Sunday, September 19, 2010


I know from personal experience how crushing guilt can be. For most of my life I was my own worst critic, picking apart everything I did to find out what I did wrong, always assuming there was something that I missed, and usually not being disappointed. Recently, I became aware of the global devastation caused by participation in an economy that does not account for its impact on lives and ecosystems, and that awareness drove me to seriously consider the possibility that the world might be better off if I was dead. Only briefly did I think of suicide; but I'm not by nature a coward, and I chose instead the responsible option of justifying the rest of my life by trying to fix the damage and minimize future damage.

Part of my legacy of guilt comes from a Catholic upbringing, which should not be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the Church. One of the attractions of Catholicism, and to a large extent other Christian denominations, is the promise of absolution of that guilt by the relatively easy commitment of one's life to the teachings of the organization. There is also the implicit assumption that an omnipotent deity can – and will – fix the big mistakes we make as long as we remain faithful to it. Absolution results in a brief state of spiritual purity (or at least, psychological comfort), which if we're diligent or just plain lucky, will follow us into an afterlife that is also devoid of need or want. In many of the organizations, the teachings we must accept include the literal interpretation of an ancient oral and written tradition that was formed before scientific enquiry led to an accurate and coherent picture of how even our little part of the Universe works. Members of these organizations are thus forced to choose between open-minded enquiry about the world and the package deal of emotional security and the promise of immortality.

The source of my remaining guilt followed me after I jettisoned my religious training and decided that as imperfect as we are, we're all we've got. This guilt was empirical, and was gradually reshaped by a new value system I began developing in the wake of my father's death. That value system currently promotes the maximizing of survival and evolution of Earth-based life in the Universe over the longest possible timeframe. If I took an action and could identify its impact in terms of my values, I could determine whether it was right or wrong and adjust future behavior accordingly.

Of course, in daily life, it's typically hard to make assessments of right and wrong in a timely manner (doing nothing, and not acting quick enough, have their own consequences). Dealing with this problem is the proper role for rules and laws, because they speed up the decision process. The downside of using these tools is that they must be periodically reviewed for relevancy and tested for usefulness (making sure they achieve the desired outcomes) in light of changing conditions and people.

Part of my flawed behavior, I realize, is that I continue to rely on other people's rules without adequately testing them first. I also need to develop new rules, which are grounded in a clear understanding of the variables affecting life's future. Finding and fixing the problems I've caused, and reducing what I continue to cause, to some extent depend on these prerequisites.

Absolution within this new moral frame of reference therefore comes from forgiveness for my ignorance and a dedication to doing better in the future. I would argue that this is the only truly effective definition anyone can apply.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ecology of Growth

We are imperiled by at least one faulty belief: that it is possible to grow indefinitely in consumption and power, particularly at exponential rates. Long-term survival is at odds with this notion, as biology has proven over billions of years, and mathematics can easily demonstrate. Civilization has translated this belief into an imperative, and developed social and technological tools to spread its adoption and enable the ultimate realization of its inevitable consequences. As a population gets close to its resource constraints, by consumption and degradation, growth becomes increasingly difficult, and what ecologists call “intraspecies competition” results in a diminishing fraction of the population attempting to continue that growth at the expense of everyone else. When the remaining resources become too scarce, those who cannot successfully compete for them start dying off. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, where a small group of competitors are (consciously or mindlessly) wielding the tools of growth as weapons of mass destruction.

Institutions such as governments and corporations are among our most powerful social tools. These tools evolved when humanity arguably functioned as an ecological metapopulation – a group of interacting populations that could help each other keep from totally crashing, or at least ensure that some survived. Our growth ethos has led to globalization, which enables our species to function as a single population, and our tools are adapting to this new reality by achieving worldwide reach in their intended effects and their unintended effects. This would make our entire species more vulnerable even if we weren't dedicated to exponential growth. As a result, we have had large-scale environmental disasters, food poisoning, disease outbreaks (and potential ones due to lack of profitability in the development of new medicines), an economic meltdown triggered by trade of debts as commodities, and death, destruction, and extinction of species caused by our unwillingness to limit atmospheric pollution.

Given these insights, the way to avoid future catastrophe is simple, if extremely difficult. We must once again become a metapopulation, diversify the resources we depend on (relying mostly, if not totally, on those that are renewable and reusable), and cease our pursuit of unrestricted power and consumption. On a fundamental, personal level, this might be translated into two operating rules: Respect diversity, and don't create anything that can't be used by someone or something else.