Monday, December 2, 2013

Five Roles

For several years I've tried to occupy five roles simultaneously, with mixed results. Priorities have shifted, along with the effort required to maintain them and the dynamics of synergies and conflicts between them. Recently I crossed a major threshold in juggling my roles, which in retrospect was inevitable, and may also be inevitable for like-minded people who have chosen similar ones.

The first role I've occupied is as a husband and supportive member of a small community that includes my family and friends. In my second role, I've been a citizen of the United States, working to make a decent living as defined by my culture, with the hope of eventually retiring comfortably. In the third role, I've been an aspiring artist, creating artificial experiences that might inspire, entertain, and educate others as they did for me. My fourth role has been as a curious researcher, exploring and sharing how and why the future might unfold for our species over the near and distant future. Finally, in the fifth role, I've tried to become a more responsible citizen of Earth.

The selection of these roles is understandable, given my personality. Using the Big Five model, I am an introvert, explaining why I'm comfortable with very few people and why I'm drawn to the art and professions that involve mostly solitary activity. High agreeableness explains why I typically stick to my culture's dominant script, which corresponds in general to the expectations of the people around me. Strong conscientiousness and openness underlie my search for meaning and understanding of how the world works so that, when a goal is set, the supporting actions can be derived and followed. I also have high neuroticism, which motivates me to find and solve problems, and minimize harm resulting from anything I do (or anyone else does) through acceptance of responsibility and a pursuit of knowledge that can improve the chances of success.

I've shared in much of my writing how I've found the fifth role of responsible Earth citizen problematic, especially in light of the results of my research into variables affecting our future. In a nutshell, it almost directly opposes my second role as a citizen of my culture and the goals it prescribes. As evidence has mounted that we may all be doomed no matter what we do, the advantages of following my culture's lead have become harder and harder to see. This made my third role as an artist a lot more attractive as a replacement, even though it almost certainly meant much less short-term income.

Until today, the most recent real-world manifestation of my second role was a job as (effectively) a test engineer, which coincidentally benefited from the other aspects of my personality – at least for a while. My discomfort with the potential for hidden problems, when indulged, is both an advantage and a curse. The advantage is that my heightened sensitivity leads me to problems others wouldn't think of finding. The curse is that I start finding those problems everywhere. Each of us seems to have a limit to how much of that kind of knowledge we can handle, or choose to handle, likely related to the openness personality dimension. My tolerance seems to be higher than most, which sometimes gets me into trouble if I'm not judicious about how I share the "excess," either literally or as a result of being too obvious in my pursuit of it (which in a perverse way can be perceived as "waste"). As I approached my own limit over the course of the last few months, with the fate of the world revealed in news and research overshadowing and adding to my direct experience, it became virtually impossible to do anything but double down and deal with it, all of it. I realized that for the world to become healthier, many of the assumptions behind our physical and social infrastructure would need to change radically, and very soon, making almost all of the things we focused on, in my work and around the world, necessarily obsolete. As a result I became less careful with maintaining perception, to say the least. The consequences were predictable.

My writing had served as a way to deal with both my angst and urge to troubleshoot, before and during that period. Through music, I was also able to access some deep feelings, many – thankfully – positive, a revelation from my subconscious that I could share more than just soul-crushing problems, or numb my pain with the total fantasy painted by TV and movies. I grasped at the possibility that I could transition into a healthier set of roles, using this one to earn enough money to pay off debts and maintain a more basic standard of living as I plotted a course toward more responsible living that didn't sacrifice health and happiness. I did so knowing that my chances were slim, even if we weren't facing a high probability of death by radiation poisoning, climate change, or a horrific combination of both.

I'm still grasping that possibility, and committed now to testing it. Though I'm sure to take some detours along the way as necessity dictates, the future – as I used to say about relationships – is going to be as good as I can make it, and better than it might have been.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bouncing Hope

Having slightly bounced back from near-total hopelessness by grasping for valuable lessons that could avert total catastrophe, I was once again forced to face it.

This week, we watched as people acting as cruel idiots (or sociopaths playing the rest of us for idiots) engaged in what will likely be a weeks-long act of terrorism, threatening the health or survival of millions of people so they and their allies can have more economic and political power.

Included in their demands are projects that would increase our use of fossil fuels, such as the approval of the now-infamous Keystone XL pipeline, which will push us much closer to environmental disaster. The scope of that disaster was spelled out in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), also released this week. Already out of date, and likely too conservative in its estimates of what's coming, the IPCC report confirmed the urgency of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas pollution, which is the exact opposite of what the terrorists are willing to support.

