Wednesday, May 30, 2018


It became painfully clear in April that I could no longer live with business as usual. Following my own instincts on a part-time basis while yielding to those of others the rest of the time just wasn't working. A constant barrage of news that made the stress of awaiting terrorist attacks after 9/11/2001 feel like a lazy day at the park was also a factor. The trigger for acting to change it, though, was the result of upgrades to my Timelines model which I had tailored to reflect how multiple variables changed within the world's population over most of civilization's history based on identification of what was likely causing those changes. The model confirmed with more than 80% confidence that there is, at most, a two-year window to reduce the chance of humanity's population from suffering a major decline that could likely lead to our extinction in twenty years. I had a moral obligation to use what I'd learned to take maximum advantage of that window.

I quit my job and worked full time on figuring out the next steps, among them how I could collaborate with others committed to the same cause and develop resources to continue. The first step was obvious: rolling out the new version of the model as a starting point for discussion. I was under no preconception that what I had was ideal, nor fully tested, but it was good enough to reproduce the problem in sufficient detail to identify potential fixes. As I started the rollout, I discovered with the advantage of full-time effort a few minor bugs in the model, and fixing them suggested other modifications that made it more robust than before. I also decided to investigate historical context which might provide guidance in interpreting (and further testing) the numbers in terms of actual experience; and its earliest insights helped outline the first narrative in the rollout. 

Meanwhile, I was sucked back into the Rabbit Hole. The minimal progress made on various environmental, economic, and social fronts by the last U.S. administration while being obstructed at every turn by its political opposition has been aggressively reversed, and the goals guiding that progress – which I interpret to include increasing decency, fairness, health, and safety for all – have become harder to reach. In response to this I felt also compelled by moral obligation, but on a more visceral level. 

As the youngest student during most of my school years I was terrorized by bullies and developed an almost autonomic reflex to stand up to them and fight if necessary. That reflex has been activated more times than I can count since November of 2016, but social norms and a deep pride in personal decency have immensely limited its expression, mostly on social media, where recently my self-control has waned in proportion the magnitude and frequency of assaults on what – and who – I consider good. Calling out bad behavior can only go so far in stopping it; like the bullies I faced in school, its protagonists may need more solid resistance.

One of my favorite T.V. shows of all time is Star Trek (the original series). Its design as a set of morality plays often showcased innovative, if sometimes imperfect, conflict resolution. The characters on each side of a conflict had eventually-identifiable motivations, capabilities, and weaknesses, just as people do in reality. Changing motivation was a typical first option: find common needs and wants, and discover a way for both sides to get them (or at least not lose them) without fighting. Identifying the others' weaknesses and developing a strategy to exploit them was another option, employed when the first option looked like it might fail. A third option was to assess or develop capabilities that could be used to minimize the damage from confrontation or avoid it altogether (even if one or both sides wanted it). Key to success in any of these strategies was understanding and eventual respect by at least one side of any potential conflict. That those lessons still resonate fifty years after I was first introduced to them is both a testimony to great storytelling – one of the reasons I'm attracted to writing fiction – and their universal applicability to human (or human-like) relations.

Understanding and respect are never a given; they must be developed because of their dependence on the specifics of each situation. That work requires motivation, which is tied into the determination of whether conflict or cooperation (absence or resolution of conflict) will be the main dynamic between two parties. If one side's motivation is limited to dominating or destroying the other side and it is capable of doing so (including prohibiting escape), then conflict is inevitable and somebody is going to get hurt or dead as a result. People who have a hard time believing that there is anyone who can't be reasoned with may try to avoid that possibility by putting extra effort into their own understanding and respect, inviting the risk of losing a conflict already in progress.

In the U.S. there there have been multiple conflicts in progress during most of my life, with the sides easy to spot. As a child in the Washington D.C. area during the 1960s I saw riots in the streets and news stories on T.V. about self-identified groups of people with economic and social power hoarding it to the detriment of those they didn't identify with, and fighting or instigating wars to preserve the ability to do so. As has been the case in other countries, religion was used to both define some of those groups and justify their actions based on questionable history, and even more questionable understanding of cause-and-effect. There was also a conflict we are all involved in, between humanity and Earth's other species, with the most horrific of consequences for us and them if we "win": extinction.

My personal efforts at understanding simply reinforce that last observation, which has been known for decades but not believed by most people. It is still hard for me to believe, though intellectually I consider it a certainty. As a member of a "can-do" culture that holds unlimited growth to be a supreme value, and someone who spent most of his life believing (and being nurtured by others with the same belief) in an exclusively omnipotent being that un-verifiably promises an afterlife if we just worship it/Him, the idea that ultimate winning causes ultimate loss is overwhelming. It also calls into serious question a vast network of interrelated beliefs that would render it untrue, and that form a basis for the identity of many groups that view themselves as superior to other people and other species so that they can have a clear conscience as they take what the others have.

In a way, I see the battle between reality and voluntary delusion being played out in the news these days as akin to how a person might react to a diagnosis of an unintentionally self-inflicted terminal illness, and a long-shot, painful course of treatment that would only delay death by a short amount. That person could choose to be in a state of denial like that many are in now, hanging onto the idea of doing what they're doing until it is unquestionably proven fatal by the end result. Accepting responsibility for the illness a more psychologically challenging alternative, with all the issues and feelings it brings up (such as winning as the cause of loss). Accepting the existence of the illness and blaming others for it is yet another option, which is a very real possibility for some of the people in the real world this analogy represents, especially the poorest and least powerful among us (including children) who are as close as any of us to being clear victims. The decision about whether to take the long-shot treatment hinges on which of these reactions is chosen, with denial being the one that definitely will not lead to treatment.

As someone who values both truth and life, I choose to fight for both while realizing that it is very likely too late to make a difference in the outcome. The necessary is worth doing, even if it is impossible.

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