The following comments are archived from the main page and Commentary.
6/21/2018: Authoritarianism Rising
One aspect of social degradation is the rise of authoritarianism as people seek champions to reduce the difficulty of improving their own lives. These champions would ideally simplify the information and actions required for living the way they wanted, and remove obstacles (such as other people) that they couldn't remove on their own. In practice, no one could handle such a large task without trivial simplification: arbitrarily or accidentally removing critical complexity that defined the systems they depended on for living – and that would be if they were trying to do the job instead of serving their own personal agendas. Artificially intelligent machines might eventually be able to take the place of champions, but since they wouldn't be dependent on maintaining a supply of the same (biological) resources, they might be even more likely than human dictators to disassemble the systems people depend on.
The blog post "Fix" outlines a backstory that might explain the branching of potential futures from Timeline 2 to the Fix timeline. It centers on an event in Timeline 2 that triggers a revolutionary change in ecological impact. This helps delay extinction long enough for hypothesized social adaptations to develop that could ensure humanity's survival for at least a few more decades.
The event is a peak in the growth of the world economy that occurs in 2017 and signals the impending population crash that begins three years later. This event was chosen as a trigger because it could shatter faith in the fundamentals of the economy as experienced by most people and force them to accept that something else, namely the health and abundance of ecosystems, is the most important factor determining their wellbeing.
Meanwhile, alluded to in the discussion, is a significant deviation from a historical trend relating Gross World Product to the production of so-called "happy environments": living conditions that provide life satisfaction, measured as the product of happiness and population. This deviation would be felt by a large number of people, possibly contributing to the impetus to make major changes in their lives.
Meanwhile, in our timeline, the world economy is being imperiled by isolationist and dictatorial trade and immigration practices that could be mechanisms for the scale of slowdown projected for Timeline 2, which has much of its recent history in common with ours. Recall that isolation and concentration of control are the enemies of diversity needed for adapting to changing conditions, especially environmental conditions already in unhealthy flux that are needed for basic life support. The economy is also threatened by the plans of a few to create vast new infrastructure that would entrench and expand humanity's ecological impact at precisely the time it needs to be reduced.
Driving prices up on basic goods and services reduces the ability for a large number of people to survive and thrive within the system that enables it. It will encourage the majority to find an alternative to the system, while also limiting their willingness and ability to support new family. Without a natural healthy environment to retreat to and survive on the basics, or access to other social environments because of restricted borders (or a lack of healthy social environments to retreat to), population collapse could be triggered.
6/13-15/2018: Peak Children
People in Timeline 2 are being adversely affected by their global-scale disruption and destruction of life-sustaining ecosystems, leading to a population crash that will ultimately stop that behavior. Among those effects is a reduction in the total number of children, which began affecting the richest people in 1961 and spread to the entire population by 2014. Happiness and life expectancy also went down for members of the population in recent years.
2014 Happiness drops to zero at Xmax. Peak number of children. 2016 Life expectancy drops to zero at Xmax. 2018 Children are 1/3 of the population. 2020 Peak population (deaths exceed births afterward). Waste is 1/2 total resources.
ABOVE: Number of children over time for Timeline 2. Roll over the graph for an animation of how the population distribution changed since 2005.
The reduction in children was variously explained as a consequence of increased affluence, freedom of women to pursue careers rather than focus on child-rearing, alteration of reproductive biology by artificial chemical compounds in the environment, and both chemical and stress-related depression. Each of these explanations is a facet of the larger picture of a negative feedback built into people's biology to limit destruction of the natural systems they are integrally part of and that all life depends on.
6/5/2018: The Alternate Now
In an attempt to fix the future, it would be useful to get a sense of how it might unfold. The path chosen for the fix is an example, but the goal is clear: to avoid population collapse for as long as possible, for us and other species, as a result of what we do or don't do. Until we embark on it, the fix will be an alternate future experienced by simulated people with a slightly different past than ours (Timeline 2).
The fix begins in an alternate world of 2018, where roughly:
- 1/600,000 people have no life expectancy
- 1/20,000 people are totally unhappy
- All of the above have 1/4 of the world's wealth
Until 2004, people could count on increasing life expectancy and happiness as their wealth increased, but now that only works for the poorer 4/5 of the population (with between 1/4 and 1/3 of the total wealth).
If the unhappy rich continue to attempt to remedy their situation by getting richer based on the experience of all of world history up to 2004, then the situation will only get worse as in Timeline 2. If they instead try living within their current means or less as the admittedly-counterintuitive fix dictates, they will have a chance of improving their situation - and everyone else's.
5/21/2018: Mass Shootings
Solutions to mass shootings become clear if we think of them as special cases of murder. A simple model of how many people are murdered in any given event identifies elements of a classic crime scenario as causes: means, motive, and opportunity.
Of these, the means - the weapon used - contributes most to the kill rate, while the other contributors determine the success of achieving that rate. A nuclear weapon is an extreme case of a high kill rate weapon, which is why the world takes extra care to control who can have one.
