What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Good Religion

As indicated before in these blogs, I don’t have much time for religion. This is especially the case with Christianity, as I believe that the historical events basic to that religion simply didn’t happen, or didn’t happen in the sense that Christianity maintains (ie Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, not a divine figure).

However, there is one way of thinking that is religious in some sense which I espouse, and the observant amongst you will already have guessed that it is Daoism.

Daoism is a way of thought that emerged in the C3 BCE in China, with an important text being the Daode jing (‘The Classic of the Way and its Power’ in one translation). This text is concerned with the Way (Chinese ‘dao’); the Way is what happens, but also why things happen. In other words the Way is the principle behind the universe.
However, the Daode jing in its opening words makes absolutely profound statement about what can be known about the Way:

As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way. (1)*

This one sentence basically solves most philosophical problems that had occurred to people before, and have occurred subsequently. As I have suggested earlier in these blogs, humans are hard-wired to look for causes, and this leads almost inevitably to the search for a Cause. However, Daode jing observes, humans can’t ever have a full knowledge of the Way because we are already a part of it, and part of its processes (you can’t, for example, have a detached and complete view of yourself driving or you would crash, similarly you can’t have a detached and complete view of yourself living, because you are living).

This view of humanity also entails the recognition that humanity can never be viewed in isolation from ‘the 10,000 things’ (a Chinese phrase meaning all living things, the biota, and all non-living things, the phenomena of the world), because these surround and define us as much as we define them.

The Way then is immanent in the world, not detached and separate, as concepts like God are. It is also not a personal God, someone who will rescue you from sticky situations and take you to heaven after you die. In fact in one famous passage the Daode jing states:

Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane;
He regards the common people as straw dogs. (5)

Straw dogs’, like Mao’s ‘capitalist running dogs’, sound like something that should automatically be despised, but an early commentator noted that in the time the Daode jing was written straw dogs were constructed and adorned with care (and if they were anything like other Chinese artistic productions of the period, they would have been constructed and decorated to a very high standard**). These straw dogs were treated with great respect and used in certain rites, but once they had been used they were discarded.

In other words this passage means the Way has regard for the ten thousand things when they play their part in the world, but has no regard for them beyond this. Similarly, ‘the Sage’, the person who has a better understanding than average of the Way, has regard for other people if and when they play their role as part of the Way.

So what is humanity’s role? A famous Daoist saying has it that if a person studies and humbles themself to understand the Way, at the end of all their study and striving their understanding will simply be that of a frog sitting on a water-lily pad. Ribbit!

My interpretation of this is that humanity is to grant itself no greater prominence in the world than is justified by its ecological role. As hunter-gatherers humans were medium to top-level predators, and acted as such, expanding throughout the world, as agriculturalists humanity was able, using the capacity of favourable environments for growing crops, to expand its population, within modernity humanity was able to continue its exploitation of natural resources to transform the world and to greatly expand its capabilities, knowledge and population. However, as we have seen this expansion has outstripped the capacity of the earth to support all this activity. As the Daode jing warns ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’ (55), and if humanity continues on this course of wearing out natural resources and capacity the Way will depart from humanity, ie we will become extinct, just as any other species that outruns resources will do.

However, as I have argued in earlier blogs, we have the means, still, to return to a lower level of exploitation of the natural world and return to way of life that is closer to the Way. The Daode jing, whilst rejecting immortality in terms of personal survival after death defines immortality as ‘To die but not be forgotten—that’s true long life’ (33); at this point in history we, collectively, have our chance at immortality by being remembered as the generation that turned back to the Way and permitted humanity a longer-term relationship with the Way.

These thoughts are in line with a famous passage the Daode jing lays down three virtues for people:

‘I constantly have three treasures;
Hold on to them and treasure them.
The first is compassion;
The second is frugality;
And the third is not presuming to be at the forefront in the world.’ (67)

These three virtues, which are usually in English remembered as ‘compassion, restraint and humility’, I hope are reflected in the thoughts above. We have compassion for other people, and for the ’10,000 things’ equally, we recommend human activities that try to return humanity to a more restrained way of living, and we practise humility by recognising that humanity cannot be above nature, or better than nature, but in fact humanity is not distinct from nature, being in reality humans-in-nature-with-the-Way, or some such concept.

