Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Charges Against Me

excavators cropped

Nature destruction—more and more common the world over.

Very interesting— a person named Dean posted a long comment on the “About the Blog” page the other day. I came close to dismissing it, because it looked strikingly like some of the myriad computer-generated spam that blogs receive and filter out daily. But it wasn’t spam, it was a seemingly heartfelt statement, written in a stream-of-consciousness style over several pages. And, reading between the lines, he was in many ways rather politely calling “bulls#&t” on this blog and its purpose. Feel feel to read the original—I took out a few lines that were ancillary, but the bulk of what he wrote is included as a comment under the “About the Blog” page. But, let me take the liberty of distilling his points for you here, because I don’t entirely disagree. In essence, and at the risk of putting a few words into his mouth, here’s what I believe is a fairly accurate, and shorter, rendition of what he wrote, and it brings up some important points—

Dear Sir,

It’s all well and good for you to go on and on in your blog about sustainability, but what you’re doing here is a bit of a joke. “Sustainability” has become just another buzzword, like “organic”, and has lost much of its meaning. The things that get done in the name of “sustainability”, including your blog, are really just ways to make wealthy liberals feel better about themselves. Electric vehicles, yoga, bike riding, eating kale, and having a few solar panels—these are all just window dressing, all just tokens with no real impact, because all of us, at least all of us Americans, are living far, far beyond our means in terms of living in harmony with the planet. Our very lifestyle, as Americans, is fundamentally unsustainable, and is driven by unsustainable market forces. These forces create over-consumption on one hand, and wealth inequality on the other. This wealth inequality precludes huge numbers of Americans at the lower economic rungs from participating in these feel-good measures. Thus, your blog and other efforts like it are essentially salves for the consciousnesses of liberal, mostly white, mostly wealthy people, to make themselves feel better as they over-consume in ways that are trashing the planet. If you REALLY want to be more sustainable, then advocate living like our grandparents did, in much smaller houses, with much less consumption, and growing and preserving much of our own food. In addition, many people who are espousing these “sustainable” ideas, and exhorting others to join them in the effort, are out of touch, and often living off of trust fund income, and therefore have both money and free time that ordinary working class people do not. If I’m wrong about all of this, please respond and explain your line of thinking to me.

—Dean

Hmmm, where to begin. My first point would be, I suppose, that if Dean were to read much of what I’ve written, that he’d find a great deal to agree with. I’ve written over and over about excessive consumption, and I’ve written several times about wealth inequality, and have consistently held the position that it’s an issue that must be solved. I’ve also explored how the efforts of the wealthy, and of wealthy nations, might differ substantially from the efforts of the less wealthy (post: “Pondering Kant“, from June of 2013).

Next, I’d probably point out that I have a full-time job, as does my wife, and we’re raising three kids as well, so I’m not exactly flush with free time, or out of touch with the challenges that normal, working, bill-paying people face. We are, however, fortunate enough to have what is probably an above-average household income. Thus, it is true that our family has “sustainable” options that some families with lower incomes do not. However, I’m not sure that makes those options any less valuable. With regard to Vermonters who live on “trust fund” income, I’ve heard this charge before, too, and it’s also a bit of a red herring. The fact that someone is living off of savings or retirement funds is probably irrelevant. It is true that retired people sometimes have more free time, but that too is a bit of a side issue. We ALL need to live more sustainably, regardless of our jobs, sources of income, and levels of free time.

And, I’d have to strongly disagree that small efforts like driving electric vehicles, or biking, or growing a garden are irrelevant. I don’t have the exact numbers, but our household has gone from using thousands of gallons of fossil fuel a year, to nearly zero, through the combination of energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and renewable energy production. That’s not an insignificant change. Likewise for all the other efforts of people in Vermont (and other places, too). I’m currently spending the holidays with relatives in southern Florida, and I’m nearly in shock from how different this state seems to be from Vermont. This appears to be the land of rampant and conspicuous consumption and the bulldozing of nature as if it’s going out of style. I haven’t seen a single solar panel since I arrived in the Sunshine State six days ago. And the reason Vermont is different? Thousands and thousands and thousands of small actions, by individuals. Small actions definitely add up. But small changes, even though they add up, aren’t the end goal. The real end goal, and the raison d’ etre for this blog, is nothing short of wholesale systems change. As Dean points out in his comment, not much about the current American economy is sustainable. We need complete renewable energy systems, cradle-to-cradle recycling and reuse systems, entirely new ways of growing food, and other sustainable systems of all sorts. The smaller steps won’t get us all the way to these systems, but they are necessary first steps.