The ability of a perpetrator to use a weapon depends largely on access to useful information and how much time they have to learn, affecting how well the weapon will perform as intended. Lack of ability may additionally result in unintended deaths, not technically murders but just as horrific.
There may be one or more perpetrators, which multiplies the threat. To the extent that potential perpetrators have common characteristics and weapons, focusing on those commonalities can maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of mitigation.
Opportunity, mostly probability of access to potential victims, must be much smaller than 1 divided by the largest possible kill rate in order to avoid even one person being murdered. The difficulty of doing this must be weighed against the difficulty of limiting means, since controlling motivation is most tricky of all.
5/15/2018: Fixing the Future
The most recent incarnation of the Population-Consumption model has been used to calculate a potential way of delaying our extinction, to the extent that it is at our own hand (natural processes such as self-reinforcing climate feedbacks not included). This "Fix timeline" quantifies an alteration of humanity's consumption trajectory to avoid decreasing world population (P), life expectancy (L), and the economy (GWP). Because we are now likely only two years away from peak population, and because it would result in cutting off a huge amount of potential economic gain, it is, frankly, the ultimate pipe dream.
If we were to live in that pipe dream, we would would see little change from the way we live now, except that our goals would be radically changed. There would be no more growth imperative, because it would be widely recognized that growth equals death, like climbers facing the onset of a dangerous storm moving in from the top of the mountain they're trying to scale. In that analogy, the climbers have also slashed and burned most of the land below them, so there's not much to retreat to.
There is a big difference between the Fix timeline and an ideal world. A fix won't make life better, it will - at best - keep it from getting worse. We are, however, at a point now where both may be equally improbable.
3/5/2018: The Future Is Now
In the simulated world of Timeline 1, the period when population, life expectancy, and economic activity are all growing together will end within the next two years. Having reached it, decline will start, beginning population; economic activity and life expectancy will follow in 2025, and it will all be - rapidly - downhill from there.
The overlap of Timeline 1 with our own Timeline 0 was last measured across all variables in 2011. At that time it was 97%. In 2015, it was measured for population and life expectancy only, also with an overlap of 97%. The average overlap over the range of most reliable data (1961-2011) was 96%. At a minimum, this strongly suggests that we may experience a future like that of Timeline 1.
If we do, then the good news is that most us will soon live to see the pinnacle of human achievement, as it seems to have been historically pursued. That future is, essentially, now. What comes after that will not fall within the hopes of the majority of us, but instead the limited hopes of those who value their own, short-term gain.
It is easy to imagine that much of the technological innovation of recent years, especially in development of artificial life and intelligence, has been in preparation for a very few people outlasting the rest of us for as long as they want to live, and in maximum comfort delivered by slaves with no competing desires of their own. Since they likely will have contributed most of the waste that is bringing humanity to the brink of extinction, this will be a fundamentally unjust end if it is realized.
3/1/2018: Want Hope?
Projections from the latest version of the Population-Consumption model track with depressing and scary environmental news about the dooming of other species, and potentially our own, due to humanity's relentless drive to consume everything. The most likely future scenario derived from the model is consistent with previous projections of human extinction well within this century. People living in the world it describes will have an increasingly hard life from now on, with no hope of recovery.
As before, the best way to alleviate some of that pain and suffering is to SLOW THE HELL DOWN. Stop trying to consume more tomorrow than we are today. Stop trying to dominate people and other species. Be honest about the damage we are doing, along with our successes, each of us asking and answering the most critical question of our time:
"Is what I'm doing with my life worth the death of the part of the world we inhabit?"
If enough of us answer "no" then some hope may be justified: hope that we can live the best lives we can, until we can't.
The next year will be one of consequence, no matter how you look at it.
Notably the United States will elect a new president who will either accept the reality of our unfolding environmental catastrophe as exemplified by climate change, or not, and will either take appropriate action or not. I try not to be explicitly political on these pages, but there is no clearer distinction in this case than between Democrats (acceptance and action), and Republicans (denial and inaction -- or worse). Even if a Democrat is elected, there is no assurance that appropriate action will be taken, and by that I mean rapid reduction of ecological footprint to a safe level and suspension of consumption growth. This action must of course be taken here, and be promoted globally.
Science and technology had a great year in 2015, with major progress in astronomy, physics, biology, computing, and manufacturing. Next year could be just as groundbreaking if the drivers of that progress aren't hindered by external factors such as war and environmental disaster.
The following graph shows projections of key global variables through mid-2020 (where each year such as "2016" marks the middle of the calendar year) based on the Warming Reference Case.
12/14/2015: Too Little, Too Late
For the past two weeks the world's leaders negotiated an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would limit global warming to a non-catastrophic level. The agreement that was reached would have been a good start if it had been made thirty years ago, but now it is too little, too late. Based on the effects of global warming alone, emissions need to be cut much more agressively, but when coupled with the other ecological contributors to extinction we need to immediately eliminate them altogether.
As I discussed in the blog post Popscillation, we may be facing a future where everything doesn't crash (as in the Worst and Expected cases of the Population-consumption model), but rather oscillates and drops to a lower level. This is the end result of our apparent pursuit of "alternative worlds" that support higher populations. The costs of pursuing our current course are horrific, no matter which projection you trust, particularly when it comes to population.