I will leave readers to explore for themselves the Daode jing in all its facets, and to ponder on de (‘power’ or ‘virtue’, the mode of employing the Way in the world), and other important Daoist concepts such as ziran (‘self-so’), wu wei (‘non-action’), ‘emptiness’. There are also other Daoist texts to explore, principally the delightful Chuangzi ([Writings of] Master Chuang).

I should say in introducing Daoism to my readers I am merely expounding one of my favourite hobby-horses. A Christian might expect the world to be saved by everyone embracing Jesus. I don’t expect the world to turn Daoist, but, crucially, the world already is Daoist, insofar as people are already part of the Way, whether they know it or not. For people who follow Daoism, there is no us and them, no ‘Daoist’ and ‘non-Daoists’, because to describe a person as a ‘non-Daoist’ would be as sensible as talking about a ‘non-canine dog’.

We are all part of the Way because there is no sense in which we can be not-of-the-Way. If we are not of the Way, we are dead.

* all quotes from the Daode jing from Robert G Henricks. 1993. Tao-te Ching. New York: Modern Library
** See Chinese Art (1958), William Willetts.

Next Week: Grumbles 1—modernity’s purposelessness and inability to change

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Why the argument that we should simply get as rich as we can and to hell with the consequences is flawed

In this post I want to deal with one beguiling argument that is usually trotted out in discussions of what to do about global warming, ecological decline &c.

(For a full treatment of the argument I refer to works such as Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves).

This argument states that:

  1. We can’t predict the future, we can’t be sure that actions we take now will have the consequences we intended in the future.
  2. Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about global warming or environmental protection, instead we should maximize our wealth in this generation and our heirs will therefore be better placed to deal with any problems that occur in the future.

The first point is plausible, at any point some stochastic event could occur which would complete devastate the planet, such as a large meteorite swinging past the Sun without being detected and, coming out of the Sun, slamming into the Earth. We would have a few hours warning of this, and if large enough the meteorite could destroy all life on Earth.

Or in another example, we could make all the changes I have been discussing in these blogs (though I think that the actual sacrifices involved would not be overwhelming), only for some development a couple of centuries down the track to completely negate them. For example we might have a global society with a sustainable population which was suddenly afflicted by a religious cult that reinvented nuclear weapons and started using them.

However, for the most part the laws of physics and the laws of ecology can allow us to predict pretty accurately what is going to happen. The laws of physics tells us that we are unlikely to discover any technology that provides us with abundant energy (the unlimited energy that powers all societies in science fiction, such as the Dilithium crystals in Star Trek), and the laws of ecology tell us that if we keep on degrading the planet’s ecological resources then our population will drop to a much lower level.

The second point of this argument ignores the fact that ‘wealth’ is crucially dependent on the ecological resources of the planet. It doesn’t matter how ‘wealthy’ a future society is if global warming is transforming its croplands into desert and its groundwater is disappearing. In such cases people would find that their wealth rapidly vanishing.

Indeed there is a sense in which wealth, other than ecological well-being, is delusive. A little fact I jotted down some time ago is that global financial transactions were 75 times global GDP in 2007 (ie before the GEC), up from 15 times in 1990. In other words wealth measured in stocks and shares is essentially overinflated. But, worse still, as I have argued before in these blogs, GDP is itself a delusive measure of wealth, since it fails to include many aspects of environmental degradation, and so overstates the wealth of a nation.

Any sort of wealth is crucially dependent on the social assumptions and support that it requires to maintain it. If I was an ancient Mayan merchant I would probably be extremely wealthy if I had a stock of Quetzal feathers, nowadays, I would (I hope) simply be under arrest for dealing with feathers from an endangered species. A Roman aristocrat of the C2 on his Gaulish estates was extremely wealthy and secure, protected by the Roman army. His descendant of two centuries later was a sitting duck as the barbarians flooded the frontier and his estates were taken away by the Germanic chieftains. Rich people living in gated estates in present day California are very secure in their lifestyles, and will be until the moment that the security guards fail to show up for work and the power for the electric fence goes down, at which point they will be easy targets for criminal gangs.

