Emily J. Gertz (emilyg) Mon 30 Aug 04 06:58
As I've said on WC, I'll say here: I think that it's highly arguable that China's population policies have been ecologically effective. If that is the only example of ecological totalitarianism we have to debate the point, then it's not convincing, at least not to me. >So -- if I'm not stretching that point too far -- I'm really still interested in the question of how to change that kind of a fundamental or core value. David, I think we are actually IN that fundamental shift right now. It's just that the 'right now' is lasting for several decades, proceeding apace with appalling levels of destruction to systems that may not be replaced--or easily replaced--like the health of the world's oceans and ocean species, or the presence of great forests. For all the significant faults with current U.S. regulatory systems, say, they are nonetheless constant arenas of debate, flux, and change. For example: why was it worth it for the energy and chemical industries to co-opt the United States Environmental Protection Agency? The two-ton elephant answer is greed, but more compellingly it was because Americans really are extremely invested in the ostensible goals of EPA to control and reduce, and at least in the public's mind, eliminate, pollution and other impacts on clean air and water, how pesticides are formulated and used, etc. The entire Bush environmental agenda (to harp on what I'm steeped in at this time) has been conducted with fair amounts of skill, sometimes stealth and sometimes pure power politics, but always with an eye to spinning it to sound positive to the middle-of-the-road American, because these same Americans support most "environmentalist" goals. So I'd argue that the mindset is there. What about the popularity of SUVs, I hear you cry? Well, it's got very little internal consistency. But the foundations are there. (Now, there is a whole 'nother discussion I'm evading here, about doing less harm as opposed to no harm--this might be the next fundamental change we need to make in regulatory systems, uh, if we manage to wrest those systems away from industry.) I think what's hard and heartbreaking is to be living in the midst of this very gradual change, when we have a clear view of what's being lost--or what will need serious effort to repair, thinking of Jamais' posting to WorldChanging about biodiversity arks--even if we emerge into more positive and sustainable systems in the future.
John S. Quarterman (jonl) Mon 30 Aug 04 08:49
Email from John Quarterman: ``The SUV is an example of what I meant by forces that will drive change. People will stop driving SUVs (and will drive automobiles less) as energy becomes scarce and expensive. Even hybrid SUVs will suck energy because of their inherent size and weight, and people will naturally decide against that drain.'' Will they? Or maybe more efficient SUVs will promote economies of scale. It's much easier to carry a whole family with paraphernalia (sports gear, nursery gear, building materials, whatever) in an SUV than in a coupe. In other words, if SUVs promote car-pooling, and SUVs become more efficient, aren't SUVs then more efficient *in aggregate* than traditional cars? If it takes 1 efficient SUV to carry what 2 efficient traditional cars could carry, isn't the SUV preferable? Perhaps worldchanging should avoid prejudices such as "SUVs are bad simply because they're big." Big can mean economies of scale. Why talk about "we are all to blame"? Why not talk about how to leverage market demand to be an advantage? Similarly, why less air travel? Why not more efficient airplanes and *more* air travel so people will become even more familiar with foreign climes? It's harder to attack a place once you've been there. How much does a war cost vs. how many years of air travel to the potential war zone? Does anybody have a handy chart of increases in efficiencies in airplanes over time? Also of efficiencies due to Southwest Airlines style organization of air travel? As to the United States being replaced as a role model, remember that the U.S. is one of the very few places that has a whole continent's resources to draw from. The few equivalents (China, Brazil, India, Russia) are all still quite a bit behind in development. However, as Tawn Kennedy says, ``It is heartening to think in terms of 'leap frogging' nations and the flexibility that a lack of entrenched infrastucture allows for the implementation of cheap green technology.'' Right now we have an example of a country with much its infrastructure destroyed, an educated populace, and gigabucks of foreign investment pouring in: Iraq. Why not try some leapfrogging there to sustainable distributed green technologies? As for everyone worldwide being able to enjoy the same standard of living, are we not able to imagine ways to do that? And without aggregating everybody into highrise apartments Hong Kong style? For example, in most of Texas, solar cells on the roof can eliminate most draws on the power grid. And significant reductions in energy usage can be had simply by putting solar screens on windows to reflect most sun before it hits glass, and by replacing dark roofs with reflective colors. Much of the middle east and Africa could do the same, especially once solar cells become sufficiently inexpensive. We're talking factor 10 and higher reductions in energy usage from currently-available technologies, before even getting into building houses to be more efficient in the first place. Look