This doesn't even account for potentially even larger costs if climate change accelerates beyond what we are currently contributing to it (through self-sustaining feedback loops). The conservative (i.e., "reserved") IPCC recently estimated the economic cost of fighting climate change as the equivalent of a rounding error in the growth rate of the world's economy. Today, Christopher Hayes published an analysis of the cost in wealth of reducing emissions that would be borne by fossil fuel producers, which is much more problematic (and that's just to keep temperature rise below 2°C, which may be way too high).
I decided to use my model's latest projections to estimate the economic cost, based on the total ecological impact that it focuses on. The following graphs show the result, normalized to values in 2013. The first graph shows the size (proportional to Gross World Product) and wealth as projected by my simulation if we continue as we are. By rolling over the image, you can see the second graph, which is one sustainable scenario where we could keep something close to our current population and provide a healthy margin of ecological resources to other species so they can keep the Earth habitable. On average, the world will lose 37% of its wealth whichever path we choose, with the equivalent of a rounding error's difference between them; but the population will drop by 19% if we continue as we are. If wealth in 2013 was $241 trillion, then the loss will be around $89 trillion. So, from an economic viewpoint, it's a wash; but from the perspective of life -- ours and members of other species -- the choice is clear.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report that emphasizes the costs and risks of climate change. As Joe Romm of Climate Progress points out, the report is conservative to a fault, which makes its dire predictions even more alarming.
Coincidentally, I completed new analysis using my Population-consumption model, which shows that humanity may have already exhausted its options for survival without major population loss. The main driver of that loss is our total ecological footprint, a measure of the impact we have on the Earth's ecosystems as well as our consumption of their resources. In less than five years, we may cross the boundary that other species need to maintain basic habitability of the planet, and then follow them into oblivion. That additional impact doesn't need to be directly made by us; global warming may make it for us.
To give the rest of the species - and us - a better chance of survival, we will need to reduce our impact by at least as much as global warming increases its impact. My analysis shows that this can be done in one of three ways: we can reduce population, reduce individual impact, or reduce both. This is a no-brainer, with or without the model; environmentalists have known it for years. The most humane alternative is to reduce our individual impact, which would also potentially slow down the increase caused by greenhouse gases (by reducing what we add). But it will be tempting (and I consider likely) that we will increase our impact, through use of more technology, to improve our personal chances of survival.
Remember: we could reach the limit in less than five years, which is nowhere near enough time to make any major changes to our lifestyles, much less the values and experience biases that support them. During that time, weather patterns will virtually ensure more environmental stress, which will prompt the predictable response. In addition, that "stress" may also further drive feedback mechanisms that make global warming self-sustaining.
2/12/2014: Future Imperfect
I just spent the last two months updating my Population-consumption model, and the projections are both more robust and far worse than from previous attempts. As I explained recently to a friend on Facebook, as background for my blog post Happy Environments:
Basically, I've been able to explain population growth and consumption of resources by mathematically modeling how people try to attain total life satisfaction ("happiness"). We seek out "environments" that make us happy, using up ecological resources ("consuming" them) in the process. Our economy is a means of coordinating much of how we do that (except for population growth). I'm describing some of the more obvious aspects of that, such as how we measure activity (GWP) and size (wealth), in terms of environments and resources. Coming out of that description is the impact on our economy of having effectively outgrown Earth's biosphere, and the adjustments we're making as a result, which include excessive wealth inequality.
It deserves stressing that our economic woes seem to be largely a consequence our having "outgrown Earth's biosphere" and the sensitive adjustments we're making to keep the worst from happening much faster than it is. Prior to that, extreme wealth inequality like what we've seen was possible, but more controllable (to the extent that any social behavior is).
Representative projections of my model are based on historical trends, but those trends may soon be rendered moot by the effects of global warming. The temperature of the atmosphere has been suppressed by unusual winds, and is about to rise dramatically, catching up to values predicted by climate scientists. Arguably having already passed several critical tipping points that make worst case global warming inevitable, it seems that such a prospect can only make our prospects worse.
11/17/2013: Limited Time
With the start of fuel rod removal at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, another major threat faces the denizens of Earth. Already, there are signs that the intricate procedure will fail, and many of us will be sick or dead from radiation poisoning years before global warming seals our fate. It's easy to focus on the details (colossal incompetence, natural disasters), but I would argue that once again, the blame lies with complexity exceeding capability, and the hubris not to accept natural limitations.
My "bouncing hope" took a predictable nose-dive upon learning of this new threat. Though unwilling to fully accept the inevitability of near-term human extinction, I decided to take the advice of Guy McPherson and others who have accepted it, and focus on creating the most of what I consider good in whatever time we have left. This includes everything from art (writing and music) to promoting positive strategies for making the most of what we all share (embodied in my poem "Death Stoppers"). While not giving up on humanity, I have given up on following the lead of others who refuse to question their own abilities and vision, and to take the steps necessary to limit their negative impact.
