Tag Archives: politics

Star Trek or Little House on the Prairie, the Red/Blue Divide, and Imagining Complexly

The US election results of 8 Nov 2016 were a bit shocking to me. David Wong at Cracked.com provided a strikingly insightful explanation of why I and my ivory tower, liberal left coast colleagues failed to see this coming.
John Michael Greer noted that the success of the Trump campaign in rural counties is a predictable result of the frustration and hopelessness that permeate the lives of people who have felt neglected by the powerful elites of the country’s urban centers. This deep cultural gulf between cities and small-town-America is an important consideration for successfully maintaining a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities (and remember, the cities need the countryside if they want to have things like food and water). Those of us who care about the future of this planet need to find ways to build a future that includes a vision of a better life that will appeal to the rural and ‘Rust Belt’ communities. And we can’t do this by objectifying or vilifying them. As John Green is fond of saying, we need to take the time to “imagine others complexly,” and a big part of that is learning to get better at listening to other people’s concerns. As with planting a tree, the best time to do tbest time to plant a tree.jpghis was twenty years ago (like, seriously), but the second-best time is now.
I started writing this post a while back, shortly after I had the good fortune to visit the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University. I put it on a back burner for a time, but realized that it had become even more important since the results.  While visiting Penn State, Jeremy Bean asked me a question that, ideally, everyone should ask and explore on a regular basis: What is your vision of a sustainable future? I realized with some surprise that no one had ever really asked me that question in that way. What I attempted to articulate was the ways in which I see a high-tech world and a deep permaculture world as being not just two alternatives, but in fact two tracks that can, should and perhaps must be run in parallel: not Star Trek* vs. Little House on the Prairie, but both at the same time.

 What is your vision of a sustainable future?

To elaborate somewhat on my response, I see these two directions or modes of improving sustainability (shiny high-tech on one hand, and an engaged horticultural society informed by both ecological science and more ancient ways of knowing on the other) as having the possibility not only to co-exist amicably, but in fact to synergize. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing could release human resources to allow for a more hands-on (yet intellectually demanding) kind of small-scale, locally specific, intensive food production  (“Hello computer, make me a mattock head that will work the best around my hazelnut bushes and apple trees, and design a yoke I can use to team my mule and my llama”). We may need to consider alternative economic systems to accommodate this very different suite of human occupations.
I emphasize the plurals in the last sentence, because I think it is important to try to imagine the future complexly. Specifically, we should neither expect nor seek a monoculture. Resilience, and therefore our chances of suvival, are best served by the healthy pursuit of multiple strategies. Evolution works not by a steady chain of progress along a single line, but by the differential survival of diverse organisms. If we see human economic-social-ecological systems through this lens, diverse societies with different strategies will yield a much better chance of surviving and improving upon the present than a single, unified strategy.  So what I would advocate is for different locales and communities to seek alternative ways of balancing post-industrialism, agrarianism, pastoralism, and nomadic foraging economies, using either novel or traditional models. Some yak herders may use satellite imaging and GPS to make migration systems more efficient; some urbanites might rely on hydroponic produce and lab-grown proteins in complex systems based on the latest renewable energy and water management technologies; some rural communities may choose isolated self-reliance with a cap on technology at the 19th century level (as in some Amish communities), or perhaps earlier still (to connect with more ancient lifeways and traditions).
In general, I think the majority of people are unlikely to want to give up some of the benefits of our current global levels of knowledge and interconnectivity, and I would be personally opposed to any kind of enforced primitivism (or enforced techno-urbanism, for that matter). There are challenges to keeping lines of communication and personal options open between diverse economic-social-ecological systems, but these are not insurmountable. Even within more rural Transition Town strategies, a diversity of personal choices regarding technology may be able to co-exist harmoniously.
The question of technological reliance is but one factor. Other questions to be addressed in articulating a vision for sustainable futures engage more deeply with the meaning of sustainability: How do we save what needs to be saved?  What kinds of limits do we set? What technologies are most important and useful to a sustainable society, and which technologies should and could be effectively abandoned? What systems do we use to ensure we stay on a path towards future sustainability?
Maintaining healthy ecosystems is my highest priority. This may now require some fairly heroic efforts to preserve functioning biodiversity, especially in maintaining what remains viable in old-growth rainforests (both tropical and temperate) and aquatic habitats (coral reefs, lakes and rivers), especially in the face of at least some ongoing climate instability. This will mean committing ourselves to reducing harvesting of renewable resources (forest and ocean products, and anything that degrades air, soil or water quality) to below the rate at which they can be replenished or repaired. It will also mean eschewing extraction of non-renewable resources, and finding ways to recycle instead of wasting what has already been extracted.
At the same time, I also don’t want to lose our capacity to maintain and even advance the progress we have made in many of our complex technologies, and I definitely want to advance the benefits of science and these technologies to all humans (assuring not just basic subsistence, but also universal access to medicine, sanitation, communications, transportation, education, research and exploration). I expect that there are many important linkages between the technological achievements and the social progress of the last three centuries, and I do not relish a future in which those gains are abandoned.  I believe the challenge here will be to judiciously determine which technologies are most worth maintaining, and finding truly sustainable ways to maintain those while abandoning some technologies which are no longer ethical or viable.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, it is clear we need to consider some deep transformations of our current economic system. The challenge is not small. An industrial/post-industrial economic system that supports and incentivizes sustainable behavior while dis-incentivizing unsustainable behavior has yet to be developed. Some may argue that only our current model of capitalist economy provides the proper freedom and incentives to maintain our spectacular rate of innovation. In some senses this may be true, and I also expect that in the coming decades, the pace of research and technological advancement may slow. However, we are have more brainpower now on the planet than ever before. Average IQs and similar test scores are going up (probably not the best way to measure actual individual intelligence, but somewhat indicitave of collective intelligence nonetheless). In 1950, there were only about 17.5 million people with any post-secondary education; by 2010 there were over 318 million – an increase of more than 18X (data from Barro and Lee, 2013).  We almost certainly have more PhDs alive now than the total number of people who ever had PhDs before 1950. In addition, we have the benefit of all of the accumulated information from this history, and increasingly improved ways to search and analyse it. So while innovations may not progress as quickly in the next fifty years as they did in the last fifty, it would be amazing if things slowed down by more than a little, at least when it comes to things that are important and useful to genuinely improving sustainable quality of life.
We don’t really know what these post-scarcity, post-growth economic systems will look like, we only know that we haven’t seen them yet. How would such systems intersect with emerging social and political systems? Can we find ways to get people working more on caring for the earth and caring for one another, and still assure that everyone can have a healthy and rewarding life?  There is no shortage of work to be done, in repairing damaged ecosystems, in re-inventing our food systems, in caring for children and the elderly, in educating those whose current or recent jobs are not sustainable. Perhaps new economic systems will find ways to better reward people who work toward a net-positive ecological ‘footprint,’ leaving ‘credits’ for indulgences (travel, amusing gadgets, more consumptive hobbies), rather than facilitating wealth concentration regardless of environmental harm.
While I cannot yet form a clear image of what will be required of us, I do see some blurry shapes that we might anticipate being resolved by our efforts. max_temkin_poster_550I suspect that most of us in the industrialized world will probably have to be ready to embrace things being  slower and less convenient. Hopefully, the trade-off will be less soul-crushing, meaningless drudgery for wage laborers (many of the people whose rage and distress were voiced in this week’s election results). I believe the best approach to healing the rifts that this recent U.S. election revealed will be to come together to develop more self-reliant, socially-engaged and emotionally rewarding ways for more people to make a living, recognizing the need for maintaining healthy rural communities and lower-tech options for those who prefer them. If we put our minds to it, we can figure this out.

