Sunday, March 27, 2011


Yesterday something happened which gave me hope that I and others might be able to overcome one of the worst habits imaginable – shopping: I freaked out while walking though a Denver mall to get to a movie.

In retrospect, it may have had a lot to do with the fact that I've been spending a lot of time at home, mostly looking for a job. Nonetheless, I was in a state of sensory overload and disgust at all the stuff practically bulging out of the shops and the signs ordering or begging me to buy stuff I didn't need and would likely never use more than once. When I got to the theater, I sat through a continuous infomercial that was followed by countless previews, such that I felt I had seen three movies before the one I paid to see. Afterwards, I couldn't wait to leave, and believed for the first time that when I finally got work, I would be able to fight off the pressure to spend my earnings on that crap instead of paying off the debt I'd used to buy the barely-more-than-crap that I already own.

When I got home, I did what I often do. I turned on my computer. From that (er, this) expensive box, the Internet showed me a lot of useless crap I could get through the mail, festooning the almost-news and job descriptions I was really interested in reading. Next to my computer was a book I haven't finished yet, which discusses the why and how behind our interactions with each other, our artificial world, and the natural world as part of a larger ecological system that has shaped us as much as we've shaped it. But, as usual, I couldn't resist being exposed to the imaginary world inside the artificial world that is killing the natural world on which it all depends. It probably counts for something that I at least had a similar reaction to the ads on the screen that I had to their cousins in the mall: Yuck!

Later that night I got a headache while working on the sequel to my novel, which is being informed by the insights I've gained since being laid off last year. I interpreted it as both a reaction to spring pollen and chronic stress about both my future and the future of the world. Just as one of my book's characters was wondering if she could keep up with her husband and his pursuit of threats she could barely fathom, I was wondering if I could ever reclaim a sense of security in a society that is tearing itself apart. The ads insisting on my getting more stuff, and the job announcements promising high stress and heavy workloads so I could make it possible, effectively mocked such a desire, and were actively recruiting people to make sure it would be forever out of reach of everyone.

Luckily, I had cold medication to push through the symptoms and get some sleep, so I could process it today with a fresh perspective in front of the expensive little box that I bought in another mall when my defenses weren't anywhere near so high.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Building a Better World

A couple of days ago I hit my personal threshold for stress about the state of the world. I've been tracking our progress toward population collapse for a long time, invested a lot of effort in determining what we can do to stop it (at a high level, anyway), and have recently been commenting on news stories of interest – which are multiplying almost exponentially. The last straw was the military action in Libya, which no matter what its immediate justification, was a dangerously reckless move by a president who I expected to know better (and judging from his own words, once did). I decided to localize my attention, in no small part because my own survival is in jeopardy.

Most of the jobs I'm applying for are contracts with companies that are part of the problems I've been pontificating about. This has the advantages of buying time, meeting my financial obligations, and presenting opportunities for changing minds; but it still feels like I'm thrusting a proverbial knife into what might still qualify as my soul. To develop alternatives, I've continued to study human ecology, and started doing an ecological study of my own region, which includes the three cities covered by my local Transition group. Educational opportunities are still on the table, if I can find ways to improve my chances at admission and paying tuition while helping my wife with paying our other bills.

Yesterday, I decided to change my approach (at least mentally) from trying to keep bad stuff from happening to building a better world. I began by going back to first principles, which is reflected in today's Idea Explorer post, “Delta World.” In addition to providing a new, useful way to frame world events, as a value system it has the potential to help make decisions about how to interact with the local environment. I chose the concentration on differences with that in mind. Looking at what's around us and asking how it can be changed to maximize good (as I defined it) leads the way to action, which in my experience is the best cure for despair.

Personally, I don't have to go much further than my own house, which is full of items that have already reduced all three of good's component variables just in their construction, and if disposed the wrong way could decrease them even more. The yard owned by my homeowner's association is a classic suburban deathscape, occupied by thirsty grass, non-native trees and shrubs, and sprinkled with rock hauled in for nothing other than questionable aesthetics. Most of the residential area is like that. Industrial and retail space isn't very far away, sharing the primary goal of serving just one species -- ours. With my new perspective, I can imagine how the parts of my mostly artificial world directly or indirectly affect the longevity of individual people here and at the next links in the supply chains they may be part of, in many ways manifested as happiness (which, you'll recall, is linearly correlated with life expectancy). In the interest of making at least this part of the world better (again, as I define it), I can think about how the existing structures and activities might be improved, and how others might be brought into service to address deficiencies.