This argument can be extended from personal wealth and possessions to infrastructure. At the moment in Australia we are building a National Broadband Network (which I happen to think is a good idea). Once the Network is completed then most houses and businesses in Australia will have access to high-speed internet. However, if it turns out in the future that we cease to be able to produce microchips for electronic devices, then instead of a piece of infrastructure supporting and enhancing continued economic activity, all we will have a whole lot of optical fibre cables sitting uselessly in the ground.

Once the effects of global warming, peak oil and peak soil reach a certain point, then wealth in the conventional sense of personal monetary wealth and possessions and infrastructure loses all value. To call for the same sort of wealth creation that has sustained modernity for the last 2½ centuries is also to fail to recognise that this wealth creation is overrunning the capacity of the planet to absorb it.

We don’t know what the future holds, beyond knowing what we know about the laws of physics and ecology. However the view we have been discussing, the one that says we should simply get as rich as we can and to hell with the consequences and maintains that we should put the next generation in the best possible financial position we can, is incorrect—the best possible position we can put the next generation in is one where the work of undoing the damage that false wealth-creation in modernity has inflicted has already begun.

If we do this, then we have done our duty by posterity and we have the chance to be remembered as the generation of ecological saviours. If, on the other hand we continue to produce traditional ‘wealth’ in the destructive fashion it has been produced for the past few centuries, then we will either be deservedly forgotten, or deservedly remembered as the generation that just carried on the mistakes of the past despite having evidence that could have shown us a better way.

Next Week: Good Religion

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Why isn’t knowledge of ecological overreach commonplace?

Someone has asked me to clarify my list of problems facing humanity: global warming, peak oil and ‘peak soil’ (shorthand for humanity’s ecological demands on the planet). They state that they have heard about the first two problems, but not of the global scale of the third. Why isn’t this common knowledge, they ask?

Well firstly it’s easy to see why global warming is such an easily characterised problem, once the initial prediction of the greenhouse effect of CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere was made all that was required to confirm it operating were reliable measures of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and reliable datasets of global temperature. Once these were achieved by the mid 1990s then the rest follows. It is only the wilfully blind who will not acknowledge this.

With peak oil the waters are more muddied: with fossil fuels it has always been a matter of observation that oil is less common than coal, and it has always been acknowledged that oil was likely to run out sometime in the C21. What has obscured knowledge of when peak oil will occur is the behaviour of oil-producing countries and oil companies. Both of these are reluctant to reveal details of how much oil remains. If they maintain a vagueness about the extent of remaining oil reserves they can postpone the transition to a post-carbon energy world long enough to reap huge profits from the very expensive final barrels of oil that are pumped.

What I have described are two problems which are very simple in essence, in the first case it is whether CO2 and other greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere and whether the global temperature is rising (yes and yes). In the second case it is projections of future oil reserves, which should in theory be easy tot make, but which are obscured for political and economic reasons.

In the case of measuring humanity’s ecological demands on the planet, or ecological footprint analysis, however, what is in question are multiple pieces of information. In order to conduct such an investigation the researcher has to look at all of human activity and try to estimate the various ecological impacts of each activity, a huge task. And in practice many pieces of information are missing, or are covered up by governments, companies and individuals trying to look good.

Traditionally of course, researchers would have looked at one particular activity in one particular place, say agriculture of a certain kind in one country, and assessed its ecological impact. In assessing this they would be assuming that humanity’s demands globally are not excessive, and if they find that a particular activity does place excessive ecological demands on the environment, they would assume that other support systems make up for this, or that this activity can be modified to make its impacts more modest. They would not assume the immodesty of all activities taken together; until a few years ago there would have been no sense in trying for a national or global assessment because the assumption was that the total of human activities was reasonable (and laudable) and the planet infinitely bounteous.

