self-sustained global warming. According to my calculations, the difference in global average temperature from pre-industrial times will climb past 3.3°C, and the world will be uninhabitable.

Using the Big Five personality traits (OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), we can guess how groups of people will both perceive and want to act as this nightmare scenario unfolds. Power and knowledge can be expressed as efficiency in achieving total happiness, where efficiency is a fraction of the happiness someone doesn't have, which can be achieved in the amount of time it would ideally take to get from 0% to 100% happiness. Using efficiency, we can estimate change in happiness over time. Using the relationship between happiness and ecological footprint, we can tell how people's ecological impact will change over time. Assuming a statistical distribution of personalities among people, we can also estimate how many people will act in a given way.

I expect that the openness, conscientiousness, and extraversion traits correspond to variability in the environment. The more variable it is, the more a person with high openness prefers it. Because a rapidly changing environment can't be easily planned for, people with low conscientiousness will prefer it. Extraverts will like the excitement of rapid change, and be more inclined to be active parts of communities that must react to the change and share resources. I estimate that maybe 1% of the population would (initially) benefit from large variability.

The cooperation/competition dynamic inherent in the agreeableness trait would correspond to the distribution of resources among people, as well as the amount of social order and violence that accompanies its breakdown. People with high agreeableness (around 17%) would prefer to share resources and avoid conflict, while those with low agreeableness would do the opposite.

A high amount of neuroticism would translate into increased stress as deviation from preferred conditions for the other traits increases uncontrollably and inescapably. Stress leads to more disease and death, and ultimately may kill off the most people, even those with low neuroticism (17% of the population), before environmental conditions do.

Climate change due to global warming is perhaps the best example of how humanity's influence on the world's physical systems is changing the range of environmental conditions. In the case of temperature, the range has shifted significantly from what we depend on, and will continue to do so (such as in Australia this past summer). As some conditions become less likely, those people who are best adapted to them (and are happiest when experiencing them) will find it harder, and eventually next to impossible, to meet their desires and then their needs, mirroring what is already happening to other species whose ecological niches are disappearing. If the shift happened slow enough, our population (and those of other species) might be able to change its preferences through evolution so that more members would be adapted to the new conditions, or new species would do so in our place, but climate change in particular is happening far too fast.

Technology and social behavior have enabled people to adapt to different conditions, and can be expected to do so in the future – up to a point. My calculations indicate that they enabled our efficiency at achieving happiness to increase by several orders of magnitude until the 1950s, when it spiked due to immense technological progress. Efficiency achieved a minor peak in the late 1980s and has been declining since then. Notably, that last peak occurred less than a decade after the world's annual ecological impact exceeded what ecosystems could offset in production and processing our waste.

Using our highly complex civilization as a base, we can now support keeping small numbers of people reasonably comfortable in space for limited periods of time. With a moderate amount of additional development, artificial habitats might be able to support a dozen or more people over a lifetime on a planet like Mars. By my crude estimates based on personality, around 220,000 people would find our rapidly deteriorating world acceptable, and only 300 of them could have enough power to prepare for its physical consequences. It is conceivable that such a minority (curiously close to the actual number of extremely rich people) would attempt to outlast the rest of us just as Mars settlers would eventually be forced to do.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Blind Demand

It's well documented (not to mention clearly obvious) that most of us are the targets of psychological and chemical warfare, aimed at getting us to constantly want new things and services; and once we get them, to become dependent on them so the people who provide them can acquire more power. So we can continue to get more, most of us must get jobs, which themselves are things that empower others, enabling us to acquire some power ourselves as soldiers in the use of such warfare against other people.

Because new things and activities require matter and energy, we use more matter and energy, which we take from the rest of the world. Energy can't be reused, so it is lost after we use it. The matter is either reused, stored in forms that cannot be used for many years, or is so toxic that it harms and kills as it circulates through the biosphere. We are so inefficient in the way we get and process matter and energy that the vast majority of what we liberate from the world ends up never being used.

And so the world dies; because other species require some of what we take so that they can survive, and many are killed by the toxins we create. Originally part of Nature's healthy cycle of reuse and regeneration, we have created and eagerly participate in a process that creates waste and death, all for a brief feeling of control which we believe – wrongly – that we deserve, and can exercise without excessive harm to ourselves and the few people we might still care about.

Much of the harm we do comes from great power multiplying the misjudgments flowing from our natural ignorance, fed by a thirst for more power and an arrogant belief that our ignorance is less than it is. We all have "blind spots," gaps in our awareness of both what's around us and the chains of causality that determine the impacts of our actions. Those of us who believe that such blind spots don't exist, or that some omnipotent parent-figure will protect them from the worst consequences of their ignorance, are prone to do whatever they can, limited only by the number of direct restraints they can eliminate.

