Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Year Toward Happiness

By virtually any standard, I've had a good year. I found a job with a company that benefits from my strengths, has the potential to help make the world better, and is improving my family's financial condition. I'm getting healthier by eating smarter, and consuming smarter by driving a more efficient car and considering the social and environmental records of the companies that make what I buy. Last month's election could have resulted in a rapid acceleration toward oblivion, but it didn't.

Yet I am nowhere near feeling happy, mainly because oblivion is still ahead of us. The fire that pulled humanity out of the stone age is beginning to engulf our world, yet we continue building and using the equivalent of more powerful blowtorches. The recently completed talks on climate change demonstrated that this is unlikely to change before the firestorm becomes self-sustaining and unstoppable. Planning for the future is looking pretty futile, except for deciding how to resist the causes of our problems.

I've recently felt overwhelmed to the point of frequently losing sleep. For years, I looked forward to having at least as much knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as I do now; answers to most questions come much more easily, and the path to answers I don't have is typically quite obvious. Bursts of insight that I used to celebrate because of their rarity now occur as streams rather than bursts, and most reliably when I'm facing a problem or a commitment; and I am currently facing several of both.

My life is a microcosm of the dying world we are a part of. I accelerate just to keep from losing ground, yet that ground is growing soft and fracturing beneath me because of the weight and stress of too many of us doing the same thing. My instincts and best judgment scream at me to slow down, to make the most out of every experience rather than moving headlong from one to the next. I know that if I take the time to know the ground, I can find ways to stabilize it so it will be around when either I come back to it, or someone else passes along more safely for my efforts. Left to my own devices, it's what I prefer to do; yet I live in a society designed and tweaked to make speed rather than substance, to grow at all costs -- and all costs is what it will ultimately pay if it doesn't change its goal.

For years now, I've written about my struggle to repent for, and end, my contribution to the sabotage of the world's future. In many ways my happiness hinges on it. While better equipped, I am still weak. Having some of the answers and taking some steps is good, but still far from good enough.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Voting for Survival

In "The Politics of Happiness" on the Idea Explorer blog, I summarized why this year's election is likely to be disappointing, no matter who wins. Despite those reservations, it's clear that there's more hope of making the necessary changes with liberals rather than conservatives in power.

The reasons should be obvious. Today's conservatives generally hate change, value the concentration of personal power, are willing to put faith ahead of facts, and don't want to accept responsibility for how their actions impact anyone outside of a very selective group that they are willing to treat as equal in value to themselves. Liberals tend to be the opposite in each respect, which makes them more inclined to make the changes needed to avoid the hazards we face.

There is, of course, a continuum between these two extremes, and most of us lie near the middle. A properly functional political system will tend to serve this group the best. Unfortunately, that won't be good enough to avoid massive casualties in the years ahead, because it necessarily favors the growth in consumption that is the root cause of those casualties, and because some people in the population are still okay with sustaining casualties (as long as they're not one of them). Sadly, our political system isn't even that functional: What should be a bell curve of politicians that is conservative at one end and liberal on the other, instead is biased toward the conservative side.

I voted for Democrats across the ballot in this election because there is a chance that they might be open-minded and responsible enough to consider doing the right things, while Republicans were most likely to tow the conservative line and proudly drive us into oblivion. Hopefully, enough others will too.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


This week marks 20 years since my father, Art Jarvis, died of a heart attack in the middle of a typical day trying to improve the education of kids as the last of many contributions to making the world a better place to live. For years, we spent a lot of our time together discussing issues over a wide spectrum, from the dynamics of our family to math, science, and the lessons he'd learned from a deep and broad background about how society works – and doesn't. Shortly before he died, he paid me the ultimate compliment: that we were alike in the way we thought, except for experience. I've noticed considerable differences since then, but still encounter situations where his wisdom comes to mind, typically in the form of sayings he either learned or created to summarize the core of an issue.

I've been sick at heart lately as my confidence in the salvageability of a livable future slips significantly almost every day. I miss my father more than ever in these challenging times, and wonder what he would say about what's happening and what to do about it. If you'll allow me, let me slip into my fiction writing mode, and channel the part of my father that lives inside me to imagine how a conversation might go between us.


