Monday, October 14, 2013

How Old Are We?

I am sixty years old.  When confronting my age I realize that the older I get the more vulnerable I am to sickness and injury.  I know that as  we age we slowly lose physical strength and ability.  It is hard not to get depressed about this.  The prospect of eventually losing control over more areas of our lives and becoming increasingly dependent on others is not a happy one.

On the other hand ageing can be a deeply satisfying experience, if we are less likely to be under pressure from a job, or under the stress of raising children.  In that case,we can relax, sit back and see everything from the perspective of time and experience, and if they are receptive, we can pass on some of our knowledge to the next generation.

But what about our civilization?  In the past, all civilizations grew old and died, just as individual people did.  So what age do we perceive our present civilization to be?  Are we immortal, forever growing bigger and more complex, as most Economists seem to think, or have we reached a peak and are we starting our energy descent  now,  as many Permaculturists and Peak Oil types believe?

How old is Capitalism and what is its state of health at present?  The present day Capitalist system had its roots about three hundred years ago in eighteenth century Netherlands and England.  

Let’s imagine that a civilization is like an individual, it is born, grows up, matures and then dies.  I find it useful to use developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of life: trust versus mistrust in infancy;  Industry versus Inferiority in elementary school years; (I skipped a few stages here) -  Intimacy vs Isolation during the twenties and thirties,  Generativity versus Stagnation for the 40’s to 60’s and finally - Integrity versus Despair for the last years of  life.  So, what stage is our Capitalist civilization in? My guess is the last stage.

The last stage is the one that interests me because my parents are elderly and fragile and because I work with people of that same generation in a nursing home.  Integrity versus Despair -   Do we deal with ageing gracefully or do we rage against the dying of the light?  Do we feel it all was worth it or are we filled with bitterness and the  urge for self-destruction?

We’ve done the generativity vs stagnation stage.  We did not stagnate.  We out-produced the combined output of every other civilization in history  many times over. We can be very proud of ourselves.  But, now comes a reckoning time.   

The older you get the harder it is to take in food and process it.  It is the extraction of chemical energy from food that is the basis for our ability to do  physical work.   Ageing has to do with declining access to energy.
The elderly are physically weaker, with weaker muscles, circulation, digestive systems, and immune systems.

  All previous civilizations were agricultural and were fuelled by the domestication of plants and animals.  That all changed with the advent of Capitalism and Industrialism.   For two hundred and fifty years our Industrial civilization has run on the energy from fossil fuels.  Now we are  reaching the stage where access to fossil fuels is becoming constrained by natural and economic limits.  

The fact that we are now drilling more and more holes in deeper and more dangerous places and requiring more energy to extract the fossil fuels indicates that we’ve run out of the cheap stuff.  There’s still oil, but it takes more energy to get it, and at some point it won’t be economically feasible to extract it anymore.  This will inevitably lead to global economic contraction because access to energy is the basis for all of the physical output of the economy.

Our civilization is like a stroke victim. When you have a stroke it affects your coordination and often taking in food becomes more of a problem.  Food has to be pre-chewed or pureed. In effect, more external energy has to be applied to make the food digestible. It takes more energy to get the energy.  Just like fracking and digging up the tar sands.  

In Nature the process of taking more energy to obtain energy can quickly exhaust itself, leading to decline and death, and it is no different in civilizations.

Sorry for the bad news.  Now here’s the good news:  remember Integrity versus Despair, Erik Erikson’s last stage of development?  Here’s the Integrity side:  We can think about and relate what is happening now to our understanding of history. Instead of despair, we can build on our sense of integrity.
In the past, when one civilization died another replaced it after a few hundred years.  We don’t know what will happen when a global civilization kicks the dust because it has never happened before, but the effects could be much more encompassing and destructive.

To keep on fracking and digging up the tar sands as energy costs skyrocket is like giving someone at the end-stage of life aggressive and expensive life-support,  while outside the Intensive Care Unit, babies and children are dying of starvation.  

