Archive for the ‘environment’ category

Libra Descendant: Weighing with the Wrong Scales

March 9, 2008

When making a political or economic choice, we weigh the pros and cons of deciding either way. And when we weigh, we usually heavily discount a consequence that may lie in the future, in proportion to how far out in the future it is. Similarly we discount a consequence that lies far away, on the other side of our city, or our country, or the world. We are situated beings, living in the here and now.

Being 6 foot tall animals our important “here” has a definite spatial scale to it. It is from the smallest size we can see, up to a size several times our armspan; a region we can directly manipulate, or that can directly, immediately, and perceptibly harm us. Beyond that, we may give considerable thought and weight to our town or city; the region we can easily walk, bicycle, or these days automobile around in. The region we see and experience day-to-day.

Concern for any geographic domain or population further out than or larger than that requires highly abstract and speculative thought on our part. It is inherently difficult for us.

What about our important “now”? We are often concerned with what we can get done before our next meal or sleep, and we can easily imagine and plan our next day’s and week’s work. We may be able to plan a year or two. How do you make God laugh? Tell her your plans, or more specifically, tell her your five-year plan.

Most corporations focus on planning a quarter or a year or two. Our democratic governments fare little better. They spend much of their energy managing daily or monthly crises as they arise in the media and the public’s attention, and their planning horizon seldom extends past the next election.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Not only is the bush far away, but your capture of the two birds is in the future, and may be prevented by the fickle hand of any number of unpredictable intervening events. Generally, our strategy is to optimize the long term by “integrating over” our tactic of always optimizing for the very short term which we can do with the greatest certainty.

But by getting together into large societies and corporations, and by specializing and hierarchically organizing our means of production, we have managed to organize large-scale and even global-scale industrial activities and urbanizations. These are now causing planetary and centuries-long transformations of the land, sea, air, and of life itself. And yet the 6 foot tall situated and selfish ape is expected to plan these activities in order to avoid large-scale disaster. Our present industrialization and urbanization, unplanned as they are at the spatial and temporal scale of their effects, are akin to the unplanned scourges of locusts or cancer.

Only by putting our best minds to work collectively on our large-scale, long-term problems and opportunities will we improve the certainty of our knowledge about these, and thus be able to avoid excessive discounting of the far out and far away when weighing consequences.

More importantly we have to figure out how to make the democratic majority of us support and believe intellectuals and un-self-interested institutions that would be capable of making unbiased and rational pronouncements on these issues. Some of our number, who ought to be credible, do understand the long term implications of our large-scale actions. But we are pathologically unable, as mass societies today, to listen to these more knowledgeable people, because other people and organizations with vested interests in the status quo have perfected the art and science of managing popular belief and diverting attention.

We are going to need to superimpose a new global scale of governance of our activity, to match the global effects of our high-throughput, high-impact world-transforming activities. Many of the solutions may involve a re-localization and downsizing of activity and governance, but to make that fair, it will need global oversight and regulation.

We’re going to have to figure out how the necessary global scale of governance could be democratic and representative of situated, selfish and short-lived hairless apes, and yet also have as its primary responsibility the weighing, prevention and cure of global problems, like climate change and ecosystem destruction, that take 500 years to have their full effect, and 100 years to slow down.

Solving that puzzle will be the next leap in our maturity as a civilization. Not solving it will mean a depletion of readily accessible natural resources worldwide, a severe alteration of climate and agriculture, a global breakdown of eco-systems, a collapse of our present large-scale human civilization, and an end to the comfortable lifestyle to which the developed world has become accustomed.