Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Who's gonna solve these problems?

Climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, population crisis, fisheries crises, extinction crisis: over-harvesting, over-population, over-exploitation, over-fishing and illegal fishing, bottom-trawling and shark finning, forest destruction, ocean acidification, habitat loss, invasive species, the problems of an economic system that requires perpetual growth on a finite planet… Who is going to solve these world-threatening problems?

Politicians are not going to solve them. They wouldn’t know how. They don’t have the knowledge, expertise or intelligence to solve them. They don’t have the right education and often very little of it. These days, politicians in most countries have no experience of anything other than being a politician. The system nowadays seems to favor politicians that are no better than the general populace. Besides, politicians are at odds with each other. Their “solutions” have to fit their ideology and their political agendas, and appeal to their constituents. Politicians don’t fit solutions to problems, they fit problems to the “solutions” they already have. And politicians are beholden to their corporate overlords, who only answer to a group of shareholders watching their bottom line, and to the voters (who are a diverse group of fickle, ill-informed, and none too bright people with commonly short-term selfish interests and limited understanding, that are easily confused and divided). Even when politicians (and their voters) mean well, their positions are marred by naïveté, fuzzy thinking, stale ideology and wishful thinking, as well as the pressure to say something, anything at all, and to be seen to be doing something, however useless. Besides, they are busy running to the next sound bite opportunity.

Civil servants will not solve it. Bureaucratic fragmentation has made their jobs too narrowly defined for them to make any headway on complex and broad problems that require a multi-disciplinary approach to solutions. Civil servants are not selected on the basis of their ability to solve complex, interactive, cross-sectoral problems.

Academics are not going to solve them. Scientists are trained to describe the world, not design practical ways for doing things differently. They are busy teaching and doing research. They are measured on their publication rate. Publications have to be short and narrowly focussed. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Scientists cling to their “objectivity” and shrink from the noisiness, nastiness and silliness of the “political process”. Scientists commonly have very little training in communicating with a wider audience.

Conferences and seminars leave way too little time to get real work done, or to make the participants generally more knowledgeable. Typically, nearly all of the available time is spent on one-way communication, and on getting everyone on the same page, leaving no time to think ahead, solve problems and be creative. The focus, sadly, tends to be on spreading information, rather than assuming that everyone has come prepared, have the information they need, and have something useful to contribute. And sadly, the assumption that people do come ill-prepared often proves justified. When it is time for participants to participate, it is usually a two-way Q&A session, rather than a broad discussion, and many of the people that do speak out seem more interested in the attention than in actually contributing something useful. But mostly, these kinds of events are way too limited in time and scope. Large international meetings, like the various UN Conferences of the Parties (COP) will not solve issues, because the nations attending have such different agendas that any consensus they manage to reach will be so weak and watered down as to be useless—or worse.

NGOs will not solve it. They are busy doing whatever they can get funding for. Their efforts tend to be focused around “projects” because that is how funding is commonly structured. Projects are typically the wrong scale, both spatially and temporally, to get anything serious done. Anyway, demonstrating the success of such projects becomes their focus, and is what they are measured on, not finding complete solutions to major issues. This even creates a disincentive to be truthful about how effective their campaigns really are. I see campaigns by WWF (and others) to stop ivory poaching and the like. They make me think, “Excuse me, but WWF is a large organization and it has been around for a long time… Why haven’t you solved this issue a long time ago? And if you haven’t solved it during all these years, why should I think that you will solve it now?” NGOs have little incentive to ask the hard questions of themselves, or of society as a whole.

Citizens tend not to revolt unless their own economic future is directly affected or their own personal liberties are threatened. Even when they do revolt and bring changes, what they get is quite often worse than what they had. The general public are woefully unprepared for their civic duties, preoccupied and stressed out, over-stretched with families, mortgages, jobs… Jobs filled with busy-work, almost as if they were designed to ensure that the people filling them would not contribute to finding solutions to major issues. And folks are still waiting around for politicians (or bureaucrats) to solve things—after all, isn’t that what we pay them for? This, of course, is a recipe for disaster.