Coincidentally, I continued reading a new book, "Our Political Nature" by Avi Tuschman, which explores the underlying reasons for people's political views. The book confirms the strong correlation of related behavior with personality type that I've assumed in my own research, which has a strong biological/evolutionary component. This, and a recent study casting doubt on people's ability to change their beliefs based on new evidence, have led me to seriously question whether the use of reason, facts, and ideas has any appreciable chance of improving our odds of survival as a species.

I had a brief interlude of renewed hope after first hearing of the reprehensible brinksmanship in Congress. During a conversation about these issues, I recalled the primary prescription for long-term survival from the book "Immoderate Greatness." Effectively, it's a version of my power vs. responsibility theme, which I invoked as the subject of another blog post during another national debt crisis: keep complexity low enough to manage effectively. This time, I imagined that by "chunking" our activities so that their effects can be reasonably anticipated and controlled, we would cut back on activities we couldn't, thus slowing down and scaling down our impact on the biosphere so it has a chance to heal. We would also potentially be happier, in large part because we'd have less stress.

Perhaps it's my own nature which makes it easy to envision living such a life, though my current lifestyle is far from it. I can appreciate that other people, by their nature, might find it extremely abhorrent, even threatening, and fight the prospect with whatever means they can acquire – thus appearing as terrorists to the rest of us. In an ideal world, we could live in environments where our particular natures are an advantage, with enough capability for migration so that opposites born in a place that doesn't work for them can find someplace that does. Unfortunately, we don't have that, and it's getting so crowded and interconnected that we can't escape each other.

Toward the end of the week, another piece of news reminded me of an option I used to take as an article of faith. Water was found on the surface of Mars, which makes it more attractive as a place people could ultimately live. The prospect of exploiting new territory and resources, with social and technological experimentation that could potentially benefit everyone, has the potential to improve humanity's chances of thriving and surviving into the far future; or at least, that's how space enthusiasts rationalize the drive to explore space. Mars is the best candidate for our next step, and it looks even more attractive now. I still think going to other planets is preferable to limiting ourselves to this one, especially given the habitability limit imposed by our warming Sun. However, the threat of reducing Earth's habitability dramatically due to global warming must be our top priority, along with learning the lessons critical to ensuring healthy communities will be developed that don't exceed the complexity they can healthily and responsibly manage.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Disaster Preparedness

As I write, my home state of Colorado is suffering from record flooding after some places received more precipitation in a a few days than they normally see in an entire year. Family and friends are either dealing with the consequences, or waiting for conditions to potentially get worse.

The ground was already saturated by rain the day before the flooding began, which was coincidentally the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was taking a refresher class in first aid and CPR for my job in the middle of what would be the hardest-hit city, Boulder. At home I had several books dealing with disaster preparedness and backpacking that included much of the same information. While my training anticipated conditions and accidents where I would be working, my books were intended to inform my writing, provide guidance for hiking, and prepare for the disasters I knew were coming. The class was a pointed reminder of what some of those disasters might include.

Yesterday, I awoke to one of those disasters. Because I'm in the habit of checking news before leaving home, I discovered that Boulder was virtually impassable, and my wife couldn't get to work either. We sat at home, watching the disaster unfold on TV and the Internet. Our home was also under a steady stream of flood warnings and watches, but although water in our nearby storm drain got higher than we'd ever seen it, and a small lake briefly appeared over the grass outside our window, we had no problems.

Several superlatives were used to describe the event, and rightly so based on the area's history. Roads and bridges were washed out, entire towns were isolated by both water and lack of electricity. Debris caused water treatment plants to stop working. Low clouds, rain, and fog grounded helicopters that might have provided aid, rescue, and reconnaissance. People were urged not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary. Fortunately there were only a handful of known casualties, though the number is expected to go up when the waters recede and the full extent of the damage becomes known.

With the average world temperature increasing, the atmosphere will hold more water vapor before it becomes saturated and releases it, making events like this much more frequent, punctuating long periods of drought along with dust storms, tornadoes, and blizzards, while we suffer with more infectious pests who have been displaced by our meddling with their habitats. This is just the beginning of the hell we've triggered, and it already looks pretty bad.

As what we now consider as "disaster" gets more routine, it will become virtually impossible to cope, thus we must look for any ways to stop it, beginning with the reduction of our pillage and poisoning of the biosphere. The linkage between our behavior and the so-called "acts of god" we experience is not yet a visceral one, so it will be difficult to get enough people to take appropriate action in time to avert a self-sustaining death spiral. Although I've ceased to believe the myth of an omnipotent dispenser of evil (as well as good), and I more often feel responsible for my small part in making the catastrophe, it's still too easy to cave in to the status quo pursuit of keeping what I have and pursuing at least a little more. While I intellectually see the link and what to do about it, when it comes to action it's easier to focus on getting through the current emergency and how to preserve what I have when a similar or worse one hits.