Common sense suggests it is better to collaborate with people who don't share our unique blind spots, communicating so that we can collectively have a more accurate view of the world, and work together to explore and share perceptions of the reality we aren't collectively aware of. Such collaboration doesn't lend itself well to focused collection of personal power, so the people who desire that power must sabotage it. To do so, they convince others that they have a set of critical insights and abilities that no one else can have or share without depending on them. This fundamental deception is the essence of manufactured demand. When the power-seekers inevitably reach the limits of their ability to meet the demand, they first try to maintain an illusion that the supply really exists, then look for ways to blame others so their fundamental deception can remain. Even if the deception is exposed, the demand is already in place, so someone else will step in to meet it; this protects the self-images of the people who were originally deceived, because they can blame the originator without accepting responsibility for their own weakness.

This suggests that to break the death spiral we are in, we must promote collaboration over competition, knowledge over power. This begins with honestly questioning our most basic assumptions about ourselves and the world around us, and enlisting others to do the same.

We must accept that we are all limited in awareness and ability while trying to increase both; and that this is not intrinsically a bad thing. What is bad is to cause harm or death, or risk doing so by increasing our personal power without exposing and offsetting our limitations to match their potential impact, preferably by working in partnership with anyone or anything subject to that impact.

Never accepting that we know everything we need to know is key to our survival, yet we must temper its acquisition with the costs to other people and other species. We should proceed with a healthy respect for the interrelationships between everything and everyone, whether we are aware of them or not; here is where spirituality can have a positive effect, minimizing damage until knowledge provides surer guidance.

People who hide information, lie, or advocate doing either, should be considered a threat to the general welfare, and treated accordingly until they stop. Those who actively manipulate people into doing things that are unhealthy or potentially unhealthy to them or others need to be exposed and restricted in their ability to do so.

Finally, convincing people to acquire something while providing access to the full set of existing knowledge of its costs and benefits is the only legitimate way to generate demand; where gaps exist, they should be identified. If something is too complex for responsible judgment to be made about whether to acquire it, then it probably shouldn't be acquired – or made.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Complexity and Hubris

In the book "Immoderate Greatness," author William Ophuls describes how an organization like a civilization grows complex by creating chaos and degradation in its environment, eventually using up or rendering useless one or more resources that is critical to its survival. Ironically, the complexity works against it, because the people in the civilization are inherently unable to understand it well enough to predict its effects, and can't recognize the symptoms of impending decline. When the decline starts, chaos grows and overwhelms them. They then react inappropriately, and the civilization rapidly collapses. This concurs with other things I've read, along with observations of how governments and businesses tend to develop.

There are, of course, some people who recognize the symptoms and what they mean. Unfortunately, they're not in the majority, and certainly not in the majority of leadership positions. As our worldwide civilization rapidly approaches the threshold where nothing can save it, in part due to the consequences of global warming, the majority of those who know what's coming hold out hope that somehow enlightenment will spread or technology will triumph, just in time. The rest have already given up, and are focused on explaining what's happening while salvaging what will be left by developing alternative values and ways of living like what I suggested in Beyond Hope.

In Efficiency and Completion Time, I described how progress on "tasks" evolves over time and depends upon preparation, action, and luck. As a test engineer, it's been my job to help designers and manufacturers to determine how much of a task remains, where the task is the creation and deployment of a technological system that meets a set of expectations called "requirements." This part of the preparation phase can only be done after the first attempt at completing the task, and real-world conditions (including how people will use the system) can be applied to demonstrate what the system will actually do, along with what affects it. Requirements, more often than not, are very simplistic guesses which should be modified or supplemented based on experience that checks assumptions they were based on and reveals unintended consequences of their application. I say "should be," because my specialty is finding these oversights, which tend to comprise most of problems discovered after the second attempt at completing the task, which can be up to 25% of the total task. Unfortunately, managers and those who pay them typically only plan for no more than two attempts, using their best guess as to how much time and resources are needed, and compensating for luck by hiring the most experienced and capable people they can find.

This a good example from my experience of the linear thinking that Ophuls attributes to system failure. I've heard it explained away as "realistic," and "pragmatic" by people who swear they would do more "in a perfect world." Yet they are also typically people who don't have the "bandwidth" (read "limit to the rate they can process information") to handle explanations that can't be captured in single pages of bullet points. To be fair, all of us can keep only a handful of ideas in our head at a time (I've heard between 3 and 7); and the people who have the power to decide what others should do often have more than a handful of complex tasks of their own that they are expected to work on simultaneously. The more power they have, the less time they have to do any part of it, even if they're highly efficient and work every waking hour, so it's no wonder that more than two attempts at a task is considered a luxury, and that 80% completion is considered acceptable, with the rest – hopefully – undetected, explained away, or blamed on someone else (such as bad luck as "acts of God").