*It turns out that Star Trek actually did presage this vision, at least in small ways. In 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Family” showed something that might have surprised a lot of Trekkies – Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother as a Luddite, Slow Food movement kind of guy, getting along just fine as a traditional vintner in the 24th century – neither isolated nor unaware, just choosing to use less technology.

Other Trek universe episodes were likely to portray those who choose lower-tech lifestyles in an even less favorable light (e.g. “The Way to Eden“, “Paradise“), but at least they continued to acknowledge the possibility that some would go for voluntary simplicity despite the appeal of Star Trek’s techno-cornucopian society.

We’ve got goals: the 17 SDGs

Global Goals SDGs

The UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals took effect the first day of 2016.  I’ll be leading a discussion of these goals at the upcoming NTU Sustainability Salon.  As I see it, the most promising thing about this renewed effort is the intention to interlink these challenges, recognizing interconnections and building bridges between disciplinary silos.

Learn more:

 

 

Aside

Seeing the pictures out of NYC gives me some real hope that we can create the kind of change we need soon enough to make a difference.  Time Magazine is reporting it as 400,000 just there, plus there were hundreds … Continue reading

Link

Post-capitalism? Property and money

Charles Eisenstein has a thoughtful little post about the terms and meanings of capital, property and ownership – how we construct these in the current money culture, and how that might be transformed.

…if we define capitalism as the private ownership of the means of production, and post-capitalism as ending that private ownership, we are still reifying “ownership” or property as an absolute category. But in fact, ownership like money is nothing but a social agreement, a system by which society allocates certain exclusive rights to decide how capital is used.  [read more]

More Quantification: Religion, History, Education, Literacy

Venturing into even more contentious territory than last week, I’ve compiled some more statistics for my study area.

