Saturday, December 30, 2006

Futurist Positive

I recently saw futurist John Naisbett on a local talk show, discussing his latest book. In the 1980s, I was one of millions to read and enjoy Megatrends, his groundbreaking treatise on the future.

At the end of the show, hosted by Aaron Harber on PBS, Naisbett was asked about global warming. His response was similar to that of many skeptics on the issue: the science is all but compelling (he recalled similar warnings about global cooling when he was growing up). Recalling predictions of a mass extinction in 200 years if we don’t reign in global warming soon, Naisbett pointed out that people will not be swayed by such long term concerns. Previous to this discussion, he had argued that people are mostly motivated to act by the promise of short term gain, where the feedback from their actions is direct and visceral.

Knowing more about the science, and apparently about science in general, I strongly disagree with Naisbett’s assessment of the global warming threat. No serious scientist argues that global warming will do more than continue to delay the onset of Earth’s last ice age. As described in the book The Life and Death of Planet Earth, the ice age could start within a few hundred years (after we stop burning fossil fuel).

Far more troubling to me is Naisbett’s assertion that people do not care about their impact on the future. He was referring to a theory that our carbon dioxide emissions may trigger a major mass extinction, which would have otherwise waited some 250 million years for the formation of a super-continent to stop ocean currents (see my essay Global Warming and Mass Murder). If such a mass extinction occurs, it means that this country so many Americans are proud of will be limited to only doubling its current age, and humanity will be gone in ten generations or so. Can people be so callous and self-serving that they are willing to risk that?

As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, we may be facing a similar catastrophe within the present generation. Getting people to consider cutting back their driving and purchase of large homes to deal with the more modest consequences of global warming – disease spreading, cities flooding, polar bears dying, droughts and wildfires – seems hard enough. The feedback is getting stronger, but when will it be visceral enough, and will it be too late when it is?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Back to 1951

According to my curve fits, the world ecological footprint per capita for sustainability would be what it was in 1951 (about one acre per person); and we would have to reach that point between 2013 and 2017 to avoid casualties from over-consumption. Any improvements to the equivalent lifestyle would need to be zero-waste.

If we start reducing our footprint at the end of 2006, the annual rate of decrease in the footprint will need to be 14 percent; if we wait until the end of 2007, the required rate will be 17 percent; and if we wait until the end of 2008, the rate will be 21 percent. If we wait until the end of 2012, we will be unable to avoid casualties.

I did realize that what I was calling zero population was actually about what the population was projected to be in 1915, about one billion people. Although what happens when the population takes a nosedive can accurately be described as a crash, I can’t legitimately say that the population will drop to zero (though it could).

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Spending Less to Save the World

A curve fit of world ecological footprint to U.S. per capita expenses indicates that the 17 percent decline in the footprint needed to avoid population collapse would require an total negative expense of about $650 (in current dollars) from 2015 to 2018, before climbing to its sustainable value of about $1,800 per year (about five percent of the starting value) by 2065. While this is likely an artifact of the curve fitting process, it raises the question: Would you not only live on nothing, but give money, to save the world?

Since the goal is to, as soon as possible, spend no more than five percent of the present amount on products and services that are wasteful, a more reasonable trajectory would be a constant 28 percent per year decline in non-sustainable expenses, achieving sustainability by 2016 (the projected minimum). Compare this to the 17 percent that I proposed earlier, when I assumed we would have to reach sustainability in ten years, and used a cruder way to assess the dollar value of the change in footprint.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Population Loss

I decided to investigate what the casualties would be for different rates of change in the ecological footprint, and was able to show how the casualties increased as we waited to make the changes. The population loss is measured as the difference between the peak population and the population in the year 3000, after it has leveled off.

According to the model, if we start changing the footprint in 2007, we will need to reduce it at least 17 percent annually to avoid casualties. If we wait until 2012 to start making changes, we will be unable to avoid casualties, even if we cut out our entire footprint the following year.