10/16/2013: Teetering on Collapse
By sheer luck, the world's self-proclaimed leader nearly lost its status at the most trustworthy economy by defaulting on its debt. Its government already shut down for weeks by the same sociopaths who threatened the default, it was poised through intricate global dependency to bring the still-fragile world economy once again to its knees. "Once again," because that same dependency enabled its predatory financial services industry to trigger a deep world-wide recession just a few years ago.
This chain of events revealed a critical flaw in our complex global civilization which perhaps inevitably will lead to its collapse. That flaw, while easy to understand, is virtually impossible to fix: people are fundamentally, biologically limited in the amount of complexity they can effectively and responsibly manage. When they have enough power to significantly influence a system whose complexity exceeds that limit, they will likely sabotage it by taking inappropriate action.
3/9/2013: Do-Or-Die Emissions
Several reports have come out recently, detailing what it will take to keep global warming from becoming so bad that civilization can't survive. They tend to focus on rapid reductions of carbon emissions by 2020. Typical among them is research reported in "At the Edge of the Climate Cliff," and "Developed Nations Must Cut Emissions In Half By 2020, Says New Study." Meanwhile, more research confirms that mankind is responsible for creating the unstable climate we're now starting to experience, and world carbon emissions are at a record high.
The recommended emissions reductions far from guarantee that we won't go beyond the total catastrophe threshold; they just give us a better chance of doing so -- if carbon feedback mechanisms don't kick in soon, which, unfortunately, they are doing. With entire economies dependent of fossil fuels for their existence, and extremely powerful planet-killing sociopaths desperately working to keep them that way, even those reductions are highly unlikely to occur. But a deficit of hope doesn't mean we shouldn't .
2/10/2013: Habitable Worlds
The odds of finding many habitable worlds improved are looking better as a result of recent research into red dwarf stars. In addition, a mystery may have been solved regarding why we can't see dwarf galaxies, smaller but more plentiful than the galaxies we're familiar with. The number of habitable planets could be even larger if the majority of stars in the dwarf galaxies are red dwarfs.
An estimated 4.5 billion new worlds in the Galaxy corresponds to a density of 0.00057 worlds per cubic light year. In the article Population and the Settlement of Space, I assumed that the density was between 0.00005 and 0.00133; the red dwarf worlds would increase the average by 83% and the maximum by 43% if none of them was included in the original estimate.
The death of stars we might inhabit (besides our own) wasn't factored into my calculations. A much more detailed model would survey the lifetimes all of the known stars and develop scenarios based upon when those stars would die. Interestingly, red dwarf stars and the worlds that orbit them are likely to last much longer than other stars (perhaps twice as long).
Of course, none of this changes the conclusions I reached in the article. If we don't learn to live in sustainable ways so we can maximize the lifetimes of populations around all stars - including our own - then our legacy will be measured by how many dead or dying worlds we leave in our wake.
11/12/2012: Debt Dissonance
Last week, as half the U.S. was rebuffing a coup by the fossil fuel industry, among others, Pricewaterhouse Coopers issued a report showing that annual global carbon emissions per dollar of GDP must decrease by an unprecedented 5.1% until 2050 to keep from exceeding a catastrophic but survivable temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. New research by the National Center for Atmospheric Research was also released, showing that climate models projecting the highest temperatures as a function of carbon emissions are likely to be the most accurate. Together, these two studies are profoundly discouraging about the prospects for avoiding the end of civilization, not to mention many species, in this century.
Meanwhile the East Coast continued its recovery from super-storm Sandy, whose strength and damage was a consequence of global warming, along with a string of extreme weather events that have marked this year and are likely to become much more frequent. This brought some much needed discussion around the issue, but national attention pivoted quickly back to the election, then to the prevention of another man-made disaster, the "fiscal cliff." The same group of people that participated in the coup was behind the act of economic terrorism that created the cliff, holding hostage the government and those who depend on it so that they could have their temporary tax cuts made permanent. The fact that far more deadly ecological debt hangs over all of us was largely ignored, in favor of dealing with an artificial construct that can, in theory, be remedied by agreement.
At what point will real-world, existential threats take priority over the amount of power individual people have? Time may have run out for us to make the right choice.
7/1/2012: Game Over
Scientific research spanning many fields is showing in growing detail how much danger we are in as a species as a result of the waste we are generating, especially in the form of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The consequences of that waste are already too great to ignore, as drought, wildfires, heat waves, and monster storms wreak havoc beyond anything we have seen before. If the research is right, our lives are likely to get a lot harder, perhaps impossible, as the instability we have caused in natural systems threatens to overwhelm any correcting mechanisms we or other species might employ.
If we were all fully committed to fixing what we have broken, there is a diminishing but still measurable chance that civilization will survive this century, and many lives saved in the process (ours, and those of many other species). We're not all committed, though; unfortunately, many of those with the most economic and political power in our societies are working directly against this goal, perhaps because their ability to pillage (and therefore sabotage) natural systems - and the social systems that enable people to survive without them - is the source of their power. They, and many of us who aspire to have comparable power, are playing a game whose rules are stacked against long-term (and increasingly short-term) survival, because the game rewards the unlimited acquisition of resources, and offloading of waste they can avoid being held accountable for.
