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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Two scenarios: ‘Lemmings’ vs. ‘Ex-Junkies’

Experts all over the world have analysed vast amounts of data to try and create as plausible global resource consumption scenarios  as possible (for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here… and the list goes on). Some results may be biased as a result of economical or political interests, others perhaps less. As scientific raw data analysis goes, I have nothing valuable to add. Instead I’d like to present some viewpoints to help interpret these scenarios, and perhaps come up with new realizations about our situation.

End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine…

What we know for sure, is that fossil fuels will wear out sooner or later, or to be more precise, the overall eROeI (energy Returned On energy Invested) of the remaining deposits will eventually become so low that it won’t simply make sense to collect them as an energy source anymore. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s just basic arithmetics. The only (barely) relevant question here is, how wide is the Hubbert bell curve for each individual fossil energy source; in other words, whether the inevitable series of crashes is so far in the future, we don’t have to do anything about it yet. In my opinion, this logic is about just as unsustainable as our way of life. Still, I’m afraid we could have more acute problems in our hands  it just may be that we’ll be facing the notorious Peak Oil all too late for our own good.

A realization that even many authoritative studies seem to have missing, or at least don’t bother to stress, is that abundant energy sources and a thick ozone layer are by no means the only natural resources we need. In a sense, every concrete element that’s needed to keep up the abstraction of our society, is a natural resource: breathable air, drinkable water, bearable climate, cultivable soil, healthy and nontoxic edible flora and fauna, and so on and so forth. And the evidence seems to be building up, that more and more of these resources are being compromised by the current form of the perpetual motion machine that is our society. This popularized presentation by the Post Carbon Institute called ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ is a good starting point for further learning.

So, instead of just Peak Oil, it seems more relevant keywords could be the carrying capacity of an ecosystem and overshoot, that, according to Wikipedia,

occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off.

Gloomy, admittedly, but not as far-fetched as one might hope. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was on August 22, which means we used 12 months worth of Earth’s renewable resources in less than 8 months (plus of course all the carbon fuels, that take approximately 60 to 600 million years to renew). More information, and a ‘fun’ interactive overshoot meter can be found on this footprintnetwork’s website.

One relatively new sign of this overshoot is Arctic methane release, which has been speculated over by scientist for decades, but that has only just begun to break through to mainstream media coverage. Methane is 20 to 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and it might be escaping into the atmosphere as the arctic ice and permafrost keeps on melting. Whether the threat is seen as moderate or absolutely critical, depends on intepretation, but the potential is there.

The most astonishing thing about all this is our economical system’s collective and categorical denial about these threats. Fashionable words like sustainability and ecology are repeated over and over, but mostly they’re still used simply as selling points for products created inside the current economical system, instead of primary goals that would allow for criticising and, eventually enhancing the system itself. The excuses vary, but a popular one is that we don’t have enough proof. Again, the logic of this notion is something out of this world.

Let’s stop and think about it for a second.

Imagine you’re heading to a shopping mall with your kids and grandkids (if you have them, or if you think you’re going to sometime in the future) to buy a bigger plasma TV. The police comes to talk to you and says that the mall is being evacuated because there’s a considerable risk of a hidden bomb in there. You estimate the risk is about 50/50 − so, would you take your kids and grandkids, and head for the electronics section for your new TV set anyway?

The answer is a bellowed ‘YES!’, at least according to the current consensus of our culture.

As individuals, almost all of us are naturally capable of this kind of basic risk analysis. We estimate the probability of the threat, and then compare probable consequences of neglecting the threat against the consequences of overstating the threat. My hunch is, most of us would not enter the mall (except perhaps if you’ve used to living in a warzone or other dangerous area).

Something weird happens, though, when we enter the level of society, and causalities that are not immediately perceivable (although, to be honest, not all that complex either). We suddendly lose this basic ability to estimate threats, an ability that has secured the survival of our species for millions of years. In other words, we start, collectively, acting against our own survival. Intuitively, this doesn’t seem to make sense — but the funny thing about nature is, it always makes sense,  although sometimes not in the way we would hope.

So, maybe this is just a sign that it’s our time to fade out and give space for the next species in this ongoing experiment for survival, somewhat like dinosaurs did. Maybe we simply had a slight ‘adjustment flaw’, just a bit too much of technical skills and too little empathy; it got us this far — not bad, all and all — but won’t save us from ourselves. Or, maybe a massive drop in human population is indeed essential to secure the survival of at least a few of us. In a sense, there’s no need to worry: nature never ‘fails’, it just adapts. The downside from our point of view is, nature obviously has no stance whatsoever on individual suffering — otherwise, would we really have parasites like this?