Then, there’s the fact that I can’t think of any other way to change the world than through individual actions. I’ve written about this before, too, (one such post: “A Potential Path Forward“) but the short version—voting with our dollars is by far our most powerful, and in some cases, only tool. Eventually, eventually, there will be enough people of a certain mindset to make changes through voting (this is certainly already happening in Vermont). But it starts with individual action.

snowy woods

..and this all brings to mind Robert Frost.

In the end, will following the ideas of this blog save the planet? I don’t know for sure, but I know that it can’t hurt. I know that if we all did these things and found the results to be insufficient, that we need to revise our methods and try even harder. And, I know for sure, 100% sure, that if we all live our lives as if the planet didn’t matter it will result in a vastly diminished future for future generations. So, I’m not backing down here, and I’m not changing course. To paraphrase another Vermonter, Robert Frost, we’ve got miles to go before we sleep. And because it’s Christmas day, the entire poem seems fitting— Merry Christmas, everyone.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though.
He will not see me stopping here,
to watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near.
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

Top image credit: 123RF—Hywit Dimyadi. Image has been cropped.
Snowy evening image credit:123RF— Ivan Kmit.

Heading Out on a Limb

our-final-invention

In recent weeks, both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have made statements about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. Curious, I picked up a book on the subject, “Our Final Invention”, by James Barrat. While many people have visions of a wonderful future where thinking machines solve our problems, Barrat isn’t one of them. He lays out quite the case— first, that there are no real barriers to the development of what he calls “AGI”, or advanced general intelligence, and from there to “ASI”, or advanced super-intelligence. Once machines can improve themselves, they could conceivable do so very rapidly, in a sort of intelligence explosion. The early possession of such technology could potentially lead to great rewards, so corporations, nation-states, and criminals alike are developing it as fast as they possibly can. And, there appears to be no stopping this development—no set of laws could stop it, and would only ensure that bad actors achieve it first.

Second, Barrat holds that we truly don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into here, that thinking machines are highly likely to be “black boxes” that we don’t understand, and will be “alien minds” that could easily be hostile or indifferent to humans. He gives an interesting example, of how an ASI machine designed to play chess could decide that it needed to build a spaceship. Without careful programming, Barrat holds that these machines are highly likely to be disastrous for humans as a species, and that even if we’re as careful as we can be, that accidents are likely to occur, and that those accidents might kill millions.

So, all very interesting. But, as Mr. X reminded me recently, we humans don’t really have any shortage of existential threats. If not AI, then the danger could come from something else—nanotechnology, or super-viruses, or biotech, or an asteroid strike, or nuclear weapons. Or, something much, much easier to see and understand—environmental destruction and exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity.

Now, my thought here—regardless of the threat, we need to slow down, as a species. We’re rushing pel mel ahead, on all fronts, without paying quite enough attention the big picture. I watched “Interstellar” over the Thanksgiving weekend, and one line in the movie caught my attention, when one of the characters referred to the 21st century as an “Age of Excess”.

interstellar-banner

That moniker seems to fit. It’s not just the relentless development, it’s that so much of it is driven by consumerism and the desire for profit, with no meaningful direction. We’re either trying to entertain ourselves, or to make our lives ever easier, or to distract ourselves with some other new “opiate of the masses” (posts: “A Little Hardship is a Good Thing“, “Minimalism for the Mind“, and “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism“). Or, perhaps worse, as Barrat points out, to develop ever more sophisticated weapons of war. Much of it we don’t actually need, and much of it distracts us from the big things that we really need to be paying some attention to.

It would also be good, moving forward, to not only do a better job of keeping the big picture in mind, but to keep some redundancy in our lives. Can we survive if some existential threat knocks us back a step? Do we have backup systems for food, water, finance, transportation, and communication? Do we know our neighbors, who we might have to depend on in an emergency? I’m afraid that far more often than not, that we don’t. And because of that, we might be headed right out onto a limb here.