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 Already out of date, and likely too conservative in its estimates of what's coming, the IPCC report confirmed the urgency of rapidly reducing greenhouse gas pollution, which is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.