A good example of the mental compartmentalisation of issues such as this is the way that many people think of nature conservation as an added extra that we can pay for once we have attained a certain amount of economic growth. I have already criticised this notion in a previous blog.

A similar idea is the way that nature conservation is seen as consisting of isolated problems, usually affecting iconic species like the Giant Panda. Once this is seen as a problem then money is raised, reserves are created and the Giant Panda is ‘saved’—whether or not the Giant Panda survives long-term is, of course, not guaranteed, but a short-term solution ignoring the context for the Panda’s decline has been enacted, and this is enough. Similarly in the 1980s ‘the Whales’ were ‘saved’ by the ban on whaling. And since this ban was enacted the populations of some endangered whales have recovered to a certain extent. However the fact that the whales are ‘saved’ has now entered popular thought, so that the ongoing decline in ocean productivity from the effects of over-fishing and global warming, which will probably causes most species of cetaceans to go extinct this century, is ignored.

Now that global ecological footprint analyses have been carried out, however, we know the total of human activity in fact exceeds the ecological capacity of the planet. The WWF’s Living Planet Report, which I have been referring to throughout these blogs, estimates that we are using 150% of global biological capacity. The WWF is quite a conservative organisation and it is unlikely they would carry a report that vastly overestimated the ecological footprint of human activity (and this ball-park figure has been confirmed by other global analyses). Even if their researchers’ estimates are out by a long way, we are still over the threshold of sustainability; indeed even if the true figure was something like humans using 80-90% of the Earth’s resources then this would still not be good news, because we need to have an ecological buffer to protect ourselves from future stochastic events. Just as I suggested that a sustainable human population for the planet would not be the 2.3 billion that would use 100% of the Earth’s capacity living in first world conditions, but perhaps 1 billion living at that level, then I would suggest we need to be using no more than 50% of global biological capacity to make long-term human survival more likely.

The final reason that type of analysis isn’t more widely known is that it is too difficult to accept the consequences. The main solution I can think of to the news that we acting as we are is that we need urgently to lower our global population and return to a global society of smaller number of people living less unsustainably. However I suspect that most people would not easily be persuaded of this. I also think that if corporate interest (under the guise of popular resistance) can so successfully obfuscate the issue of anthropogenic global warming, which rests on a very simple observational ground, then I think that they would find it easy to take issue with ecological footprint analysis, which rests on a multiplicity of evidence (although the actual concept is just as intuitive as that for global warming).

Next week: Why the argument that we should simply get as rich as we can and to hell with the consequences is flawed.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Best-Case Scenario

Last week I gave a gloomy worst-case scenario, where humanity spiralled towards extinction from massive global famines caused by the collapse of eco-systems in world of global warming, and where the coup de grace was delivered by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

In this week’s post I aim to paint a happier picture of a future for humanity which allows for long-term human survival amidst the ’10,000 things’ (the biota of the planet). Last week’s scenario was caused by current trends continuing unmodified, this week’s happens when we begin to do the right things. Or, to put it another way, last week’s scenario was caused by us relying too much on certain aspects of our evolutionary heritage: self-interest, the ability to subjugate what we know of the world in favour of group-think, the propensity to use extreme violence to secure short-term goals. This week’s scenario sets out on the assumption that people can use other aspects of our evolutionary heritage: the ability to discern cause and effect, the ability to plan for the future, self-sacrifice &c.

The first thing that needs to happen is a step away from fossil fuels. Almost immediately we need to switch to renewables. In fact this would not be hard, because despite the constant propaganda put out by elements within fossil-fuel industries and the nuclear industry, current renewable technology can provide all the energy needs of the world for not very much more than current on-going costs. And if renewables had the same level of investment and support that fossil fuels currently have we could anticipate that the costs would drop rapidly.

In such a scenario it would rapidly become commonplace, for example, that new buildings would be clad in solar panels so that they generated all the power required to power them during day-light hours, with other technologies supplying the smaller amount of power required during the night.