The remedy is simple, if extremely difficult: we must change the game - the goals and rules of how we interact with each other. Instead of rewarding acquisition, it must reward frugality. Instead of focusing on the amplification of personal power, it must focus on ensuring the survival of as many people as possible over the longest term imaginable. Instead of treating the rest of Nature as a collection of resources to be exploited, it must respect the fact that we are part of a larger community of species that can and must work together to maintain a healthy biosphere.
Whether we continue as we are, or change what we're doing and why, the current game will be over in our lifetimes. It's just a question of how.
12/10/2011: Beyond Evil
The Republican Party continues to make the case that it is an unabashed plaksorg: planet-killing sociopathic organization.
In an effort to thwart the continuation of the "payroll holiday" and full unemployment benefits that could provide relief from economic stress felt by the U.S. middle class, House Republicans recently added a number of "poison pills" to the legislation that are clearly designed to force Democrats to reject it. That they would try to sabotage any efforts to help anyone but the powerful elite that they either identify with, or seek to be, is not surprising (as last year's battle over extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and the game of chicken they played this year over raising the debt ceiling, amply demonstrated), but they have also sought to dismantle environmental protections along with a full spectrum of other regulations that protect people from harm by corporations that by their nature are sociopaths.
Disregard for the effect of people's actons on the world's ecosystems and the natural systems (such as the climate) that support them -- and us -- is behind the massive species extinctions that easily qualify as "killing the planet." The U.S. is particularly complicit in this destruction, and fighting attempts to limit or remedy that destruction must be considered as overt support of it.
The current legislation would permit the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, virtually assuring catastrophic climate change. It also deregulates power plant emissions, which would cost thousands of lives annually. This one case proves that the Republicans would rather cause death on a scale that dwarfs the casualties on 9/11 than to relieve the suffering of millions of their consituents using the same approach they used to help the ultra-rich who didn't need it. They have confirmed that they, and the plaksorgs they're aligned with, are terrorists far worse than any others.
10/16/2011: Losing Occupation
The 99% Movement, originally known as Occupy Wall Street, is an expression of anger at the richest 1% of the U.S. population that is hoarding most of the wealth while everyone else struggles under the worst economy since the Great Depression, a situation triggered by a deceitful and greedy finance industry that is part of the 1%. By all appearances, the remaining 99% of us are victims, caught at the losing end of a struggle for economic and political dominance won by gaming a system that's supposed to work for everyone.
Unfortunately, everyone's playing a game that no one can win. There's no doubt that getting money out of politics, regulating bank activities to eliminate risky speculation, setting tax policy that discourages hoarding, and prosecuting people who literally stole people's homes are all important measures that can keep what happened from repeating itself. But with an economic system that allows creation of theoretically unlimited virtual wealth and debt that can be traded for physical things that are limited by immutable laws of Nature, the basic physical requirements for survival are bound to become scarce, and people -- eventually everyone -- will die as a result. The reason we're noticing this now is because the physical limits are a lot closer than when the economic growth rate peaked, the amount of wealth and debt has skyrocketed (thanks in large part to the finance industry), and an increasing number of people are unable to trade wealth to meet their physical needs.
The system needs to be changed, beginning with a closer match between virtual and physical wealth, and agreement among everyone as to the existence of physical limits and what they are. Until that happens the casualties will escalate, because the system punishes those who voluntarily give up wealth, and those in the top 1%, like anyone else, won't easily choose to be punished
8/5/2011: The Price of Denial
This week, as the United States came dangerously close to defaulting on its national debt, news came out that the Russian permafrost is melting quickly, a trend caused by global warming that could itself drastically magnify global warming. Both situations will likely cause massive harm, and are in no small part driven by a common, fatally flawed way of thinking. Also this week, a new report showed that conservative white American males have a high probability of denying the existence of man-made climate change, and attempted to explain why, in effect highlighting that flawed way of thinking.
Limiting who and what we care about while valuing maximum personal power is a recipe for disaster, and that's precisely what we're seeing in the fate of people and other species. For those who might care that their actions are causing such devastation, it's easier to deny the causal links than to accept them, live with the guilt, and risk having to make massive, uncomfortable change to compensate for what they've done -- and continue to do.
5/20/2011: The End of the World
Judgment Day is due to start in just a few hours, based on calculations using the Bible. After spending years destroying other species, poisoning people with pollution, enabling the exploitation of workers and pillage of natural resources in the pursuit of personal power, as well as pouring enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to almost ensure that Earth will resemble hell within a few decades, many of the "chosen" expect to be rescued by their benificent savior in the ultimate escape from responsibility.
If there really is some source of divine justice, I would expect them to instead be forced to continue living in the world they created, and help the rest of us try to salvage its habitability for this and future generations. Or maybe they will just be raptured into the "other place" to pay for their sins.
It's more likely, however, that they will be greatly disappointed that their prediction didn't come true, and then get along with their lives -- and the damage they have been doing in the process. As a result, over the next few decades the world we know really will end as the world's ecosystems collapse, along with our artificial ones and us.
