Eventorum – Warning Sirens…

Thinking on the anomalous weather across North America this past December, capped by a tragic, drought-fueled, out of season wildfire in CO…

Nature is sounding the alarm; her civil defense sirens are blaring.

Humanities’ response is to design better hearing protection.

Photo of the Marshall Fire, Boulder County, CO on December 30th, 2021: by J.S.

Copyright ©️ 2022 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Didn’t See This Coming…

Image:  Excerpted from Washington Post article cited herein.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again:  changing population demographics unbalances the representativeness of our representative system of government has described in this Washington Post article on July 12th, 2018: “In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states.

Eventorum explained.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #9 – Liberal Thoughts

Image:  The seven liberal arts – Illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, 12th century.  Source: Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yes this is a provocative title, as I expect that many will immediately leap to the political connotations of the word “liberal”.  Liberal and conservative; left and right; right and wrong; etcetera.  Personally, I think that those words no longer have much meaning in modern political America.  These labels seem to be more about polls and elections, power and control, and less about what is best for the people and the planet on which we and all living things depend.

No, when I titled this Provocation I was reflecting upon my son’s recent graduation, and the context I had in mind is liberal education — as in the liberal arts. 

From the time I was young, through graduate school, I studied science.  And for me science is about seeking the truth.  As for ‘truth seeking’ I must confess that I think that many scientists do not seem to recognize this simple fact; though they would deny this lack of recognition on their part most strenuously if you put it to them in this way.  From my vantage point, it would seem that many scientists either miss, or ignore, or see only a part of the truth when they come across it.   An outcome of this (via the law of unintended consequences and other pathways), is that science and technology are at the root of our problems and challenges today.  That being said, it is likely that we will need science and technology, and more importantly new and ethical ways of using and applying them, to transition to a better state of affairs.  

How we use and apply science and technology takes us back to liberal education…  In a time when we seem to be engaging in “geek worship” and elevating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education over the humanities, we actually need need the liberally educated more than ever. 

It is only when we recognize that our greatest and most important problems are sociological and environmental, that we can begin to make better decisions, set better policy, and take appropriate and helpful actions.  In an outcome-driven, bottom line-obsessed culture, this shift in thinking will not come from the sciences.  We can only achieve this new way of thinking and decision making by recognizing the shared humanity in our plight.  And this recognition must extend beyond human beings to include all things, both animate and inanimate.  Only then will we actually create the conditions for a hopeful future for all.

So this is the truth that I have found. We have the cart before the horse.  Science and technology are now driving society and this is backwards.  Ultimately and fundamentally, the solutions to our problems are not technical.  They are driven by sociological and environmental imperatives.  Thus we must lead from the humanities and let them guide and direct the scientific agenda and set our policies.  Therein lies our salvation.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Fiddling With Nature

About the Image:   The clean, white snow melts more slowly than dirty (darker) dust-covered snow because it reflects more radiation from the sun rather than absorbing it.  This Image was excerpted from NPR, and was courtesy of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Happy Earth Day!

A day for celebration and reflection on our impact on the planet.

Eventorum:

Through humanity’s alteration of the landscape in the Southwest, we’re disrupting Nature and fiddling with the water supply of 40 million people:  “The Rocky Mountains Have A Dust Problem“.

Eventorum explained.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Trending Words

You can tell what’s on people’s minds (and is trending in the news), by the words people are looking up:  Merriam-Webster’s Latest Trends (Word lookups driven by news events, celebrities, sports, and more).

Here’s the top 5 list (screen grab) from 14 April 2018:

2018_04_14 MW Trending top 5 words-only

Eventorum explained.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #6 – Too Busy to Think

About the Image (above):  Interior, Grand Central Station, New York, New York (January 21, 2007) by Carol Highsmith.  Image from the Library of Congress

I had another topic in mind for Provocations #6, but I’m going to take a different tack instead.  Frankly, I’ve been too busy to give much thought to the original subject, which called to mind a passage from the writer, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968).  Merton was an American Trappist monk; a theologian, a mystic, a student of comparative religion, a poet, and a social activist.  In his book (I love this title), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton writes:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

His words are obviously directed towards activists for positive social or environmental change.  But they apply more broadly.

TMertonStudy

Thomas Merton

Give Yourself a Break

This is a personal cost of our hectic, even frantic lifestyles.  Others include detrimental affects on our health and on our relationships.

There are larger more insidious costs as well.  Our busyness, overwork, and the stress induced by them, prevent us from questioning the status quo; from holding our leaders accountable; from making healthy choices for the planet and for us; from reflecting on the impacts of our lifestyle choices; from working on positive change.

So give yourself a break.  Take some time for friends and loved ones.  Spend some time out in nature, she’s the greatest muse we have.  Give your brain a little space to function.  And we might find ourselves well on the way to making the world a little better and happier place.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

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