Perhaps the most productive takeaway from this disaster for me is awareness of the need to address the question I just suggested: What will it take to viscerally make the link between our actions and the indirect consequences that can destroy us, such that we are adequately motivated to change what we're doing?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Breaking Addictions

A recent addition to my list of ways I want to live in the future (the "visioning exercise") is having and using the ability to perceive and avoid activities that are unhealthy for me, or through my action, others; especially those activities maintained by addiction.

One clearly unhealthy activity is eating foods that taste good but have little or no nutritive value and contain substances that make us ill. Basically, anything that is sold in a package that can last more than couple of weeks probably fits in that category. Complicating the food situation are allergies, which would affect us no matter how they were found; luckily I have none that I know about – yet. While on my recent diet, I found that tracking what I eat (energy, nutrition) and its consequences (weight, digestive cues) helped. After a few weeks I developed a sense of what was good and what wasn't, and learned to stop eating just as satiation was kicking in. When I ignored that sense, my body let me know almost immediately. The benefit for others from taking this approach was through my stopping financial support of the companies that make the unhealthy foods.

A somewhat less obviously unhealthy addiction is watching TV. I easily get trapped into watching shows that end each episode with a cliffhanger, the best example being "24," which is about to be reborn as a new series. On the surface, it appears that sitting on my couch for several hours at a time harms no one, but there is a kind of opportunity cost associated with it. I could be doing something else that feels better and is generally better for me and others (such as writing), but the need to complete a virtual experience can be too great to overcome – at least until it becomes uncomfortable to continue. The best way I've found to deal with such an activity is to avoid starting it in the first place.

Similar to the TV addiction is compulsively checking the news and social Internet sites. For me, this started in earnest following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and has become driven by an obsession with present and future threats to the survival of our species and others. This is a healthy addiction where it informs acting on what you find in proportion to everything else in your life. It's unhealthy if it takes so much time that it replaces taking such action or living your own life. Accepting these definitions, it is clearly unhealthy for me. The issues are simply too big; and with any action I take (and I do what I can) unlikely to make a sufficient difference to avoid the worst-case scenarios I naturally tend to focus on preventing, it's all to easy to be driven toward near-paralyzing depression.

After some reflection, I usually give myself the proverbial kick-in-the-pants and stop feeling sorry for myself, then get busy trying to find other ways to make a difference. Some new insights come out of each iteration (which I write about, if they might be useful to someone else), but for me there's the same net result. The simple way out of this unhealthy situation is to do what I've tried with TV: just avoid it. Unfortunately, the effects are too pervasive, and I've lost the ability to totally delude myself or to follow others without question so I can get sucked into accepting their delusions.

There is also the matter of responsibility: to the extent that I'm contributing the problems, I need to stop, otherwise I continue to be partly responsible for them. To the extent that any of my addictions cause bad things to happen, I have an obligation to end those addictions. If I am able to embrace denial, either through self-deception or adopting the perceptions of others, and my subsequent actions cause harm, then I am responsible for that harm just much as if I intended to cause it.

A strong sense of responsibility could be a valuable tool in the fight to stop unhealthy behavior, though evidence shows that it's not enough, even when accompanied by discomfort that comes from taking an addiction too far. It may however be a sufficient motivator to investigate the actual consequences of behaviors, like the tracking I did with my eating. With the knowledge that comes from the tracking, taking action to modify, limit, or eliminate behaviors with negative consequences has its own challenges, especially if you depend on people who don't believe the behavior is unhealthy, or if the behavior meets a set of needs that can't be met in healthier ways; but it can be done.

To summarize: in my experience, responsibility triggers the pursuit of knowledge, which helps identify what actions are healthy and what actions are unhealthy for both us and others. The sense of responsibility, coupled with discomfort associated with unhealthy behavior, improves the chances that we'll take more healthy than unhealthy actions. In my personal attempt to restructure my life by envisioning what I want my future to be like, making healthy behavior dominant is critical. My mental and physical survival depend on it; and if I'm to recover hope that the future world will be healthier instead of sicker, I'll need to work with many others to want the same thing.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Small Steps

Despite sporadic feelings of revulsion, I ate the equivalent of four meals a day during what was supposed to be a weekend mini-vacation around a nearby mountain town. The resulting weight gain, more than two pounds, reflected the way I felt afterward: bloated and unsatisfied.