So, unless we’re especially fond of horrible, massive, human suffering, the only path for us is to try to fight our instinctive behavior, rise above our mundane routines, and put our collective effort into planning a future society that could perhaps be able save us.

You’ve read this far, so there’s a chance you already understand we’re all passengers on a metaphorical Titanic — now’s the time to choose, whether you want to join the orchestra and keep on playing till the bitter end, or if you want to try and survive. No hard feelings, either way — it’s all human — but if you chose the latter, we should probably begin. But how? Who will show the way?

Lemmings and junkies. Obviously!

How Can Lemmings and Heroin Addicts Help Save the World?

We started with a bunch of future scenarios. In the end, only two are really relevant, though. Let’s call them:

‘Lemmings’ and ‘Ex-Junkies’

As you might have guessed already, this method is not scientific, nor is it supposed to be. Instead, I hope, it will be at least a bit thought-provoking.

First, we need a relatively credible long-term chart of our growth. Primary energy consumption is quite a good meter —  it also correlates at least roughly with other relevant variables: population, economic growth, CO2 emissions, etc., so I think it’s pretty justifiable to view this as an indicator of our growth in general. Here’s a good one, so let’s borrow it. Thanks to Gail Tverberg, Vaclav Smil and British Petroleum! Then, let’s add our scenarios:

'Lemmings' vs. 'Ex-Junkies'

Will we share lemmings’ fate, or will we be able to muster up the courage to enter rehab before it’s too late?

Let’s view the worst case scenario, or ‘Lemmings’ first. The most important thing we can learn from lemmings, is that the aforementioned concepts of ‘carrying capacity’, ‘overshoot’ and ‘die-off’ are very much real, and they portray circumstances that are at least allegorical, if not identical to ours. See this short article Mass Murder on the Tundra, for example. The projection you see here was pretty much drawn by placing the lemming population density chart on top of the energy chart and scaling it so that it fit the approximate tangent of the growth since the beginning of the industrial era. Depending on what you think Earth’s actual carrying capacity is, and how much overshoot it can handle, you’re free to imagine the curve wider or smaller. The bottom line is, if we skip the usual explanation (which is pretty much the sentence ‘we’ll think of something’ wrapped in layers of scifi-fantasy) this is very likely to happen sooner or later, if we insist on continuing on the path of ‘limitless’ growth.

The question is, does our ability to make rational decisions exceed that of lemmings’?

No, that was not irony. I’m sorry for having to say this, but in all honesty, this is the question we have to ask ourselves.

Does our ability to make rational decisions exceed that of lemmings’?

So far, we don’t have much proof that it does. We can only hope for the best, and try our best.

The second scenario, ‘Ex-Junkies’ isn’t too lofty either, but nevertheless might be best option we have. I believe the best experts on how to survive the next century, could in fact be ex-addicts. After all, junkies is what we are — again, this is not just a figure of speech: we really do have a severe psychological addiction for the fossil fuel lifestyle. And just as heroin addicts, we first need to realise this habit is going to kill us if we don’t act, and then go to rehab as soon as possible. Whereas the ‘Lemmings’ scenario compares to overdosing or perhaps going ‘cold turkey’, there’s another solution that’s far less risky and more sustainable: replacement therapy. Heroin addicts use methadone or Subutex, our medication would be renewable energy sources, and to be realistic, nuclear energy. It’s by no means the optimal energy source, but the thing is we need to get off carbon fuels very quickly, and to be practical, that probably means we can’t turn our back to nuclear power quite yet.

Another important lesson humanity can learn from drug addicts, is about the two ‘schools’ of rehab. Quoting this rehab info page:

Maintenance and coming off (‘detox’)

Once established on a regular dose, most people stay on buprenorphine for a long period of time or even long-term. This is called maintenance and helps you to keep off street drugs. Some people gradually reduce the dose and come off it. This is called detoxification, or ‘detox’. However, it usually takes several months, and sometimes years, before most people are ready to consider ‘detox’. It is often safer to stay on buprenorphine then to ‘detox’ before you are ready.

We’ll have to admit to ourselves, we will always be addicts, and just as drug addicts, we have to make a firm decision not to relapse again. A society’s version of this is of course strict laws that control the use of fossil fuels. It’s also good to understand, we’ll probably never ‘detox’ completely, and that’s not that bad. At least we’d be able to live a relatively normal life instead of an addict’s desperate search for the next fix.