BRAD: Hi, Dad. I can't tell you how much I've missed you.

ART: Me too, buddy.

BRAD: A lot's happened since you left.

ART: I'm sure it has.

BRAD: The family's a lot different. For one thing, I got married, if you can believe that.

ART: I figured you might, eventually.

BRAD: I also became an atheist.

ART: Really. How did that happen?

BRAD: After you died, I followed your example. Did a lot of studying, a lot of thinking, and was even fairly active in a couple of churches. Finally I realized that although many of their values made sense, they were man-made: taught by myths but not dependent on them. I dropped the myths, kept the values. Even refined them a little.

ART: What did you come up with?

BRAD: Maximizing life and happiness, first with people, then with other species, with the recognition that we're all interdependent and important.

ART: That's a good summary. It pretty much covers them all.

BRAD: Exactly. It's changed a lot about how I think about things.

ART: I'm sure it has. How's the business going?

BRAD: I had to walk away from it. We tried, we really tried, but it was too much for just the two of us, and then Eleanor had to leave. I had to survive, so I decided to try other things.

ART: What? What are you doing now?

BRAD: Believe it or not, I'm back doing test engineering, and my own writing on the side along with some music. I was also a technical writer for a few years.

ART: Technical writing? We used to do our own...

BRAD: I know, I know. You remember how you used to bitch about how bad help files were for software? I tried doing it better. Can't say I always succeeded, but it beat finding everyone's mistakes for a living, where I got a little too cynical for my own good.

ART: Is it working better for you now?

BRAD: It's complicated. That's what I hoped to talk with you about.

ART: Okay, let's have it.

BRAD: Remember how much fun we had asking questions no one else would ask because they thought the answers were too obvious?

ART: And we found other answers. I was proud of that.

BRAD: I never stopped. I think it's part of my DNA. After you died, I started questioning all of the basic assumptions in my life. The religion thing was a big part of that. I also got a job testing telecom equipment, and found a lot of bugs thanks to what I call my "special skill." I started to find problems outside of work too, especially when I started applying my new value system. Because life is paramount, I got interested in the possibility of Earth being hit by asteroids and comets, and realized that we're all pretty vulnerable to extinction by something too few people are taking seriously. The life test also pointed to the need to settle other planets, to avoid extinction from a warming Sun. I got into promoting Mars exploration as the first step toward dealing with that threat. Then I learned about another threat, far more insidious but just as deadly.

ART: What's that?

BRAD: Humanity is responsible for a mass extinction event, potentially as large as any caused by an asteroid collision. It turns out that other species do a lot to keep the planet habitable, and we're killing them off by stealing or destroying their habitats; polluting the air, water, and soil; and hunting them to extinction. Part of the pollution comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil, which is causing heat to be trapped by the atmosphere; that leads to extreme weather such as droughts and mega-storms, melting of glaciers and the polar caps, and release of even more potent methane from permafrost which could amplify the effect by orders of magnitude. The carbon pollution is also acidifying the oceans, threatening the base of the food chain. By the end of this century, we could be all but extinct.

ART: A lot of other people must have figured all that out.

BRAD: The scientific community has done a great job nailing it down. Many have abandoned their normal reticence and are sounding the alarm big time. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry and others who depend on them have a stranglehold on the media and several governments, including ours, which is making it all but impossible to do anything meaningful about it before it's too late. I did my own research over the past few years, and it shows what looks like a clear correlation between humanity's impact on ecosystems, the populations of ours and other species, and people's happiness. I'm projecting a peak in world population in about 20 years, and a drop to zero within 60 years. My conclusions align pretty well with those of people who have done a far more thorough job of studying these things.

ART: That's quite a story.

BRAD: I wish it were just that. If I still believed in God, I might be able to delude myself into thinking that a miracle will happen to make everything okay. Unfortunately, as you used to say, "it ain't gonna happen," and the people who think that it will are dragging their feet, making things worse for all of us. Recently, I've been feeling that it's all hopeless.