The point is, when the economy stops growing economic competition becomes more of a zero sum game. We cannot continue to let  the few benefit at the expense of the many. The key to our continued survival is in stopping and reversing the current trend towards greater inequality.   It’s going to be more inclusive and representative political institutions that will be the best chance of saving civilization.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Debt: The First Two Billion Years

What  is debt?   The word is only one syllable, only four letters, but it packs an entire world of  significance and complexity that few other words do.  In the modern world debt is synonymous  with money. But if we stop at money, we are not doing the concept of debt justice, for it goes far deeper than money in both human and evolutionary history.

I think we need to look at debt as a more universal concept that includes all of life.  I see debt as an ever-changing balance between the present and the future.  If too much of what is present is consumed then debt grows too high and the  future is undermined.  If not enough of the present is taken  then we die before we even start.  There must be a balance.

OK, forget the metaphor.  What is it really? Debt is an obligation owed by the "debtor" to the "creditor".  It is an agreement, a contract, that rests on  legal  definitions of property and human rights. This  presupposes human society, governments, associations, and markets,  language, memory, and human intentions, and the ability of legal institutions to enforce those rights.  Debt exists over time periods that are bound by human events. In these time periods debts can be paid down, renegotiated, forgiven, kept in perpetuity, processed into derivatives, and  can even create a global financial meltdown.

The growth of debt and money are not subject to physical laws but to conceptual laws, ie, mathematics because symbolic concepts are what humans use to communicate and make agreements.  Since debt is not tied to physical laws it can, in theory, grow exponentially.

If humans went extinct there would be no debt, the debt would be paid, so to speak. So debt is ultimately bound by human mortality.  There are limits to the growth of debt therefore.  And human action depends on the existence of the Sun, the Earth and earth, as in dirt and rocks.  These are all finite although Economics treats them as virtually infinite as if they were contained within the human economy.  This is a fatal error, meaning the science of Economics needs to pull a 180.

Why do humans have debt, while other critters don't?   Maybe debt is a biological subject too.   What is the Darwinian explanation?  Let's go back to the metaphor - "an ever-changing  balance between the present and the future"  Every critter has some form of it:  Invest energy now to keep predators at bay in order to survive and pass on descendants; Consume too much and die back;  Exist in symbiosis with the eco-systems and maintain descendants;   Grow too big, too fast and run out of resources; Migrate to other continents, but eventually run out of eco-systems to destroy, then go terminal.

What I'm getting at is that while debt is a purely human invention, it's meaning and  history have a "biological" continuity.  We use debt in human society to finance investments that we expect to pay off in the future and to help pay for emergencies  All living things sometimes borrow from the future to keep from starving and being eaten.  As long as they succeed in balancing the present and the future they can keep on going, if not, not.   There are a lot of dumb ways to die.
Humans are known for being smart and problem solving.   Humans evolved the capacity to cooperate and share information.  That's what made language, technology and the economic system of trade and markets possible.

There is an ancient association of debt to morality.  The code of Hammarabi stated:  " an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth."  This is moral reciprocity:  if I struck out your eye you could strike out my eye in retaliation.  The concept of punishment derives from this moral sense -  You do something wrong, and you have incurred a debt which gets repaid by a punishment.  When something goes wrong it has to be righted.  There is a balance.  the goddess of Justice with her scales exemplifies this moral sense of debt.

This derives from the need, in human society to  balance  individuals and groups.  Groups are what makes humans superior to other animals, but individuals are the source of variation.  Without individual variations populations cannot adapt to environmental changes and they go extinct.  But individuals can take advantage of group sharing and cooperation by free-riding without contributing to the group.

 Moral rules and religion are ways that groups control individuals, so that individuals are, for the most part, prevented from taking advantage of the group as a whole. If this were not the case, then groups would have fragmented long ago and humans would have lost out to other primates.

Primate societies operate on dominance relations.  One's ability to reproduce is reflected by one's social dominance.  This creates a social order but it leaves a lot of potential unrealized.  In human societies people are infinitely more cooperative.  Compared  to all other animals, only humans care for dependents for extended lengths of time.  The idea that  we owe a debt to our parents or to society has been around for a long time.  It reflects the time we have spent being fed and cared for before we are ready to strike out on our own.