The ‘Ex-Junkies’ projection was estimated by taking a chart about the decline of heroin usage after starting replacement therapy, found on this page about Subutex, and placing it to continue seamlessly from the fossil fuels curve. The renewables curve was then drawn intuitively on top of the fossils one, to represent a relatively plausible scenario.


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Brainstorming for a new society

The point of this blog is to spread the idea that common people like you and me can achieve huge things by working together (with the help of social media and existing Wiki-style net infrastructure) by gathering masses of ideas with brainstorming techniques and then refining them with iterations of critical thinking. And when I’m saying huge, I mean things like a working model for a sustainable society.

Free (Fall) Market

Let’s face it: our way of life in this ‘free-market economy’ or unregulated market economy is so obviously unsustainable, that our collective denial about it has to be some kind of an instinctive, special (as in species), psychological defence. It makes sense – as biological beings, we’ve evolved during millions of years, virtually completely under circumstances that only required practical problem solving skills and understanding of no more than our immediate surroundings. And as much as we’ve achieved as a species, as individuals we’re still driven by the exact same urges and fears as we were a million years ago.

One particularily strong defence hits us when we try to think about the course we’re on as humanity, especially if we’re faced with evidence that seems to prove the specific course in question is leading us towards a certain crash. Our brain is instantly filled with excuses, explanations and generally anything that could justify us to stop thinking about it altogether. The excuses come in all sizes and flavors, but a common one is that it’s all too complex to figure out anyways. That’s true of course, if you try and comprehend the mechanisms of our society in full detail. But if you pull back and take a look at the big picture, it’s a no-brainer. We’re simply wearing this planet down, and at such a speed that the notion of finding another planet to rape or some redeeming new piece of technology in time to meet our ever growing needs is somewhere between science fiction and absurdist fantasy.

I like to keep as much as possible open for debate, as to not jump to conclusions and potentially miss previously unthought-of solutions. But for the purpose of this blog, I will be making a couple of assumptions, that really aren’t debatable (here I mean, of course… I’m sure you’ll find your forum if you want to argue on the very exceptions mentioned here). The first one is:

  • The current course of humanity will sooner or later lead to an enormous ecological and/or economical and/or political disaster

Of course, nobody knows the exact timing or order in which the collapse will take place, but it seems evident we’re talking about a very human timescale (as opposed to thousands to billions years that significant changes usually take in nature), some generations anyways. As for the question about what natural resource or economic structure will wear out first, it’s like falling from a plane without a parachute and pondering on what bone you’ll break first when you hit ground. Maybe it will be oil, maybe breathable air or temperature conditions that can support life, maybe we’ll just panic before all this and bomb ourselves to stone age. It really doesn’t matter that much, what matters is changing our course before we’ll see for ourselves.

Most people who get past denial, are stuck in apathy. ‘This is just how the world is’, ‘One person can’t do anything’, ‘I’ve got my personal troubles to think about’, ‘I’m already putting my banana peels to biowaste, there’s nothing more anyone can do about it.’

But history has shown, and this will be my undebatable assumption number two:

  • When the time is ripe, one person can change everything

But what? What can we, the little people, do? We don’t have power, we don’t own the big investment banks, we don’t have veto on international contracts. What could we possibly achieve that would actually have any kind of an effect?

To achieve a goal, one needs to imagine the goal first

The basic principles of Capitalism, Communism and the variations of Socialism between them (to take a few shortcuts), that are commonly considered as realistic options for an economic system nowadays, were all set with no or very little understanding of the limited resources of this planet. This makes them all flawed in a prominent way that is not fixable with mere finetuning. Campaigning for or against the forementioned economic systems, let alone the little differences between the variations inside each system, will not solve the underlying problem, that’s compromising the one thing we all share despite our differences: we all need a planet that can support life to be able to go on with our weird, ugly, chaotic and wonderful coexistence here.

In other words, what we need is:

  • A completely new socioeconomic system, whose first and foremost priority is to make sure our planet will never run out of resources that are imperative for it to keep on supporting life.

We have various types of Green politics, sure, but the problem is they’re built on top of economic systems that ultimately contradict with them. There’s over 150 entries in Wikipedia’s list of government forms and over 50 entries in the list of economic systems but none define even imaginary systems that are based primarily on sustaining the resources of this planet. (I aknowledge Wikipedia doesn’t represent definitive truth by any means, but in the same time it does indicate whether a concept has any popularity). The discussion of even the possibility of this type of a system seems scarce.