The footprint is projected to increase an average of five percent per year, based on current trends. A 17 percent decline from the present value amounts to a 22 percent change from our current rate. It is interesting to note that based on 2004 data, I estimated we would need to reduce annual consumption by at least 22 percent per year to avoid the “energy transition” where consumption would peak, ostensibly because oil would start getting too expensive.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Another Alternative Future

I revisited the population projection (see the previous posts), and found a curve fit to consumption that was more realistic, without an increase in error. This version more closely matches the projections based on the previous Living Planet Report, and shows a fall in human population following the decline of populations of other species.

The timing and recommendations are relatively unchanged. A seven percent annual drop in global footprint would keep both catastrophes from happening, though both populations could suffer some loss (such as a seven percent drop in ours, from the current value, before stabilization). A more ambitious ten percent drop would stabilize the population at the 2007 level.

One way to achieve this would be to reduce growth of Gross World Product. I project that over the next forty years, the GWP would need to level out at around $77 trillion (2005 dollars); it is currently at $62 trillion. Any growth above that number would need to be for no-waste products and services.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Analysis of the previous Living Planet Report anticipated an “energy transition” corresponding to a peak in consumption, and coinciding in time with Peak Oil. This energy transition seems to have been replaced by an increase in consumption, accompanied by a huge population explosion. What I was calling a “life transition” also occurs at about that time, where populations of other species drop to zero.

In performing the curve fits that project this scenario, I was tempted to throw out the function for population because of the hugely optimistic projections. Unfortunately, the other candidates didn’t have anywhere near the accuracy in predicting past population. Even a composite of the worst and best of the other candidates (using a PERT estimate) didn’t match the data as well. I decided to keep this best performer and see what it had to contribute to the timing of transitions for exponential growth and decline of consumption.

The results, described on my Web site, show that we would need the most incredible technologies to sustain any annual change in consumption (ecological footprint) higher than about minus seven percent (that’s a decline of seven percent annually). At minus seven percent, the population would stabilize while consumption dropped to zero (thus achieving sustainability). The Gross World Product would decrease its growth instead of increasing its growth, but the difference could be channeled into more sustainable activities while – hopefully – removing the chance of the population growing fast.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Alternative Futures

Preliminary curve fitting of data in the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2006 indicates that the populations of other species will decline rapidly by the end of the next decade. This may be accompanied by a major drop in our own population, but the data indicates that our population may instead undergo a rapid increase.

If our population does increase as dramatically as the projections show, then we will have to be able to live without the services that Nature has provided for free. This literally means processing mass directly into sustenance. Before the end of this century, most mass we consumed would be turned directly into people (dead and alive), and before the middle of the next century, we would have to consume the mass of all the planets in our Solar System (including Pluto). By the end of the next century, our consumption would have to slow down because we couldn’t reach additional mass any faster than the laws of physics allow.

Such a scenario is of course, totally implausible. What is most likely is that we will hang on for a short while after we have decimated other species, and then endure the proper execution for our crimes.

We may have time to redeem ourselves, but it is short. Reducing the damage we are doing to the environment could extend the amount of time available to create a sustainable society. If my projections are right, we have already exceeded the regenerative capacity of the Earth’s resources by nearly 40 percent, and will reach double that capacity when the populations of other species totally crash in 2019. We should already be in crisis mode.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Strategy of Disaster

The war in Iraq continues to dominate the news, as violence escalates and evidence grows that having more of our troops there only increases the chances of Americans dying. President Bush is now openly talked about in the media as living in his own reality. In solving the world’s problems, he seems to use the following set of tactics, tried in succession (if the previous steps don’t work):

1. Deny there’s a problem.
2. Control information so people believe doing what you want is in their best interest and will keep you in power.
3. Offer financial incentives to do what you want (and disincentives to do what you don’t want them to do), as long as it doesn’t adversely impact the wealth of your friends or you.
4. Threaten force.
5. Use force, as long as someone else is doing the fighting.
6. Convince yourself and others that you’re succeeding.
7. Go to Step 2, which is Bush’s definition of diplomacy.

