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So what do you suggest?

January 25, 2009

In the past few years of heavy internet use and in trying to keep myself informed I’ve come to recognize several attitudes on the world’s situations.  I could make a list, but that’s not what I want to do with this.  In particular, one seems to nag at me: “That’s nice and all, but what are you going to do about it?”  It has many offshoots: “What do you suggest?” “I see a lot of talk and no action.” “So if these are all the things that are wrong, how are you going to fix all of the problems?”  You get the point.

And you know, I agree with it.  There is too much talk and not enough action.  Buuuuut… well, that’s not all there is too it.  If people only think they know what’s going on and then go ahead and try to fix everything, what happens if they didn’t know what was wrong to begin with?  They might have spent years trying to fix a certain problem only to realize later that it wasn’t the problem that needed to be addressed at all.

To put it plainly, I don’t think enough people know what the problems are, and until they do nobody can really do shit.

Across the board there are classic symptom or disease issues, and across the board many people are looking at curing the symptoms while the disease makes us sicker.  When it comes to the economy (Supreme Issue #1!) people just want it fixed no matter how or why—just fixed.  But in reality the economic issues of today can largely be blamed on practices that date back decades, and in some cases centuries.  When an entire segment of the market—or in our case, several segments of the market—was built upon reckless capital pursuit and unsustainable practices, both in terms of business and environment, then it’s not as easy as just reviving what is dying.  It’s not crazy to think the entire economy might need to be redrawn and reshaped until new blueprints are laid out; from these—hopefully, as long as nobody fucks up too bad—something that actually works long-term can be built and it won’t just be another giant “house of cards.”

Symptom: a dying economy.  Disease: bad, risky, unsustainable business practices that must be changed.

When people look at the energy crisis they see future oil availability being a concern as well as prices rising.  (No, I’m not a dumb-dumb.  Yes, I know that gas is still way below $4/gal.  Everything points to it going back up with time, though.)  They want something new.  They want—nay, in their minds they need—to have cheap fuel available to continue living the lives they’re accustomed to.  They want to know how in the world we’re going to find an energy source that can keep us at the level we’re at with fossil fuels—and that’s the problem.  The question is not of how a new energy source will compete because the problem isn’t of how to keep an energy-intensive life alive.  The problem is using energy in a way that can be sustained long into the future.  When people find out that the United States uses a quarter of the world’s oil but only has 4% of its reserves they should see—and they should see it instantly—that in the United States we use far more than our share.  Instead they wonder how to keep it going.

Symptom: shrinking fuel supplies, rising prices.  Disease: a culture that uses too much too fast.

Millions of people are starving worldwide and everyone is wondering how to feed them.  But here’s the big secret: there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet, somehow, people still starve.  The problem isn’t How are we going to feed everyone? but, again, How can we make sure the world’s population can be supported by what is available? It’d be dangerous to give food to every starving person because that would make the problem worse by increasing the next generation’s population.  (Food supply is the main determining factor in population growth.  Until people started producing massive food surpluses the human population was relatively stable.)  Being that humans are living about 20-30% beyond the earth’s means, the problem is reducing our consumption so we (all) can survive with what’s here.  And doing that is two-fold: reaching a number of people once again that can live indefinitely with the resources available to them and reducing per capita consumption—and it’s not one or the other, but both.  Don’t be fooled.

Symptom: millions of starving people.  Disease: living beyond carrying capacity; a dominant, violent lifestyle that depends heavily on exploitation and class division.

These are three big examples, but there are many more.

A man called Eric Sevareid once said “The chief cause of problems is solutions.”  The application of the wisdom provided by this statement to the above issues and many others could prove incredibly helpful.  Indeed, many of today’s issues can be traced back to past “advancements”; many different technologies have been developed to combat a certain ill only to result in many different negative consequences that were both unintended and unforeseen.  And acting prematurely, both before the disease is understood and before the consequences of the proposed actions are known, will only make matters worse.

We need action for sure, but we need understanding first and most importantly.