Only humans have marriage, which is an agreement between two families that many ways resembles  a debt because it is the recognition of a mutual obligation.    There are countless wedding ceremonies and customs which in some way symbolize the transfer of debt from old to new, such as the customs of dowries and bride price. The exchange of rings symbolizes a down payment, and the marriage ceremony itself is a mutual contract. The object of marriage has traditionally been for procreation, thus the wedding can be seen as the loan of resources that are required to start a new family.  This may well be the original form of debt.

 Thus, in inventing and using the  concept of debt we recognize that our very existence derives from a give and take between generations and between humanity and nature. 

Unfortunately there is one difference between what the concept of debt means in the human economy and what it means in the bigger economy of nature.  In Nature's economy  we can't re-negotiate ourselves out of extinction by filing for bankruptcy.     Can humans negotiate with Climate Change?  In this sense I don't think the huge debts in non-renewable resources that we are piling up will ever be  forgiven.  I think we are in for a rude awakening.
The creativity with which we use the concept of debt today should not blind us to the fact that we need to understand the physical limits of human action and energy use.  In other words, we need to know how the human economy can exist and sustain itself within the Earth's Economy.  Let's use our brains and knowledge to manage all kinds of  debt wisely so that we can continue to have a future.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Economics of De-Growth

It is the law of the universe. What goes up must come down. And it’s not whether we are coming down, but how fast we will come down that is the issue.  

We seem stuck on economic growth, but it is not a wholesome growth, it is a growth that undermines itself.  The ecological economist Herman Daly asks:  “ When the economy is growing, what is it that is getting bigger?”.  

“Throughput is the relevant magnitude for answering the question of how big the economy is” , Daly says.    It’s “the metabolic flow of useful matter and energy from environmental sources, through the economic subsystem and back to the environmental sinks as a waste. “  

Most economists picture the human economy in a separate box somewhere, existing independently of nature.  It’s a way of simplifying the initial assumptions in order to build a model of human behaviour .  This assumption works  well for deriving supply and demand curves but there is a problem with these assumptions when the concept of economic growth is introduced.  With growth, our assumption of the economy being independent of nature leads to disastrous results.  

Why is this idea of throughput relevant? Because the earth and the living system that exists on it is finite. There is a finite amount of energy and materials available to the  web of life that supports us.

 The human economy is a part of the earth’s Eco-systems but the economy is growing big enough to threaten the entire web of life.  A major extinction event, like the one that finished off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,  the kind that has happened about every 100 million years in Earth’s history, is happening right now.  And it’s human economic growth that is fueling it.  We are burning up our future inheritance in a giant flare of fossil fuels.

If the economy is growing what is growing?  Throughput.   Through-put is taking things from nature, then processing them and consuming them and sending the remains back into nature in a degraded state. The best illustration I have seen of this idea is  an entertaining two minute  youtube video called “The Impossible Hamster.”   

If we live on a world, that world has bounds.  We cannot escape those bounds. However,  we could extend out our future on Earth if we stopped economic growth.

 In his new book Prosperity Without Growth, British Economist Tim Jackson, explains what’s involved in stopping growth, why it’s controversial, and sketches how we would go about doing it.

One of Jackson’s arguments is that  The focus  of the present system on continually increasing the efficiency of  labour is  wrong when the result is increasing inequality,  job loss, and declining communities. .  A job is a fundamental part of a meaningful life.  Every community works better when there is less unemployment.  Jackson suggests that job-sharing and worker owned enterprises be expanded.  

This is a similar position that local, Vancouver author Conrad Schmidt also emphasizes in his book “Efficiency Shifting”. What economic efficiency usually means is needing less people to do the same thing.  So if agriculture becomes more efficient, then we get a lot of unemployed agricultural workers. 

Schmidt recognizes that we cannot keep growing the economy in order to reduce this  unemployment.  He argues that we can avoid  both growth and unemployment if we  let certain economic sectors such as education, healthcare, and agriculture become more inefficient by employing more labour.  Too much efficiency in education and healthcare leads to inferior quality and less caring. These are activities that benefit from people taking more time rather than less time to do the job right.  

