Sunday, August 30, 2015

Groups, Goals, and Actions

Motivated by the threat of global catastrophe that has become more real every day, I recently set about identifying personal goals so that I could determine what actions to take that would best serve my needs and values. That requirement made the scope of the search general and specific, global and local, and incorporated key findings from my research along with thoughts about the essence and physical manifestations of "right" and "wrong."

The result builds on the fact that we are each part of a family (or closely related group of people), which is part of a species, which is one of many species that interact and comprise the totality of life on Earth. It incorporates what I consider the most fundamental value of all: "good" is that which maximizes the quantity and variety of life over all time. Limitations in awareness and power force each individual member of a species, like us, to collaborate with other individuals like us in the transformation of the parts of the world not like us, living and non-living, into environments that enable us to contribute to this good; and for that we are rewarded with an increased sense of life satisfaction (happiness).

Each of three basic goals can be pursued simultaneously, and to varying degrees, by any group: maximizing happiness, maximizing population (the members of the group), and maximizing longevity (how long the group can exist as a group with distinguishable characteristics). I include individuals, or the "self," as a group whose longevity is the same as lifespan and whose maximizing of population is the propagation of his or her genetic uniqueness. Each of these goals will be prioritized by the group on an ongoing basis depending on conditions, history, and success.

A group may even choose to work against one or more of these goals by, for example, serving one or more goals of another group. This may be justified, at least in the short-term, if the other group needs help providing resources that maintain the first group's longevity and population, and if that help can be provided by delaying or postponing growth. If future growth of both groups is impossible, then the population and happiness goals would have been reached and maximizing longevity would be the primary focus by preserving the production of resources. If longevity is threatened as it is for humanity and other species today, then larger groups will need to prioritize the goals of their sub-groups as resources become too scarce to maintain current happiness and, potentially, population.

Goals can only be reached through action. Theoretically, any action will have an impact on each of the goals discussed here, and can be prioritized based on both the relative impacts of other actions and on the priorities of the goals themselves. Other goals may be added and addressed, ideally as supporting sub-goals (if not, then as totally independent of the basic ones). I personally choose to include as my own, at least as placeholders, all basic goals for all groups, and to prioritize them based on my preferences and understanding of their interdependencies.

As I gain more experience with this approach, and because I consider "others" to have a high priority, I will share details and insights in future discussions that can be enhanced by them.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Shutdown Economics

The recent stock market nosedive was a reminder that future economic growth is far from a sure thing. It, and an immediate need for personal financial planning, led me to explore the economic dimension of my shutdown scenarios, which not surprisingly reflects trends seen in the variables I've already studied.

I focused on Gross World Product (GWP), which according to my population-consumption model is proportional to the square of the number of "happy environments" that exist. The two cases (projected and worst) bracketing business-as-usual both result in a total crash; and the two cases that involve holding population constant (best and hybrid) end with a smaller but sustainable GWP (29% below the 2014 level). The projected case has the largest increase in GWP after 2016 (about 12% above the level in 2014), which is bounce-back from the population loss that occurs over the rest of this decade, but it is also the last peak before GWP crashes.

The best case is of course the least-disruptive of the scenarios, with a shallow decrease toward its final value. This is due mostly to the unchanging population size while personal ecological impact glides toward sustainability by effectively enabling other species to use the resources in one-in-six of the number of happy environments that existed in 2014.

Businesses and governments appear to pay more attention to the rate of change than the total of economic activity. By this measure, 2020-2022 will be the best period of any scenario, but all years after 2016 will be zero or negative in annual change, with 2028-2031 being the worst years. Even the best case will see its worst year in 2029, with what now seems a disastrous 12% drop in GWP, but which is actually the smallest drop for any scenario's worst year.

I've neglected the unlimited case in this discussion, which unfortunately is also the likely reference scenario for economic planning. Comparing the other scenarios to this one, which averages more than 2% annual growth over the next 20 years, the future is an even uglier picture than the one drawn in absolute terms above.

Finally, it is useful to describe the result of fusing all scenarios into a combined case. In this scenario, GWP is currently growing at a measly 0.4% compared to 2.4% over the last year. In other words, today's investors are rightly worried about a slowdown. By mid-2017, the economy will be clearly contracting along with population, which will last another two years. The following two years will have a sharp spike in growth, and then GWP will begin a long fall that stops finally by 2032 when the population is only 801 million people (11% of its value in 2014). At that leveling off, the money spent by an average person measured as GWP per person will be 8% of its 2014 value, and the much-diminished civilization will barely be able to function.