Regarding Iraq, we have just passed Step 6.

Meanwhile, popping up occasionally in the lists of interesting news, are the truly scary and far-ranging problems. Today, for example, it was reported that the highest mountain glaciers in Africa may be gone in 50 years, and the main culprit is likely global warming. A couple of months ago, barely noticed by the news media, the World Wildlife Fund’s latest Living Planet Report continued to show a decline in species populations (30 percent in 33 years) accompanied by a rise in the ecological impact of humanity (having overshot Earth’s natural resource carrying capacity by 25 percent as of 2003).

Regarding the global ecological crisis, we are at Step 2.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Season of Giving

In this season of giving,
It’s so nice to see
All the people who are caring
About you and me.

As the New Year approaches,
And we all look ahead;
Let’s review where it is
That our promises have led.

We’ve been giving our best
To the favorite few,
And been true to our word
Where good fortune grew.

But what of the others?
We gave not a gift.
And forgot that we told them
We’d give them a lift.

We spoiled the planet
By dumping our waste;
And raping the land
While claiming we’re chaste.

So, what have we given
To our planet at large?
Do others feel grateful
That we are in charge?

In this season of giving,
Let’s renew our vow:
To help make the world better.
Let’s start giving now.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Waste Tax

One way to adopt the economics of sustainability in the United States is as a steadily increasing “tax” on unsustainably produced products and services. Consider the following schedule:

Year, Waste Tax Rate:

2006, 0%
2007, 17%
2008, 30%
2009, 42%
2010, 51%
2011, 59%
2012, 66%
2013, 72%
2014, 76%
2015, 80%
2016, 84%

To use this tax, begin by estimating the fraction of the product or service produced unsustainably; this is the “waste fraction.” If necessary, the waste fraction can be estimated by dividing one by the minimum number of years the product will be used on a regular basis, where less than a year counts as one. If a product is either recycled or can be recycled, then the minimum number of years can be assumed to be 2; so the waste fraction would be one divided by two, or one half (1/2).

Next, multiply the waste fraction by the price of the product or service; this is the waste price. Apply the waste tax rate to the waste price and spend the resulting waste tax on products or services that have been totally produced using sustainable practices and resources.

For example, gasoline has a waste fraction of one (it can only be used once). At $2 per gallon, the waste price is one times $2, or $2. The waste tax in 2007 will be 17% (1/6), so the waste tax will be $0.34 per gallon (or, for my car that gets 30 miles per gallon, about a penny per mile).

If government were collecting the waste tax, it would be used to support renewable fuels (infinite years of use) and technologies that support reusability. As a responsible consumer, I can do the same thing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Birthday Doldrums

Today is my birthday, and like the holidays, society tells me I should be happy (unless I’m changing a decade). Instead, I feel almost depressed. It’s not because I’m unemployed; I’ve been there before. It’s not that I’m wanting for anything; with food, shelter, love, and respect, you really don’t need much else. Maybe it’s because I’ve been focusing on a global disaster unfolding and feeling almost powerless to do anything about it.

It’s true there are some hopeful signs. In the media, politics, and entertainment, Peak Oil and global warming have become more popular topics of conversation. Companies and local governments are seizing the moment and hawking goods and services that cause less ecological harm, even though our national (U.S.) leadership remains clueless about our destruction of natural systems (as it is with so much else). Democrats have been given enough power to provide some crucial oversight of the out of control Executive branch, offering a chance that safety and environmentally critical regulations will be reinstated or strengthened after being methodically stripped of their power.

I walked into my favorite video store and book store today, and didn’t come out with anything. None of their offerings tugged at me with enough strength to incur the 17 percent tax I figure they deserve for using new materials. I avoided seeing a movie my wife wouldn’t see with me, partly out of guilt, and partly out of consideration for what else I might do with those two and a half hours of what is feeling like increasingly precious time.