5/8/2011: Mothers and Murderers
Today is Mother's Day, a celebration of the giving and nurturing of life. Over the past week, people have been celebrating the demise of an icon of the opposite: Osama bin Laden. Mothers are praised for selfless devotion to their children, who others like bin Laden seem intent on destroying. Good and evil; the contrast can't be any more stark. Or can it?
On September 11, 2001, many of us in the U.S. learned what much of the world already knew, that there are those who are willing to kill anyone who doesn't subscribe to their beliefs, and expect to be rewarded for what they view as justifiable murder. Since that day, the retaliation of our government has sadly followed that sick logic, resulting in the deaths of over a million people, and the detention and torture of countless others. We -- because the government is still, at least in concept, "We the People" -- went after anyone we considered a threat, including our own citizens. The empire we tirelessly built since the end of World War Two was under attack, and our response was to expand it, no matter what the cost.
The person we hold responsible for the latest wave of expansion is now dead, the target of a kill order which apparently our president can now issue against anyone, without review. We celebrate his death without considering that it is emblematic of the beginning of the end of what we thought our country represented. Bin Laden was a symbol of the evil we felt on 9/11, and then assimilated into our culture. Terrorism became an obsession, and also, I think, a convenient distraction from the truly existential problems the world faces, not the least of which being the consequences of our systematic destruction of the only planet we've ever called home.
Meanwhile, on the most basic level, some of us still nurture life, and some of us still think that's a good thing, perhaps because -- in the case of our own mothers -- it resembles us, it is us. When or if we're all that's left, celebrating only ourselves and people like us, it will be too late to accept the truth that we are inextricably linked to all other life; because when it finally "goes," we will inevitably follow. We should now be celebrating more than our own birth and those who made it possible: we should be celebrating everyone and everything that supports life in all its forms, including, but not exclusively, our mothers.
4/20/2011: Earth Gets a Day
This week, those of us who don't want to continue dismantling our planet's life support system are celebrating the life that depends on it and sharing ideas about how to stop the carnage. For those who are either ignorant of the damage, too self-absorbed to care, or proud executioners, it's just another meaningless observance that isn't even a holiday.
Meanwhile, the news is full of stories about how bad things are getting, and how they're likely to get much worse. The BP oil spill happened around this time last year, and despite some good news that the damage may not be as bad as some feared, there is every indication that something similar could happen again. Political leaders from the U.S. to China refuse to adopt adequate restrictions on carbon emissions despite clear evidence that human-induced global warming is already having a devastating impact on lives, property, and the other species we share our planet with, while scientists grow more concerned that it is accelerating beyond anyone's - or anything's - ability to cope.
Like cancer cells, we are killing that which gives us life, which we were once a healthy part of; and many of us are going a step further: doing it for self-glorification and amusement. But, hey, at least a few of us are openly admitting what we're doing, during the brief time each year that society considers it appropriate (just as Christmas week is set aside for giving lip service to peace and love).
4/11/2011: Fracking the Future
The book Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update describes simulations of key variables affecting the world's population which show that the pursuit of energy at the expense of the environment will lead to population collapse. This is due to a deadly feedback loop: more energy is required to deal with the consequences, which causes more damage. Related to this are two of today's news stories, which deal with the environmental consequences of extracting fossil fuel from rocks, which is expensive from both an economic and an environmental perspective.
"Fracking," one such process for mining natural gas, has already gotten a lot of bad press for contaminating water supplies. As a new study highlights, it is also likely to be worse for global climate change than coal because it releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Oil ("tar") sands are a reservoir for hard-to-get oil, and also problematic for climate change because of the huge energy input needed for the process. Mining oil sands also requires strip mining, with obvious environmental impacts. Today's news involves the potential exploitation of oil sand deposits in Utah, the first such effort in the United States -- which remains on a track to preserve the status quo for as long as possible.
As oil prices continue to increase in the wake of peak oil, these destructive processes will become more economically viable in the short term. Meanwhile, there is growing awareness of the larger costs ahead, as a recent FAO report about effects of climate change on food production exemplifies. It's all predictable, and predicted: part of a script we seem driven to follow to its tragic conclusion.
4/8/2011: The Politics of Evil
Ultraconservatives appear to be pulling out all the stops to cut society's reigns on the pursuit and exercise of personal power, especially as expressed in commercial activity. That's my take on the drama unfolding in Washington, D.C. and state capitals around the U.S., which today could culminate in the shutdown of the federal government.
Their agenda meets my definition of evil, a term I don't use lightly. At the root of the disagreement over the budget is a set of policy riders in a bill authored by House Republicans, which spells out much of that agenda. The sections relating to the environment and health care are particularly egregious, assuring that more people and members of other species will suffer or die by limiting knowledge and protection from the activities of people and organizations whose direct interests do not otherwise account for those outcomes.
3/31/2011: Energy for a Dying World
One day after the president presented his energy plan, I listened to a large part of the climate change hearing by the House Committee on Science, which presented a variety of views about the validity, characteristics, and impacts of climate change. There was a lot of overlap due to the fact that the majority of climate change is attributed to use of our primary energy sources -- fossil fuels -- which are problematic in other ways.