Weekly Links

  1. Why Bananas are a Parable For Our Times – Use up what we like, move on. Repeat forever.
  2. Wind ‘is the way to go’, Ontario coal-fired power plant to switch to biomass, and Brewery Recycles Waste Energy to Help Power Local Hospital – Neato energy news.
  3. Nazi angel of death Josef Mengele ‘created twin town in Brazil’ – Mind-blowing.
  4. Porta-potties Can Be an Environmental Disaster – If anyone saw the aftermath photos from last Tuesday then you know Washington was trashed too.
  5. Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’ – Look at date. Compare. Say to yourself, “WTF.”
  6. Jesus Told Me to Ram that Car, Says Driver – God works in mysterious ways.
  7. Senate passes broad conservation measure – Yay!
  8. Study on conformity – “Gooooood morning, slaves!”
  9. And finally… this is just badass.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark T. Market permalink
    January 31, 2009 2:50 am

    Definitely agree with you that understanding takes precedence over action. And to add to this, evaluating ideas solely on history (and an imperfect understanding of history at that) is dangerous as well.

    I recently blogged an on-going heated debate between Peter Schiff and Steven Leeb on the soundness of government bailouts. Peter is against, Steven for. Both make compelling arguments for their case, and regardless of whether you side with one or the other, for me the sad thing is: why are these debates only highlighted during times of crisis?

    Add to the mix is the current social bias towards “fence-sitting”. People are good at trying to be politically correct and avoid making judgments in the guise of freedom, but in the process we’ve all given sanction to anything already–and thus breed intellectual laziness. More critical thinking is needed, not just during times of crisis but anytime, everytime.

  2. Mark T. Market permalink
    January 31, 2009 2:53 am

    Sorry for the long comments, but just to add since these people jive with your call: Nassim Taleb and Benoit Mandelbrot warned about discounting rare events in decision-making, particularly in finance and economics, while other financiers such as George Soros describe that manias and crashes happen due to flawed assumptions.

  3. January 31, 2009 3:56 pm

    I’ve got no problem with long comments at all!

    One thing that I mentioned in the post, but I feel might be understated, is the role of technology and the consequences of technological advancements. “The chief cause of problems is solutions” is a very wise statement.

    Advances in agriculture were supposed to make access to food easier; in doing this the population exploded.

    Advancements in industrial techniques made production easier and more efficient; because of this was accelerated resource depletion (something referred to as Jevons’ Paradox) and lots and lots of pollution.

    The invention of the automobile opened up the world to cheap personal travel; because of this even more pollution and a growing over-dependence on the automobile.

    It goes on and on: electricity, war machines, plastics, the Internet… where do I stop?

  4. Mark T. Market permalink
    January 31, 2009 9:19 pm

    I think it’s partly a function of cognitive bias on our part. We all want to be proven correct and downplay any idea that doesn’t support our stand–and we recognize risks that we are willing to acknowledge, and rule out extreme or absurd risks until they are apparent. You get centuries and centuries of cognitive bias and voila: advancements, but with consequences.

    Although I would be careful in stating the problems the way you have mentioned, because it could be taken as an argument to “stop progress” due to the unknown/unrecognized dangers. I’ve read some societies (e.g. Amish?) insist on near-zero technology, no capitalism, and little science, preferring to keep existence as simple and inert as possible. But can this be our preferred path compared to the other benefits?

    For me the ongoing battle is never to stop being critical of our situation. Your point is a good one: people don’t think enough of the problem. My take is worse: people actually make an art of not thinking. We are politely respectful of everything to the point of laziness. The moment you criticize something–you are branded as some sort of activist or radical, until crisis strikes and at that point you become an after-the-fact pundit. It’s a social phenomenon of fence-sitting and it’s counter-productive.

    Finally, there’s always the political angle in the approach to problems: all crises whether its financial, environmental, health, war, etc. are definitely used as soundbites for powerful people to manipulate mass sentiment. We can’t do away with politics, but the only counter-point to information manipulation is a critical mind.

  5. Mark T. Market permalink
    January 31, 2009 9:33 pm

    By the way, I’ve got another item for your list:

    Development of public schools resulted in mass education which powered the industrial revolution, but the educational system is killing creativity and independent thought.

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