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Sep
28

Wendell Berry: “I would argue that it is not human fecundity that is overcrowding…

Wendell Berry: “I would argue that it is not human fecundity that is overcrowding the world so much as the technological multipliers of the power of individual humans. The worst disease of the world now is probably the ideology of technological heroism, according to which more and more people willingly cause large-scale effects that they do not see and that they cannot control. This is the ideology of the professional class of the industrial nations—a class whose allegiance to communities and places has been dissolved by their economic motives and by their educations. These are people who will go anywhere and jeopardize anything in order to assure the success of their careers.”

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14 comments

  1. John Bump
    John Bump says:

    A related effect is technology's leverage giving people to intentionally destroy more things, more easily. At some point, a talented and determined individual will be able to make biological warfare agents, and then we have a problem.

  2. Samara Sonmor
    Samara Sonmor says:

    As we were talking about at dinner, though +Chris George, if we begin to reconnect those professional people with their communities and localities, and scrutinize their effects on society from beginning to end of their operations, we can shift this kind of thinking into different pathways. I don't believe this is the overriding motivation for most business owners, however it has become acceptable and even expected for business to externalize costs of operations.

  3. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    +Samara Sonmor I suspect there's a lot of people who'd like to do this.

    There are a number of challenges.  

    One is just finding the time.  People are stressed and pushed to their limits.

    Another is uncertainty.  One thing that's changed drastically over the past 40 years is any sense of continuity or stability in employment, and that makes long-term planning very difficult.  While tech pays, I suspect it's even less stable than a lot of other work (though I also suspect other positions may catch up with this).

    And there's the challenge of figuring out a way to work with technology that isn't inherently soul-sucking.  I've been putting a lot of thought into this over the past year, and I'm still a bit stumped for solutions.

    I've been taking some time to think through a lot of things, and one thing I've realized is that when I'm working in tech, I don't have the capacity to think let alone the time, beyond what my immediate job is.  It's literally taken months to be able to claw back that ability and capacity.  And what I'm realizing isn't pretty either, in terms of where we are and how blood-curdlingly frightening the future looks (I'm talking over horizons of from 5 to 100+ years).

    I've got some insights but still very few ideas for going forward.

  4. Samara Sonmor
    Samara Sonmor says:

    +Edward Morbius , I think this is at the heart of the problem for most people. I hear similar stories from all over. The rat-race doesn't leave a lot of time or mental energy for serious analyses of complex issues. 

    But the other thing I see a lot – we're just so damn hard on ourselves. We want to be perfect. Do everything right. Well, we don't have to. All we need to do is the best we can, make whatever changes we can. One change leads to another – that's been my experience over the past five years. 

    Some things I can't change right away, if ever. Some things are relatively easy. You know, it's odd you should post this. I take courses in sustainable community development and must pursue an individual change project as well as a collaborative change project. The best thing I could change now is to give people info and resources on how/what they could change…in simple, practical ways.  

    Finally, soul-sucking job notwithstanding, your thinking always seems clear to me.  :)

  5. Chris George
    Chris George says:

    A long forum post on the topic of having time to think. Strangely, this came through my Facebook stream three days ago and I actually took the time to read through it.

    http://www.envirolink.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=2915

  6. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    +Samara Sonmor Well, I've stepped out of the rat race, though I'm trying to determine how permanent that is (I'm starting to run up against some hard financial constraints, though if I'm willing to take the hit there are some other resources I can tap).  The question is:  can I earn enough money to provide for my basic upkeep, where I am if possible. It's not the cheapest, but it's reasonable for the area, well located, and, well, conducive to thinking in ways that many other locations and situations haven't been.

    And frankly, even with time to think, it's hard to figure this out.

    I looked into the charitable / volunteering thing for a bit.  My basic frustrations with that:

    Much of it is about businesses greenwashing.  Given the corporate backstories, I'm … underwhelmed.

    Much of the rest is about pulling bodies out of the river.  A parable I just saw that sews this up nicely:  you are walking alongside a river when you hear cries for help from the water.  A woman is drowning.  You dive in to rescue her, only to hear more cries — two children.  Again to the water.  More people arrive on shore, but the bodies keep coming.  A man walks up and sees the situation, and immediately starts hiking upstream.  "What are you doing, can't you see the people who need rescuing here?"  "I'm going upriver to see why they're falling in the water in the first place.".

    One variant.
    http://wiki.preventconnect.org/River+Story

    And that's my take on many of the volunteer efforts:  they're aimed at solving immediate, acute problems without addressing the upstream chronic cause.  The allegory is often used in public health circles, but I think it applies here as well.  Not to discount the need for addressing acute needs, but you've also got to tackle the deep issues.

    I started with asking (and then re-asking) the question "what are the big problems":

    "Resurrected:  What are the big problems (July 13, 2013)"
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/104092656004159577193/posts/ToEyozXpB5p

    "What are the big problems?" (Sep 19, 2012)
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/104092656004159577193/posts/fXABTAAkgEC

    (Almost exactly a year ago).

    And +Daniel Lemire's question, "Where are the 'big problem' jobs"? (March 4, 2013):
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/104092656004159577193/posts/hF5B6ngKHyq
    http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2013/03/04/where-are-the-big-problem-jobs/

    I've addressed a part of the problem in several places, one is a comment to this post:
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/116994191939922939938/posts/iChTsB3JciD

    Quoting myself: 

    Your experience today isn't much different than mine was some 20-odd years ago.  I hadn't majored in renewables or sustainability, per se, but it was an interest and many of my electives were in related topics (environmental studies, urban geography and economics, and the like).  I'd even found paid internships in the field, but on graduation there was little direct work to be found.

    For anyone graduating from college today you've got similar challenges, plus a generally vastly less promising economy as a whole.  I've seen a lot of kids with good grades and solid degrees having trouble landing positions.

    Looking back with some increased perspective and knowledge, I'm seeing a few additional points which weren't clear to me then.

    The lack of investment in renewables (and consequently: low level of employment opportunities) has a lot to do with the present economic system.  It values short-term profits and doesn't value investments which, while presently negative, are long-term positive.  It also fails to properly account for amortization of extractive raw materials.  To an extent you've got to create your own opportunities as Arwen and Louise did in your linked image.

    Another feature of market-capitalist-fractional-reserve-finance systems:  when they cannot find productive uses of financial capital, they find extractive uses, and absent some government intervention to discourage this (e.g., HFT taxes, capital gains taxes, or cue your fix here), it's simply going to happen.  John Michael Greer has a term for this and broader "the system eats itself" phenomena:  Catabolic Collapse:
    http://www.ecoshock.org/transcripts/greer_on_collapse.pdf

    Most renewable and sustainable technologies offer a far smaller real return than fossil-fuel-based technologies (and possibly nuclear).  The real returns are (in the near term) smaller, the ability to centralize and accumulate economic power are limited, and the general attractiveness is lower.   The good news is that this is changing.   Even without government subsidies, some renewable technologies are now cost-effective on at least some basis.

    And that's the upshot:  it's very, very difficult, under a free-market, capitalist, fractional-reserve, speculation-based-banking-sector system to make investments in the right places.

    In wandering upstream trying to find the root cause, I'm finding a number of … points of significance?  Language seems oddly wanting here.

    The population + consumption nexus.  That is, both total population and per-capita resource consumption are at the heart of our challenges.  The resource utilization rates of the most developed nations — call it the G8, G12, G20 — largely the US, western Europe, China, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, India, Canada — is a huge problem.  The resource footprints of individuals especially in the US, Europe, Japan, and Australia is huge.  The combination of population and resource utilization in China and India is similarly huge.  But there's also the population factor, which includes several of the countries and region listed (India and China are over a billion apiece, North America and Europe combined another half billion), but rising pressures in Indonesia and Sub-Saharan Africa will see the most growth.

    From net resource consumption comes pretty much the rest of the list of terribles people see as major problems:  hunger, AIDS (and other disease — humans are a huge latent food supply for whatever can feed off them), violence and war, failing social and intellectual institutions, pollution, climate change, and the rest.  But at the heart:  population and resource use.

    Which leaves a few questions:

    When will the dam break?  If the system cannot hold forever, when does it fail?

    Is the failure rapid (catastrophic) or prolonged (sustained over decades or longer)?   That's a question that's been repeated countless times.  My fear is that modern technological civilization is increasingly fragile.  Among the reasons I stepped out of the rat race was that I increasingly felt that my job (systems administration) was putting me in the position of fingering the dike.  The fragility of the systems I was being asked to maintain was on my shoulders, and with smaller teams becoming the norm, always being on pager rotation is amazingly stressful, even when things don't go wrong.  And … I suspect I'm not the only one, not by a long shot.  That there are a lot of positions which involve just barely hanging on by a thread.  +Karl Auerbach has described modern Internet infrastructure in such terms (and should know).

    What comes next?  I'm just starting to get into Joseph Tainter's Collapse  (having seen a number of his presentations and read a lot around the book).  One of the more depressing post-collapse scenarios is the Ik people of Uganda in which virtually all social structures and cooperation, even family and congugal bonds, have broken down in a raw fight for survival:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ik_people

    Children by age three are at least sometimes permanently expelled from the household and form groups called age-bands consisting of those within the same age group. The 'Junior Group' consists of children from the ages of three to eight and the 'Senior Group' consists of those between eight and thirteen. No adults look after the children, who teach each other the basics of survival. However, it is not certain whether this practice is typical Ik tradition or merely triggered by unusual famine conditions. Tainter proposes this fragmentation to be an artifact of the dire circumstances where each person must depend on their own resources alone to find food and the age peers band together primarily to protect themselves from older stronger children who would take their food. He also argues that the present social fragmentation is the result of extreme deprivation on a more complex and functional culture, an argument also made by Turnbull.

    Tainter suggests that this isn't uncommon, though perhaps not quite to the same degree as seen among the Ik.

    And finally:

    What can I, personally, do to stave off, soften, or prepare for change?  While continuing to survive in the existing regime.

    And that's where I'm still drawing blanks.  There's my professional and personal background, but translating them to something practical for the future is … hard.  Numerous authors (+Gail Tverberg, Richard Heinberg, Kunstler, among others) suggest that community is where it's at.  As well as skills and, well, not living someplace that's certain to explode into complete chaos.  Or get scorched, flooded, desertified, or otherwise rendered uninhabitable.
    ____________________________

    And as I write this (or began some hours back), NPR's headlines are telling of a non-profit grocery store that's just opened in a poor community in Pennsylvania.  Signs of alternative business organization.

    Wasn't hope the last thing Pandora found in the box?

  7. Samara Sonmor
    Samara Sonmor says:

    +Edward Morbius  – I'll read & reply some time tomorrow!  My internet was out all day.

  8. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    +Chris George  That long post has … been posted more than a few times:

    https://encrypted.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22The%20fast-paced%2C%20consumerist%20lifestyle%20of%20Industrial%20Society%20is%20causing%20exponential%20rise%20in%20psychological%20problems%22

    About 56,000 results (0.33 seconds)

    Earliest instance I can find is 2002:
    http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php?t=2884

    There's essentially nil substantiation of any of the claims made.  The guy sounds … somewhat off his rocker.  There may be some nuggets of truth there (the best crackpots always have significant amounts of truth in their writings, it's how they tie it together that goes all wobbly), but … it rings either hollow or false.

    It's also pretty incoherent when you pull back and try to get a broader sense of it.

    Not that I don't sometimes have pretty much exactly the same criticisms of my own writing and ideas, though I honestly hope they hang together more coherently than that.

  9. Chris George
    Chris George says:

    That was my impression as well. Nuggets of truth wrapped in poorly thought out writing.

    But it does supply food for thought and perhaps could provide a starting point for further exploration for a social scientist.

  10. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    +Chris George  I may take a further look.  The commentary on that thread is itself somewhat illuminating.  I'm finding more fertile ground elsewhere though.

    As with a lot of stuff, I tend to download it and re-tag it for easier consumption (I've become a fairly obsessive LaTeX user in this regard).  Which often serves to reveal highly confused writing and organizational habits / skills / tendencies.

    Incidentally, you might want to look up … oh, what's his name.  Huge two volume environmental screed.  Derrick Jensen, Endgame:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endgame_(Derrick_Jensen_books)

    I've glanced at a copy, seen a few interviews with him.  Pretty radical (to the point of advocating active revolution).

  11. Chris George
    Chris George says:

    I have read them all. I maintain a reading list on my blog, lots of good suggestions there.

    http://whyarentyououtraged.com/?now_reading_library=true 

    Jensen, Aric McBay and Lierre Keith are the above ground mouthpieces for Deep Green Resistance. Lots of talk so far, little or no action. It looks like I will get to be front row centre where the resistance meets the storm troopers. The natives are restless in my province and both levels of government are prepping for pipelines.

    I use piggydb to organize and tag information and am using Leo and RST, which will dump to latex for PDF creation or .odt for conversion to .doc to send to the tutor markers and the professors. I went with Leo as it is the only outliner/editor available for Linux that supports cloning and that I don't need an internet connection to use.

  12. Edward Morbius
    Edward Morbius says:

    +Chris George  I've been picking through that list a bit today.  Impressive.  A number of books I've read and appreciated, a number I'd like to get to.  Definitely swiped to pad my own bibliography.

    How are you using PiggyDB, and/or is there anything shareable from it?

    I'm mostly using textfiles and directories myself, though I've been taking a harder look at Emacs OrgMode (it's been mentioned a few too many times from people I respect for me to ignore it, though I generally use vim ;-).

  13. Chris George
    Chris George says:

    piggydb is an interesting application. He has big plans for future versions. I use it mainly as a note taker and for quick synopsis' of pdf files. You can link files of any kind and URLs. It is the tagging that makes it powerful. You don't really get to see the value until you get to the 200-300 item range. Then it starts connecting ideas in unusual ways.

    I have been looking for a decent outliner for Linux since I started back to school two years ago. I almost dove into org mode. But no cloning. Vim was interesting. I used it during my "teach myself touch typing" phase. Now with Leo I am writing and learning python. Learning reStructuredText was trivial and I now have the flexibility to output both to the latex side (PDF) and the .docx side. Write once, output everywhere. I couldn't do this from the latex side and the standard PDF export from the word processor/print file just wasn't, well, precise enough. There is no good conversion path between latex and .docx.

  14. Samara Sonmor
    Samara Sonmor says:

    +Edward Morbius , there's a lot of content to process in those posts! My overall impression of the discussions (and forgive me for my bluntness) was a comprehensive listing of the problems facing humanity, now and in the future. And of course, this is systemic thinking about a complex system. But there seemed to be little tolerance for uncertainty in much of the discussion, and little acknowledgement of our limited capacity to know what will happen as the elements in various complex systems interact. I don't wish to counsel reductionist thinking, as that's a huge part of what's got us into this mess, however, I would say no one single person, community or organization or government can solve all the problems listed, nor deal with the perturbations of the system as things change.

    But I don't believe we have to make every single change at once, or through a single entity, or even that every person has to make every single change necessary. Humanity is a complex system, as well, and, like the Butterfly Effect, change may begin right here as I tap sentences out into the ether; or where some screenwriter is finishing off a script that will set a grassroots movement afire; maybe some advocate for environmental justice is making headway on First Nations Treaty rights or shutting down a logging operation in an old-growth forest. Maybe some housewife is setting up a car pool or daycare in her community; or some CEO is finalizing a business plan switching his operations over to renewable energy. A researcher is discovering tidal kites; or a new way to use hemp to sequester carbon; a university student is struggling to identify a collaborative change project that will make a difference in her community; a politician is looking at his granddaughter and reevaluating the environmentally damaging regulations he was ready to vote in favour of.

    There are many unknowns.  And, if you'll recall, Pandora let everything out of the box except  for Hope. Let us not forget that stories have power, too. 

    I hope others will begin working for a positive change, however and whenever they can. It took a long time, and a lot of energy, to put us in this mess; I don't think it's unreasonable to expect it will take a long time and a lot of energy to get us out.  Whether we have that time is another unknown; but if we never start, we'll never know.  

    Not the answers you were looking for, I'm certain, but the only ones I have to offer. Good book I'm reading right now – Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane. He used to be a physicist working for Shell, running complex change scenarios, until one day he realized – there is no right answer. There are no big solutions. I think we just need some hope and a bunch of little ones. 

    Now if I can just figure out what my collaborative change project should be…

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