Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale

Provocations #4 is a wake-up call that should scare the bejesus out of you.  Here we take a look at questions of scale, the second of the ‘trinity of the unwise’.

In this context I am referring to the scale of the problems that we are facing.  The factual reality is that everything is amplified by the sheer scale of humanity and by how we chose to live.  There are two sides to this same coin: the explosive growth of the human population, and the increasing rate at which each person is consuming resources.  In the simplest terms, there are more people and each person is having a greater impact on the planet.

Let’s Start With the Numbers

As I write this, the world is very quickly approaching 7,500,000,000 people according to the US Census Bureau.  That is seven and one half BILLION people (7.5B)!

An overcrowded train leaves Dhaka's Airport rail station ahead of the Muslim festival Eid-al-Adha

An overcrowded train leaves Dhaka’s Airport rail station.

This is the scaling factor: take everything that you might do over the course of a day —flushing the toilet, commuting to and from work (consuming and emitting hydrocarbons), throwing away your old plastic toothbrush, whatever— and multiply it by 7.5B.  There is of course nuance and variability from person to person, and from region to region, but the general argument holds.  The point is, that the scale of humanity is staggering. It is so mind-bogglingly huge, that it is likely beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Exponential Growth

But … it gets worse. The population is growing exponentially, presently at a rate of 1.1% per year.  This looks like this:

World Popluation

Estimated global human population (billions) from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE.  Source: Wikipedia.org

If the growth rate were to remain constant at 1.1%, the human population will double approximately every 63 years. Informed estimates put the global human population at about 9.8 billion by 2050 (e.g. the United Nations).  The population scale factor is growing, and our future generations will face much greater challenges than we do today.

Never before has the world seen a single species (Homo sapiens) become so absolutely dominant, so quickly.  The Earth, as an ecosystem, is in uncharted territory.  It is entirely novel, so much so in fact that scientists are now considering (and debating) that we may have entered a new epoch, the Antropocene.  But we know from systems and complexity theories that this does not bode well. These topics will almost certainly be the subjects of future blogs.

Impact

While the population is growing explosively, the impact on the planet that each person has is also growing.  It’s a scaling factor double whammy. Let’s take the example of a simple and seemingly (to some) harmless plastic bottle of water.  Twenty years ago, give or take, most of us were content to drink water from a public source, out of a cup or a drinking fountain. Today bottled water has become commonplace and is now globally ubiquitous. The simple arithmetic is scary.  PET-water-Bottle

You think, “Hey, it’s just one plastic water bottle, what impact can that have?” Now imagine that every person thinks the same thing: one bottle a day for one year: that’s suddenly 2,737,500,000,000, nearly 3 trillion water bottles per year.  We’re not there yet, but we’re heading in that direction.  Once estimate from 2014 had us using more than 100 million bottles per day.

Let’s think about those water bottles a little bit more (to say nothing of soda, juice, plastic-lined paper cups from the ‘green mermaid coffee company,’ etc.).  These bottles are filling our landfills, clogging our waterways, hell they’re even beginning to overwhelm the oceans.  Beyond the simple disposal of this bottle, the waste is equally staggering.  The oil for that bottle has to be extracted from deep underground, shipped, refined, shipped some more, turned into plastic, shipped again, turned into a bottle, shipped once more to a bottling plant, filled with liquid, shipped yet again, and so on.  It is endless!

A vast supply chain is needed and it too is driven by the consumption of raw materials and energy, and the production of waste.  It is fractal-like, in that the deeper you dig, the more similarities you see in consumption at every level of the process.  Do you see? The global impact of your humble bottle of water is almost infinite. I could go on and on, the ship to transport the oil is made of steal which had to be mined; so too for the oil rig…

In just a few decades there has been an explosion of personal disposable stuff.  Everyone didn’t need to have their own smartphone, tablet device and laptop, bluetooth speakers, printers, toys, and what not.  And all of these are designed with planned obsolescence and destined for the landfill after a very short period of use.  Virtually everything we consume is toxic. Each year we invent more things we didn’t and don’t need.  Now, multiply that by 7.5B.

To Recap

There are two dimensions that amplify mankind’s impact on the planet: exponential human population growth and a similar growth in our per capita consumption and waste. These scaling factors greatly exacerbate all of our problems.