at what Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute http://www.rmi.org/ have done in other climates; he's got a tropical garden growing in his house in the Rockies with no draw from the power grid. His adventures in bringing new economies to many industries are well documented over many years. If you think of standard of living as about spending a certain amount of energy, of course it's not possible for everyone to have the same standard. But if you think of it as having convenient housing temperature, communications, transportation, etc., then why can't it be possible? Meanwhile, look at refrigeration. An African, Mohammed Bah Abba of Nigeria, recently invented a refrigeration technique involving two pots and water that could have been implemented thousands of years ago: http://www.rolexawards.com/special-feature/inventions/abba.html (This was reported on Worldchanging, which is probably where I heard of it.) People want better than factor 10 improvements in efficiency; this one is from nothing to more than something for zero draw on the power grid: what factor efficiency is that? What else haven't we thought of yet? -jsq John S. Quarterman
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 30 Aug 04 08:57
John, I think we were making the same point regarding SUVs - that we'll demand efficiency. My view is that, if the SUV changes to become more efficient, it becomes something else. But that's my view, and your thought is just as valid. Re. standard of living, perhaps we haven't done enough to define that standard; perhaps we need data that defines the average American SOL before we define whether the rest of the world can match it with available resources. I think when Jamais says that everyone on the world can live comfortably, he's still thinking about a lower overall standard than Jim White was when he said you couldn't bring the whole world population as it stands now to the U.S. level.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Mon 30 Aug 04 09:31
Nope, but I do mean *different* characteristics for that standard of living. As a crude example of what I mean, a bit more than a century ago, a high standard of living in the US would include some number of household servants, and even what we would now call "middle class" households had a couple; few people have household servants now, but fewer still would argue that the American standard of living is worse now because of that. The definition of what constitutes a high standard of living changed. (This points to a problem inherent to the standard of living concept, though: in any material-goods-based definition (such as refrigerators per 1000 people), the choice of what to include is an intrinsically political one. We can see that in recent arguments put out by some conservative group (and I don't have the reference in front of me, so I may be misremembering the source) that Europeans have a lower standard of living than Americans because they have fewer air conditioners per capita. The quick counterpoint raised in response was that you'd get a different result if you measured health coverage instead of per-capita AC, but that simply underscores my argument.) So when I say that I believe that it would be possible for the planet's population to live sustainably with a high standard of living (given enough effort, a measure of technological advances, money, political will, etc. -- that is to say, probably not soon), you're correct to think that I don't mean everyone with sprawling, inefficient ranch homes, gas-guzzling cars, and overworked air conditioners. But that doesn't mean I imagine people having to make do with less. I imagine them being happy with better. JSQ: The questions you ask are good ones, and on the right target. It's likely that the path of the discussion here in Inkwell has mischaracterized the bulk of the conversation on WorldChanging itself -- we don't spend screen after screen arguing that SUVs are evil, etc. We spend most of our efforts exploring the ways to resolve the big problems, and asking questions very similar to those you posed in #52.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 11:29
Vinay Gupta writes: I had an idea last night. A way to create a Constitutional framework to protect the earth. It's really simple. Corporations are "persons" in the legal sense - they can have a lawyer argue that they own something, that they are being defamed, that they have the protection of the law. What if we did that for the planet? Seriously: if we legally ruled that The Planet is a Person in the same way that IBM, Inc, is A Person, and thereby extended the full weight of law to the protection of the planet? You could then say "but how does The Planet" hire lawyers, and I think we can find a body of law in things like advocates for children in divorce cases or for people in comas - just because The Planet isn't able to make it's wishes expressly clear in a legally binding sense doesn't mean that it can't have legal representation. Makes me wonder, you know? This actually seems like something I could imagine seeing within my lifespan: if the Corporation can go from anathema, a banned institution, to Corporate Personhood in a hundred years or so, why shouldn't The Planet make the same journey in less, say two generations? Doesn't being arrested for "Assaulting The Planet" make so much more sense than having the EPA come along and point to some silly regulatory framework which can't keep up with current technology anyway? $0.02, but you heard it here first ;-)