Tonight, I’ll eat out, using a gift certificate I received for helping a friend get a job. I’ll try to have a good time, knowing that a part of my brain has already calculated how I will make it up to the rest of the planet.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Last Temptation of Christmas

I am weak. Here I am, less than two weeks before Christmas, preaching about sustainability to strangers, and yet tempted to pretend like everything will continue as it has.

One way to reduce this temptation is to avoid stores and malls, which are set up with one goal, and only one goal: to get people to buy new things. There is a more insidious source of temptation on my desk, however, connected to most major stores through the Internet.

If I were to succumb, my handy ecological impact table tells me that I should not buy medicine (like anyone wants that for Christmas); tobacco (not likely); hygiene products (yeah, right); food (other than fresh); or new clothes made of cotton, wool, or leather. The best gifts are items that are used, reusable or recyclable, and last a very long time. If I travel anywhere, I should go short distances; don’t stay in a hotel or motel; and avoid restaurants and entertainment.

So far, I’m mainly a sucker for eating out and movies (okay, maybe software and books, too). I’m sticking close to home this year, and using Christmas as a chance to share what I’m not using with others. My New Year’s resolution is already in place: Begin spending down and supporting the new economy.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Economics and Sustainability

Based on current economics, I estimate that the wealthiest countries would need to decrease their per capita GNP by an average of 12 percent per year to achieve ecological sustainability in 10 years. For the United States, the rate would be 17 percent. In terms of personal wealth, a person in the U.S. living on $30 an hour this year would be living on less than $5 an hour in 2016.

It is these kinds of statistics that generally scare people away from sustainable living, mainly because they miss two major points. The first point is the significance of the term “current economics,” and the second is the inevitability of the transition.

Much of the world’s economy is based on the use of cheap energy, bound in the form of fossil fuels. It is a fact that oil, the principal fossil fuel, is becoming more expensive to find and mine, while demand rises continuously. It is also a fact that fossil fuel use is the main contributor to global warming, which threatens to not only destroy civilization, but kill off most of the species on Earth (see my essay Global Warming and Mass Murder). We are fast approaching what I call an “energy transition” beyond which we will either have to be using primarily renewable resources or suffer huge population losses, which will of course be accompanied by economic losses. To thrive, the world economy will need to decouple the value of money from material consumption, rewarding efficiency and reuse instead of waste.

Estimates of the timing of the energy transition and the onset of uncontrollable global warming converge at less than ten years from now. For now, we can reduce consumption voluntarily, buying time until the economy can be transformed. A brute force approach would be to spend less money, at roughly the rates described above. A more surgical approach, enabling the economic transformation, would involve making purchases that reduce our ecological footprint (especially the amount of carbon consumed) and cutting back on population growth.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Personal Responsibility

How much responsibility do we as individuals have for solving the world’s problems?

I would argue that the minimum is the degree of our contribution to them, and the maximum is the amount of power we have to influence them. A reasonable value in this range would be our influence divided by the number of problems we can influence without creating other problems, so long as the value for each problem is more than or equal to our contribution to that problem.

What happens if we do not have the influence to overcome our personal contribution to a problem? Then we must do whatever we can, and convince more powerful people to use additional influence.

If we don’t do as much as we can to meet our minimum responsibility to solve a problem, then society has an obligation to help us, or force us, to do so. As a bare minimum, our contribution to the problem must be neutralized without causing (or adding to) other problems.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Who Wouldn't I Be?

If I could be someone, who wouldn’t I be? I wouldn’t be George Bush.

Having screwed up so much in our country and the world, he may end up leaving the worst legacy of any president in history. At some point, he will realize that; and when he does, it could psychologically cripple him.

By enabling wholesale death in Iraq and destabilizing modern civilization’s main source of energy, Bush stands at the brink of triggering Armageddon. By ignoring scientific evidence regarding global warming, he has made the problem worse, possibly contributing to one of largest mass extinctions in our planet’s history. Can he handle the responsibility for such devastation? I know I couldn’t.