The trip was a fairly typical approach to relaxing, involving the purchase of items and experiences that approximate what people expect. Its failure was in part due to my divergence from those expectations; and the rest was due to a series of events that highlighted the problems I hoped I could at least briefly escape.

One thing I had hoped would result from the experience was enough clarity of mind to get a better idea of how I wanted my life to unfold over the quarter-century I likely had left. I did actually add some items to the list of criteria started after my epiphany several weeks ago, but there still wasn't enough detail for a vision of the future that could help define my next, concrete steps.

I knew I didn't want to live on a dying world and be a contributor to it. I knew that I wanted to create something that would make the future better, rather than merely contributing to more complete and accurate reports of the demise already in progress. And, I knew that I wanted to spend more time around people who shared my values and were willing to collaborate on realizing them based on honest assessments of what it would take.

The first event involved the food I ordered for lunch. Expecting a simple sandwich, I got instead the equivalent of four. Like an idiot, I ate as much of it as I could without feeling ill. After dieting for several weeks, that didn't take much. Not lost on me was the coincidence of four sandwiches with four planets consumed if everyone were to live like an average American.

The next event was an electricity blackout at the bed and breakfast where my wife and I spent a night. Lasting several hours, it took out not only the lights and air conditioner (which we had found clogged with dirt when we arrived), but all running water in the sink and bathroom, including the toilet. I was reminded of my novel "Lights Out," and the interdependencies that pose a constant threat of losing conveniences we take for granted. That convenience comes with inherent waste that would be unnecessary if we all lived lightly, with at least what we needed to get by in the worst case. A couple of filled water bottles and flashlights, along with some snacks kept for hiking, made the experience more of a nuisance than anything.

During breakfast the next day, we sat with a semi-retired couple who were in a more advanced stage of cutting back than we were. They too had discovered that they owned a lot of stuff that was more trouble to keep than to get rid of, that they were unlikely to ever use in the time they had left. They also had strong views about how ineffective and downright unhealthy many of our cultural institutions have become, and how difficult it would be for any of them to change before they had to be replaced. Unlike me, they were confident that if the right issues were fought on the appropriate political and economic fronts, then enough time could be bought to enable the transition to a healthy world; the woman remarked that without that confidence it would be all but impossible to get up in the morning. I could relate: some mornings have been extremely difficult lately.

Upon getting home, I was once more anesthetized by the TV, and a novel I had chosen to read. Eventually I was motivated to move again, by the reality of facing a short work week, and some reflection on the time slipping away to change life for the better – or at least the less worse. My vision exercise had nudged forward a few small steps, but a lot more was needed. And soon.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


After years of trying to develop a way to properly judge what actions are "good" and "bad" based on my values, I finally reached a point when it all came together.

It wasn't so much an intellectual epiphany as a physical one. I had already reasoned through most of the details, but now it was visceral. The first feeling was one of revulsion, and it hit me while buying food at a grocery store. There were several kinds of just about every type of products, with what I knew was very little difference between them. The embodied resources, labor, and associated waste felt like a disgusting wall of sludge slowing me down as I approached it. My shopping list shortened considerably: I focused on finding the things that provoked the least negative reaction.

When I got home, I resolved to find foods that met a few basic criteria. They would need to be healthy. They would need to be made by companies that tried to have a positive impact on people and and the rest of Nature. They would have to be things I could eat on a regular basis without getting tired of them. And there would need to be just enough to support me at my ideal weight, which at that time was nearly twenty pounds less than I weighed. If I lost weight at the fastest healthy rate, I'd need to eat an average of only two-thirds of what I would finally use every day, which meant I had to get used to being hungry for more than two months. At a different time, I would have considered this a hardship; now I actually looked forward to it.

My living conditions reflected my physical condition. With my newfound awareness, I realized that I could probably live quite happily with what could be fit in a couple of suitcases and a backpack. I had far more that that, which required a lot of effort, resources, and waste to both acquire and maintain. Much of what I owned was bought with the intention of using; each thing had its own purpose, and represented a vision of a slice of my life that I had once vividly imagined experiencing. In my state of brutal honesty, it was clear that most of those visions would never materialize, at least in my experience. Rather than mourn the loss of those alternative futures, I rejoiced in my improved odds of finding a real future that would have the same net effect with far less waste and far more piece of mind. I also saw a potential gain: perhaps by giving away what I wasn't going to use, I could help someone else realize a similar vision without additional costs.