from PAUL WAGGONER (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 11:32
Paul Waggoner writes: Hello WorldChanging, I would like to solicit some opinions on global agricultural security. It seems that in terms of all of the poorly designed gadgets that assist us in our daily lives, the SUV being the poster child, there is a great amount of room for improving efficiency. However, some elements of our material lives may always require the exact same amount of material and energy inputs. The human body will always require a known amount of food and water over time. A tomato of a certain size is always going to require a known pile of Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Oxygen, and no amount of ingeneous engineering is going to reduce that pile by a factor of 4 or 10 or anything. The C's, H's, and O's are somewhat abundant but a number of articles I've read recently have called into question the long-term availability of the N's. http://www.harpers.org/TheOilWeEat.html http://www.dieoff.org/page69.htm http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/100303_eating_oil.html All of these articles cover the exact same material, namely the relationship between fossil fuels and food production. The basic suggestion is that the fertility of our agricultural soils has already been severely weakened and we only manage to produce the massive yields of grain that we do thanks to fossil fuel derived nitrogen fertilizers, not to mention the oil consumption of farming machinery and distribution. The articles also suggest that it was the very introduction of heavy machinery and nitrogen fertilizers that made the Green Revolution of the 50's and 60's possible, without which the Earth would have never generated 6 billion plus people in the first place. Allow me to put forth an axiom, and hopefully one of you WorldChangers can refute this for me, because otherwise we face an extremely dark future: Human populations will always expand to fully utilize the resources made available to them. In the absence of a population control program, how will any amount of gains in the efficiency of food consumption, water consumption, energy consumption, material consumption not be immediately offset by a larger number of consumers? Recent posts have begun to address the "population X average standard of living = total consumption" equation, but I am hoping to get some perspectives on the fundamental limiting factors in the standard of living like food and water, especially given the implication that dwindling oil supplies will mean dwindling food supplies. Thanks, Paul Waggoner
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 11:33
Vinay Gupta writes: Emily, I'd like to point you at: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0999/is_7215_319/ai_57041726 I quote: The policy has eased some of the pressures of rapid population increase on communities, reducing the population by at least 250 million. end quote That's roughly a quarter less Chinese than would exist without the one child family ruling, and these are disproportionately urban chinese. So One Child Family has likely reduced the *total*environmental*impact* of China by somewhere in the region of 25%, and likely significantly more. I'm aware that the correlation between population reduction and reduced impact is not linear: perhaps the remaining population simply consumes more, but in the absence of a detailed analysis (I can't find one) I'm going to suggest 25% is a reasonable estimate. I do not like how One Child Family was implemented. It has left enormous problems, which are likely to grow worse in coming years. I am not holding it up as a model, or suggesting we should copy it. I am suggesting that it worked, nothing more, and nothing less.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 30 Aug 04 12:07
Paul, what you're saying speaks to the issue I have with Jamais' contention that we can deliver a high standard of living to everyone on earth, and sustain it. As Jamais says, the standard of living concept is difficult; we don't necessarily agree what constitutes "high" - but I was actually thinking of the average American's standard as high compared to the majority of the world's population. I think Jamais and I are having semantic differences. The standard of living for most Americans is not just high, it's excessive. Actually, though, on the question of a high standard for all humans, I don't know the answer. I haven't done the math. We're looking at a lot of variables, probably more than you would ever load into a single scenario... so I suspect none of us has the answer. But I think what we want to do at WorldChanging is find people who are building alternatives that we could factor into the more positive scenarios, and create a context for action based on those scenarios. The discussion of limits is irrelevant when you're brainstorming in a big way.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 30 Aug 04 12:09
I shouldn't say irrelevant. It's probably relevant to consider limits when brainstorming... but consideration of limits shouldn't be taken as an absolute constraint.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 12:19