He has actively fostered the neglect that led to the destruction of an entire city and threatens the safety of all Americans. Pushing for laws that tear down his country’s most treasured protections, enshrined in the Constitution he swore to protect, he has helped to hurt, humiliate, or kill countless innocent people. When he is forced to face the consequences of his false view of the world, will he be able to face himself in the mirror? I couldn’t.

I do not want to be George Bush.

Note: This essay was an assignment for the Denver Writers Group.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Countries Living within Earth's Limits

By studying the wealthiest and healthiest nations that currently live within the carrying capacity of the Earth, we might learn something about how many of us might be living by the middle of this century.

Based on the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, the world is about 20 percent over its carrying capacity, which means that the countries we are looking for currently are using no more than 80 percent of the world average ecological footprint per capita (“footprint”). By multiplying average life expectancy (as a fraction of the world average) by average Gross National Product (GNP) per capita (also as a fraction of the world average), we can get a crude measure of the health and wealth (“wellbeing”) of a country.

Of the 79 countries that are known to have the required footprint, the seven with the highest wellbeing (within one standard deviation of the highest value) are, in order of decreasing wellbeing: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Gabon, Tunisia, Thailand, El Salvador, and Peru. Of these, all but Gabon is above the world average life expectancy, with Cuba being the highest at 14 percent above the world average. Cuba is tied with the Dominican Republic for GNP per capita, which is about 44 percent of the world average. For comparison, the United States has a life expectancy 15 percent above the world average, a GNP per capita that is 673 percent of the world average, and a footprint that is over five times the carrying capacity.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Identity and Culture

As I mentioned earlier, I believe the world would be much better off with people primarily identifying themselves as part of the human family. As my example of Iraq indicates, people will tend to identify with smaller groups anyway, based on factors directly applicable to their day-to-day lives such as health and wealth.

The point I’d like to make here is that we can, and should, have competition over strategies and methods rather than goals. Goals are associated with our identity, while strategies and methods are associated with our experience, capabilities, resources, and intelligence. Historically, strategies and methods have been enshrined in our culture, thereby being conflated with our identity. To survive as a world community, either our identities need to be disentangled from our cultures, or our cultures must be melded together, ideally based on shared goals.

The second option is already being tried, but without people necessarily agreeing on shared goals. Competing cultures have used economic and military approaches to achieve dominance, with mixed results. Neoconservative imperialism and radical Muslim attempts to create a worldwide caliphate are two of the latest examples of this, coming close on the heels of the Cold War struggle between democracy and communism.

As I’ve implied, the problem with melding cultures is that people must have shared goals for it to ultimately succeed; and for this to happen, people have to choose their goals (and their identities) voluntarily. This problem is being partially addressed by the United Nations, which provides a forum for establishing a common set of goals, and, through communication, a stronger sense of community among its members. The attempts at unification have been hampered by nations such as the United States (at least recently) that want a rubber stamp on their own particular set of goals, assuming they naturally speak for everyone, and justification to squash those that (in their minds, foolishly) disagree with them. Iraq is a perfect example of what happens when a set of goals is rammed down people’s throats: They rebel, as anyone would.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Iraq's Identity

Regarding Iraq, pundits and political leaders in the U.S. have been quick to point out how the interests of Iraqis would be better served if the members of religious sects would think of themselves as Iraqis first. They have failed to justify that position, and failed to discuss how their logic might apply to religions and nations in the rest of the world.

