Friday, November 28, 2014

Land of the Lemmings

In 1993, I took a summer job as a park ranger for the city of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. My days consisted of touring the many small parks, checking restrooms for vandalism, and suggesting that park patrons keep their vicious labs and retrievers on leash, lest someone be injured by their opportunistic licking and dangerously wagging tails.

The parks department provided me with a bright orange Chevy S-10 sporting a leaky head-gasket and AM radio, which made Rush Limbaugh my best choice among limited listening options. Though not generally inclined towards Rush's view of the world, I often found myself agreeing with him despite his pompous radio persona. Relating this fact to a girlfriend a few years later, I thought she might find it amusing. It made her cry instead.

In the years that followed, my horizons broadened, and the internet came into its own as a media source. I found plenty of fault in the opinions I'd been sold by Mr. Limbaugh. Though I frequently have reason to doubt this assessment, I like to think of myself as relatively bright and open minded. It was quite clear, however, that I'd fallen for propaganda just like the lemming-folk I enjoy making fun of.

Whenever we hear a story repeated over and over with little refutation, there's a good chance we'll believe it. We're herd animals at heart, and neither logic nor reason are required to convince us of anything. Tell us that our peers already believe something, and we'll likely accept it without question. That's why Fox News loves the term "some people say..." so much.

With families typically uprooting themselves once every 5 years, and with both parents now working where one job once sufficed, we have ever less time for real social interaction. Television increasingly fills the void, with the average American now staring at the TV for 4.5 hours a day. TV tells us what our peers think, and thus shapes our worldview. It's far more effective than any of us would like to believe.

Though it can only be attributed to pure coincidence, during this period of growth in TV time, Americans have become increasingly convinced that 1) We need to buy all the cool stuff that everyone else already owns, and 2) Nothing which has the potential to impact next quarter's corporate earnings reports is worthy of our concern. Waning public concern for our life support systems (a.k.a. "the environment") comes to mind.

The end result of these two highly effective messages has been mad race to catch up to our television peers, going into crushing levels of debt to do so. The second message has cleared the way for the destruction of our country and planet, as we cheer the horde of frackers turning us into "Saudi America" while permanently poisoning our groundwater and atmosphere in ways that were illegal a few short years ago. Drill baby, drill.

Long viewed as the best way to "get something for free", advertising is the culprit here. That free television and radio programming costs us plenty, or it would never be worth it for the advertisers to spend their money in the first place. It's a rare occasion that any media outlet is willing to risk bankruptcy by offending an advertiser. That fact alone is what makes our dominant media untrustworthy, and it's why they've led us astray.  You'll even see some ads that aren't really about selling *anything*, but rather have been created simply to foster a compliant media.

The web is filled with bloggers who work for nothing. In most cases, they're simply parroting things they've heard elsewhere (not that I have ever been guilty of such an offense...), but there are many original sources. Most do not suffer from the censuring influence nor financial gains of advertising.

Though many have come to doubt Google's "don't be evil" motto with good reason (like cooperating with the NSA and Chinese censors), Google has done something wonderful, particularly if their model spreads. Google ads, because they are assigned by computers, sever the relationship between advertiser and media outlet. This simple fact allows media sources to receive funding and not have to censor their work for fear of losing their funding. While this offers no guarantee of integrity, it certainly removes one of the greatest impediments to it.

Books, because they've long been supported by readers rather than advertisers, can be a great source of untainted information, at least for those whose attention span hasn't slipped below the 60 second threshold (felt the urge to check your smartphone lately?).

Can your TV, and you'll find that your view of the world changes. You'll actually have the time to read books (4.5 hours a day on average!), or perhaps even have the time to reclaim some of the important and rewarding skills that will again be quite important in the years to come.  It's almost like getting out of a prison when you didn't even realize you'd been locked up.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our rightful place in the world

Anyone who's visited our farm and knows a bit about my philosophy is likely to assume that I think the answer to our ills is for everyone to assume an 18th century farming lifestyle.  That's not really the case.  I'm much worse than that!

The answer to our ills, in my rarely humble opinion, is to return to our rightful role in the biosphere -- the same one we've been in for 99.9% of our existence, and the only role which is truly sustainable over the long term.  I'm thinking of the ecological niche such as that which the Native Americans thrived in for 10,000 years.  They -- as well as my own European ancestors if we travel back in time a few thousand years -- lived within their means, utilizing only the energy that was directly available from the sun.

Everything about us says that this is how we should be living. The further we venture from this historical niche, the worse our physical and mental health becomes. 20% of the US is on anti-psychotic medications, with the CDC saying that mental health is trending to become the leading root cause of death by 2020.  10% of the population currently has diabetes, and my son's generation is expected to develop it at the rate of 1 in 3.  A third of us are already obese.  Cancer rates are at 50% in the US, and it's now the leading cause of death in China.   Do you think we have a problem?  These are not diseases we can "fix" with modern medicine.  Don't get me started on the asinine "Race for the Cure".