Our civilization is based on an economic fallacy: the need for endless growth and insatiable consumption.  This is patently unsustainable, as the planet on which our lives depend is finite, it has limited resources. This is a form of insanity.  It cannot continue.  We can choose to confront this reality directly and immediately and act accordingly, or we can allow it to confront us.  Either way, this confrontation is inevitable.

Final Thoughts

In the next installment, Provocations #5 will look at Compounding Problems, the third and final of the Trinity of the Unwise.

The final word belongs to Prof. Albert Bartlett (1923 – 2013):

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #3 – The Ratchet Effect

The Ratchet Effect

Image: A ratchet (pawl and gear) on a ballista (from: jere7my tho?rpe on flickr.com)

In Provocations #3, we will look at the first of the ‘trinity of the unwise’, the Ratchet Effect.  In case you have not read Provocations #2, the other two are ‘Questions of Scale’ and ‘Compounding Problems.’  These will be subjects of forthcoming Provocations.

According to wikipedia.org, “A ratchet is a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the opposite direction.”  I think this sums up my intended meaning here reasonably well.  Putting it a little less prosaically, each time we take from the Earth, there is less for the future.

Humanity is ruthlessly efficient and expeditious at seeking out and exploiting resources.  But at best we struggle to conserve, and utterly fail to place any limits on ourselves.  The general arc of our impact on the planet is one of decline and loss.  Our civilization is wired to consume, and consumption is a one-way street… it’s ratchet.

Another way of putting the ratchet effect is that the margins grow thin.  That is to say, with each societal iteration; with each new development; with each new mine or well; with each new technology; with each new industrial turning of the screw; with every human birth; the margins for error grow thinner. The margins for recovery grow slimmer.   The margins for human resurrection grow dimmer.

Here’s a very simplistic metaphor, the sharing of a candy bar. If you give half of your candy bar to a friend, then half of what is left to another friend, then half of the remaining quarter to yet another, and so on, very soon you find that there is no more candy left for anyone.  Likewise, if you sacrifice half of the existing land that has been preserved, for exploitation, then half again the next time; in a very few iterations you have no pristine, clean, wild places left.  And these places are the very well-springs of life.

The List is Long

There is currently a battle being fought at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness in northern Minnesota, where a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta PLC, is trying to build a giant complex of sulfide-ore copper-and-nickel mines.  Mining in this pristine region would scar the land for beyond generations and could result in acid damage to the land and waterways that can last for centuries.  See here for more information.

Another current case in point is that the current President of the United States seeks to open virtually all of our coastal waters to oil and gas drilling (as reported on January 4 2018 in Reuters and widely elsewhere).  These are just two current examples.  The list of these environmental ratchets is essentially endless; there are countless examples in the news each and every day.

There are also social ratchets.  This is a massive subject deserving of its own singular attention, but to make my point now, I will point out that the current Gini coefficient for the United States is estimated at a staggering 0.85 (see here).  You may well ask, what is a “Gini coefficient?”  It is a measure of the economic disparity, or inequality, of a society.  It was developed around 1912 by the Italian sociologist and statistician Corrado Gini. A country with total wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, whereas a country with all the wealth concentrated in one entity would be a 1.

Finite: “limited in size or extent”

(Definition complements of the Oxford Dictionary of English)

We have to recognize that the Earth and it’s resources are finite (save for the energy from the sun which is effectively infinite).  To deny this fundamental fact is to deny any form of rational thought, any perceived form of reality.  Proverbially, humanity is eating its own seed corn.  Once you despoil the land and water with nuclear waste or other toxic substances, it is useless beyond generations.  We are in the midst of a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence – by definition once an animal is extinct, it is gone forever. Once a mountain top has been removed, there is no longer a mountain.

We are at risk of ratcheting ourselves into oblivion.  This strikes me as a good candidate for one definition of insanity.

A Bright Thought (with Some Big “IFs”)

I will leave you with a reason to act, to counter the great Ratchet.  IF we are willing to acknowledge that the Earth and her resources are finite, and begin to act accordingly, then Nature has proven herself resilient and she can recover, and then so too can we.  That is only IF we leave a substantive and meaningful something for her to recover from.

Next up in Provocations #4, is part two of the Trinity of the Unwise, Questions of Scale.

Closing Thoughts

I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.wendell-berry-L

— Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, 1971

Others have written this sentiment as “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom?

Whither Wisdom?

Image: The Bodhi Tree was a large and very old sacred fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India, under which legend holds that Siddhartha Gautama, aka “the Buddha”, attained enlightenment.