In the world I currently live in, meeting my own needs depends on transactions with other people, who trade currency for my services that I can use to access resources I can't as easily get on my own. No matter how much “good” I enable, I must convince someone that it's worth what they had to do to get the currency they're trading with me. If they don't share my definition of good, or see it reflected in what I've done, then I have to find someone else or effectively perish. Because the overlap between my values and those embodied in most economic activity is pretty slim, I probably won't make much money doing what I consider right, and to get the amount of money I need right now I may be forced to do a lot of what I consider wrong. In short, my life is a microcosm of the world, at least in a so-called affluent country.

In the interest of trying to have a positive attitude, I have to consider the likelihood that I'm just not being creative enough.

By the logic of an ideal marketplace, we are all responsible for building demand for what we do, whether it be providing a product or service. There's an exquisite overlap between the need for a change in our culture's values and the need to increase demand for what's “good.” I've played that game, early in my career with my father in our education business, and lately with my own creative writing, both with dismal results. The “green” movement has been a lot more successful than I may ever hope to be, by attempting to use people's current values to trick them into accepting new values; but the results are still less than adequate, probably because there has been too much compromise in the process (see “Green Economy?” in the Idea Explorer blog). Co-opting the green approach may be my best option for at least morally neutral income in the near-term, but I can't shake my sense that it's a loser overall (note that, by my calculations, we must be making major changes within this decade and many years afterwards to avoid a catastrophic reduction in our population).

As I pointed out in Delta World,” I see the main problem being a fundamental disagreement over values. If that changes, our economics will be naturally in line with the new values, though I expect them to work in a very different way. Again: if we don't change over the next ten years, it will be too late. If I'm to contribute to solving this problem and meet my financial obligations, then simultaneously working for a green organization, doing other “good” things for free, and making a strong case for my less ambiguous value system may be the best strategy, at least until I think of something better.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sanity Break

On Friday night I was ready for the world to end. Japan had just experienced the largest earthquake on record, followed by a tsunami and more earthquakes, all of which killed maybe a thousand people, caused a huge amount of damage, and looked like it might result in at least one nuclear reactor meltdown that could poison millions of people, if not the entire planet. I almost felt bad that it had been a good day on a personal level: the amount of time I had to find a job before savings ran out nearly tripled, and I was making good progress in my search for a new career. While I knew the world has only a decade to avoid catastrophe, I was happy to get a few months of breathing room. I realized that, after this disaster, several months might be all any of us have.

Meanwhile, my wife found several beautiful photos of sandhill cranes on their annual pilgrimage to a wildlife refuge near the small town of Monte Vista in southern Colorado, and proposed that we go down there for the weekend. Not to complain, but the last time we took anything like a vacation was almost a year ago and almost as short. With us both feeling the stress of a steady focus on survival, we mutually decided that it was time for a sanity break.

Nothing could have prepared me for personally seeing thousands of birds in one place, while others flew in from all directions. The last time I had felt anything like it was during the Leonids meteor shower about a decade ago, when the sky literally rained hundreds of meteors per hour. It reminded me of a giant conference, with attendees arriving from everywhere. The cranes were getting reacquainted, finding mates, and eating, both on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning when we visited like voyeurs watching others live their lives, along with up to a hundred other birdwatchers parked around the area.

For me, the best part was what we did on the way home, stopping at Great Sand Dunes National Monument, which I had read about but never seen in person. There, another memory served as a reference for my reaction: the view of the Kilauea volcano craters in Hawaii. On the way to the dunes, we had taken a hike on a nearby mountain with an excellent view of the immense pile of gray sand, whose undulating patterns were reminiscent of desert scenes in movies, but nothing beat getting right up close and then walking in it.

When we got home I felt somewhat refreshed. Later, I realized that as much as I enjoy being around other animals and understanding geophysical processes, they're not what I can see doing as a career. My inclinations are more abstract and human-centered; it's what I keep coming back to, what really motivates me. Near my desk is the one new career-oriented book that I've been inclined to read without interruption: Steiner's “Human Ecology.” That's something I need to pay attention to, no matter what might happen next.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Almost Too Late

Last night, I watched the on-line version of Nicole Foss's presentation on the collapse of the global economy, which was somewhat different from the presentation she gave at the Transition conference, and surprisingly even more depressing. Foss focused mostly on the financial situation because she believes it will be at the leading edge of the catastrophe that's coming, while the energy situation – specifically peak oil – will drive the majority of it. Her prescriptions were the same in both presentations; among them: avoiding debt, home ownership, and banks; accumulating cash, food, equipment, and survival skills; and, above all, becoming part of a community.