As I discussed in a recent blog post, the "green economy" proposed as a magic bullet solution to climate change, unreliable energy sources (such as "foreign oil"), and economic competitiveness, focuses on transitioning to alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and biofuels, but does not adequately address the larger issue: the destruction of the natural systems on which everything depends. The president's energy plan is a roadmap through that transition, with the same flaws. To be fair, the plan does include environmental protection as one of its goals, and includes efficiency as a main component (which has its own problems), but these are just paliatives which may delay our demise, but certainly won't avoid it.
Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress won't even go so far as to acknowledge the reality of climate change, never mind considering that the very economic activity they worship might not justify the destruction it "might" be causing. One quibble had to do with how much temperature change our total conversion to green technologies might cause if the rest of the world didn't do the same, and whether the economic costs in doing so would be worth it. My Titanic analogy comes to mind, where the crew decides that it's better to live it up for as long as possible and hope they won't hit the iceberg than to give up some of that time in trying to avoid the collision.
3/28/2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Tools
Last night's edition of "60 Minutes" featured examples of the best and the worst of humanity.
Bob Hurley has devoted his life to helping inner-city teenagers achieve success in school and life by using basketball to teach perseverance and the pursuit of excellence. Elissa Montanti is working to provide medical care for children around the world who have been maimed by violence. They are what truly "being a good person" is all about, serving others selflessly.
Government is a tool for building and maintaining the physical and cultural infrastructure that keeps a complex society functioning. Because we're not all selflessly helping each other, we use money -- as taxes -- to enable government to do those things for us.
Corporations are also tools, but they have a narrower purpose: to maximize the personal power of their owners. Because they use the infrastructure of the societies in which they are embedded, they are also expected to pay taxes; but because money equals power in our society, their purpose is best served by minimizing the taxes they pay, at least in the short term, while others are able to pay the difference to keep up the infrastructure. Enabled by globalization, such tax avoidance has now become common practice, as described in last night's story. When confronted with this abdication of social responsibility, corporate executives blame the governments (specifically, that of the U.S.) for having tax rates that are too high. As the exact opposite of the good people profiled in the other two stories, the owners of these tools are supporting the ravaging of the global society, and through their agents blaming the society's agents for not wanting them to do more.
3/27/2011: Lies and Values
There were several news stories and events relating to the origins and relevance of Christianity in the news this past week. As I mentioned in my last comment, one story described evidence that God may have originally had a wife in early versions of Judaeo-Christian text. Another story discussed a number of misrepresentations about authorship of the New Testament. Meanwhile, the new movie "Paul" was attacked for promoting atheism by suggesting how an alien would view fundamentalist Christianity.
As an atheist myself, I couldn't resist jumping on the bandwagon with a few "pithy comments" and posts to my Facebook page. My feelings about this issue have been at a low-level boil for more than a decade since, after reviewing the evidence, I became convinced that the value system I had supported most of my life was built on lies unbecoming of an omnipotent creator. Although I reject the Bible's supernatural claims and consider it to be a work of historical fiction, I still subscribe to much of the basic philosophy attributed to Jesus, such as loving each other as family and viewing the pursuit of personal power as evil. It is mostly on perversions of those "good points" that I choose to take a stand against those who still call themselves his followers. Until recently, I took a "live and let live" attitude about the rest, but a lot of really bad stuff is happening (like global extinction) as a result of many of the most powerful people in the world believing that God will keep them from harm.
I consider it healthy that scholarship and popular culture is questioning our basic values, but only if that questioning leads to ones that don't threaten the survival of humanity and the rest of the planet, which in my opinion should be the highest value of all.
3/24/2011: Branches of News
As Lockheed-Martin unveiled the prototype for its Orion spacecraft, which could take people to the Moon and Mars, urban gardeners were being warned to test their gardens for dangerous pollution. Meanwhile, evidence surfaced that the Bible may have been imperfectly scrubbed of evidence that God originally had a wife. These were just a few of the news stories that caught my eye this week, coincidentally on the Huffington Post, one of the many news sources on the Web (in this case, an aggregator) that I check in with on a daily basis. These particular stories stand out for me because they represent the paths that intersect the branching point we will pass through in this decade which determines our ultimate fate as a species.
The Bible story is about our past, which set the stage for much of the cultural development that brought us to this point. The Judeao-Christian stories became the basis of most of the world's most successful religions, which justified the domination of our planet.
The urban garden story highlights the question of whether the majority of us will be able to live sustainably on Earth, or whether we will be forced into a population crash. Pollution is one the greatest threats to the natural world, which (like it or not) includes us. It needs to be cleaned up if we are to survive, regardless of whatever else we do.
Of course, that "whatever else" is represented by the spacecraft story: the access to new resources through the settlement of space. We are decades behind in the exploration that is a necessary precursor to the settlement that would have to start in this decade to continue our preferred growth (disturbingly, we are are equivalently late in our preparation for the sustainability option).
Maybe we'll clean up our messes, learn useful lessons about too much faith, and have enough time to establish life on another world. Those are the kinds of positive follow-up stories I'll be keeping an eye out for.