This coming year is when all of us should be trying to ensure that the contraction only results in a decrease in consumption below the critical level, setting the stage for the gradual decline in consumption that marks the best case scenario. From an economic standpoint this might manifest as a distribution of wealth to the most vulnerable people, and perhaps most important, a focus on paying for reclamation of habitat and other resources for use by other species rather than using money to build more artificial environments. As personal income and expense falls, more natural means for meeting needs would be developed so the money does not have to be replaced.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Shutdown Scenarios

The first major test of my Half-Earth Hypothesis is in progress. Analysis of new data indicates that, if the hypothesis is correct, within a year humanity will begin consuming the ecological producers that maintain those ecological supporters that enable our basic survival. This will likely result in several hundred million casualties in the next decade, followed by several billion in the first half of the following decade, potentially leading to our effective extinction soon after.

This "hard shutdown" is a consequence of our historical behavior, but we may still have a chance of converting it into a "safe" shutdown by controlling both our population size and the amount of resources lost by our excess consumption. If competition for resources is the main cause of the initial casualties, we might in the best case be able to eliminate it and keep our population constant while reducing our individual consumption to a sustainable level and maintaining it there. This assumes that the lost producers can be recovered, and that their loss hasn't triggered a cascade of further environmental degradation.

If we can't control the population loss, then it may be kept from growing back as individual consumption continues to fall. In this case, protective policies might also prevent further casualties, and the drop in individual consumption may be stopped before it jeopardizes the maintenance of a civil society.

In my opinion, the best case future is about as improbable as the one most governments and businesses appear to expect, which is predicated on limitless growth. Based on that expectation, the other possibilities represent risks that merit little attention in the form of tweaks to their plans that may account for only a few-percent of additional costs in the distant future ("distant" being more than five years out).

Combining the scenarios discussed here and using my own estimates of their probabilities, I anticipate that the world will experience a serious food crisis just as the U.S. presidential race reaches its peak. During the new president's first term, the death toll will mount into the millions and people will attempt to grow much more food, exacerbating the problem. The next election will occur just as the population begins to recover, but consumption will have already begun falling. How far it falls, and whether we will suffer a much more massive loss of life, will be determined during the following decade.

Whether or not these scenarios are accurate, they provide a useful context for discussing how carbon emissions may decrease, voluntarily and involuntarily. The obvious preference should be for the best case; and we should put the mechanisms for creating it in place, regardless of motivation. We can similarly study the mechanisms involved in creating the disastrous alternatives so we can reduce their probability of becoming reality.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Shutdown Time

With evidence continuing to mount that our ability to survive on this planet depends on stopping the burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible, it's time to start holding all governments and corporations responsible for the planning and implementation of a swift and safe reduction of the global ecological footprint to no more than half what it was in 2013, beginning with the total elimination of operations involving the use of fossil fuels. In short, it is now time for what I referred to in an earlier blog post as a "graceful shutdown" and bringing safe alternatives online that provide the basic physical and social needs of everyone alive today.

Reducing our footprint involves both lowering our consumption of ecological resources and rendering harmless the pollution we've dumped into places that harm the world's ecosystems, including the atmosphere. We also need to secure or render harmless substances like nuclear fuel that could potentially become harmful pollution.

Individuals and communities can do some of this on their own, perhaps best by using the concepts and techniques collectively known as "permaculture" and explored in test cases by the international Transition movement. By changing what they buy, who they vote for, and who they work for, as well as advocating for shutdown by the organizations they are part of, people can have a considerable impact on the probability of success.

Much of my recent writing has been devoted to exploring how long it takes to perform tasks, as well as the complexity of events and activities. This may have seemed tangential to my main focus of studying our potential future and how to avoid its negative trajectories. In fact, I have been using this immediately practical knowledge to start laying groundwork for how to plan humanity's next moves (and personally determine how I can maximize my contribution to creating a healthier world). Understanding learning curves helps us as individuals to judge the honesty and competence of organizations who we support or might potentially support, as well as the quality of what we do and what we get from others based on complexity. More than this, we have a useful tool for deciding between alternative actions that could get us to a goal or set of goals. My discussions of values, competition, and cooperation were intended to explore another, critical dimension to making plans: that of amplifying collective effort to accelerate progress instead of reduce it – or worse.

I spent a lot of time determining the likely trajectories of population and consumption, largely to assess the large-scale context for making responsible decisions. I focused particularly on the timing of the crisis revealed by the variables I analyzed, which has closely followed the projections made by many real experts in the social and environmental sciences and therefore gives me more confidence in what they are saying. It seems that no matter what angle is used for examining our immediate future, the conclusions are the same, and they are at odds with the technologically and economically optimistic orientation of most businesses I have studied in my attempt to meet personal financial responsibilities in the short term. From within a socio-economic system fixated on eternal growth in physical consumption and consolidation of power, the very concept of voluntary shutdown is akin to the worst form of heresy in the most conservative of religions, and I understand the potential costs of even suggesting it; yet the costs of not doing so and going further are likely to be much, much higher.

In future writing, I intend to explore what shutdown plans might need to include, and what they may look like in some detail. I also expect to discuss what "holding responsible" means, especially as means of assessing the legitimacy of organizations and their operating principles.