While at the conference I was thinking globally, this time I was overwhelmed with how much the details of how people's live will need to change, especially mine. Like many Americans, I'm unemployed and in debt. This isn't the first time. I've worked myself out of worse situations before, and if the economy had a chance of rebounding, I would no doubt be able to do so again. Unfortunately, there have been deep structural changes in the past few years that will make it much more difficult to recover this time, even if I get one of the many jobs I've applied for since the last time I was working. Those changes, like most of the threats facing us, are tied to the relentless pursuit of growth. When you can't get enough new stuff, you start consuming the stuff that you used to process that stuff, and that's what the world's business leaders are doing, except the “stuff” they're now consuming is effectively composed of people. Those people, right now, are disproportionately among what was the middle class, and I and most of the people I know are among them.

There's still a chance that I can work my way out of debt before things get too much worse, but it will probably mean taking the highest-paying job I can and hanging on for as long as possible, even if what I'm doing with that precious forty to sixty hours a week isn't helping to lay the groundwork for a better future given the realities I've spent the past seven years discovering. In “Titanic Choices,” I likened this to bribing the crew of the Titanic to let me out of my cabin so I would have a better chance of convincing those steering the ship to avoid the iceberg, warning the other passengers, and helping to build more lifeboats.

If Foss and those in Transition are right, we're too close to avoid the iceberg, and we'll be lucky to get a few lifeboats launched before the ship sinks. I've so far resisted this conclusion, which is reflected in the career choices I've considered so far (along with the assumption that I even have the freedom to choose my next career). Their case, right now, is holding more sway with me, especially as unrest here in the United States has started to spread like wildfire. Given that possibility, my career choice will need to be much more practical. Permaculture design, perhaps?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Green Filter

Yesterday I was reintroduced to our society's version of a “green economy” while attending a training session sponsored by my county's main workforce center. While it was really just a plug for a local community college, it reminded me why I've shied away from enthusiastically seeking a job in the field: the green economy, as presently defined and practiced, isn't likely to significantly improve our chances of avoiding the global catastrophe I see lurking in the near future.

There's a popular expression, which I hate, that pops into my head when I write things like that: “Don't let the perfect be enemy of the good.” Sure, green jobs aren't going to solve all our problems, but they're better than what we're doing now – or so the logic goes. That's like saying, using my Titanic analogy, that turning the ship so it hits the iceberg at a slightly different angle is better than turning the ship so far that the passengers think you aren't taking them to their destination (assuming we can even do so, and in enough time to avoid impact). Sorry, but maybe perfect is what we need right now, along with a lot more lifeboats.

When I got home from the “training” I got a call from a recruiter about a contract-to-hire position as a technical writer, the transitional career I've been in since the late 1990s. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that cash is running out, and to use another expression I hate, “Beggars can't be choosers.” As idealistic as I am, as committed to trying to fix whatever I can, homelessness is not an option I'm willing to consider, especially since I'm not alone in this. If I get a chance to interview with an organization that isn't full-bore trying to kill the planet (involved in oil, global finance, war-making, or supporting right-wing politics, for example), I'll probably take it, and figure out how to use the job to do more good than bad.

In the mean time, I'll continue to use each new experience to narrow my search for what I want to spend most of my time doing. What I've learned so far is that I want to focus on increasing biodiversity, or at least curbing its loss. The key to this is the famous HIPPO acronym that I learned about by reading E. O. Wilson's work, which nicely summarizes the negative human impacts on other species. I've generalized this in my concept of consumption, which is proportional to the global ecological footprint. Reduce the footprint, and we can increase biodiversity; it's that simple. The big problem I've grappled with, of course, is the possible (and I consider likely) loss of human population that would accompany it, which appears to only be solvable by increasing the planet's natural carrying capacity (its “natural capacity”), or, more simply, the amount of other life. What this would practically translate into is the subject of my ongoing work (er, hobby) of defining an “ideal world.” From a career-search perspective, it confirms my inclination to move toward anything involving ecology, such as ecology with a conservation focus, human ecology, or social ecology.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Brad's Blogs

You've probably noticed that I now have several blogs.