At the same time, every technology promising efficiencies in power and resource use needs to be pursued so that in every way we can cut down on the amount of power used and the amount of materials consumed.

I won’t detail all the changes that would flow on from the above transformation, such as the transition to a transport system based on electric trains and electric cars, but it can be imagined that there would be few areas of society and its operations that would not be affected.

However at the same time as this transformation is happening, another, more difficult one, needs to be happening. Humanity needs to begin having fewer children right across the board. This is because even if we committed to a renewables-based global economy, the resources required for this, and environmental impact of a large human population, would still be too much for the biosphere to continue to support. We might avoid catastrophic climate-change, but this would merely be to postpone problem for another generation when the impacts of a renewably-powered and highly ‘green’, but none-the-less still too large a population, would be felt.

In earlier posts I said I didn’t know this could be achieved all across the world, although I opined that it would be quite easy in Australia. All that would be required would be for Australia to cut immigration to a low level (leaving refugee and humanitarian immigration) and remove most financial incentives for people to have children. This, coupled with a public information campaign and better access to contraception, I think would easily bring Australia’s birth-rate so that a healthy population for the Australian land-mass of around 8-10 million people was achieved by the end of the C21.

I also think that this solution would also work in most developed countries, though I imagine that home of irrationality, the United States, would not see the same changes. Elsewhere it would be more difficult to sell the idea of limiting family-size to people who have not yet seen prosperity, and I’m not sure how this could be achieved, though it would be worth point out that a smaller population in poorer areas would lead to greater prosperity for all. I would hope that people everywhere can see the logic of a smaller population equalling a smaller impact on the environment, leading to the chance of a longer existence for humanity.

Above all I think we need to stop censoring ourselves from telling it like it is simply because we fear people won’t like to hear it. People probably won’t like starving to death either, which is what will happen if we keep silent.

This hopeful scenario is difficult to imagine happen because a lot has to happen quickly, we have to move quickly to decarbonise the economy, and we have to move almost as quickly to lower our population. If we can do both of these then we can probably scrape through—just. If we do neither, or do only the first, then I can’t see where hope for any of us lies.

I anticipate that in a future world the knowledge that the population is declining and the resources of the biosphere are building up again will make people more relaxed, less selfish and more rational. My reading of human history is that early human history was characterised by conflict over scarce resources, but when the economic developments in modernity made resources less scarce a rapidly rising population meant that resources were, in real terms, no less scarce. I hope that the happy ending to this story is a future world of abundant resources where people no longer have to compete for them because there aren’t many people all told.

I know it’s the ultimate in bad taste to quote oneself, but in an earlier blog in this series I outlined a vision for a human future:

I would see the future of humanity as a continuation of human history up until around 1800, where the land areas of the planet were basically a sea of natural vegetation managed at low levels of intensity by humans, with islands of habitat more intensively managed dotted here and there (in contrast to the post C18 world of an intensively (mis)managed land surface of the world with a few island of natural vegetation dotted here and there).

And so long as the lives of the people in this world incorporate the most useful technologies that have been developed, then I don’t see how anyone could find this vision unattractive.

Next week: Why isn’t knowledge of ecological overreach commonplace?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Worst Case Scenario

This week I’m going to talk about a worst case scenario for humanity. This is mainly to contrast with next week’s post, which describes a better case scenario.

On one level it’s intuitive that as we are already committed to a 2°C temperature rise because of the amount of CO2 we have already put into the atmosphere, and emissions continue to rise, and as we are already using 150% of the Earth’s biological resources annually, then things are likely to end badly. On this level there isn’t much point in trawling through various worst case scenarios put forward by different people and trying to combine them.*

However, it is worth talking a little about the likely unfolding of events, to counter the often-repeated opinion that everything will be all right, we can cope because we are rich, technologically-sophisticated and smart.