Schmidt devotes a separate chapter to agriculture.  In it, he argues that a policy of encouraging organic farming would be better for farmers in less developed nations because it wouldn’t flood global markets with cheap food, as does present U.S. policy of encouraging industrial farming. Plus organic farming  employs more labour and uses less pesticides, and encourages less meat production than industrial farming.

Economic efficiency is not as important as the fulfilment of human potential.   People ought to be productively employed, jobs ought to be fulfilling and rewarding.  Economic incentives ought to be turned around to support investment in social capital, natural capital, and in strengthening the  public sector.   People’s worth and dignity need to always be respected over the demands of the market.  

As the authors of Economics Unmasked say:  Economy for the people, not people for the economy. Profits and prices need to be driving sustainability not the degradation of humanity and nature.

 As Tim Jackson argues, the financial sector needs to change into the Eco-economic sector:  the overall incentive structure should encourage investments in renewable energy and in increasing resource efficiencies, and discourage the underemployment of human resources.

There needs to be a massive shift from consumption to savings.  And a new incentive structure in place to encourage investment in public enterprises like mass transit, railways, universal education,  and in the conservation of Eco-systems for they form the basic support for our economies.If we invested in Eco-system health and maintenance we would be ensuring our survival and the stability of our civilization.  

Because the earth’s climate has gotten warmer we know we’ve reached a limit.  We need to stop the growth of throughput, if we are to save the earth’s biological systems from degrading.      Better to take a slow descent by putting on the brakes now, then overshooting the peak and running off a cliff.  Planning for the worst and making ourselves more resilient, more able to survive and adapt to shocks to the system  is the most prudent option.
 It’s not because it’s not possible, it’s because of the way we define economic variables and the way we’ve structured the system that it seems so difficult to see our way out of it.  Let’s redefine economics so that the economy is recognized as a part of the Earth’s biosphere.  This alone would lead to fundamental changes.  

The other big point of leverage is fossil fuel use.  Fossil fuels are exactly what has allowed our economies to  grow and they have done this by fueling the rapid acceleration of throughput.  This acceleration is at the heart of what is causing global warming and mass extinctions.  

One of the least difficult, but most significant things we could do to change this destructive spiral is to accompany our children to school, either by walking or by cycling, rather than driving them.   And if that is not physically possible consider moving to a community where it is safe to walk or cycle to school.   It is an opportunity to let our children  be more active and self-sufficient.  The results will be healthier adults and a healthier society.  

Our dependence on fossil fuels is a terrible trap that is slowly choking the life out of this planet. There should be massive dis-incentives to fossil-fuel use.  A carbon tax, should be put on all fossil fuels at the well-head or in the coal mine.  All subsidies to the fossil fuel industries should be eliminated.  It is, after all, the richest industry on the planet and can survive very well without subsidies.

There are many unacknowledged costs to economic growth and fossil fuel use. For example, destruction of clean water by fossil fuel extraction and processing.  The loss of local community from tv,internet, and corporate franchises. The greater risks of cancer from being downstream of tar sands oil extraction or nuclear plant disasters.   The increase in respiratory ailments due to particulate matter and toxic byproduct from burning fossil fuels.  The loss of our physical health from our overuse of motor vehicles and subsequent  lack of exercise.  Our loss of mental health and the destruction of once viable communities  due to the  Increasing isolation and excessive individualism of consumer, suburban, automobile culture. I’m only highlighting a few of the costs. And others could list many more.
Unfortunately our political and ideological systems are fixated on seeing economic growth as the only way forward.  This almost religious tendency -  to see growth as our salvation, is having the bizarre consequence of leading our political and economic elite to embed themselves with the fossil fuel industry.

It’s a big mistake to leave economic planning up to our political leaders.    We should All participate in planning a new economic system.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jeremiah and Resilience

Resilience is the ability of communities, cultures, and social systems to survive major shocks. When we look around us, what social institution stands out as being resilient over a major span of time?

What stands out for me is the history of Judaism. What other religion, language, or people has survived in the face of repeated foreign conquests, forced exiles, and enslavement for 3000 years and counting? I would call the continued survival and prospering of Judaism the prime historical example of human resilience.