Given enough time, we will experience the consequences of ignoring details that we missed. These consequences pile up, especially since we're driven to accomplish more and more, and the consequences interact to create amplifying feedback loops. Eventually they can't be ignored; but as Ophuls points out, by that point it may be too late to fix the underlying problems before we're overwhelmed. To the extent that people recognize this as a valid threat, they might be inclined to limit what they do to the consequences they can adequately foresee (matching power to acceptable responsibility), but our culture – and arguably human nature – makes their taking action on it highly unlikely. Most likely, people like me who are good at identifying the problems that aren't obvious, and yet potentially the most destructive in the long term, will be vilified, shunned, or merely tolerated, especially if we're vocal about what we find and what needs to be done to fix it.

Ophuls considers what I call "graceful shutdown" all but impossible without an extremely unlikely shift in values to ones like those I've promoted. I'm obviously inclined to agree; but I've grown even less optimistic than he is that it will happen, given the forces we have collectively unleashed with the prime focus of accelerating global extinction rates. In short, having already lost hope for civilization, I'm now a hair's-breadth away from searching for the planetary equivalent of hospice.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Real Responsibility

Taking responsibility for the consequences of what we do – or don't do – is often portrayed as optional, yet I would argue that responsibility, in the most basic sense, is synonymous with causality. The only thing that's optional is what we choose to do about it.

An observer of the consequences of my actions will, given the proper tools and enough time, be able to trace those consequences back to my actions, and to me, regardless of whether or not I choose to accept that my actions led to the consequences. That I took the actions makes me responsible for the consequences, just as not taking the actions would make me responsible for the consequences not occurring.

I may not have been aware of the link between my actions and its consequences, and may still not be. That's irrelevant in determining responsibility, but it does offer a way for me to decide whether or not to take the actions in the future. If I refuse to learn about the link, I am surrendering awareness and the ability to make conscious decisions about the events I cause, which risks my being responsible for far more than I'm willing to accept.

Because consequences can include damage and death, it is reasonable for any system (such as a society or ecosystem) that could suffer such consequences to restrict the ability and willingness of its members to take actions that cause them. Restricting ability can involve limiting access to the resources that enable the action. Restricting willingness can involve providing personal feedback that either makes alternatives more attractive or makes the taking of the action more unattractive (which in extreme cases can include pain or threat of death, which is on a smaller scale than the potential consequences for the system). Similarly, actions whose consequences have the potential to improve the condition of a system can be encouraged, by providing positive feedback to its members, making alternatives less attractive, and providing more resources for taking those actions.

This should be kept in mind any time someone says they are willing to assume "personal responsibility," implicitly asking for the freedom to act without interference from society. Are they capable of anticipating the consequences of their actions, as their statement implies? Are the consequences positive or at least neutral for the people experiencing them? If the answers to either of these questions is "no," then it is dangerous to let them proceed, and we will be just as responsible for the outcome if we don't stop them.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Efficiency and Completion Time

For a long time I've been puzzled by why it seems to take much longer to do something than I first guess. I think I may now have an answer.

A typical task has three components: preparation, action, and luck. If we know exactly what to do, have the resources we need, and have no bad luck, then we can accomplish a task in a minimum amount of time. There is no preparation, and we will be 100% efficient in completing the task. If these conditions are not met, then in the same amount of time we will only accomplish a fraction of the task, with some of that time taken learning, acquiring resources, and dealing with the impact of more normal luck. In my experience, the first attempt at doing something within an ideal timeframe (what I call an "iteration") will result in the task being, at best, about 70% complete. If you're familiar with the normal probability (or "bell") curve, that's the area under the curve that's roughly within plus-or-minus one standard deviation of the mean.

Sometimes we don't even know that we haven't completed the task. With writing, for example, reading what I've written often uncovers problems with what I wrote. When the remaining amount of the task is identified, and if I have the opportunity to work on it, I may be able to knock out 70% of it on the second iteration, which began with the review that uncovered the remainder. This still leaves 9% of the original task left undone. In many situations, the 91% that I've accomplished may be good enough; for others, even that isn't acceptable.

On my third iteration, I will typically spend most of my time preparing: finding out what's left to do, and then getting what I need to do it. Once again, with typical luck, I'll at best complete 70% of what's left, driving the total up to more than 97%. In most situations where someone else decides what I'm working on and how long it should take, anything more than two iterations is a luxury (and I often have to take the second iteration out of my hide), with three iterations being the absolute maximum.