Vinay Gupta: Paul, the Harper's article is great. I'll note that a lot of it is about the energy intensity of food production, which could certainly be reduced, and about wasted fertilizer causing problems downstream, which is likely a problem that whole systems thinking could reduce or eliminate. For some work in this direction, take a look at Precision Farming http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precision_Farming If we could produce bio-available nitrogen exactly where we needed it, and in the quantities required, seems like we could take most of the energy inputs out of the system. And, from what I know of the background science, that sounds like a job for genetic engineers. Now, I LOATH and FEAR genetic engineering. I'm a computer programmer, and I know how dangerous self-replicating code is. The idea of tacking poorly- written human routines on to already sublimely sophisticated natural systems, and "hoping the results are roughly what we expected in the wild" is, from my point of view, slow motion suicide by carelessness. But I'm actually rather a fan of bioreactor-based GE. If the organisms at hand *only* live in nice tight stainless steel vessels and die, immediately, forthwith and completely in the wild, and if we make damn sure that they're sneaky genes don't escape through some poor worker's recombinant cold virus or whatever (you can't tell I'm not a biologist here, right) then I think it's not unreasonable to imagine bioreactors with genetically engineered organisms which live off farm waste or human sewage or the like, and produce a fertilizer stream. Hell, some of those "Living Machines" folks would probably take the GE out of that loop entirely and do it with natural organisms. But either way I think there are solutions. We don't need oil to farm, any more than we need it to drive. And I'm aware of how double edged that statement is.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Mon 30 Aug 04 12:33
>consideration of limits shouldn't be taken as an absolute constraint. That's the key. Too many assertions about the state of the world assume a static environment. It's not. Technology, for example, can be game-changing, and there are plenty of signs that potentially transformative technologies (as well as social models, and cultural movements, and economic approaches) are here and available, but as of yet in insufficient use. And there are technologies (etc.) with even greater potential on the near horizon. Don't confuse this for an argument of "we'll grow our way out of trouble" -- we have to be smart about it. Doing this the right way is not a given, and probably wouldn't happen (at least not in sufficient time) if we relied exclusively on an unconstrained market to bring them about. Jon, my concern about standard of living reduction arguments mirrors what Vinay suggested a few posts back: if a change is perceived as a loss, even if it's for a greater good, there will be a *lot* of pushback. That doesn't mean that making such changes is impossible, only that they'll require a great deal of political pressue to bring about. Solutions which are perceived as attractive options -- because they're cheaper, because they can do more, because they're "cooler" -- will inevitably get a better response. Paul, you raise some troubling issues. Fortunately, there are some solutions for some (many) of them. With regards to agriculture, you will want to learn more about a process called "smart breeding." Alex wrote a great essay about this issue just this last week: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/001097.html and this older WC post links to a recent Wired article explaining how smart breeding differs from biotech agriculture: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/000636.html As for population, fortunately, all signs point to global human population growth slowing, with the planet maxing at about 10 billion people in the mid-late century. It turns out the improvements in life expectancy (for infants as well as for adults) that come from successful economic development are in nearly every case matched and exceeded by shrinking family size. The "population bomb" simply isnt' a problem.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Mon 30 Aug 04 12:34
Vinay slipped, with an alternative to "smart breeding." Hey V, post about that on the site!
Alex Steffen (alexsteffen) Mon 30 Aug 04 16:01
Wow! Great converstaion unfolding here! I think the essential question we need to ask ourselves, when it comes to imagining the environmental future, is "Will people voluntarily use enough less stuff to live sustainably on a global basis?" If you think so, then much of environmentalism's approach to encouraging people to use less makes sense. I don't. If I'm right, we're left with two approaches: forcing people to use less, or finding ways for people to live at high standards of living while doing less environmental harm. I don't find the first approach attractive, or even practical, in most cases. Is the second, "bright green" approach realistic? I wouldn't have said so ten years ago. Now I'm pretty sure it is. It's absolutely clear that we could have lives which compete in wealth and quality with the lives we now lead in the developed world, for about half the environmental costs, using the best available technology and practices. But in order to make our lives globally sustainable, we have to do much, much better -- having a tenth, a twentieth, even a fiftieth of the impact. That, I think, is about to become realistic. Revolutions in design, engineering, business practices and information technology are transforming the landscape of the possible. In fact, I'd say that visions for sustainable prosperity lag far behind the tools, models and ideas for building it.