What is it then that made Judaism resilient? Strange as it seems, I believe that part of the answer to this question lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.

The lifetime of Jeremiah ( 655 -586 BCE) was a profoundly crucial time in Jewish history. Jeremiah had predicted that Jerusalem, the Jewish capital, home to Solomon’s great Temple, was about to be conquered by the Babylonians, a prediction which was not implausible given that at the time the Babylonian army was laying waste to most of the rest of the Middle East.

But the people of Jerusalem were in denial. Jeremiah was characteristically unrelenting, he unnerved them, as he would us today. They did not want to hear Jeremiah’s message and they rejected him and brutalized him, treating him as a pariah.

Unfortunately for the people of Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s prophecy came true. After a prolonged siege, which caused terrible suffering, the Babylonian army took Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish temple, put to death much of the Jewish leadership, and enslaved the rest of the Jews and marched them off to Babylon. Jeremiah they spared, and he was left to live where he chose.

At this point the Jews as an identifiable people should have disappeared from history. But, in fact, just the opposite occurred. During the next sixty years of slavery, the exiled Jewish community thrived and developed a resilience that is maintained to this day.

Within a hundred years of the exile the Hebrew Bible had been compiled and gathered together, largely in the form we see it today, with Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Kings, Lamentations, Psalms, the Prophets, and the wisdom literature.

What role did Jeremiah, who was left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem, have in all of this? Because the Jews were in exile, and the Jerusalem temple was no more, the strategy, championed previously by Jeremiah himself, of basing Judaism on a centralized temple with its hierarchy of temple priests became unworkable.

But this went against the whole tenor of ancient Middle-Eastern religions, which was that any particular religion was based on location.

Jeremiah, at some point, realized that basing a religion on sacrificing at a temple created a fatal vulnerability. His innovation was to promote the idea of an “inner covenant” - an inner relationship between individual Jews and God best exemplified by the daily Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy called the “Shema”.

By reciting this prayer everyday any Jew could keep covenant without the need to make sacrifices in the holy temple. Thus permitting Judaism to thrive in exile, or in any place where there were a gathering of Jews, even where a Jew existed outside of any Jewish community.

The Shema is still recited twice daily by observant Jews. At the very beginning of the day and at the end of the day. It goes:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart...

The book of Deuteronomy, which contains the Shema, as well as a second retelling of the Ten Commandments, hence the name “Deuteronomy”, appears to have been “rediscovered” during King Josiah’s rein. Jeremiah was closely associated with King Josiah and there is good reason to believe that Jeremiah probably had a hand in writing Deuteronomy and in its “rediscovery”.

The centralization of Judaism in the sacrificial temple in Jerusalem had given the Hebrews the illusion of enduring power. But successive conquests by the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans proved the folly of this idea.

When things fall apart, people often have difficulty facing and accepting the changes that are required to survive.The choices seem to be either to embrace expediency and abandon tradition altogether, or rigidly adhere to tradition and deny that anything has really changed.

But the first choice of abandoning tradition leads to dissolution and the eventual loss of identity. The second choice, of rigid adherence and denial leads to escape from reality and self-destruction as the familiar world falls apart around one’s ears.

This situation is a lot like the worsening ecological and economic crisis that confront us today. In the face of these crisis many people may recognize that there is a problem, but they will deny that we need to make any major changes to our comfortable way of life.

Like Jeremiah, modern environmentalists predict disaster but things still don’t seem that bad,so they are mocked and ignored as scolds and annoyances.

But, eventually this commonplace view will prove untenable, as the global economic and political crisis deepens. We may well have to adapt to severe economic shocks and the breakdown of social structures in the wake of these shocks. Our entire global civilization may be at risk of collapse.

In today’s world, political leaders have relied on the continuing prospect of economic growth to solve our most pressing problems - best exemplified by the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. But the expanding global economy is rapidly drawing down our reserves of fossil fuels, while the global exponential increase in energy use is leading to the spectre of uncontrollable global warming.

The idea that we can continue growing our national and global economies in the face of finite resources and finite reserves of fossil fuels is a similar kind of illusion to the one in Jeremiah’s day that a religion could remain powerful only if it continued to be identified with a certain location.