Unfortunately we are faced with a trio of problems that are almost insurmountable, namely ‘peak soil’ (a shorthand for the exhaustion and mismanagement of soils worldwide and the collapse of biological systems), peak oil and global warming. The collapse of biological systems, including agricultural decline, and global warming are unquestionably happening, peak oil is still debated, but even if vast reserves of oil still remain this won’t help at all, as it will be used and the CO2 emissions resulting from this will make global warming even worse.

It is likely therefore that we will see widespread famines leading to widespread starvation. In modernity hitherto famines have mainly been restricted to single nations (usually because of mismanagement), not whole regions (the Sahel droughts of the 1980s were an exception, and an indication of what future famines are likely to look like).

We delude ourselves that because we have a global economy, then resources can be transferred to whichever region is lacking. This is true up to the point when famines become so frequent and widespread that instead of being able to be helped by the global economy, they act as a drain on it, weakening it and making it more likely that the next famines will be even more widespread.

This would constitute a series of systems collapses in the sense discussed by Joseph Tainter, and more recently by Jared Diamond in his Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Normally in the historical examples that are discussed in this context a society collapses to a lower level of complexity with a lower population. Often surrounding societies then step in to pick up the pieces, as did the Barbarians (Germanic tribes) over the western Roman Empire in the C5 CE.

However in the past societies have collapsed mainly because of local factors. Even when environmental factors were at play, these were local, not global. Now we are facing a global ecological collapse, accompanied by a global climate change (the local effects of which cannot be predicted easily). So instead of a collapse to a lower level of complexity and population followed by a recovery (which would be bad enough in itself), we are likely to see a global collapse through several stages of complexity to a very low level of population, with successor societies struggling to recover at all.

BUT, I don’t even think this is the worst of it. There is no doubting the capacity of different groups of people to take whatever measures they believe are necessary for survival. In the trenches in the First World War the English poet Charles Sorley wrote this sonnet about how he saw soldiers in the British army maintaining their will to survive in impossible conditions:

          Whom Therefore We Ignorantly Worship

These things are silent. Though it may be told
Of luminous deeds that lighten land and sea,
Strong sounding actions with broad minstrelsy
Of praise, strange hazards and adventures bold,
We hold to the old things that grow not old:
Blind, patient, hungry, hopeless (without fee
Of all our hunger and unhope are we),
To the first ultimate instinct, to God we hold.

They flicker, glitter, flicker. But we bide,
We, the blind weavers of an intense fate,
Asking but this—that we may be denied:
Desiring only desire insatiate,
Unheard, unnamed, unnoticed, crucified
To our unutterable faith, we wait.

Sorley’s portrait of the survival instinct is very dark, and he identifies in it aspects that the conscience (to use the traditional term) actually wants to repress and not have succeed (‘Asking but this—that we may be denied’).

The survival instinct of course has other manifestations than the maintenance of morale in WW1 trench-warfare. We can point in history to various groups who, motivated by a perception that their survival was threatened, have been prepared to commit crimes on the greatest scale. The murder of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany is the most notorious example of this. Nazi propaganda had as its central theme the ‘threat’ posed by Jews to the German race and the necessity of violent action to counter this.

There is no reason to suppose that in a world collapsing on itself that this reaction will not occur, possibly in many different versions. And we should recall that, in contrast to earlier periods in history, now there exists the possibility of the use of nuclear or biological or chemical weapons, or all three, in different ways (targeting people, or crops, or even groundwater). So I see the worse case scenario for humanity as involving a global system collapse accompanied by technologically-sophisticated warfare, the effects of which are likely to leave a legacy of contamination and disease stretching into the future.

In this scenario we can also imagine that several generations of people will have lived in terrible conditions all their lives and we can imagine that the terror and trauma they have experienced will predispose them towards repeating what they have always known, in other words that pyscopathy will have become much more widespread and perhaps a dominant mental mode for humanity.

In such a scenario I think it would be quite possible for humanity to go extinct entirely.

*However, a list of recent works on global warming can be found here. The bibliographies of the Living Planet Report 2010 and the Ehrlich paper I have linked to before also provide some references which can be used to speculate on likely outcomes for humanity.