What I think we need to do, is to start from scratch. What do all the 7+ billion people need to survive and to live a reasonably satisfying life? Food, shelter, tolerable climate conditions, a basic healthcare. All the rest is luxury, that could be either divided equally or earned with individual extra effort of some sort, depending of whether the system would be a socialism-like or capitalism-like system. Would exchange economy play a part in this system, or would you need a market economy? And if so, what qualities would “money” have in this system? What kind of a medium of exchange would it be? How would it be regulated to make sure global natural resources were only used as quickly as they could renew?

Yes, it’s utopia, and completely unrealistic for now. But this is brainstorming – we first need a million stupid ideas in order to refine one, that is realistic and applicable. And the more people are throwing in ideas, the more critical mass the  system will have and the more refined it will become, until, sometime in the future, we could actually have a working basic model of a new socioeconomic system.  Crazy? Perhaps, but hey, what else were you going to do today – watch Big Brother? Why not give this a try instead! If you’re an economist, take half an hour to imagine how a certain detail of this system could work… if you’re a trashman, think about how your work would change if the use of plastics and other carbon based materials were restricted to the absolute minimum…. if you’re a linguist, you could suggest what word would best describe this model… if you’re unemployeed, you probably have valuable knowledge on how to survive with less – there just might come a day when former millionaires come to you begging for consultance. Everyone of us will know something that could help making this model more detailed and realistic.

Feel free to comment and add to the discussion with any/all related ideas of yours!

The underlying idea here is, everything that’s ever been achieved has had to be imagined first. And, it seems, things that are once imagined, also have the tendency to get realised sooner or later. Many of our everyday electronical gadgets, just to give a simple example, are in a way result of the work of science fiction authors from decades earlier. Imagination is not just a fun toy to entertain ourselves with, it can be used purposefully and scrupulously to achieve realistic, applicable results and maybe – change the world.

Global Movement

This is just a single individual’s blog, and I’m not an expert at any of the areas discussed here – although I have to say I’m not sure if anyone can really be an expert on humanity. Anyways, these are by no means unique thoughts, I just believe every additional voice talking about these questions, and every additional mind thinking about them, will help. Perhaps the next person googling about this will find this blog and get to know more people who think alike, and feel encouraged to speak up. More and more people want change, and so it’s happening simultaneously on many levels and locations. So far, the biggest entity I’ve bumped upon that works on similar ideas is the Zeitgeist movement – I’m sorry to say I haven’t really familiarized myself with their ideals, so all views on their thinking is warmly welcomed!

When I was googling for possible phrases that could describe the ideas explained above, amazed that none of them really had provoked much discussion at all, I finally entered the keyword ‘sustainocracy’. This lead me to another individual’s site, namely Jean-Paul Close’s. I thought his video presentation of humanity’s current state was profound, I’m just not sure we should be requiring huge leaps in individuals’ conciousness or other mental capabilities in order to a certain scenario to work. What I’d personally prefer more, would be scenarios that could work despite ourselves, so to say. A positive finding nonetheless, and a lot of thoughts worth considering, for sure.

About Me

My personal properties have no relevance whatsoever with the ideas I hope will be discussed here. This is why I prefer to write incognito. I’m not famous in any way, especially rich or poor, or politically engaged to any existing party. I belong to the financially privileged part of humanity, but that’s pretty obvious anyways knowing that I have access to a computer and an Internet connection, and that I have enough free time to think and write about this, instead of just trying to survive.

PS.

This is not a blog on linguistics or etymology, but since the phrase ‘free market’ has such a huge indoctrinative power on us, I’m pointing out right from the beginning that I’ll address the subtext of some common words and phrases whenever it seems relevant.

A free market is commonly seen as opposite of a controlled or regulated market. So why isn’t it referred to as an uncontrolled or unregulated market? I’m not sure if the particular choice of words has its history in Cold War rhetorics or earlier times – be it as it may, it’s been around for so long it’s easy to mistake for a neutral descriptive phrase with no emotional value, even though this is obviously false. The positive connotations of the word ‘free’ soothe our limbic system every single time we see or hear the phrase. As the powers-that-be know so well, the most effective propaganda is the kind that we never come to think of as propaganda.

As a small thought experiment, every time you pass by the words ‘free market’ from now on, why not try and replace them with a phrase with equally negative connotations, let’s say ‘chaotic market’  and see if it affects your interpretation of the actual textual content at hand. In this blog, I’ll try my best (and probably fail miserably) to be relatively objective, though, so I’ll be using the phrase ‘unregulated market’ instead.