ART: Remember what I used to tell you about feeling sorry for yourself.

BRAD: Like your dad said, "Run in place until you kick yourself in the ass." I remember.

ART: So what are you doing about it?

BRAD: I took this test job with a non-profit that's building a national network to monitor ecosystems. It's pretty cool, and a way to contribute to the science that can tell us how things are changing.

ART: That's great, son.

BRAD: I'm worried that it won't have any effect on what's happening, though.

ART: Let me guess. With all the information that's already out there, the idiots won't listen. What are the chances they'll pay attention to even more data?

BRAD: They're also enthusiastically trying to destroy ecosystems. They just don't value nature, except as a pile of resources to be exploited. Come to think of it, that's the way they view people too. Remember why I didn't pursue astronomy in school?

ART: Vaguely. I'm afraid I had something to do with that.

BRAD: That was during the '70s energy crisis. I figured it would be irresponsible to focus on what to me felt like mental masturbation while humanity was in danger of burning itself up by pursuing energy just to have more. Later, with the asteroid thing and the understanding of the Sun's future, I realized that science could illuminate what's coming, and how to create a better future, in part by recognizing and confronting threats. I was more interested in using science to explore options than contributing to the science itself, but it was important to know the science first. You showed me that education was key to getting people to even pay attention, and that's part of why I stuck with you on that; the other part, the biggest part, was that I loved working with you.

ART: I suspected that.

BRAD: But now I realize that even education's not enough, just like science isn't enough. Even knowing the options isn't going to solve the problems, or being able to show clear logic leading from cause to effect.

ART: I think you're going off the deep end, there. People just need to be shown...

BRAD: ...How to pursue enlightened self interest. I know you believe that. It was behind everything we did together. Unfortunately, beliefs are far more powerful, particularly when they're shared by one's community. They become part of our identity. When you challenge them, you challenge people's identities. You throw into question the value of all the things they did in support of them. You threaten to devalue their lives.

ART: But if they realize they're wrong, they can find something better. More happiness, to use your term.

BRAD: Not if a large part of their happiness – and the power that enables it – derives from their community. You'll have to convince the whole community, or force them into a situation where the community loses influence over them, like what happened to me after you died. Also, the risk of finding something better is losing what you already have; and it is a risk, because you may not find something better.

ART: That's an interesting theory...

BRAD: You taught me to think for myself, but you had your own value system superimposed on top of that, which because you were so smart, and had so much experience, I didn't really question until you were gone.

ART: Anecdotal evidence.

BRAD: Sometimes that's the most convincing kind. Like when it's yours.

ART: I think you're wrong, though I respect your reasons.

BRAD: You're proving my point: It all comes down to beliefs. And, for the record, I still respect yours. I also respect your judgment, as much as ever. So what do you think about all this? Is there hope?

ART: The people I grew up with did some amazing things in just a few decades, under similar conditions, with a lot at stake. Yours can too, if you have the stomach for it and don't give up. Take a deep breath, start running in place, and then do what needs to be done. I'll bet you won't be alone.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Responsibility and Control

How do you cope with a looming disaster that is virtually unavoidable? Someone recently asked me an equivalent question, and my first response was, "I try to make sure that if it happens, I'm not responsible." He thought I was just going to blame someone else. "It's not about blame," I corrected him, "it's about control: controlling what you can, and not accepting responsibility for what you can't."

I've addressed this issue in my writing, especially around the growing demolition of our planet's biosphere, and my role in it. In general, I come down on the side of accepting responsibility for whatever I may have done, as well as its direct and indirect consequences. As a result, I try to be very cautious and conscious, though – I'm the first to admit – not enough so.

Because I also value commitment, I've applied a lot of that caution to choosing who and what I will closely associate with. It takes a lot to break those bonds, even when I discover that I've chosen poorly. If there's any hope of keeping disaster at bay, I'll fight to do so ("Never give up!" is one of my favorite sayings). There is, however, one major exception: when it becomes clear that fighting will only make things worse. I'm not so narcissistic as to think that I'm the best person to solve every problem – or even most of them. As with everyone else, there's a limit to what I know and what I can do, contributing to the risk of causing more problems for every one I try to solve.