I am considerably worse at bowling than at writing and editing. I recently played five games following a 13 year hiatus. The first game, which counts as an iteration, was better than I expected: 68. From this starting point, which was no doubt the result of my previous experience, my efficiency averaged less than 2% (attempting the maximum score of 300, with values per game varying from -6.5% to 22.7%). If the model holds true and my efficiency doesn't change, I'll need to play at least 322 additional games to consistently score 299 points.

The amount of time involved in action (working directly on the task), what I call "effort," is simply the reciprocal of efficiency. My 70% best case corresponds to 1/0.7 = 1.43, or 43% more time than if I was working at 100%, while the productive part of my bowling amounts to more than 60 times what it would take to bowl a perfect game.

Interestingly, the actual time, in iterations, is closely approximated by a linear function of effort, whose coefficients vary with how much of the task we expect to achieve. For example, to achieve 99.7% of a task (plus-or-minus 3 standard deviations on the bell curve), the number of iterations is approximated by multiplying effort by 6 and subtracting 3. A more modest goal of 95.5% (2 standard deviations) takes 3 times effort minus 1.5 iterations. The lowest amount I've seen professionals accept is 80% (part of the so-called "eighty-twenty rule"), which interestingly is nearly as close as the iteration approximation gets to a pure multiple of effort: 1.5 times effort.

Both my major professions, test engineering and technical writing (the editing part), involve identifying the parts of tasks that have not been completed by other people. Based on that experience alone, I expect this model to apply to everyone, with efficiencies comparable to mine. Without in-depth scientific research to back it up, I can only propose it as an hypothesis, and explore some potential consequences and questions that derive from it, if it is true.

Education is an obvious area of exploration. Should education be redefined as a means of enabling people to perform multiple iterations of the components of tasks they will encounter elsewhere, so they can use their innate efficiencies to achieve acceptable starting points for those future tasks (much as my bowling games built on experience from years ago, which built on component tasks of walking and throwing)? Is efficiency innate, or can it be modified (and if so, is this task-dependent)?

How does this affect planning and execution of complex projects that have multiple dependent and independent tasks being completed by people with different efficiencies and access to resources? What are the implications for waste from such projects, at scales up to and including global civilization, especially on the survival of everyone and everything impacted by it?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Graceful Shutdown

As our global civilization self-terminates due to its unwillingness to reduce the damage it is doing to the biosphere, especially from habitat destruction and carbon pollution-induced climate change, there is the potential for a lot more damage to be done. When a complex technological system goes through something similar, engineers call it "hard shutdown," with unpredictable, and often negative, consequences for both the system and whatever is connected to it. Engineers have learned to design systems with the ability to maintain some reserve power in the event that main power is lost, and use that power to control interactions between its components before turning them off so that damage doesn't occur; this approach is called a "graceful shutdown." I've mentioned this before, in the context of avoiding disaster; I'm arguing now that we should pursue it even though disaster is now likely.

In my novel "Lights Out," I explored what a hard shutdown of civilization might involve on a small scale, and how some people could survive it. Violence and death are virtually assured, particularly if people don't know what's happening and why. The powerful sociopaths who promote misinformation about climate change and the negative effects of unrestricted capitalism are working toward this outcome. If even a quarter of the population goes along with it (an approximation of the number of unquestioning followers of authoritarian leaders), and the technology of war and violence with its huge threat-multiplying capability remains readily available, the collapse of global civilization may take down all of humanity instead of just a majority, even before climate change has its full impact.

A graceful shutdown scenario would involve a growing number of people meeting their needs without using non-renewable and ecologically damaging resources, while respecting and preserving each other's right to meet the basic needs of survival. Relationships between people would become less about property and more about valuing life for its own sake. Money, such as it exists in the future, would be used for its most fundamental purpose, accounting, rather than as a means for concentrating personal power. Critical to this scenario would be the promotion and dissemination of accurate knowledge and understanding, and the development of a value system that outright rejects as evil the promotion of self-serving distortion of reality.