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 16:52
Vinay Gupta writes: Hey Alex, could you say something more about what you mean by "the visions for sustainable prosperity lag"? I'm interested in what kinds of areas you think are ripe for change!
from JOHN QUARTERMAN (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 17:59
John Quarterman writes: Jonl remarked: ``John, I think we were making the same point regarding SUVs - that we'll demand efficiency. My view is that, if the SUV changes to become more efficient, it becomes something else. But that's my view, and your thought is just as valid.'' OK, agreed. It seems the automotive industry hasn't come up with any name for it other than fuel-efficient SUV: http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/localRegional/view.bg?articleid=75907 Ford is calling theirs the Escape Hybrid: http://www.autointell-news.com/News-2004/June-2004/June-2004-3/June-16-04- p7.htm We'll see how close those come to whatever our goal is for such vehicles. I'd bet they're not there yet, but if people buy them, better ones will follow. ``Re. standard of living, perhaps we haven't done enough to define that standard; perhaps we need data that defines the average American SOL before we define whether the rest of the world can match it with available resources. I think when Jamais says that everyone on the world can live comfortably, he's still thinking about a lower overall standard than Jim White was when he said you couldn't bring the whole world population as it stands now to the U.S. level.'' Why lower? And what does he mean by lower? Using less energy? Fine. Destroying fewer species? Good. Having fewer capabilities? Why? You also say: ``I think Jamais and I are having semantic differences. The standard of living for most Americans is not just high, it's excessive.'' What do you mean by ``excessive''? Stated baldly like that, it sounds like ``Americans live higher than much of the rest of the world so they're excessive.'' Saying that may make people feel virtuous, but it doesn't lead to doing anything about it. Being more specific might. By excessive do you mean Americans are too well nourished and they should become malnourished like much of the rest of the world? Or do you mean Americans eat too much and are too fat? If so, that one is pretty well documented: http://www.harvard-magazine.com/on-line/030407.html The Deadliest Sin, by Jonathan Shaw http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0408/feature3/index.html Why Are We So Fat? By Cathy Newman As the Harpers article points out, the answer is related to agribusiness, which is related to the petroleum industry. I do find the Harper's article's recommendation of sheep grazing on natural grasses rather ironic, because it was sheep that caused the Clearances in Scotland that depopulated the Highlands. Neither farming nor grazing are inherently good, but either one can be bad. Personally, I think more efficient and less harmful agricultultural and industrial solutions will become more widespread as corporations realize there's profit in them and people realize they will provide a *higher* standard of living, not lower. For example, I'd consider a house that stays cool by shading and air circulation to be at least as high a standard of living as a house that requires an air conditioner that costs money to run and will have to be replaced, plus a house that uses an indoor garden to clean the air I would consider a higher standard. One of the biggest incentives for such changes will be oil running out, or, rather, oil prices going up as oil gets scarce. So I see the end of oil less as a problem than as an opportunity. I'd guess such changes will go easier and faster if people can see what can be done. It seems Worldchanging is already busy with visionary education, and of perhaps the most important kind: education about the connections between systems that are otherwise invisible to most people. -jsq
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 30 Aug 04 19:58
> if a change is perceived as a loss, even > if it's for a greater good, there will be a *lot* of pushback. My thinking was that the change would be less a matter of choice than necessity. > we're left with two approaches: forcing people to use less, or finding > ways for people to live at high standards of living while doing less > environmental harm. But the problem is not just one of damage to the environment. There is a question of global economic balance. I think we have to consider the probability of a leveling effect, where the U.S. becomes less wealthy compared to the rest of the world. This is already happening: consider the extent of foreign investment in the U.S., and the extent of offshore outsourcing by U.S. companies. We're not as wealthy as we think we are, and we're bleeding dollars without quite seeing it. > Personally, I think more efficient and less harmful agricultultural and > industrial solutions will become more widespread as corporations realize > there's profit in them and people realize they will provide a *higher* > standard of living, not lower. I agree, but there's still a question how we distribute that higher standard. WorldChanging has a meeting this summer to discuss plausible futurist scenarios. Regretfully, I missed it, however Jamais et al might have something to say about the relevance of that meeting to these questions. Perhaps we should do some scenario building in the context of this discussion?
