Sustainability

A system for all of us

My all-time favorite last line of a book comes from William McDonough’s “Upcycle” (about ways to build products that enrich the environment rather than harm it) where he closes by saying:

It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.

We’re at an interesting point in history, where for the first time most of the people in the world have significant resources and freedom, but that has brought with it environmental destruction and growing inequality. It’s clear that the current path we’re on is not one that we can follow together forever…but what is a viable alternative?

Economics is one of the foundations of a society, so the economics of a collective system are crucial. Daniel Schmachtenberger has put together an interesting list of the criteria a collective economic system must support :

  • It must align the incentives of all individuals with each other and with the commons
  • It must work well with new systems of governance, law, intelligence, infrastructure, and worldview
  • It must solve the problems of today’s systems: perverse incentives, private ownership, scarcity-based valuation,
  • It must provide a viable transition path from today’s systems to the ideal future. As the author puts it, “this probably requires out-competing the current system, in a way that can scale to everyone, while obsoleting the destructive forms of competition within the new system.” Beat capitalism at its own game, if you will.

Interestingly, he later points to agriculture as the starting point for our current economic system, as it introduced both surplus and unequal scarcity for the first time. Both of these accelerated exponentially over time:

Accumulation has reached a point where single individuals have more accumulated wealth than all of the world combined before the industrial revolution. And abstraction has reached the place where tens of trillions of dollars are moved around the world daily, in digital form only, based on financial statements seeking to maximize profits…the consequences of which can include war, species extinction, climate change, increases in poverty, and so on.

More on this perspective soon, from my recent reading of James C. Scott’s Against the Grain.

The solution, in Schmachtenberger’s view, is to reverse the incentives in our current system, and make that process faster by optimizing the coherence of the people in it:

Extraction is replaced with contextualization; (value) abstraction with instantiation; and accumulation with distribution and flow dynamics…

Its source of competitive advantage (over the current system) has to come from optimizing coherence – of the agents with each other and with reality.

There’s some pretty heavy economics jargon in there, but it’s really interesting to think about designing systems that would feature these traits. My current strategy is optimizing collective intelligence through collaborative software; but worth thinking more broadly about how that interacts with the other parts of a future-viable system for all.

Doing more with less

The fundamental challenge of our generation is to design lifestyles that everyone wants and the earth can support forever. Buckminster Fuller put it well:

The possibility of a good life for any man depends upon the possibility of realizing it for all men. I must be able to convert the resources of the earth, doing more with less, until I reach a point where we can do so much as to be able to service all men in respect to all their needs.

Bicyclopolis

A fun exploration of a future world where bicycles reign supreme

Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

Ways to stop climate change, ranked

A fascinating list of ways to reduce global warming, ranked by effectiveness and cost, with some surprising findings.

Refrigerant management–basically what happens when you discard an air conditioner–is the top opportunity, above anything energy-related. After that comes onshore wind farms, then two food-related items: reducing waste and eating more plants.

Pragmatic and encouraging! The authors have edited a book around all of the opportunities, Drawdown.

Why thinking about the future matters

Jane McGonigal on why and how to think about the future:

Some people regularly connect with their future selves, but a majority does not. And this matters, beyond the links between future thinking and greater self-control and pro-social behavior. Thinking about the five-, 10-, and 30-year future is essential to being an engaged citizen and creative problem-solver…

Make a list of things that you’re interested in—things like food, travel, cars, the city you live in, shoes, dogs, music, real estate. Then, at least once a week, do a google search for “the future of” one of the things on your list.

Social connection is more important than many other resources in surviving crises:

Throughout the city, the variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not. Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.

Also: The biggest threat facing middle-aged men is loneliness.

More on how the Paris climate agreement happened

The Guardian has a wonderful in-depth description of just how the world’s leaders came to an agreement on climate change action in Paris last December (previously). Lots of innovative techniques, including…

  • A headquarters with visibility across the conference:

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

  • Lots of unique meeting types, for each different type of expression and decision:

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

  • Small countries banded together to amplify their shared concerns:

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

  • Finally, 1:1 talks between the final decisionmakers:

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Carbs, fat, and politics

After years of pushing low-fat and high-carbohydrate diets, the federal health agencies have finally flipped their recommendations:

Following an Institute of Medicine report, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines quietly began to reverse the government’s campaign against dietary fat, increasing the upper limit to 35 percent — and also, for the first time, recommending a lower limit of 20 percent…the scientists on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for the first time in 35 years have sent recommendations to the government without any upper limit on total fat.

The guidelines themselves take a strong stance on sugars and refined carbohydrates as well:

Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence.

And it looks like those egg council creeps finally got to the scientists too:

Available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.

I switched to a vegetarian protein- and fat-heavy diet with lots of raw vegetables, oils, eggs, yogurt and nuts this year and I’ve lost significant weight and felt amazing. It’s fascinating to see the tides change as scientists finally have the tools and data to run big studies on nutrition:

Confirming many other observations, large randomized trials in 2006 and 2013 showed that a low-fat diet had no significant benefits for heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer risks, while a high-fat, Mediterranean-style diet rich in nuts or extra-virgin olive oil — exceeding 40 percent of calories in total fat — significantly reduced cardiovascular disease, diabetes and long-term weight gain.

But all of this threatens a huge packaged-food industry that thrives on shelf-stable grain products, and the political deck is stacked against change. Hopefully the evolving scientific consensus will bolster efforts like the ones led by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to move our eating back toward freshness, sustainability, and health.

Capitalism as cancer

It’s been extremely successful; then again, it has to be:

A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting social ecologist Murray Bookchin