On January 4th, 2018, a Washington Post headline read “Trump moves to vastly expand offshore drilling off US coasts”. This is frightening on several levels. For me, the first would be the direct ecological impacts of this activity. More significant is the amount of sequestered carbon that would be released into the atmosphere if we extract it, adding to global warming and pollution. I could go on but this is enough to motivate the topic of this blog, which is that humans are quite clever but in the main, we are extraordinarily unwise.  This plays out in the aforementioned news article as, we can figure out how to extract oil from beneath the sea floor (an engineering feat to be marveled at), but as a society we lack the ability to understand that this is a fundamentally bad idea.  Wisdom tells us that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Mental Models

Whether we recognize it or not, each one of us has a number mental models about how we think that the world works.  These are a set of semi-unique filters that color our social interactions with other people, how we see the physical world, our interpretations of economic policies, and so on. I have a number of my own.

For example, one of my fundamental tenets is that there is no reality, there is only our perceptions of reality.  Two people can attend the same event, and moments afterward express very different views about what actually transpired.  Another more recent precept for me, is the aforementioned notion that at a very fundamental level humans are clever but unwise. This idea has developed over the past few years or so in my mental model of humanity, as I try to grasp and understand the events and decisions I have been witnessing.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines cleverness as, well, “the quality of being clever.”  Someone who is clever is “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas” and “showing skill and originality; ingenious”.  Whereas wisdom is defined by “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.”  I have chosen the definitions that best indicate the sense in which I am using the words herein.

Intelligence

In some informal sense I see intelligence as the sum of cleverness and wisdom.  It would seem to me that all other living things —be they trees, honey bees, mountain lions, Orca, or pick your favorite— are intelligent in this sense.  They are clever in their existence, in working out their own survival; feeding themselves, finding shelter, reproducing, and so on.  But at the same time they are wise in that they live in harmony and balance within their respective ecosystems.  They only take what they need, and they innately and elegantly live out their lives fulfilling their respective roles.

Humanity on the other hand has forgotten its place.  We have chosen unwisely to ignore limits and any notion that we live in an interdependent and finite world.  We consume without limit, which means we also waste without limit. Consciosly changing large swaths of our home into cesspools.  We believe that we can defer confronting our problems because someday, miraculously, “technology will save us” (it will not – this will be the topic of a future blog post).

Frankly, the vast majority of our problems stem from either a lack of imagination, or a failure of imagination.  Meaning, in the former case that we cannot see beyond our immediate impulses, and in the latter case we see it but choose to ignore it out of fear and greed. I suspect that a failure of imagination is the more likely explanation.  But the end result is the same in either case: we currently have an inability to realize that there is more than one choice about how we live.  We fail to see that we could live life another way, and be happier and healthier, even if the transition would be difficult.  The transition to a better, more sustainable way of living is precisely how we should apply our remarkable traits of cleverness.

Closing Thoughts

Tea bag wisdom (from the little paper label)…

“The difference between between a flower and a weed, is a judgement.”

—Unknown

A sneak peek at what’s next: the next few blogs will explore how our lack of wisdom is hurting us; why the past is not a good guide to the future.  A look at what one might call the trinity of the unwise, namely:

  • The Ratchet Effect
  • Questions of Scale, and
  • Compounding Problems

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider, All Rights Reserved

Provocations #1 – Introduction

Welcome – Why This Blog?

Welcome to the new Provocations Blog.

Let’s face it, most people go about their business and do not question the civilization in which they live, love, work, and play.  For most of us our culture is taken for granted; a given that was granted at birth, like air. Even less so, do people seem to actually think about the implications and impacts that their culture has on the world around them. This blog aims to counter this tendency by teasing apart the socio-economic fabric of our culture, by challenging the underlying assumptions and established paradigms of our society, and to clearly expose the consequences of how we choose to live, on our planet and all living beings on it. I am deeply concerned for the future, our future.

Confronting the Really Big Issues

As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, in a November 2016 speech at Oxford University Union, the famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking argued that we have about 1,000 years to find a new planet to live on –  IF we manage to survive the “rise of artificial intelligence, the ravages of climate change and the threat of nuclear terrorism in the next century.”  Beyond that, “humanity at great risk of encountering another mass extinction.”  This of course ignores that fact that we are already in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction the Earth has witnessed.  So I am even less sanguine.