Sometimes it seems like the best I can say is that at least I care. The people I least respect are those who don't care about the impact of their actions, rationalizing the consequences away as the price of pursuing the equivalent of "virtuous self-interest" (one of the most horrific oxymorons I can think of). When pressed, they point to competition, appeasing their consciences with the notion that if everyone tries to serve themselves, then the "winner" deserves what he or she gets – and, conversely, the "losers," pretty much everyone else, deserve what little they get.

Many disasters caused (or not averted) by people are, in my opinion, due to an unwillingness to take responsibility for the negative consequences of actions or inaction. Responsibility, which tends to manifest personally as a modification of our self-image based on what we have caused to happen, is a motivation for exerting as much control as we are able, without causing conditions to get worse.

It is possible to take too much responsibility, assuming that our impact is greater than it is. This is a sure path to either depression (for the bad things) or unjustified euphoria (for the good things). Therefore it must be tempered by honesty, with ourselves and with others, and a healthy dose of testing with experience to see what our impacts really are. This approach has helped me personally to back away from extreme stress caused by my growing awareness of the damage done by my lifestyle, acknowledging what I can't (and couldn't) control, while looking for ways to use what knowledge and power I have to make things better.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


I have a lot of respect for Hospice. Twenty-four years ago, their caregivers helped my family deal with the hardest aspects of my mother's rapid death from untreatable cancer – both in easing her pain and helping us cope. Now, the organization is doing the same for another loved one, who has luckily survived to face the consequences of old age: so-called "natural causes."

The signs of impending death are as unmistakable as they are heart-wrenching. When you see them, you begin to comprehend the incomprehensible, that there are some situations where death is preferable to living. In such situations, typified by the body's inability to overcome the forces that are breaking it down, the mind looks for a way to escape. That escape is withdrawal into an imaginary reality that at first, like dreaming, tries to sort out what's happening, then at the end appears and feels like the passage into another, more benign world. Many of us who haven't faced death directly, or crave hope for a positive outcome as our loved ones suffer, find solace in the idea that the imaginary world is real. As death approaches, for us and for others, we want it to be as positive as possible, and with luck and help we can prepare the mind to make it so.

Twenty years ago, my father had a much different experience. He died alone of a heart attack in a bathroom at work. There was no opportunity to save him, no time to say goodbye. Sometimes he would say he wanted to die with his boots on, but I doubt he meant anything like this. In retrospect, there were signs: he smoked; tired easily during long walks after we moved up in altitude from sea level to nearly 5,000 feet; and was stressed by a grueling work schedule (in my early 30s, I had trouble keeping up). We were on a deathwatch and didn't know it. I suspect that in the shorts seconds before my father died, his always active mind went through its own escape process, a rapid shutdown that I hope ended with a flash of peace.

These experiences are part of a continuum, which appears to vary in scale, age, and time: a single death or multiple deaths; time lived before death; and an irreversible decline lasting an instant or years. The global mass extinction event currently underway represents an extreme part of that continuum: in terms of just humanity, there may be billions of deaths following a few hundred thousand years of our species' existence, and a decline of a few decades. Like my parents who smoked, we're poisoning ourselves and the other species that keep the planet habitable; if we continue for even a few more years, there will be so much poison that we can't stop the worst consequences. My current job, enabling the systematic, sophisticated monitoring of ecosystems, will then merely serve the purpose of documenting the death of a planet.

It's easy to see the growing pervasiveness of entertainment. I've used it myself to keep my stress level down when I get too caught up in the bad stuff that's happening. Our species seems to be like a large, dying patient whose body is overwhelmed and whose mind – aided by technology – is creating delusions to deal with the impending shutdown. Science has already shown that time is running out for deciding whether to cure ourselves or to preside over our own deathwatch. I fervently hope that we choose to salvage reality.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Catching a Break

For the first time since before my father died nearly 20 years ago, I am contributing to something that I deeply care about, is fully in line with my personal values and skills, and could have a positive influence on the future of many people beyond my direct involvement.