Asia Religion, History, Higher Education, and Literacy

Some interesting findings in the religious diversity study just completed by Pew Research: half of the most religiously diverse countries are in Asia, and the most religiously diverse place on earth is right here in Singapore.

To capture some tiny summary of the history of colonial influences, I decided to only look at colonizers from outside the area, because power exchanges within the study area would really complicate things.  Of course, some of the more recent colonial issues were with pre-WWII imperial Japan, and various Chinese and Indian populations have been colonizers of other areas for millennia.

The calculation used to determine the percent enrollment in higher education was comparing the number of enrolled students to the population that is “college age” (usually 18-23). I expect South Korea has 101% because of either a fair number of older students (since enrollment includes graduate school) or foreign students who were not counted as part of the population statistic but were counted in the enrollment statistics.

Asia Religion, History, Education, Literacy info table

 

Asia relig hist ed lit data table

I also found a map that shows some of the colonial history.

 

The Population Problem

 

Long-time population maven Paul Ehrlich just published a post called Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization  on the blog for the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB).

“Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth.”

“A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply. “

This timing is good, as I just taught my Biological Anthropology lab unit on population.  I’ve made the student and instructor materials for this module available, as part of my work on a grant for Engaged Interdisciplinary Learning for Sustainability.

I also continue to hear from the folks at Californians for Population Stabilization.  I know, it sounds like exactly the kind of sane thinking that Dr. Ehrlich was talking about.  That’s what I thought it was at first, too. Unfortunately, it turns out that they’re on an extreme anti-immigration kick.  I tend to think this is antithetical to the actual goal of GLOBAL population stabilization.  After all, as Hans Rosling shows, increasing prosperity and child survival reduces birthrates and population growth; immigrants in the US definitely follow this trend.  In fact, something like the DREAM Act is likely to lead to exactly the kind of improved education and opportunity for girls that leads to reduced fecundity and zero population growth.  So yes, a narrow, parochial approach to population stabilization in California might be served by reducing immigration, but it would probably just exacerbate the global population problem.

Let’s focus on the big picture, people!  You’ve got to think global while you act local (or global).  And remember, Dr. Pongo sez “Copulate, Don’t Populate!”

A Beautiful Action

I spent last Saturday in Richmond, California with a couple thousand amazing people, including Bill McKibben, who had this to say:

… daily life was interrupted dramatically one year ago today [August 6th] when the Chevron refinery exploded and released toxic chemicals into the air, sending 15,000 people to the hospital; much like how daily life is interrupted around the globe almost constantly by flood or drought or storms.

Daily life was also interrupted on Saturday — in a good way, this time — by a beautiful march and demonstration outside the Chevron refinery. Highlights included the magnificent sunflower mural that kids painted on the street; the thousands of sunflowers that we carried with us through the streets; the speeches by local leaders including a powerful elder of the Lao community; and the ride in the police wagon with six friends old and new. We were some of the first of 210 people who were arrested at the gates of Chevron’s refinery — so many that the police eventually ran out of zip cuffs.”

You can maybe almost see me in this photo of the pre-march rally near the Richmond BART station (by the wall, green shirt… that might be me and that’s about where I was standing then; the speaker is Richmond’s mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who seems awsome, and who just started a lawsuit against Chevron for the damage caused by last year’s fire).

August 3rd Summer Heat pre-march rally, Richmond BART (photo by by Shadia Fayne Wood/Project Survival Media)

So we listened to some speeches, then picked up sunflowers (I heard they were acquired by Urban Tilth, not only because they are so beautiful and cheerful and pro-solar-energy, but because they are reputed to pull toxins out of the soil) and signs (here’s my farewell picture of the one I carried – anyone know who did the art and screenprinting on these, because they were gorgeous?)…

stop-climate-chaos-screenprint (photo by M. Merrill, art by ???)

… then we marched through Richmond, including a long lonely stretch leading up to the Chevron refinery that followed their pipeline…

Chevron-Petroleum-pipeline (photo by M. Merrill)…then we gathered on the street outside the refinery.  Some of us did a huge round dance, led by some folx involved with Idle No More.  There was a welcome ceremony performed by some of the locally indigenous Ohlone (I believe Chochenyo), then speeches from a diverse array of local activists, with an emphasis on environmental justice.

They invited all those who wanted to get arrested to get prepped, then the civil disobeyers (is that a word? maybe “civilly disobedient persons”?) trespassed by going through the gates and onto the property of the refinery so they could be arrested.  Not me – too chicken 😦  But I stayed with the thousand or so that cheered on our arrested heroes.  There was a festive jazz band, a great street painting, and some interesting theater out there.

I’m not altogether convinced that actions like this are effective, but they do get a fair amount of press, so they must be worth something.  Plus, it’s good to gather with a purpose like this, not to mention FUN!

Richmond-Rally-Chevron-Summer-Heat-08-03-13 (we dance and chant while the brave got arrested)