. Our Industrial way of life, that is predicated on the massive utilization of cheap fossil fuels, appears to us as powerful and impregnable. But it is incredibly vulnerable to disruption once we reach peak oil, and the effects of climate change begin to overwhelm us.

The signs of these coming catastrophes are all around us, but, as in Jeremiah’s time, most people choose to ignore them or discount their relevance. The lesson of Jeremiah is that resilience - the ability to survive shocks and insults - comes not from economic or political power or advanced technology. Resilience comes from inside of us as we work together on achieving a sustainable civilization.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Autism and Executive function deficit

The science behind the study of executive functions is still relatively new even though these abilities have been around long before humans evolved.

We can list a series of skills that a captain needs to sail a ship: Commanding a crew, planning and setting a course. Monitoring the behaviour of the ship, the behaviour of the crew, and the weather, and correcting deficiencies and changing course if conditions warrant; Being able to navigate and negotiate dangerous and technically difficult waters; Anticipating and correcting for future changes in conditions.

Perhaps one could say that while sometimes the ship can sail on auto-pilot some events, not anticipated, will happen that will challenge the ship and its crew and call upon the captain to make a decision that only he can make.

Neurologists know that the ability to initiate and inhibit behavior, the ability to monitor the environments response to our behaviour and to alter our behaviour in response to changing conditions, are all part of an interrelated group of functions centered around the prefrontal cortex.

We think we know about executive functions, but in actuality we take them for granted and don’t know very much about how they work together. We use these skills to shape our own behaviour, but their use in others is often invisible to us because a lot of it has to do with self monitoring, which is something that’s hard to observe in others.

It turns out that adolescents are lacking fully operational executive functions and their prefrontal brains are still developing. That’s why adolescents attend school and are under their parents responsibility and not completely free agents. Sometimes they need their parents executive functioning to survive.

It’s in adolescence that we have to learn to do things even when we don’t want to, to control our impulses, not to fight, not to lie or to steal. We learn to internalize morality and not just to act in order to avoid punishment. It’s in adolescence that we learn to distinguish between true friends and people who are just out to use us.

All these skills we develop as adolescents, require the mastery of executive functions: planning, anticipating consequences, inhibiting impulses, monitoring ourselves and correcting for errors.

“Executive function deficits are disastrous to a normal life” That’s a central point that Nancy Perry makes early on in her book, Adults on the Autism Spectrum Leave the Nest . According to Perry if you have executive function deficits you cannot live as an independent adult. And some kinds of brain-damage and high functioning autistic individuals have deficits in executive function.

It’s most noticeable when these individuals are dealing with novel situations where typical behaviour doesn’t work. They end up in trouble and needing the help of adults who, in effect supply the needed executive function.

These individuals are not retarded, their thought processes are intact. they can be of normal or above average intelligence, they can do well in schools. But things like dealing with money, balancing food and rent, getting and keeping a job, dealing with strangers, and developing a relationship or a friendship are much more difficult for them than for the normal population.

According to Perry, individuals with executive function deficits can’t do two cognitive things at the same time. For instance, they can’t do what they are doing and think about the probable consequences at the same time. “….they don’t think about the morality of their actions, unless directed to stop and think by another person who serves as the missing executive function.”

So autistic individuals will insult others or say hurtful things without thinking about consequences, and will often argue that they are just “telling the truth” when challenged.

Perry relates how she once inadvertently observed her students in a grocery store, mesmerized by the big pyramidal display of soda pop and ending up spending their entire week’s grocery money on pop and chips, with nothing left over to pay for basic groceries.

They have difficulties learning proper behaviour in social situations because they cannot both engage in a social situation and hold in their mind’s eye an awareness of how they are functioning. Most of us do it so easily that we take it for granted. Not so for autistic people.

Hence the reason for the popular theory that autistic people cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This requires doing two things at once in the mind. Imagining we are in someone else’s situation, and comparing it with our own.

They can get along if the environment is more structured but as soon as things happen that are outside of the ordinary they will have trouble functioning, still trying to adhere to behaviour patterns rigidly, without being able to adapt and change course.

Just at the point that the crew needs the captain to intervene and make a decision the captain is not there. The ship founders and heads for the rocks unless there is somebody there to take charge.

To be independent one needs to be able to make adjustments to one’s behaviour according to changes in the environment. You learn to avoid getting killed in traffic. You design your life around a career and a family or some combination of elements. These all require the use of executive functions.

For all young adults becoming independent is an important goal to achieve. But for autistic and brain-damaged individuals becoming independent is very problematic because of their deficiencies in executive function.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Complex vs Simple: Thinking in Systems

There are two basic ways to see things: as simple issues with only two ways to see them or as complex issues that deserve our attention and understanding.

Simple sees things only in black and white and avoids colours and shades of grey. Simple is good to grab people’s attention but it doesn’t sustain it.

Simple thinks there’s only two choices when there are many.Too much simplification leads to polarization as well as to prejudice and hatred, and ultimately to social fragmentation and war.

Simple thinks that the easiest way to solve problems is to get rid of people. Joseph Stalin, one of the worst mass murderers in history, said: “No people no problems.” You can see that same kind of frightening stupidity in racist rants about undesirables, and illegal immigrants. You can also see it in people who say the earth would be better off without humans.

Life is simple if you just consider it to be about birth, marriage, and having children. But it’s complex if you consider that everything living is connected to everything else.

The economy exists, and society exists because they are systems. They are not simple. And that means that our response to them cannot be simple either.

.Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain back in the 1980s, once said: “ There is no such thing as society”

I know that society is a real thing because it has effects: we are who we are, with the language, customs, food, and clothing, and livelihoods that we have because we live in certain kinds of societies.

So much of what we do we do in groups. We are defined in many ways by being in these groups, in effect being in society. Yes we are individuals, but we couldn’t be who we are without the cooperation and trust of countless others. Without our parents to raise us; Without our peers to play with us when we were children and work with us when we are adults; Without our teachers to teach us.

I can’t help feeling that Margaret Thatcher denied the reality of society, because she didn’t want to face the moral questions that become relevant with the existence of society. Moral questions such as: How much is too much? Why is their inequality and what should we do about it? How can we as a society facilitate citizens to reach their fullest potential as human beings?

Like society, an economy is a real thing too, a system made up of billions of human parts. And the regional economies, the national economies, and the global economy all have huge effects on people and on nature.

When it comes to understanding systems, understanding how much is too much comes to the fore. The human economy cannot grow indefinitely because it depends on the earth, which is finite.

According to many politicians, economists and business leaders the present global economic system, is the best system possible because continued economic growth will lead to everyone’s eventual betterment.

But to do it justice we need to look at economic system as a subsystem within the larger biosphere of living ecosystems. Our ability to survive depends not only on non-renewable resources such as metals and fossil fuels that are priced in markets, but it also depends on renewable resources that are not priced in markets.

I am talking about agricultural soils, clean water, and the ability of earth’s water and atmosphere to to absorb pollutants and recycle life’s vital molecules. All of these are renewable resources, but it takes time for the earth to renew them and the exponential growth of our global economy is surpassing that ability. These unpriced renewable resources are fast becoming non-renewable because the growth in human populations and economies is depleting them.

The problem is that many economists do not perceive that the global economy is a subset of the earth’s ecosystems. Therefore, they do not see that “How much is too much?” is a pertinent question to ask. And because vital ecosystem services, which we all depend on, do not have prices, economists don’t see any evidence for their depletion.

Global warming is the clearest evidence that our global economic growth has surpassed the earth’s ability to absorb our increasing output of stuff. It also suggests that other physical limits to economic growth are not far behind.

Human systems work by rules and by market forces. Rules tell us what behaviour is expected or prohibited. Rules also determine the relative size and direction of market forces. Change the rules and you change the incentives behind production and consumption. But, to be successful something more is needed because there are some very big players, for instance, fossil fuel corporations, that don’t want those rules changed.

It is no coincidence that people continue to deny that global warming is caused by human activities. To accept the facts of global warming would be to recognize that our present economic system needs to be overhauled. In other words, we need to change the rules so that the depletion of soils, clean water, and clean air are taken into account. And the most efficient and effective way to do this would be to put a price on carbon emissions. By doing that we could use the efficiency of the market system to change people’s behaviour so that we can keep living on this earth indefinitely.

There’s the thing - as individuals we are just a tiny part of so many human and non-human systems. It’s the systems that have such powerful effects.
To start the process of building truly sustainable societies means first rethinking where we are going and then planning how to get there. We can’t change the system only by exercising individual consumption choices. We gain the power to change through joining organizations. We are most powerful exercising our rights as citizens to inform ourselves and to participate in decision making and planning for the future.

Economies and societies are are living systems. Their continued existence depends on earth’s ecosystems to support them. We cannot survive without oxygen, clean water, a liveable climate and a thriving and diverse biosphere.

If we think too simplistically, that it’s only about individuals, property rights, small government, and "free enterprise", we ignore the fact that our economic system is just a part of an even greater earth biosystem. We need to take this inherent complexity into account if we are to ensure our continued survival.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Machines Make Us Different.

What makes us different from everything else? Some say language, some say morality. Some say tool use. But these have predecessors in nature: birds and mammals exchange signals and information via cries and body language; chimpanzees and elephants exhibit empathy and altruism; chimpanzees use sticks as tools.

What’s new about humans is that they make machines. Although you could argue that beavers also make machines. The beaver dam is a system that runs on water and gravity. A kind of proto-machine.

Machines are a kind of tool that uses energy to perform a pre-designed activity. Machines are built, maintained and have evolved, with the care and guidance of human hands.

Simple tools like a hammer require the human body to apply the energy, but many machines run by themselves with the assistance of some power source. A machine like a computer, can execute a human command to fetch or manipulate information all on its own.

Machines are a wholly new phenomenon. They did not exist before humans existed. That’s why it is an error to conceptualize living things as machines, as was done by Descartes. Descartes was the first modern philosopher. He framed the famous body-mind dichotomy for the modern era.

Machines don’t have instincts. They require human purpose and guidance in order to survive over time. If you look around at nature, it does not require human purpose and guidance. It’s parts are self organized. The Earth does not require our help to orbit the Sun.

We call living things like cells and mitochondria - machines. We say, in a metaphorical fashion, that the mitochondria “is designed” to provide energy to the cell.

That’s our inner engineer talking. Once we started building machines they started to influence us and the way we looked at the world. We’re envious of the natural world where things work by themselves, independently of us.

It appears that the evolution of machines is going in the direction of greater autonomy. There are now robotic submarines and spaceships that can work on their own, separated by great depths and huge distances.

And this seeming trend towards machines gaining autonomy has actually spawned a a new religion out there, which has influenced the minds of Silicon Valley, with the awkward title: Singulatarianism. It’s main tenant appears to be straight out of the plot of “The Terminator” the 70’s science fiction movie. It’s actually based on the theories of a writer named Raymond Kurzweil. The idea is that when computers are all interconnected and reach a certain processing speed and degree of technological sophistication, they will combine into a globally conscious self (the singularity) which will be able to maintain itself and replicate without human intervention.

What makes this a religion, is the insistence that this is inevitable, and that it will lead to eternal life. (I won’t get into the specifics here, but you can check it out on Wikipedia.

Most Religions see God as creating nature, whereas Singulatarianism sees humans as creating God. Perhaps this is apt, coming from Silicon Valley. But is it really something to look forward to?

And does it not remind you of genetic engineering? Corporations are creating plants with characteristics designed for industrial purposes in order to improve on nature. And once these plants are created and shed their pollen, they are out there, able to replicate themselves and share their genes with natural varieties, because that’s what life does.

Machines and other human creations don’t have empathy or caring for others. That requires emotions and their coordination in human minds and bodies. Computers can replicate ideas but they can’t replicate emotions like love, desire, and happiness. We’ve forgotten that it takes both positive and negative emotions to make decisions, to understand the past and plan for the future, and to change our behaviour. That’s our responsibility as humans, something we can’t delegate to machines or market forces.