I currently teach a class called Reality 101 at the University of Minnesota. It is a 15 week exploration of ‘the human ecosystem’ – what drives us, what powers us and what we are doing. Only when viewed from such an ecological lens can ‘better’ choices be made by individuals, who in turn impact societies. Our situation cannot be described in an hour -but this was my latest and best attempt. The talk is 60% new from prior talks – I start with brief summaries of energy, economy, behavior and environment, followed by a listing of 25 of the current ‘flawed assumptions’ underpinning modern human culture. I close with a list of 20 new ways of thinking about ones future-for consideration – and possibly to work towards – for a young person alive this century. It is my opinion we need more pro-social, pro-future players on the gameboard, whatever their beliefs and priorities might be. 2 books should be finished this year and I will post a note here about progress/etc
Here is a recent talk to MN 350.org and Transition folks. I was asked to offer concrete ideas on ‘what to do’ for people worried about the environment and the end of economic growth. (Thanks to a stranger – Soren Helm, for editing and adding slides on the sideview!)
The lecture link below was a talk given on Earth Day at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. (The sound on the Q&A was poor so that was left off – the Q&A of the previous night starts at the 1:09 mark at this link: http://youtube/iyG95w4TT8w?t=1h9m)
I’ve concluded that facts are necessary but insufficient to change peoples behavior on the myriad converging crises our species and culture face. As such we are unlikely to do anything meaningful ahead of time to mitigate some of the major risks (finance/currency, poverty, economy, biodiversity, ocean, climate etc.). I have also discovered that telling people the whole story – firehose style, is kind of like a curse, unless you proffer some action steps. It’s why I largely stopped speaking a couple years ago (other than on Earth Days)- and why I conclude this talk with some suggestions on what individuals concerned about these things can begin to think about.
Essentially mankind has never had a plan or a goal. We pass the baton each day, each week, each year, each generation without a collective realization of our historical trajectory and future fiduciary. Many in the tribe of Man think about deep-space. How many are thinking about humans and deep time? If we want a livable world in 100, 500, 10,000 years, with things we value, some long term ethos has to precede any actions we might take. Our species shuffles forward like an amoeba pursuing amoebic goals. Sorting between complexities, blazing paths through reality to a target goal, is the province of individual minds. And individual minds can influence other individual minds.
We don’t know what will happen. But we can know with high confidence what won’t happen, and that is a seriously important thing. The future will also be a matter of degrees; near-infinite variation of outcomes which are not equivalent. And as much genetic/cultural baggage we carry, we humans have never known and been aware scientifically about ourselves and our natural world the way we are now– there are emergent properties bubbling up at the intersection of our morality and our knowledge. Things might look dark, but there is always a chance for benign and fantastic trajectories for the future – and the odds increase slightly with every person that acknowledges this truth. “We” might not know how to influence things. Our actions might just as easily make things worse as better. But if one views the future as a fan of possibilities, many are still available, and those in our small but growing demographic who are aware of supply and demand drivers might aspire, at least for some fraction of their time, to synthesize and uphold as examples what this tribe of humans COULD be like what they COULD manifest as, despite the tall odds.
My ultimate point in this lecture is not a call to action, but a call not to rule out action. What matters? Caring defines what matters. In the same way, not caring defines what doesn’t matter. The beliefs in powerlessness, futility, and nihilism are powerful ones. They are nearly as powerful as denial of scientific facts in rationalizing personal inaction. Ergo, deciding to spend all of ones time finding personal peace and dancing around a campfire wearing a badger mask accomplishes as much for the future we care about as a full-on life of fossil fueled smorgasboard, imo. Nothing. Our situation calls for dignity, integrity, creativity and probably some discomfort. Ultimately, the combination of 100:1 exosomatic buffer (for americans), scientific knowledge of how we got here, and emergent properties at the intersection of culture and knowledge, we may pass the baton forward in ways different than the deterministic course that brought us to this point. And there are degrees of both success and failure in any case. What we do, what we think, and how we live our lives matters.
The Earth Day lecture linked below is an attempt to look beyond the reductionist mainstream dialogue and synthesize ecology, environment, energy and behavior with a look to the future. Long ago I realized that human behavior, particularly cognitive biases and belief systems are at the core of our multiple economy/environment problems, so I spent about 1/3 of the lecture on that. I ended the talk with some suggestions on how we might keep a foot in both worlds and meet the future halfway. More on that soon
I was born in the latter ½ of the 20th century. When I was old enough to view my surroundings with any sort of awareness it looked like a smorgasbord of opportunity, novelty and consumption. And it was. Different than the Founding Fathers who used mostly current sunlight, hard work, and land to generate surplus, our largesse has been largely due to a gargantuan dollop of concentrated fossilized energy. My life certainly would have been harder without it. Would it have been better? An open question. And what have we built that will last? An even bigger question.
Sitting around the dinner table today, replete with the latest novel versions of classic recipes, all easily purchasable for a fraction of a weekly wage, the thought that I/we live like kings of old entered my mind more than once. I’m thankful for the experience. But good kings show temperance and fiduciary. Most of us, including me, have been lacking on that side of the ledger. In that sense maybe we shouldn’t be thankful at all. I wonder if we will have a ‘Pennance Day’ some year in the (distant) future when we realize what we had and what we destroyed?
I’m also thankful for the band of brothers and sisters I have engaged with on the internet for the past decade, together chipping away at the unfinished sculpture that is the supply and demand science of the human ecosystem.
The discussion needs to be stepped up a notch. More soon
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.
Following the demise of theoildrum this will be my new home for public content. If you sign up and enter your email address, you will automatically receive updates when I something new goes up. For now my best (according to me) posts from the 8 years at the oildrum are on the sidebar.
We are fortunate (or cursed) to live in the liminal space surrounding the likely peak in energy output of a species on this planet. Some things about the future are determined, most are not. I believe (and am willing to concede it might be self-deception) that education, dialogue, and how we create emergent phenomenon by interacting with other people will end up changing the future, for better or worse. I hope for the better. The stakes are pretty high. But so are the opportunities.
Look for 1-2 posts per month here – mostly campfire style – happy to guest post you other aspiring Sapiens out there. I look forward to some interesting and perhaps fruitful discussions.
Twenty-one years ago I received an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago. The world became my oyster. Or so it seemed. For many years I achieved status in the metrics popular in our day ~ large paychecks, nice cars, travel to exotic places, girlfriend(s), novelty, and perhaps most importantly, respect for being a ‘successful’ member of society. But it turns out my financial career, shortlived as it was, occurred at the tail end of an era ~ where financial markers would increasingly decouple from the reality they were created to represent. My skill of being able to create more digits out of some digits, (or at least being able to sell that likelihood), allowed me to succeed in a “turbo” financial system that would moonshot over the next 20 years. For a short time I was in the 1% (and still am relative to ‘all humans who have ever lived’). Being in the 1% afforded me an opportunity to dig a little deeper in what was really going on (because I quit, and had time to read and think about things for 10 years). It turns out the logic underpinning the financial system, and therefore my career, was based on some core flawed assumptions that had ‘worked’ in the short run but have since become outdated, putting societies at significant risks.
Around 30% of matriculating undergraduate college students today choose a business major, yet ‘doing business’ without knowledge of biology, ecology, and physics entirely circumvents first principles of how our world really works ~ my too long but also too short summary of the important things I wasn’t taught in business school is below. Continue reading →