Over the past couple of years, as I began to think about the mounting list of challenges faced by humanity, I came to the realization that we —humanity— may only have a few generations before it all unravels.  Admittedly, this is not based on a rigorous or quantifiable study.  It is an intuition informed by my lifetime of studying the Earth System, and having read many scientific studies that do look at various dimensions of the current state of affairs and the future.  There are many ways in which the world as we know it can unravel, that civilization can fail:

  • Societal: the social fabric could come apart due to gross inequalities and disparities; excessive consumption and waste; disease and bacteria; a loss of purpose (e.g. artificial intelligence); and growing despair
  • Environmental: the source of our very sustenance is at risk due to global warming (more generally climate change); failing ecosystems; a loss of biodiversity; agriculture failure (loss of soil; monocultures, industrial agriculture, etc.); pollution; lack of potable water; and so on
  • Technological: The rise of artificial intelligence poses a potential threat; as does the rapid growth and the increasing rate of growth of technology; unforeseen consequences and problems caused by new technologies – I note that there is total lack of understanding of the impacts of new technologies, and an absolute lack of wisdom by humanity on the adoption of technologies (we have no policies for this)
  • Geo-Political: humans have an inclination for violence; there remains massive potential for nuclear annihilation; there is growing global unrest and human displacement; we still have unrestrained population growth; globalization is an threat; etc.

This is only a partial list.  To add to the degree of concern and the complexity of our problems, all of these issues are interrelated and compounding.  As we know from systems and complexity theories, there are concepts such as tipping points and feedback processes and the like.  In other words, a crisis in one area can trigger crises in other areas, and we can reach points of no return from which we cannot recover.

On a Personal Level…

My motivations for writing this blog are manifold.  By expressing these ideas publicly, I seek to challenge both the ideas themselves and you, the reader.  But a more basic and perhaps slightly selfish reason, is to have a place to collect, organize, and express my thoughts and concerns on the state of the world and the life it cradles.  Also the exercise of writing, akin to teaching, forces one to refine and hone one’s thinking and imposes a form of discipline.

At a deeper level, there are few who examine and challenge the very fundamental assumptions that underly our society, our civilization.  We take for granted that things must be the way they are in spite of the fact that there is good evidence that our way of living is, at best, detrimental to the planet and to every living thing on it, including us.  At worst, our way of living could lead to our demise.

Now before you all go rushing to slap some kind of label on me, let me just say that this blog is apolitical; it transcends politics.  I fail to see much distinction between the labels “right” and “left” as they are both a part of the dominant culture. And the general arc of the story of this culture (specifically the United States, but generally all nation states) remains unchanged regardless of which party is in office.

This story is much about consumption, waste, abuse, destruction, war, the concentration of power and wealth into fewer hands and the associated and growing inequities it causes.  And so on, the litany is long. At the same time there are parts of this story, which are undeniably beautiful.  There are still people who are kind and generous and creative.  There are still places of natural beauty and abundance, though you have to look harder and harder to find it. And I find hope in the fact that in the absence of human pressure, nature recovers if she is allowed to, if not always in a human time frame (an open pit mine is a scar for eons; and once extinct there is nothing to recover, it takes millions of years for new species to evolve).

These are deep and dark issues and I hope that I can hang on to my native sense of humor, and to find the beauty to celebrate as well.  But we do ourselves a disservice to ignore the realities.

What’s in a Name?

The title of this blog was inspired by Dr. Walter Orr Roberts (August, 1915 – March, 1990).  Walt  Roberts, an astronomer and atmospheric physicist, was the founder of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO and a leading climate scientist of his day.  Roberts and a group of his colleagues had formed a “Climate Club” and they engaged in what they had called “computer conferencing.”  This was in the 1980s when the Internet was very young and the world wide web and HTML did not exist.

Walt began to send “occasional short entries” to this group.  He wrote, “I am calling these items “Provocations” since they’re intended to provoke some debate or controversy.  So please do respond!! The items will be numbered…” His topics were varied and diverse and wide-ranging.  These were collected in (I confess, a somewhat obscure reference):

The climate club: a collection of 299 provocations written by Walter Orr Roberts as they appeared in WBSI teleconferences between May 1984 and February 1990. La Jolla, California, Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, 19990. ix, 333 pp.

Closing Thoughts

In this blog, I will strive to follow Aristotle’s advice:

“To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man.”

With this in mind, I expect that future entries, which will come on a roughly weekly basis, will be somewhat shorter and more pithy.

Image credit: https://novembro.deviantart.com/art/mother-earth-97498863

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved