Our Greatest Common Factor

If we only have one thing in common, it's that we all need a planet that can support life.


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Common Ground

Initially, my intention was not to spend my limited energy to arguing with ‘climate sceptics’ at all. After a couple of attempts at a constructive discussion, though, I noticed a few things.

Firstly, when you start a discussion, you very quickly find a fixed setting or a mold you’re being stuffed in. In fact, usually there’s just two molds, called ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. The discussion also seems very much concentrated on persons  the speakers themselves and/or public figures that have a stance of any kind on our environment. Meaning, people conclude extremely quickly, ‘who’s side you’re on’, and then turn the discussion into the personal flaws or virtues of these assumed ‘idols’.

All this is quite understandable knowing our social nature, but absolutely irrelevant to whether a vast environmental crisis is on its way or not, or how we should prepare if it is.

So, why don’t we try and break these molds for just a second, and try to find common ground. We’re bound to have some  if nowhere else, then at least about some very basic laws of physics.

Let’s start from the obvious and work our way to more complex conclusions, that in my opinion are keys to very important realizations, but the more complex they become, the more intuition they, inevitably, also require, and thus are subject to constructive criticism. You can use this ‘tool’ to see, how much our views really do differ, and this way, to see what to argue about in the first place.

My assumptions:

  1. If you throw a stone straight upwards, and then freeze exactly where you are, there’s a considerable risk the stone’s going to hit you in the head. This is simply due some basic principles of physics and causality. Right?
  2. The same basic logic applies also to more complex causations in the nature, in fact all of them. This applies whether we already understand the said causations or not.
  3. Fossil fuels take a very long time and the right circumstances to form. In practise building up the right circumstances that allow for fossil fuels to forms have a huge impact on how long the complete process takes in nature. The youngest natural oil deposit found is less than 5000 years old, while in some cases the process has taken up to estimated 20 million years, even longer than 200 million years.
  4. Any society that insists using fossil fuels at a rate that’s anything quicker than their renewal rate, is temporay by nature.
  5. This renewal rate (x/t, x being the total amount of fossil fuels provided by our planet, t being the time that would take for an equal amount of new fossil fuels to form, assuming the circumstances would stay favourable) is ridiculously slower than what we are used to.
  6. Our fossil fuel dependent society is temporary by nature, and needs to change. The only relevant question is: how quickly? Will it take thousands of years for this change to become absolutely critical? Will it take centuries or perhaps just decades?

    ↑ In my opinion: from this point upwards, if you disagree, the burden of proof really is on your shoulders.

  7. Not all areas in the world have oil or other fossil fuel supplies in the first place, and on the other hand, some relatively large areas of the world (like the US as a whole) have passed their oil peak already. Knowing the whole oil industry is just a little more than 150 years old, and remembering the huge growth in our primary energy consumption during recent decades, it seems that the aforementioned timing could indeed be closer to centuries or even decades, instead of several millennia. This of course varies somewhat with each individual fossil fuel, coal being perhaps the most abundant, but the longest possible overall depletion time seems closer to 200 than 2000 years.
  8. Regardless of the urgency speculated on in the previous statements, any change towards reduced fossil fuel dependency is a positive one on the global scale and in the long run, since it adjusts our society from a predominantly temporary one towards a lasting one.
  9. All potential (although, not inevitable) negative influences of reducing fossil fuel dependency tend to be short-termed and national. When evaluating them, in any one country, one shouldn’t forget that the positive influence is much more long-lasting and has unparalleled effects to the wellbeing of future generations – in your country, too.
  10. In ecology, overshoot occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off. Lemmings, living for example in Canada’s Arctic areas, are clear examples of what these terms mean practically. Since these rodents act completely instinctively, they basically reproduce as much as they can, and eat everything they can. If natural disasters don’t restrain their population (and: resource usage) first, they basically start fighting over and then exhaust their available food supply, eventually causing most of them to emigrate or die off trying.
  11. We humans are fully capable of overshooting the carrying capacity of our surroundings. In fact, compared to wild species like lemmings whose population is the only species-related variable to affect this phenomenon, we have a remarkable potential to accelerate the phenomenon by multiplying each individual’s resource usage with the help of our intellect and technology.
  12. In a way, we started overshooting our planet’s capacity the moment we first started using non-renewable resources, at the latest. Practically all fossil fuel usage means constantly overshooting Earth’s fossil fuel capacity.
  13. It seems probable that we’ve also started overshooting Earth’s carrying capacity in the term’s most critical sense – the overall renewal capacity of our planet. This effect varies with each individual natural resource, be it clean water or air, rain forest acreage, thickness of the ozone layer, etc., but all of these seem to have been affected at least some. Some say we’ve been in the state of evergrowing overshoot since mid-seventies, and that we are currently spending Earth’s ecological ‘budget’ before the end of August each year. This is hard to confirm, but intuitively it seems quite possible.
  14. We’re facing also new, potentially remarkable environmental threats, that could work as catalysts to existing problems. For example, Arctic methane release.
  15. Big changes need time to be able to happen in an orderly manner. A change of the magnitude of shifting the paradigm of our whole society is something that takes decades, even centuries to take place peacefully. If we wait until this is the only option left, we’ll probably only have a decade or some years to achieve this, and the probability of a huge socio-economic catastrophy grows extremely high in this scenario.
  16. One previously unmentioned risk, but a relevant one, is the effect of the aforementioned threats to the global diplomatic, political, military and power relations. The history of humanity is full of wars fought over resources, but never before have we seen a war over the absolute remainings of a fuel of such an addictive potential as oil. If we go on with our excessive use of oil, bloodier and bloodier conflicts over its ownership are highly probable.
  17. Evolution has made sure, we have an intuitive ability for basic risk analysis. We estimate the probability of the threat, and then compare probable consequences of neglecting the threat against the consequences of exaggerating the threat. For example, if you’re heading to a department store to buy a new TV set, and security stops you saying there’s a remarkable bomb threat in there – you compare the potential risk against the potential gain, and probably (I hope!) choose not to enter the store. You don’t expect a 100 % proof of the bomb before deciding this, on the contrary, you probably expect a 100 % proof it’s not there, before entering the store again. Because, really, a new TV set is not that important?

To conclude: these are the reasons I think we need to take this threat seriously, and, act promptly. You’re free to disagree and/or interpret these observations differently, but it really doesn’t help either of us if you make assumptions on my views very far outside these specifications.

Which ones do you agree with? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comment section, if you feel like it.

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Morality vs. Causality

It is still a widespread view that morality is the key element of being human, and the ability to make the destinction between (absolute) good and evil is the only way to be able to live an acceptable life.

This is why it might at first sound like a paradox to some to criticise morality, and furthermore claim that absolute morality could in fact be one of the biggest obstacles in the way of humanity’s survival – so I ask you to bear with me for a couple more paragraphs.

Morality and Emotions

First of all, learned moral code tends to have a very strong emotional affect on us, that can prevent us from understanding the real chain of causes and effects that has lead to the situation under consideration, and therefore, also prevent us from finding solutions to change similar causations to our favor in the future. For example, the case of Josef Fritzl causes such a strong emotional distress and feelings of disgust, you simply don’t want to think about it beyond the notion that Fritzl was, simply, absolutely evil. But if we submit to our first emotional reaction, and accept this conclusion without question, what tools do we have to prevent this from happening in the future? Try to find and catch all the evil people in the world?

But if, in the name of deeper understanding, we try and see through the layer of emotional and moral distress, we just might to be able to look into the causality behind the horrible situation. What was Josef Fritzl’s childhood like? How did World War I and II affect his personality? What else do we not know about the background of this person? If we studed the subject thoroughly, we could perhaps find out some of the probable reasons why this happens, notice similar causations in the future and maybe even be able to prevent similar cases beforehand.