from VINAY GUPTA (tnf) Mon 30 Aug 04 19:59
Vinay Gupta writes: "Oil running out" is really very open terrain. Some of the smartest people I know think that there's a pretty serious risk of Die Off style agrisocioindustral collapse as the gross infrastructure of our society falls apart in the face of $50 a barrel. Sorry, that was a bad joke. $150 a barrel. On the other hand, perhaps there's more oil that we think, and prices will rise gradually enough to move capital into clean forms rather than simply to destroy it. Who knows? I, for one, am much more into approaches which obsolete oil while it's still in the ground, rather than hoping for the blood of satan to simply run out. Efficiency is not a substitute for replacement!
Alex Steffen (alexsteffen) Tue 31 Aug 04 13:32
Vinay sez: "Hey Alex, could you say something more about what you mean by "the visions for sustainable prosperity lag"? I'm interested in what kinds of areas you think are ripe for change!" Most of the visions we have for what a sustainable society would look like are either the products of the 1960s (Ecotopia, Bucky, Schumacher) or their conceptual children. They usually feature the following ideas prominently: local (sometimes isolationist) economies; a distrust of technology (sometimes combined with a fetish for domed cities and other out-dated macro-tech ideas, or, more recently, an obsession with machines as our masters and "freeze your head" futurism); a renewed reverence for nature, often including a retreat into a state of noble savagery. Often there's a catastrophe which has destroyed the evil centralized forces of control while leaving small town hippies to rebuild the world. Usually the messy, developing part of the world just sort of... disappears. Here's my (obviously deeply biased and subjective) checklist for a contemporary vision of sustainability: 1) Globalism (if not globalization) is taken for granted. Most people in the world aren't white, aren't Christian, and don't speak English as their first language. Many of the most innovative ideas in the world are coming from places like China, India and Brazil. Connections between cultures and people are multiplying rapidly across national boundaries. These things need to be taken into account. 2) Retreating into the past is not allowed. No neo-paleolithic tribal hippies. No small peaceful farming villages which miraculously retain all the advantages of modern society (like vaccines) while avoiding all the pitfalls of isolated small towns (like pogroms). No modern people who discover themselves to be druids or shamen, period. 3) No catastrophes-which-cleanse. Real catastrophes are terrible, sordid nightmares, in which the best people are often very quickly brought to ruin by the nastiest among us. They often involve dying children, burning schools, rape, murder and destruction-out-of-spite. 4) It is assumed that people's desires increase with exposure to higher standards of living, and that, with globalism, most people are at least vaguely aware of the standards of living of the wealthiest people on the planet. Voluntary simplicity as a global driving force will not do. Portrayals of lives more prosperous than our own but with smaller ecological footprints are highly encouraged. 5) People do not miraculously treat each other better than they do now out of choice. If people are treated better, it is because democracy, human rights, the rule of law and other mechanisms to protect the weak from the strong are spread more widely. 6) Ditto economic fairness. G.K. Chesterton's quip that many social reformers "first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon" should be kept in mind. 7) Understand the incredible power of information and communication technologies to change the material circumstances of our lives and the nature of our societies, but also understand that they have limitations and create problems of their own. Have at least thought about what biotechnology will mean to us in the coming decades. 8) Understand that managing the planet is something we're already doing -- however unwittingly and poorly -- and don't reify wilderness or the Gaia hypothesis. At the same time, understand that the planet is incredibly complex, that we don't fully understand the workings of even a single organism yet (much less a whole ecosystem) and that the precautionary principle is more than a good idea. Get what "neo-biological" really means. 9) Cities are good. People who live in cities are good. Anti-urban paranoia results in immediate disqualification, while extra credit can be earned by portraying urban life which is not only sustainable but gracious and satisfying in unexpected ways. 10) Technology does not stop. Culture does not stop. Innovation does not stop. Wonders never cease. Everything just keeps getting weirder and weirder, same as it always has. There's no happy ending, no Millennium, no Apocalypse, no stable-state-society. This is a good thing. An incomplete list. Feel free to add or amend!