Several recent studies about climate sensitivity, and the feedback mechanisms that could spark an uncontrollable acceleration in global warming, convinced me there are only a handful of years left to avoid the worst case future for humanity and most other species. If we do what we need to, the infrastructure our lives currently depend upon will have been totally replaced with something far different within the next fifteen years, which makes any planning we do based on our current conditions effectively useless. I had naively been thinking about how to help survivors deal with the aftermath of what I saw as virtually certain failure, but now I've learned enough to see the worst case involves having no survivors. I've approached, accepted, then withdrawn from that conclusion several times over the past decade, but now that it is becoming more prominent in the projections of scientists based on new data, and time is running out, I have no choice but to stop waffling and deal with the consequences. This was the essence of my intellectual epiphany, that given my valuing of the survival and proliferation of life, the ultimate value of my life will be determined by what I do – or don't do – in the next four years; and of course I'm not alone in this. Beyond that time, we will either have a shot at a future with life in it, or we will be on a powerless glide path toward a world without us and most other species we have come to know.

How this critical time gets used, for me, has begun with making a set of decisions about my personal lifestyle and behavior based on the internalization of the lessons I've learned. What comes next is a work in progress.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finding Focus

I've held several careers in my life, but none has made me feel as fulfilled as creative writing and music, which pays barely enough for a few meals a year. No one else decides what I create, and I can explore any subject that interests me in the process. You know you've found your calling when you can work for many hours and not even feel tired. In contrast, after eight to ten hours a day at any of my "normal" careers, plus typically more than an hour commuting, it's been difficult to do more than mentally vegetate in front of a T.V. or computer while eating a quick dinner.

I share with millions the unfortunate necessity of "making a living." Because our dominant culture has deemed worthless anything that can't be traded for anything else using the universal medium of money, I must find a way to show equivalence of what I do with what a significant number of other people do. This inevitably results in pressure to reduce uniqueness, while increasing consumption of those things that appeal to the most people – along with whatever else that can be converted into those things.

There is of course an alternative, at least in principle: I can find a way to meet my basic needs with minimal economic interaction. For most of human history this was the norm for the majority of people, who could rely on their skills at hunting and gathering members of other species. Today, this is much more difficult, even with modern knowledge. Those who do, or try to, are at risk of being overrun, or having their resources taken from them, by rapacious organizations that are driven – and empowered – by our global culture of imperative growth. They are also hindered by the effects of civilization's sabotage of multiple natural systems that we and other species depend upon for survival.

Because I also want what I do with my life to have a net positive effect on the world, I've been looking at approaches such as permaculture, which are aimed at building healthy partnerships with other species to both enable self-sufficiency and heal natural systems. Essentially, they amount to large-scale gardening (or small-scale farming), which requires access to land, water, seeds, and animals, as well as security. Also required is a considerable amount of knowledge about local conditions, from both natural and societal perspectives, involving research few of us have ever done about where we live. I currently have none of these things, nor do I find anything but the research particularly attractive.

Economic interaction is unavoidable, for practical and legal reasons. My most developed skills, communication and finding critical knowledge gaps and failures, have so far been most economically applicable to technology (through technical writing and test engineering). Any jobs in technology are, by definition, dependent on the continued existence and growth of that technology and, most importantly, the infrastructure that supports it. That infrastructure, by its nature, uses critical resources and generates toxic pollution, and is vulnerable to the extreme weather amplified by climate change. Even creative writing depends on means of generating, reproducing, and distributing books and music (electronic and otherwise), which along with the rest of technology's infrastructure will become increasingly degraded. This degradation will occur either because: civilization unravels, as I expect; people come to their senses and create healthy alternatives that likely have less massive dissemination potential; or technology becomes so powerful that we dismantle it for our own survival.

One of the key features of civilizations that have avoided extinction is the ability to adapt, to radically change the way people interact with the world so that they can survive. Another is division into small groups that are supportable by their environments and able to experiment without jeopardizing other groups if those experiments yield dangerous results. There are at least two lessons here for me, as I consider what to do with the rest of my life. The first lesson is that I must be flexible in considering my options. The second lesson is that the path to having a net positive effect on the world may be as simple as finding ways to help activate the two extinction-avoidance features for as many people as possible.

In the movie "Up In the Air," the main character advocates, and later rethinks a philosophy that matches what I see as a fundamental adaptation strategy for the future: keep your life simple enough to carry in a backpack. In practical terms, it was the reality for our hunter-gatherer forebears, and will likely be a necessity for the survivors of the ecological apocalypse that we have unleashed. I would rephrase it slightly: Keep your life simple enough that you can most completely and sustainably accept responsibility for the direct and indirect consequences of your actions. Perhaps if we all tried to do this, in our careers and the other parts of our lives, many of the problems we face would begin to be solved. It could be the essence of the first feature of extinction-avoidance. Maybe it is what I should dedicate my future to promoting, in whatever media is available.