By militarily intervening in Libya without debate, President Obama both violated the precautionary principle and risked almost-certain punishment by the law of unintended consequences. Sadly, he knew better when he was running for president,when the catastrophic consequences of his predecessor's interventions were already in full display. As president, with the approval of Bush's collaborators in Congress, he willingly let the former president off the legal hook for illegally starting two wars and numerous war crimes. Ironically, he may not get the same treatment from the current Congress, and as a minimum will likely lose a chance at a second term as a result.
We shouldn't forget that Gaddafi is a "bad man" because he sought and exercised too much power, which has resulted in the loss of many lives. Arguably, many of our own leaders, especially in industry, have caused (perhaps more indirect, but no less grievous) harm to many more people for precisely the same reason. Whatever our motivation, we are reponsible for both the immediate and long-term consequences of our actions, and if we are part of a healthy society, we can enlist each other's aid to minimize the worst of those consequences. That we can arrogantly attempt to stop one person's behavior and sanction similar behavior among ourselves is perhaps the surest sign that we are a very unhealthy society. Until we can recognize our own issues and become healthy in one way or another, it might be best if we restrict our own power first.
3/19/2011: Right to Compete
The GOP's obsession with abortion has long been a puzzlement. While promoting policies that lead to the death of adults and children (war, denying critical services to the poor, and advocating the torture and murder of anyone they consider a threat -- whether proven or not), they zealously defend the chance for collections of cells to develop into fully-developed babies, regardless of its effects on the potential mothers. To do so, they're willing to go so far as to kill and terrorize doctors, defund family planning organizations, and subject women to interrogation to find out if they "deserve" a tax break for an abortion.
It now makes sense to me, in light of the overriding desire of conservatives to maximize personal power, which they euphemistically refer to as "freedom": Everyone deserves the chance to compete. Society has an obligation to enable as many people as possible to seek power, and to make it possible for them to get as much as they can. Besides, one of the rewards for winning is to know you beat a lot of people, and the more the better.
3/18/2011: Bombs in Our Midst
As Japan struggles in the aftermath of a horrible disaster and tries desperately to keep another one from getting worse, the rest of us are grappling with the knowledge that we have been taking similar risks, and that the governments we have depended on to keep us safe have known about it for years. Nearly ten years ago, a period of unusual domestic prosperity and safety ended in the U.S. as we discovered the dark side of the military and economic colonialism that we expected to protect us. Now we are facing the dark side of the economic adventurism that we've depended on to provide unending exponential growth. The bottom line is that recklessness and ruthless competition with everyone are both incompatible with long-term security. They require an increasing amount of effort and resources which cannot be sustained no matter how committed you are. When you reach either limit, as we are doing now with both, you must deal with the fact that you have left ticking time bombs wherever you've gone. Now they all surround you, and they're starting to go off.
3/17/2011: Head in the Sand Politics
In a recent post to Climate Progress, Rep. Peter DeFazio accurately sums up the end result of the House GOP's reckless attempts to reduce funding for NOAA: "People will die." This continues a trend toward effectively blinding the American people to the negative impacts of our economic activity on the environment and human health. Their agenda seems pretty clear to me: Enable the unlimited pursuit of personal power, no matter what the cost. Because money means power in our society, nothing must get in the way of increasing profits. When people find out the true costs of what they're buying, they're likely to buy less of it - therefore reducing the profits of those producing them. Reducing those costs is expensive (also reducing profits). It's much cheaper to just keep your customers in the dark, and that's apparently the tactic being used now:
World happiness — life satisfaction — has been increasing over time. We can track this using its correlation with the global ecological footprint, a measure of a population's use of ecological resources.
Because resources are limited, we can calculate how long it would take for a given population to exhaust them (Tmax) if they were consumed at a certain rate. Using the relationship between consumption and happiness, we can then identify what level of happiness would exhaust all resources in one year (Tmax = 1).
The world recently became incapable of keeping the entire population at maximum happiness (100%) for more than a year. The event signalled the imminence of a population crash, and coincided with the onset of the global economic crisis.
Projections of U.S. income and cost of living based on the population-consumption model suggest that this recession is a consequence of the world's depletion of resources, and that income will grow just barely faster than expense until the world population crashes.
On health care reform and global warming, our leaders have confirmed that they are capable of only halfway measures to deal with the most critical issues of our time. While it is tempting to blame individuals and alliances, the real problem is that as a culture we value growth and individual power above the survival of all, and some lives more than others based on how successful they are at catering to our basest wants rather than our basic needs.
Perhaps the best world we could hope for is one where people cooperate much like the species in a healthy ecosystem. This will perhaps require siphoning energy from our current efforts into building new relationships, with an uncertain result.
The book "Plan C" by Pat Murphy lays out in great detail how we came to reach peak oil and what we can do to alleviate its effects, especially from the perspective of the United States. Statistics quoted in the book suggest that there is 80% of consumption not accounted for in this site's population-consumption projections which is attributable to global warming carbon dioxide emissions. See the blog entry "Plan C-B."
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