Examinations of pre-industrial societies (and pre-agricultural in particular) suggest that each of these diseases were all but unheard of.   Over at The Hipcrime Vocab you can read a much better analysis than I can create, where the author did a 5 part series on "The Longevity Deception".   His suggestion that hunter gatherers lived longer than we did (even if our life in calendar years is greater), is an eye opener for anyone who has subscribed to Thomas Hobbe's widely accepted take on pre-industrial life.

As it is now, we've burned a lot of bridges.  The conventional wisdom of the 20th century said we'd never need them again.  That's why you'll see cars in my driveway, and why I'm not living in a bark hut and wearing buckskin as most of my ancestors likely did.  It'll take us a while to get back to this ideal, but it's the only road that leads to a future.

Whistling past the gas station

Visiting the gas station to fill up my car these days, I'm smiling just a little more than most at the wonderfully low prices.

Ever since I first learned of it in elementary school, I've long clung to the idea that humanity as a whole would eventually recognize the threat that climate change poses, and take some corrective actions. Back then, I was somewhat comforted by the predictions that we wouldn't see big changes until near the end of my expected lifetime, but it's apparent now that we can chalk that up to science's inherent conservatism.

Though we might like to think otherwise, there is no captain standing on the bridge of the SS Humanity. Like most systems on the planet, our course is determined at the individual level, with political leadership serving primarily as a figurehead.

Look anywhere on the planet, and you'll see individuals with very real needs (perceived or otherwise), nearly all of which are most easily met with the application of fossil fuels.  Whether it's food, heat, a trip to Disneyland or a an emergency trip to the hospital, fossil fuels make it possible.  That's how I know that we'll never allow any notions of virtue (such as keeping the planet habitable by reducing our CO2 emissions) get in the way.

We've already dumped enough carbon into the atmosphere to guarantee that the next several centuries will take human survivors on the wildest roller coaster ride imaginable. It's quite likely that nobody will survive it, but there is some hope on the horizon, known as the Triangle of Doom.  Steve Ludlum's "Economic Undertow" blog gives the details.  We could argue about the positioning of his lines, and timeframe when they intersect, but I think his overall take is absolutely correct.

If we're to take his interpretation of the situation at face value, it all starts to hit the fan around 2016. He's actually not alone in this prediction. The Pentagon and the German Bundeswehr came to similar conclusions. Though nobody can see this as a good thing, it certainly beats the current course for self annihilation we're on.

The short of it is that the fossil fuel lifeblood of a globalized economy is gyrating wildly in price, creating an economic wrecking ball.  Swinging to the high side, various fuel intensive industries (i.e. just about *everything* nowadays) take a hit. Swinging to the low side, the all-important fossil fuel industry takes it in the shorts (as is now the case).  A few more swings, and damaged industries on both the supply and demand side start falling by the wayside, leading to an accelerated de-industrialization.

So the next time you see the price of oil (or gas, or your electric bill, or...) head for the stratosphere, or drop through the floor, you can take comfort in the idea that it may be our kid's best hope for a future.

Crazy on the outside, fearful on the inside.

A little while back, I read an account of a government official who was tasked with warning people who lived downstream of a dam in danger of imminent collapse. In what might come as a surprise to most, the people who lived furthest from the dam were the most receptive to his warning. Those living immediately below the dam -- with the least ability to reach safe ground in time -- generally dismissed him.

I think I see a nearly identical dynamic developing here in the US these days. A decade or two ago, it wasn't uncommon to hear conservative politicians in the US speak of climate change as a real problem which must be addressed. Nowadays, as the future we've wrought is starting to reveal itself, their story has changed. I've seen everything from "What climate change?", to "It's a natural process", to "It's a good thing!".

I suspect the politicians espousing such explanations are heavily influenced by campaign bribes -- whoops! -- I mean donors with a vested interest in killing us all as a matter of personal gain (Koch brothers, anyone?). That, however, doesn't explain the fact that a large portion of their constituency have eagerly fallen hook-line-and-sinker for such shifting explanations.

A lot of us look at these people and wonder if the newly discovered "stupid virus" is taking an increasing toll on our populace. At the 44% infection rate found by the researchers who discovered it, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Could it simply be the end result of the demise of science education in public schools?  Mercury contamination of the food supply?

I'd like to suggest yet another theory, that the conservative "climate deniers" are spot on in their take of the situation, if not their lack of suggested solutions.

Those on the more liberal end of the spectrum are full of fairy-tale unicorn and rainbow visions of a green economy where we all charge our plug-in electric cars with wind and solar energy (all of which is manufactured using... fossil fuels, cough, cough!).   We wonder why the knuckle dragging GOP can't figure it out, but the fact of the matter is that their understanding of the situation is likely one step ahead of us.

This short article in Scientific American offers some key insight.  As the article explains, conservatives are motivated by fear far more than their liberal counterparts, who relish the novelty of living in new ways ("I'll just recycle and eat local!")  that they hope will solve our problems.

Like the people living in the shadow of the collapsing dam, conservatives know full well that that ignoring a seemingly insurmountable threat may very well be the best way to deal with it.