Understanding instead of Resentment

In my opinion, the same pretty much applies to viewing human behavior on a global scale, too. The more you learn about the mechanics of our culture, the easier it is to resort to thinking that people are generally ‘greedy’, ‘evil’ and so forth – in other words: to moral resent. The problem with this mindset is, it tends to lead nowhere – no new solutions, no deeper understanding, just feelings of guilt and/or anger, that admittedly might lead to spontaneous action now and then, but rarely to long lasting change in your behavior.

Again, I have a strong feeling that a more constructive approach would be to try and look through the layers of morality and emotional impact, and tap into the causality behind the phenomenons we’re trying to figure out. Why are we ‘greedy’? Why do billionaires keep wanting yet another 100 million, even if its affect on the quality of their lives was practically nonexistent? Why do the morbidly obese want yet another bag of chips even if they know it could kill you any given day? Looking behind moral assumptions, the answer could perhaps be found in the history of our species, and the behavior of other species as well.

Human development has lasted for about a million years, depending on its definition. Only a couple of thousand of years of it has happened in a culture resembling anything like ours, and less than a century in an environment that requires profound understanding of global mechanisms and resources. Therefore, it’s pretty safe to say that biologically, the post-industrial age hasn’t had time to affect our evolution practically at all. This seems to lead to the conclusion, that the basic properties of our problem solving capabilities have basically not changed after the times we lived on mercies of the nature. Of course we have a lot more information to help us understand our surroundings, but the basic mechanics of thinking and feeling haven’t really changed.

In this light, our behavior is only logical. When we lived without the support network of modern society, eating whenever possible was the wisest thing you could do – the everyday struggle for survival made sure all-you-can-eat was never too much. And the ones who most diligently collected foodstuff, medicinal plants and materials for building better habitats – in other words, wealth – had the best chances of survival. The tragical irony here is, that as descendants of these survivors, our own survival instincts are still so strong, they just may end up killing us. Luckily, we do have a secondary system of problem solving, namely critical thinking; whether we use it to rewrite our instinctive behavioral models to meet up to today’s needs, is up to us.

The Paradox of Absolute Morality

The obvious problem in absolute morality is that it tends in fact to be relative. The fact that there’s a lot of different views on what’s absolutely good or bad, automatically leads to feelings of moral superiority towards each other and basically devastates all possibilities to form respectful relations with one another and learn from each other. So, while understanding this may offend someone – my apologies – I want to make it very clear that no philosophy, theistic or atheistic, will have automatic dominance over any other here. Any and all defaults will be analysed and criticised here whenever necessary.

Causality and Empathy

I understand someone could interpret all this as a some kind of a weird eulogy for sociopathy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Admitting that morality is relative to species and to some extent, even individuals, does not automatically lead to indifference and unscrupulousness. Instead I’d like to highlight another of our naturally evolved qualities: empathy. The bigger our communities became, the bigger role empathy played in our survival. For some reason, you often hear the claim that only our selfish properties are natural or animal, and all our altruistic properties are the result of civilization and rational thinking.

I find this line of thought utterly strange. As I see it, empathy is most natural, and it’s in fact been one of the keys to our survival as a species. And when we begin tackling our biggest challenge so far – combining sustainable living with modern culture – its significance grows even greater. I believe strongly, that understanding of causality and the ability for empathy are the single most important components of our survival over the coming centuries. If we understand why we behave the way we do, and are able to identify with others’ situations, we will end up making decisions that allow us to develop towards sustainability and wellness – with or without a given moral code. Gladly, there’s a lot more uniting than disjunctive causes between all major philosophies – whether you believe it’s because of a higher force that’s affected all our philosophies, or simply because we all share a set of basic principles to secure our species’ survival, is up to your personal beliefs.

Towards Concreteness

I think that there’s now enough background information for you as a reader to be able to decide whether you want to be part of this, and for us to start the actual brainstorming. I think I’ll post a short, non-definitive overview on the global environmental problems we’re facing, just to make sure we’re on the same page, and try to persuade more people here to actually get some discussion started, and then we can begin thinking where and how to collect the actual ideas of how a sustainable society could work. You’re warmly welcomed to discuss, share your thoughts and educate me and other readers about anything posted here – as I’ve said earlier, I’m not an expert on any of the fields discussed here.