As a systems integration engineer, I will be devising and performing initial tests of the National Science Foundation's National Ecological Observatory Network, working for a non-profit, NEON, set up specifically to design, build, deploy, and manage it. The goal of the network is to monitor the ecosystems in the U.S. over a period of 30 years, enabling scientists to detect and characterize changes in a wide range of variables. Just as large-scale monitoring of weather has enabled a better understanding of climate and the ability to predict how it changes, such monitoring of ecosystems has the potential to do the same regarding the living environment; building the network is a critical step in this direction.

Of course, having knowledge does not automatically ensure that it will be used, or that it will be used to anyone's benefit. In my personal writing, I will continue to address this issue, along with the question of how to maximize the amount and quality of life in the Universe, beginning with increasing the longevity of our species and eliminating its role in the Sixth Great Extinction.

Along those lines, I look forward to studying the upcoming book Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin (who I worked with in the Mars Society), which examines the dark, radical side of environmentalism that sees humans as inherently evil, and (apparently from the promos) debunks some basic tenets of environmentalism. I've caught glimpses of the radical side, and am certainly familiar with the judgment of evil – but focused on what we do rather than what we inherently are, and as a consequence of valuing other species in addition to our own. Also, simplified understanding of outdated theories seems to be common to many radicals (as well as people in the general public who follow them), such as opponents of the original version of evolution who have no problem applying the crude analogue of "social Darwinism" to economics and public policy. I am particularly interested in what Zubrin finds wrong – if anything – with contemporary understanding of ecology, economics, and their overlap in ecological economics, along with other disciplines (such as climatology) which all point toward the need to reduce or otherwise radically change our impact on the rest of the biosphere to avoid catastrophe.

Hopefully, as more and better data is gathered, we will all be willing to adjust our views to conform with the reality it describes. I'm honored to be contributing to that.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Breaking Mad

Last weekend, I watched the first three episodes of the award-winning TV show "Breaking Bad." My wife and I then debated whether to watch the remainder of the series on DVD. There was no question of its high quality, both in production and story line, a point reflected in the show's many awards and high recommendations from friends. There have been several seasons since the episodes we watch first aired, obviously not resolving the key plot, which it was clear could only end, well, badly. For me, the choice boiled down to a commitment of time and some assumptions about how I would feel as a result. I decided that it would be the equivalent of watching a slow-motion train wreck, one that couldn't be stopped. If I'm going to watch a wreck, I want a chance that it can be stopped, or someone can be saved.

I've got more real-world "train wrecks" to focus on that are similar, but orders of magnitude larger in scale, and which I still have some hope can be stopped. Case in point: global warming, which threatens to turn the world's proverbial food bowl into a literal dust bowl. I'm currently reading William DeBuys' book A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, a very well written discussion of the likely future of the area where I live, a future that even under the best conditions (totally stopping greenhouse gas emissions) will get rapidly more brutal within my lifetime. Like the main character in "Breaking Bad," we all have a disease that threatens to kill us, and a few of us are committing some horrible crimes so their relatives might live well – which of course they won't. The disease – a value system centered on perpetual, exponential growth in personal power – may still be stoppable before the worst happens, but time is running out.

If I had a terminal illness, my foremost concern would be improving the totality of my impact on the world. Lately I've realized that I should have that concern anyway. It's clear that improving my impact will be complicated by the fact that, as in fiction, survival has depended on the pursuit of economic power (manifested as money). This pursuit has made it easy, if not imperative, to treat many people I don't know and members of other species as objects to be used while creating a vast waste stream that will poison countless more after I'm dead. Such is the life of a planet-killing hypocrite in a culture that rewards sociopathic behavior. The path to redemption, to improving my impact, must therefore be shaped by the requirements for a healthy world that begin with perhaps the most important one: No life shall be wasted.

