Monday, November 29, 2010

Scared Thoughtless

If you’ve read a fraction of my writing, it should be clear that I have looked extensively for the reasons we continue harming our world despite the evidence.  These included  education (more and more accurate knowledge), technology (using different tools), values (what we care about and why), and psychology (how we think, and how much information we can handle).  Part of this effort was to convince others; but much of it was aimed at figuring out how I could personally change, because despite my knowledge, it’s been just as hard as for anyone else.

Driving this work was a desire to share in a discovery process, where open-minded people could share how they viewed the world, and find and challenge the core assumptions in their lives so they could avoid making mistakes and seize opportunities to live better lives.  I had an underlying hope which bordered on faith:  that everyone would choose to be open-minded if they were exposed to new ideas that exposed gaps in their own.  I didn’t count on the fact that this approach would just as likely scare the heck out of people, resulting in something resembling a fight-or-flight response.

I experienced something like that myself recently, after reading a pair of reports about global warming (yes, “global warming” and not “climate change”).  One of them warned that it may be all but impossible to avoid catastrophic effects, which could be much worse than previously expected.  The other detailed how Canadian diplomats tried to subvert U.S. attempts at controlling global warming so their country could export more oil.  This punctured both my hope for fixing things before it’s too late and my belief that people will do the right thing if the stakes are high enough.  My immediate, gut reaction was the fight response, wanting to shout to the world, “Global warming deniers are either uninformed, misinformed, or greedy monsters who are killing the planet for fun and profit!” In a calmer moment, I realized that the “greedy monsters” are just as likely to be acting out of fear, fear for the loss of livelihoods on which they, their families, and their friends depend, and fear that they will lose whatever control they think they already have over the rest of their lives. 

Resistance to global warming is really just a variant of resistance to challenging ideas, which is manifested as a tradeoff between short-term comfort for individuals and long-term security for the larger population.  Unless we can successfully deal with this fear of change, we will be tragically unprepared when even greater change is forced upon us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Imagining the Future: Economics

In an ideal world, any economy would:

  • Limit consumption (the rate of use of resources) to amounts and types of renewable resources that do not contribute to species extinctions.
  • Maximize the value embodied in what is consumed.
  • Ensure that everyone has access to the minimum amount of resources required to maintain a functioning society (meet basic physical needs and assure basic freedoms; see “Imagining the Future: Meeting Needs).

To do this,

  • Part of the biosphere (the “critical area”) would be permanently conserved to sustain basic planetary functionality, including use by other species.
  • Another part of the biosphere (the “needs area”) would be maintained for use by people to meet basic needs.
  • The remainder (the “wealth area”) would be available for meeting people's wants.

When people can't meet their needs with available resources, they must either move or trade with people in an area with an excess of resources that can meet their needs. What they trade for the excess must be renewable or reusable (as well as the resources used to make the trade); if this is not possible, then they must move to where it is possible, or where the excess resources exist.

To ensure that the wealth area doesn't infringe on the other areas, the cost of each transaction would be proportional to its ecological footprint, with the total “money” in this “wealth economy” fixed and proportional to the total ecological footprint of the wealth area.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Three Weaknesses

For many of us who grew up in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, life was very good compared to other parts of the world. We could, for the most part, count on safe, available food and water; shelter and heat when we needed it; and a growing collection of products and services that met wants we didn't even know we had. We convinced ourselves that we deserved it, due to superior ingenuity, social organization (democracy, capitalism, military prowess), and favor of the Universe's divine creator; there was also no problem we couldn't solve by drawing on these Three Strengths.

As the twenty-first century dawned, some of us were sounding an alarm that we had overreached, that our pursuit of wants far exceeding our needs was not sustainable, and perhaps never had been. These people were at first treated as cranks, then they were gradually taken more serious as the evidence mounted that they were correct.

Still, it was easier for a lot of us to try to tweak the application of the Three Strengths than to question them or contemplate trying something totally different. If our workers weren't producing as much as we wanted, we employed workers from other countries who were hungrier. If regulation was slowing growth, we removed it. If competition was getting in the way of economies of scale, then monopolies were encouraged. If other countries were not sharing their resources, we forced them to be more like us. If people were changing the way they lived, loved, and thought so they less resembled the norms of our successful growth period, then we restricted their behavior and freedom to be part of society.

These efforts made things worse. Globalizing the economy and centralizing command and control among a few large corporations accelerated the depletion of resources and creation of waste that was driving the deterioration of conditions. Increasing the hegemony of the Three Strengths added barriers to considering alternatives and amplified the other effects. Forcing uniformity and penalizing lack of it caused its victims to spend more effort fighting their oppressors than to focus on the problems that were building up.

We are in now in a critical period. Every year we wait to radically devalue consumption, waste (mostly in the form of pollution), and the exploitation of people and other species, it will be exponentially harder to make the practical changes that accompany them in time to avoid total calamity. It may no longer be an option to continue business-as-usual while building alternatives in parallel, though some of us still have hope that it is. This will change the way we live our lives, and still possibly for the better – though it will be a different “better.” But first we must all come to terms with the fact that the Three Strengths are illusions, our beliefs in them have become our Three Weaknesses, and that the future we expected at the end of the last century will never come to pass.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rebuilding the Commons

Common values. Common knowledge. Common world. These are required for a society to function. They must be built. They must be maintained. They must be respected.

They are in serious disrepair, and so is the global society that depends on them.

Last year, in a fictional retrospective from the next century (“A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century”) I suggested a “Commons Development and Maintenance Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (CDMA), which required all adult citizens to give one in seven days of their time to building and maintaining the commons.” I was thinking primarily of the physical resources we depend on, which are declining at such a rate that, given realistic expectations about people's performance, a goal of 14% annual growth in renewable and reusable resources will be necessary to avoid total calamity. Whatever mechanism we actually decide on, this work on the “common world” must be done on a worldwide basis, but it will be unsustainable without values to motivate people, and knowledge to have a decent chance of success.

Differences in values seem to be at the root of a lot of our problems. To the extent that we disagree, or our values don't extend to all others, we tend to work in opposition instead of toward a future where we can at least survive, and ideally all thrive. Communicating with each other about what we believe is right and wrong is critical to identifying and dealing with the differences that divide us, and finding any common ground that exists. If our values are too far apart, then we should seriously consider creating societies with shared values that do not have enough power to interfere with each other, but provide opportunities for their members to move if their values change (technically we already have such societies – nations and corporations – but many have both the power, and desire, to interfere with others).

The accuracy and accessibility of knowledge determines how well we can define and reach our goals. Common knowledge helps us to efficiently interact with each other and coordinate our activities. Education is perhaps the primary mechanism for creating common knowledge, and it is losing effectiveness for a number of reasons, not the least being that there is far too much disagreement about what should be “common.” There is also the problem that the quantity of information is so great that many people cannot personally verify its accuracy or usefulness, and must therefore depend upon other people to translate it and vouch for it, people who may have an incentive to distort or outright lie.

I have written extensively about each of these elements, and come to the conclusion that everyone should devote some time to “building and maintaining” them, in addition to avoiding their deterioration during other activities. Perhaps one day a week (14% of the time) is still a good target for any or all three, since they do depend on each other. My personal preference is to spend more time, especially on common values and knowledge since their deficit seems to be the greatest impediment to creating a healthy world.