Unless there is some clear advantage bestowed by a set of shared cultural attributes in the context of the largest environment it is likely to operate, it makes no sense to favor it. Among the most important advantages are health and wealth, which can be measured in terms of life expectancy, infant survival, and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

Looking at the Middle East’s distribution of religions, which represent the main divisions within Iraq today, Iraq sits between two concentrations of Islamic sects. Sunnites dominate the region almost everywhere except Iran, where Shi‘a are concentrated. On a nation-by-nation per capita basis, for Iraq’s neighbors (with the exception of Turkey and Yemen), there is a considerable economic advantage, but no health advantage, to being Shi‘a rather than Sunnite. While this fact may be an accident of history, it is no less real, and will no doubt influence the internal pressures determining whether a unified nation would prefer to be Sunnite dominated or Shi’ah dominated.

In terms of influence (advantage multiplied by population), Sunnites dominate Shi‘a among Iraq’s neighbors. To the extent that the neighbors can affect the outcome of the current conflict, all things being equal, the Sunnites would have the advantage by at least a two-to-one margin, with the biggest players being Turkey (for the Sunnites) and Iran (for the Shi‘a). My understanding is that political considerations rule out Turkey, so Saudi Arabia would be a stand-in for the Sunnites (followed closely by Egypt).

These purely demographic considerations seem, at least on the surface, to reflect current events. As I write, Iran has been implicated in training Shi‘a militia, and Saudi Arabia has made noises that it will take an active role in Iraq if the U.S. leaves prematurely.

Regarding the corresponding lessons for the world at large, it might be useful to compare these and other groups in a similar analysis; of course, we would be talking about internal struggle, since the world has no neighbors that we know about. (As far as the Sunnites and Shi‘a are concerned, they are about seven percent of the world’s population, a small but not insignificant number.)

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Identity Crisis

Implicit in much of our lives is the concept that we belong to groups that are distinguishable from, and generally better than the rest of the human population. It ignores the huge number of similarities between everyone on the planet, and usually focuses on a very small subset of common traits, values, and history. This view of the world is built into our DNA as an agent of evolution, which enabled small groups to adjust to new environments. Now, due to the ability of many of us to significantly impact the lives of most of the population, both directly and through the environment, it is at best, meaningless, and at worst, dangerous.

As an example of this, consider the workplace. Employees and managers have become practically interchangeable, and as a result, so have the technologies, products, and services they help to create. With the differences between companies and their output becoming fewer, competition has become more about quantity than quality. The increases in quantity have resulted in mountains of waste, solid and gaseous, which are now literally overwhelming the Earth’s natural systems and endangering not only us, but most of the other species on the planet.

Until recently, the largest groups people identified with were nations or religions. Each group superficially shared a common culture, ethnic heritage, or both, which its members considered superior to the others. Now an increasing, though still small number of people are identifying with the entire human species, and a few of us with the entirety of life on Earth. Groups tend to compete with each other, but when the community reaches the size of a planet, competition must be replaced by cooperation for the population to survive. The world is in the process of making this transformation, though whether it will happen soon enough to avoid catastrophe remains to be seen.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Influence and Stress

It is useful to look at Iraq as a case study of non-violent influence, where that influence had the intended effect from the end of the Gulf war until the leadership of the United States changed in 2001.

All three areas of operations were involved when containment was at its peak. These included external control of Iraq’s influence, boundary control of its economy (which also had a military component), and minimal internal operations in the form of intelligence gathering (weapons inspections) to verify that the other operations were successful regarding Saddam’s ability to wage war.

When Saddam’s paranoia drove him to evict the U.N. weapons inspectors, the rest of the world started getting nervous. Despite the fact that nothing had changed, the inability to verify it led other paranoid world leaders (in the United States) to assume the worst case, and take action accordingly. There was in effect a weakening of the boundary operations as a result of the disappearance of internal operations, and external events (notably 9/11) that decreased the threshold of threat perception in the minds of world leaders.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, an increase in uncertainty about how to reach one’s goals may be one of the most reliable ways to increase stress, and such uncertainty was very likely the main trigger for violence in this case. If this view is correct, then violent and non-violent interaction between nations can most meaningfully be discussed in terms of their usefulness in reducing both the level of stress and its cumulative effects (proportional to how much time it is endured).