Cliff Figallo (fig) Tue 31 Aug 04 13:47
This is great. You Worldchangers are heroes for taking up the Whole Earth mission. Maybe some of you Bay Areans attended the Long Now speaker event last month where Phillip Longman described the research for his book, _The Empty Cradle_. His analysis of statistical trends shows not only a shrinking world population - led by the Western industrialized nations and China - but also a huge demographic shift to more seniors. The game of transforming lifestyles may be determined much more by these organic human reproductive trends than by technological invention and marketing wizardry. As a former "neo-paleolithic tribal hippie" on the Farm, I tried, with my neighbors, to live a lifestyle that was attainable by people with simple means. It wasn't just well-meaning recreation. We shared resources, rejuvenated American junk, applied creativity to communications media and lived off of a diet "for a small planet" that made the most efficient use of the land. It was a great experiment - just like the WELL - and I'm glad I did it. But aside from refining soy as a protein source, I'm not sure what else we did was applicable in the developing world. When I lived in Guatemala for 2 years, there was no junk to rejuvenate. There was no industry for jobs and shrinking land for growing food. I'm always driven to wonder where the thinking of great gobs of smart, well-connected people like us will manifest as improvements in the material world, where the rubber meets the road. It feels great to achieve collective insight, but the world is a very big place and 7 billion (and growing) is a very big number.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Tue 31 Aug 04 15:12
I would add to Alex's list: 11) Failure will happen. It's how failure is managed that demonstrates a functional civilization. * Fail gracefully. Brittle systems, which can appear reliable but fail disastrously, are usually more dangerous than systems which seem less reliable, but degrade rather than collapse. * Recognize that monocultures are simple, seductive, and usually a mistake. Diverse systems are harder to assemble, harder to manage, but are better able to withstand problems. * Preparation for handling failure is at least as important as efforts at stopping failure in the first place. 12) Remember that the future will surprise you, but that some surprises can be expected. * The way the world looks now is not the way it will look when your plans come to fruition. Don't expect stasis. Don't keep "fighting the last war." * Don't try to predict the future, but do try to anticipate it. The difference is that between "will happen" and "might happen" -- think about the "might happens," imagine how your plans would work if they actually came about. * Remember that you might actually win. Don't get so caught up in defending your position that you forget to move forward. Don't plan for every possible failure without having a plan for what you'll do if you succeed.
Alex Steffen (alexsteffen) Tue 31 Aug 04 17:16
Thanks, Cliff! There is definitely a tension between the need to envision dramatic solutions (to blue sky what might be possible) and the need to get our hands dirty (to put rubber on the road). Finding the sweet spot where the two meet to maximum effect -- to find where "the rubber meets the sky" -- that's one of the biggest tasks we all have. And the stakes are high and the time short. As you put it, seven billion is a very big number. As far as Longman's work goes, while I have to admit to not having read the Empty Cradle, I'm a skeptic. The biggest baby boom in human history is unfolding in the developing world right now. Will declining birth rates and aging populations in the developed world have big impact on global trends? Definitely, yes. But the real demographic story is still the huge wave of kids in the global South, and the decisions they make when it comes to family-planning and life choices. But maybe I'm not doing Longman's work justice. Want to explain more? Jamais: love this one, of course: "* Remember that you might actually win. Don't get so caught up in defending your position that you forget to move forward. Don't plan for every possible failure without having a plan for what you'll do if you succeed." Anyone else want to add criteria?
