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Friday, August 10, 2007

How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Previously I said:
I can see I'll be needing to write something on why it's impossible to define the group of people called "we" - as in "We need to do something about climate change." and therefore why "we" can't assume responsibility for what "we" (don't) do on a global scale. And I promise, this isn't a perspective of despair. The perspective of despair that I hold right now is in seeing the best minds continue to front strategies that are based on wrong assumptions that lead to wrong methods, strategies, and conclusions.

I need to further couch this comment because I'm not usually willing to be so sure, to shoot from the hip, to actually have an opinion. But this time I'm standing my ground, even if it's just rhetorical. I'm also usually very weary of saying something that I don't hear anybody else saying. Usually, if I look around enough, I can find somebody with letters after their names saying the same thing. I can just tag along on the coat tails. And I'm sure that this time I'm still standing on the shoulders of giants, and I've just not run into the appropriate source for the conclusion I've been lead to make.

To put the idea in an even deeper couch, I need to point to Kevin Kelly, Stuart Kauffman, Richard Dawkins, James Lovelock, Claude Shannon, etc…. In their own ways, they've all come to the conclusion that our core purpose is to create entropy (of that group, only Kelly ascribes that purpose to "life", but to my mind the others all inherit the idea from Shannon's entropy and the second law of thermodynamics). The conclusion that our purpose is to destroy order could someday be meaningful to the way people conduct their lives, but for the time being it'll remain a little recognized (little debated even) byproduct of life. People have a very difficult time finding belonging in nature, and so even once a natural process is identified, it takes a long time for people to ascribe that process to humanity. Oh well.

The primary fallacy I was ranting on about in the blockquote above was the idea that people are somehow responsible for the condition we find ourselves in; that people are able to take hold of our progress as some sort of unit of humanity; that people can collectively guide a single and comprehensive unit of humanity commonly referred to as "we". Even if this is not a delusion, it's not any sort of established fact. But it's an assumption many people make without effort.

There has never been a time in history when people were "in control" of [culture/progress/society/humanity/the environment/the future/the present/the market]. Never. And there never will be, or certainly not within any sort of recognizable future. The only thing we are somewhat in control of is reacting to our perception of what's going on. And that control/recognition/reaction is fragmented down to the very individual.

The control/recognition/reaction that we classify as belonging to "we" (that of the UN, the world community, the coalition of the willing, the Kyoto treaty ratifiers, etc.) is not even an aggregated consensus. Scratch the surface of what consensus there is, ask individuals their opinions, or any sub-divisions of the whole, and you'll find disagreement. On as many occasions as not, that disagreement will foment into some sort of action that is contra the agreement the larger parties purport to have made (a Kyoto signature will violate the treaty, a member of the UN will violate a UN directive, etc.) So the control/recognition/reaction that we consider a purposeful aggregate arrived at through consensus, reveals itself to actually consist of a great deal of noise that mixes with that degree of control, dilutes it, changes it, guides it. Another invisible hand is revealed.

Concerned environmentalists like Fred Bortz (whom you might remember considers me "worse than conservative"), maintain that it's essential to dominate the collective "we" and guide it with good scientific information and rational thought. Anything less and we're out of control, we're at the mercy of the wind, we're destroying nature, we're neglecting our future.

I'm not against the attempt, it's only natural. I'm just certain that it won't "work". There are too many wrong assumptions there to come to the expected conclusion for the expected reasons. A conclusion will be arrived at. Something will happen. It might be the expected one, but that would only be as likely as not. My preferred strategy is to make some admissions, to make some concessions, to avoid some premature conclusions, in order to address the condition we find ourselves in.
Then, with that condition in mind, determine if there is a "problem", and if there is a problem, to work on a solution.

One thing I'd like to see people admit; we are of nature. There is no separating from nature. Any, !-ANY-!, other animal or plant, given the same abilities to exploit their environment in order to reproduce, would do so with energies equal to or exceeding that of people. People, in exploiting the environment, are doing what comes naturally.

Give any fruit fly or monkey or rat an environment that perfectly suits them and they'll reproduce until that environment is sufficiently degraded to cause the population to crash. The only thing that prevents a constant crashing of animal populations in resource-rich habitats is the complex web of predator-prey that serves to govern the population swings. Rabbits have dingoes and foxes. We have bird-flu and cigarettes (note that cigarettes is a predator of the kingdom Technium. Hmm, right?).

The bits of Australia that eradicated the dingo saw rabbit and fox numbers jump. When rabbit and fox numbers jump, the populations of native animals crashes. Reintroduce the dingo and the fox and rabbit numbers are kept in check, the native animal populations rebound (however, as Kauffman points out in "At Home in the Universe", no ecosystem ever rebounds to the same shape, the same population mix as it was originally. There's no going back. And that's an important, subtle point. There are many locations of equilibrium for a landscape. It's impossible to determine one "optimum" because the problem is NP-complete). People are just another facet, another node, another component of ecosystem. It's the ecosystem that must keep up with us and must balance our proliferation. We aren't capable, in the least, of balancing it. We are of it.

Also note that it was recently found that it takes a viable wolf pack to sustain aspen forests in Yellowstone National Park. The wolves keep the elk on the move, so they don't have time to eat all of the aspen seedlings.

Another thing I'd like to see people admit: there's very little room to say what "we" should do. I say this for two reasons.
1. it's difficult to the point of impossible to define a useful group of the class "we". I will suggest that the ratio e=mc(sup2) where is e=energy put into defining the group, m = the mass of the group, c=cats. You're herding cats. Good luck.

2. As to what "we" should do. Which part of "we" decides what we should do? Or is there a "they" who decide what we should do? We certainly do the things we do, but to say that somewe or something is responsible, or should be responsible, that's just impossible. But it's the assumption that so many make so freely ("we must do something about...").

Let's just gloss over the impossible (which is what most people do) and assume a single group that is "we". Then we can start to consider the "best"' course of action regarding (x) global event; let's say with regards to climate change. It's an impossible task. In a complex landscape there's no way to determine the optimum, and I would say even less of a way of getting to the optimum even if you're given it by divine providence. We are able to guess at a class of optimum-like conditions. This group of solutions may be somehow similar. They may be vastly different. Some of them might require that we all work together, some that we all work as individuals, some that we don't work at all. In any case we're left again with the task of herding cats.

So what can we do? We do what we've always done. Find the largest group of cats we can herd. Point them in a direction that we guess is "best". Hope for that best to eventuate. It's not different from what's happening right now, except that it totally reframes all of the politics and arguments hung on the assumptions about "we" and the responsibility we have to the planet. You remove that hook, and all of those arguments come tumbling to the ground.

What's gained? A little bit of clarity, maybe some new direction, maybe a new sort of lost. It's too hard to say, but is asking what's gained the right question? I'm trying to lose things. I'm trying to lose illusions of responsibility, to lose the encumbrance of nature as something other than me. Trying to create a vacuum ready-made for new things, different options, true change. Let what's gained be decided by what needs to be in the space currently inhabited by illusions and comforting clich├ęs. Let's not replace Coke with Pepsi, instead we should pay attention to our bodily fluids, water, milk and blood.

P.S. just to clarify, title and last line reference Dr. Strangelove because, at best, we're all like Maj. T.J. 'King' Kong, on a short fast ride, holding on to destiny with one hand, swinging our hat in our other hand, screaming our lungs out because of a chain of events only understandable to Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper. Everything in between is ineffectual diplomatic noise.
"we will prevail, in peace and freedom from fear, and in true health, through the purity and essence of our natural fluids"
" -Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper

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