Idea Explorer, my first and favorite, is a venue for discussing ideas about how the world works, with an emphasis on their implications for the future of humanity, which I believe is very much in jeopardy.

Land of Conscience focuses on my own personal struggles with living a responsible life in our dysfunctional society, aimed at helping create a land shaped by highly developed conscience rather than the pursuit of personal power.

Brad's Pithy Comments captures random thoughts, some profound, others silly, usually taking the form of a rule or observation that either exaggerates how I'm feeling at the moment, or preserves a nugget of meaning I might explore in more detail in other venue.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Titanic Choices

My search for a new career seemed to be making great progress last week. I was sure as I attended the Transition conference last weekend that I was going to make a major breakthrough in narrowing the choices that would propel me into full-out preparation this week. Instead, I hit a familiar snag, and now I feel like I'm starting over again.

For a number of reasons, the options I had settled on were academic. I would go for a master's or doctorate degree in either social ecology, human ecology, or ecology, or revisit my minor in history to contribute to the emerging field of “big history.” My primary motivation was to pursue my research into the variables affecting consumption and population growth in a rigorous, credible way on a full-time basis. After staring potential population and ecological collapse in the face for so long, I've been compelled to work toward keeping it from happening, and my default approach has been to understand its causes and then convince people to take appropriate action (while doing so myself). In various ways, people far more knowledgeable than me have been doing this for decades, and with what I think are novel and useful insights, I'm strongly tempted to join the chorus in a more vigorous way than just publishing thoughts on blogs and in self-published works of creative writing.

I even bought some books to help make my decision. Murray Bookchin's “The Ecology of Freedom” makes a compelling case that civilization's dominant, heirarchal social structure is responsible for our ecological crisis, which was already in academia's sites as early as the 1970s. His legacy is an interpretation of social ecology, manifested as a field of study and activism, that strives to develop new and healthier ways for people to relate to each other and the rest of the natural world. Frederick Steiner's “Human Ecology: Following Nature's Lead” is a theoretical primer on the relationships between people and Nature from a more physical perspective, but with (at least superficially) the same goal as Bookchin's. Human ecology seems to be more pervasive than social ecology, perhaps because it is more of a science than a philosophy. Fred Spier's “Big History and the Future of Humanity” is the latest contribution to an effort within the history community to put human experience in the larger context of the evolution of the Universe. In its broad sweep of time and space, this latter subject best captures my personal interest as a student of the ultimate big picture. Meanwhile, I've been plodding through “Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems” by Begon, Townsend, and Harper, a textbook on the biology specialty that summarizes the relationships between life and its environment. My “plodding” has been mostly due to the subject's heavy dependency on biology and natural history, which I've been learning about in parallel.

The Transition conference confirmed in my mind the timing found in my own research, that the world has no more than a decade to make major changes to the way we relate to each other and Nature before disaster becomes unavoidable. Transition itself is basing its activity on the inevitability of “energy descent,” the reduction of consumption to a level sustainable by low-energy and predominantly biological resources, and making that descent as painless as possible. The experience (and reinforcing current events) made a strong case for changing my personal focus from study and hazard avoidance to mitigation and adaptation.

It's a hard fact that any academic path I take now will require a lot of new debt (bad) and from two to six years of the ten that remain before I can even make much of a difference in my chosen field, with the real possibility that the large, centralized infrastructure that supports higher education and use of such abstract knowledge will implode soon afterwards. The most practical and self-serving case is for using my current, high-tech skills to deal with my financial situation, getting all I can from the current economy, and pursuing these other “interests” as the equivalent of hobbies to try to prepare for whatever might come later.

One of my favorite analogies to the current situation is the fate of the passengers and crew of the Titanic as they discovered the impending collision with the iceberg that ended up killing most of them. In that analogy, I feel like one of the passengers who sees the iceberg, and has almost no power to do anything about it. I'm stuck belowdecks, needing a job to even leave my cabin (remember, it's just an analogy, not necessarily a good one). If I could become one of the crew (get a higher college degree), I might have a chance to influence the course of the ship, but it would require a lot more time than we have. All I can do now is shout to anyone who might be listening (such as the dozen or so people who visit my blogs and Web site) what I see and what I think should be done about it. Nearby, there are some fellow passengers who are plotting in desperation to build their own lifeboats out of local materials, certain that only the rich and powerful will have access to the existing ones. Unfortunately, the crew and richer passengers who want to get to their destination sooner are pilfering some of that material (extracting more non-renewable resources and polluting the environment) to use as fuel for the engines so the ship can go faster, either ignorant or in denial about the fact that doing so will make things much worse.