Cliff Figallo (fig) Tue 31 Aug 04 17:54
I'm enjoying what you all are putting up here, and I don't want to cut into your bandwidth, but I'll describe a bit more of Longman's argument. I was a skeptic when I arrived, too. After he spoke, I talked with both Kevin Kelly and Stewart and we all found ourselves impressed with his data and reasoning. I agree that there's nothing deterministic about population trends, but his argument that a snowball effect was possible due to changes in societal attitudes were compelling. He said that societies don't offer incentives to have more than 2 kids, and showed how populations in many countries - including India, South America and the Middle East - are trending toward having equally high percentages of dependent seniors and dependent children. That has never been so in all of human history. One of the meta issues that Longman mentioned is that the same global communications that make people want to live at northern affluent standards have also changed their attitudes about where they live and whether or not they have more than the 2.1 kids per family required to replace population. For instance, he cited consistent evidence that when television penetrates a geographic area, lower birth rates follow. Families seen on TV - especially the affluent ones - don't have more than 2 kids. Increasing urbanization means taking jobs in the childbearing years, which leads to women putting off having kids until, for many of them, it's too late to bear as many as they might have planned. Italy's population shrinkage is accelerating even though Italian women profess to wanting more kids than they actually end up bearing. Urbanization has also brought a decrease in the need to birth large families. In urban environments, having many kids is a liability, not an asset. Because of urbanization, adults see that they can make more money in jobs than they can through putting their kids to work. Interesting to me, especially, was his projection that communal living arrangements will become more practical - maybe even a survival tool - in a world where caretaking of the elders and children will need to be shared around as public institutions will have broken down under overload.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Tue 31 Aug 04 18:13
Cliff, what does he say about the implications of lifespan-extension biotechnologies, if anything? While I'm not about to declare myself part of the first immortal generation, I do suspect that we're on the cusp of some pretty big developments in extending healthy lifespans. 140 is probably possible without too many more discoveries, and longer than that has shifted from outrageous to plausible. My sense is that longer lifespans won't arrive fast enough to make a difference in Europe and Japan.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 1 Sep 04 10:01
Does it strike you that really long lives will be for the very rich, and that basic vaccinations and public health for the very poor may ot be better than half a century ago? I've certainly got that impression, though I haven't been doing the research to confirm the suspicions.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Wed 1 Sep 04 10:24
That's certainly one plausible scenario. It's worth noting, though, that the first wave of these life/health-extension techniques will probably be fairly bug-laden; the first generation to embrace these technologies will really be beta-testing them for subsequent populations. There will be setbacks and problems, and some (many?) people will look at the results and decide that living another decade or three isn't worth the hassle. Another scenario is that the biotech for life/health-extension (for delaying cell apoptosis, for example, or neuron regeneration) is released "into the wild" by researchers working in the public interest, or by an organization able to think beyond next quarter's profits, or by wily hackers who steal the process and put it onto a future version of Grokster, or by researchers who have developed it in an "open-source biology" process. The research is much harder than the distribution. Biotech does not require a massive industrial base; Cuba has one of the best-developed biotech industries in the Western Hemisphere. And to forestall the obvious question, I don't think that life/health-extension technology would have a radical effect on population trends, at least not immediately. This is for a few reasons: demography is a much, much slower process than we tend to imagine, and changes take a while to show up; it's likely that whatever life/health-extension technologies get developed will be most effective the younger and healthier you already are, so the real impact wouldn't even arrive for decades down the road; and a significant portion of the global population, if given the opportunity to live an additional fifty years (or more), may well choose *not* to do so. I've found that a surprisingly large proportion of audiences I've spoken to about future technologies express doubts as to whether they'd take advantage of life/health-extension. Sometimes it's for religious reasons; sometimes it's for ecological ones. Often the reason is more abstract, expressed as a "wrongness" about living longer than we do now. These feelings would change over time, but I don't think that, should such technologies come about, we'll see masses pounding on the doors of biotech labs demanding their immortality pills.
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