I've become more aware of the history of what I buy, treated other people better, and shared what I know and think I know so that less life can be wasted, but it's been easy to slip back into old patterns of behavior and focus on the immediate effects of my actions. Compensating has been helped by "breaking mad": getting mad at myself and others who are more blatant than I could ever be about harming the biosphere; this makes it harder to buy the worst stuff, vote for people who favor bad public policy, and tolerate attitudes of hate and indifference. These are all fairly small efforts compared to what's needed, but at least they are grounded in hope that by the time I die, there will be something better than money, pain, and death to mark how I lived.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fight or Flight

I saw the new year start from a bed in an emergency room.  A sudden loss of blood pressure had left me light-headed and nervous to the point of barely being able to walk.
Though I had experienced the blood pressure loss before, lasting only a few seconds per episode at a frequency of, at most, once a year over the past 15 years, and several times during the last six months, this was the first time it was accompanied by the other symptoms, and it lasted much longer.

An electrocardiogram, blood analysis, chest x-rays, and a CT scan of my brain all came back normal. The ER doctor informed me that I likely had vasovagal syncope, a not-uncommon condition where the body has a fight-or-flight response to some stimulus; because there is no real threat, a nerve controlling blood pressure reduces the blood pressure, sometimes overcompensating and drawing too much blood from the brain. Luckily I hadn't fainted, which happens to many people with the condition. It's not life-threatening, just very annoying. The best way to treat it is to find the triggering stimulus and become desensitized to it. To cope, I'll need to drink lots of water, and try to elevate my feet if I feel an episode coming on.

The first time I heard about the fight-or-flight response was when I was researching a paper in college on the relationship between behavior and how people experience the space around them. Experiments with animal populations had shown that as competition for critical resources increases, animals become more stressed, sometimes to the point where they experience the fight-or-flight response. Because the problem is lack of resources, they can't flee, and fighting can lead to increased mortality, but the main killer – which leads to population crashes – is the physiological effects of stress that can't be alleviated by taking action, such as lowered immunity to disease.

It may be an odd coincidence that the trigger in my case may be related to a rising level of anxiety I've felt about the future of the world, which over the next two decades will likely include effects related to an impending crash of the entire human population, accompanying the already frighteningly high amount of crashes of other species that we have precipitated. Because I'm aware of this future, I'm probably reacting to it early.

Flight is, I believe, out of the question. Global environmental and social collapse will be inescapable by even the most hardened survivalists. Spaceflight, another method of escape, is similarly implausible in the time we have left, but would likely fall prey to the same underlying problems, even if it were initially successful for the small number of people lucky enough to participate. On a personal level, I could try to ignore the news and analysis, and try to live a more "normal" life; but that will just ensure that I'll be both a victim and a perpetrator, along with everyone who does the same thing.

My particular brand of fight response has involved writing and thinking about ways to avoid the crash, and, like others aware of the problem, trying to anticipate what a healthy world might look like and attempt to get a running start on creating it. That fight is going slower than I'd hoped, especially given the demands of my personal economic reality; and the success of others is mediocre at best, suggesting that no matter what I do, the outcome is practically inevitable. Because I am fundamentally opposed to the idea of giving up, a search for other approaches is a necessary part of the fight.

When I read about greedy, anti-science (read: anti-reality), authoritarian bigots gaining traction in the political process, I want to scream as loud as possible that they are dangerous for not just the U.S., but the world. I want to shake the people who share my values and have a lot more power, point to the threats I see, and make them admit that the time for incrementalism has got to be over. For once, and for all, I want all of us to have a frank, adult conversation about values, and determine who is in favor of the survival of life on Earth and who doesn't give a damn about anyone who isn't just like them, and then find a way to isolate the latter so there will be a future that doesn't involve death on a scale we've never seen. I want truth and justice, and an American way that doesn't involve rape, pillage, and murder of anybody or anything that gets in the way of our having more and more of less and less. I want realistic hope for a life worth living, instead of just holding on until it all turns to crap. That's what I've got to be successful at fighting for, so I can relieve the stress that is an annoyance now, but may kill me – and everyone else – later.