In this situation, what I need to do is clear. First I need to find a way to get out my cabin (get a job or find another means that frees me but doesn't commit me to helping the ship hit the iceberg). I have to continue alerting the other passengers and any crew I find (keep writing and talking to people). I also must try to reduce or stop the pilfering (contribute to conservation and anti-pollution efforts), and help the other enlightened passengers to build and safely position new lifeboats (create resilient, self-sustaining communities) to escape the sinking of the ship if it happens. Hopefully, the crew and captain (business and political leaders) will catch on, and try to steer the ship away from the iceberg, assisting with (or at least not hindering) emergency preparations just in case. Surviving the crash is plenty to do, but to ensure we don't all die on the open ocean, even in our lifeboats, we'll need to put some effort into provisioning and determining a course to someplace safe (possibly something I can apply my particular talents to, maybe even justifying additional education).

I'm still left with determining the details of my next step. I'm far too altruistic to take the easiest and most self-serving alternative, which would be to try to suck up to the powers-that-be so I might get into one of the cushy “lifeboats” (I'm not altogether convinced that they don't see the “iceberg,” and aren't following the simple logic of competition that might see a “collision” as the easiest way to eliminate almost everyone else). Most jobs unfortunately involve aiding and abetting accelerated consumption (“speed”), especially the high-paying ones, so perhaps I should look for something more having to do with “navigation.” This leads me back to the higher-education option, or if I can get a lot better at marketing and zeroing in on popular, positive messages, focusing on writing.

At this point, let me digress to a brief discussion of my on-again off-again consideration of higher-education. There is a lot of important, valuable work being done by academia to understand what's happening around us, but I sense that it's not getting the traction it needs in either the public's collective mind or that of our society's leadership. Heck, I'm struggling right now with the complex analysis in “The Ecology of Freedom” and “Ecology,” and I'm already inclined to read such things. Then I look at the popular culture (including what passes for news), and am appalled by the huge traction achieved by the frankly idiotic ramblings of the so-called opinion makers, especially on (but hardly limited to) the political right. Aside from my own enjoyment, getting official credit for what I learn, and contributing to a body of knowledge which is likely to be among the first casualties of civilization's unraveling, what would be the practical benefit to becoming an official part of the intelligentsia? This a variant of the argument I had with myself in high school when I realized that a career in astronomy wouldn't help deal with what I saw, even then, as an emerging entropic crisis that could render that knowledge useless. In the intervening years, I saw the quality of education decline as people focused more on facts than on understanding and real learning (and with my father, tried at huge personal cost to do something about it). Now we're all paying the price, with what I call “the appearance of functionality” dominating people's decisions about what to buy and create. When recognition of quality goes down, so does quality itself. It's hard not to ask, “What's the point of knowing something if no one else cares, or would know what to do with it if they did?”

In my Titanic analogy, I didn't ask to see the iceberg (the destruction and disruption of the biosphere we are part of and depend upon for survival, manifested simplistically as consumption of “resources” and pollution), I just heard some people talking about it (read a lot) and chose to look out the porthole and see for myself (applied my analytical skills to publicly available data and learned enough about the natural world to recognize the signs). At another time, I would have gladly accepted the judgment of many of my conservative friends that it's all a hoax, part of a grand conspiracy to take over the economy for people who don't want to work for what they get. Having gotten to know the alleged perpetrators, and come to understand that they are not only right, but have the purest of motives in trying to do something about it, I'm deeply ashamed that I lived in denial for so many years when I could have been helping. That's in spite of the fact, in my defense, that I was working on the education problem, and then, after my father died, doing a lot of much-needed growing up and self examination that led to both learning and caring about the fate of everyone on the “ship.”

This perspective hopefully lends me some credibility, to make up for what I lack official recognition for, when I ask those who are still in denial to step outside their comfort zones (open the “portholes” or go “on deck” if possible) and look around. Recognize that we're all in this together, we need each other to survive – and then, with some work, we can eventually find a better “place.” In the mean time, I'm going to keep looking for a way to get out of this “cabin,” and any help would be appreciated.