In technology, hard shutdowns are typically the default, with thoughtful design being necessary to enable graceful shutdowns. Considering that our global civilization has evolved with the built-in assumption of perpetual operation and growth, hard shutdown looks like the most probable outcome. With the time we have left, more of us can work to redesign parts of it, to limit the negative consequences. The Transition movement is one example of one of the more radical redesigns in progress, while renewable energy technologies are being pursued by people who expect civilization to require mere tweaking to avoid the worst of potential futures. I hesitate to brand these attempts as futile, since they are moving in the right direction; but they must be accelerated to a pace even greater than the exploitation of the fossil fuels that now threaten us, and it remains to be seen whether this can be done in time to have a measurable impact on the nature of the shutdown that is nearly upon us.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Beyond Hope

As I discussed in The End of Hope, I believe there is now sufficient evidence to conclude that civilization as we know it is doomed, and there's virtually nothing we can do to stop it. The analysis I did back in 2011 appears to be holding true, especially the "worst case" projections of population and Gross World Product, which for planning purposes are likely to crash during the period 2030 to 2070.

Planning for what? There is still some hope that our species, albeit a much smaller number of us, will survive. For those of us who care about optimizing the future for as many people as possible, this means that we must focus on ensuring that the survivors can have the best life possible, and that future generations won't repeat our mistakes. In short, we need to try to offset part of our legacy of death.

In the book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," journalist Naomi Klein describes how believers in unrestricted capitalism have used (and in some cases precipitated) disasters to enable the takeover and ruination of entire countries by cutthroat corporations while their citizens were fighting to survive. As ecological disasters and resource depletion overwhelm the world, those who control the corporations will be even more tempted to acquire power beyond their dreams, even as the foundation of that power implodes around them. Because this same acquisitive drive has been a key contributor to the combination of over-consumption and pollution that is pushing us and other species to extinction, it must be vilified at every opportunity and kept from having any significant influence over whatever culture ends up surviving.

Much of the world that the survivors inherit will be indistinguishable from what we might associate with the mythical hell, and due to the persistence of greenhouse gases, those conditions will last for at least a millennium. Regions that might remain habitable will need to be mapped, and both physical and cultural tools (including knowledge) will need to be developed so they can stay that way. Where adaptation in harsher parts of the world is possible with additional technology, that technology and the means to maintain it will also need to be provided.

This effort will require a heroic level of selfless commitment by many of us who can't expect to be among the survivors. There will be a lot of resistance to be overcome, initially among those who are unaware of what's ahead or in purposeful denial about it. It is far too easy, even for us, to hide from the harsh reality of what we've created, and to ride out the remaining vestiges of the comfortable lives many of us grew up expecting to continue into a healthy old age. One way to help deal with these challenges can also inform the survivors we dedicate ourselves to helping: document what's happening around us; observe and learn about the variables affecting our local environments, manmade and natural. Get to know in person the people who will either share our plight or be among the survivors who can testify that we did our best to help them, despite what we already did to make their lives a living hell. Find others who feel the same way, because we can't do it alone.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The End of Hope

Sometime this week, my hope ran out for the survival of civilization, with little left that our eager decimation of the biosphere will not result in our own extinction. While the prospects for our recovery have been getting progressively worse for years, a combination of news stories crossed some kind of threshold in my mind which made it feel like it's all but impossible.

Two of the most recent had to do with climate feedback mechanisms that all but assure that global warming will get much worse. Arctic ice is at an historic minimum and will likely disappear soon, leading to increased warming because sunlight will no longer be reflected by the ice. There is good reason to believe that a modest amount of additional warming may result in the widespread melting of methane-laden permafrost that could spike temperatures over the edge of survivability.

The big news of the week was, of course, the "sequester," one of several attempts by radical government-haters to open the door to unrestrained pillage of nature and society; it will cut back on many of the means we currently have for limiting and adapting to environmental damage. The scale of that environmental damage includes, of course, more than climate change: recent research shows that wild bees are more critical to our food supply than honeybees, and being wiped out by the top mechanism of extinction, habitat loss.

And it just keeps getting worse. At the end of the week, the U.S. State Department issued its report on the environmental impact of the infamous Keystone XL Pipeline, giving the project a clean bill of health despite evidence that the use of tar sands oil will considerably increase climate warming carbon emissions.

I recalled something I learned a few years ago about what is perhaps the key driver of business operation, pursuit of profit. Profit must continuously increase, preferably at an exponential rate, for a business to be considered successful. There are several ways to do so: add value to what you produce, increase demand for what you're already making, and reduce costs. The first two approaches increase consumption if the business can provide supply to meet demand, which is bad enough in a resource-constrained world. The last approach, however, is the most damaging when applied exponentially, because there is always a minimum cost required – you can't get something for nothing – and if you're "successful," you are likely just good at forcing someone else to eat that cost. Many of the mechanisms directly causing unhealthy income and social inequality in this country and elsewhere may be directly tied to the application of this approach, but it has even more far-ranging effects. Because business is the most powerful human enterprise, society and the planet's other species are effectively being forced to give more than they can afford and still survive. We are all dying as a result.