People are not trained problem-solvers. Our schools do not teach problem solving. It is quite possible to train people to become good problem-solvers. But we don’t. Why is that?

To make headway with such complex issues it seems to make sense to make a dedicated effort to come up with and analyze practical solutions. Small teams of dedicated, smart people could be hand-picked to deal exclusively with a single issue, for a specified period of time—for instance two years—after which they should submit their recommendations. Teams would be constructed to provide the necessary combinations of knowledge, intelligence, experience, creativity and specific skill sets—not only in the academic sense, but in terms of knowledge and experience of how the world actually works, currently (or doesn’t work, as the case may be): both broad and specific knowledge and understanding, access to information and networks, definitive problem-solving skills, analysis and modelling skills, overview and the ability to work in teams as well as independently. The teams should have access to anyone who could help shed light on, or analyze, sub-components of the analysis (specific knowledge, modelling capacity, analyses, brain-storming). They should be isolated enough to give their complete attention to the work at hand, yet have sufficient resources in terms of access to information, communications, people, modelling resources and computing power, institutions and support teams/assistance from associated personnel with specific skill sets, as needed. At times they would be able to invite others to provide specific information or inputs, participate in seminars and brain-storming sessions, assist with particular tools or provide any knowledge or experiences not adequately covered within the team itself.

The recommendations of such teams/think tanks would not necessarily be taken up automatically by national or international institutions such as governments. However, their recommendations would be out there for all to see. They would be available for public scrutiny. They would be very hard to ignore, as they would state explicitly what approaches will not work, or will be inadequate in isolation, and they would be backed by the most comprehensive thinking and analyses of the issue available. At the very least, governments and other institutions would be pressured on whether or not they had any ideas better than the ones proposed by the think tank(s), why they were not implementing the recommendations if there were no better ideas available, and what, if anything, was being done. Simply documenting a feasible approach to such important issues would be powerful. Moreover, if feasible solutions were not found that could be implemented in our current system, this would provide a powerful impetus to analysing what kind of structures and institutions (systems) would have to be created in order for practical and realizable solutions to exist. More powerful still, would be the demonstration that none of the measures currently on the table or being discussed are up to the task. This might help clear away the endless bickering about minutia and the political posturing over half-measures and inane diversions from the real issues. For the public it would be a useful counter-point to what they are hearing from the politicians and bureaucrats.

 If someone wished to dispute the findings of such a team, they would have to conduct their own analysis and make it available for scrutiny. At the very least, the discourse would shift to comparing competing comprehensive analyses, their inputs, methods and limitations, rather than what we have now, which is simply a confusion of more or less half-baked and unsupported opinions. Such opinions are typically thrown out there with very limited analysis, and certainly without a thorough modelling of whether or not the steps suggested are necessary or sufficient. And they tend to be colored by ideology and careerism more than a real desire to solve the real problems.

An alternative, and perhaps a complimentary effort, might be to crowd-source thinking about these matters. This could be enabled by internet technology and collaborative software, such as wikis and groupware. Personally, I think this ought to be a complimentary, and preferably parallel, approach. The key requirement is to be able to allocate more focus, time, brain power, tools, creativity, critical thinking, and hard-nosed analysis to the issues than anyone has been able to do before.

Largely, we know what needs to be done, but have no idea how to get humanity to do it. Nobody knows how to get people to act when we need people to act. It is no use pretending. Our political systems are rigged so that no major changes will occur. This is OK as long as things can generally bumble along as they always have, but it is a disaster in a crisis situation when you really need to get something done, and something major. Typically, when they really needed to get something done, as in the case of major wars, nations have tended to suspend democracy and instate executive rule. Coming up with solutions does not just require good ideas about things that can be done, but has to include how to get them implemented. It is not a solution unless it is carried out—and in time! In a sense, such teams would likely operate, partially, as all of the categories above: as politicians, civil servants, academics/scientists, citizens, activists, conferences/workshops, and NGOs.


Typically, potential solutions will be conditional. “If we can get enough politicians to do x, then…”, “If we can get enough countries to enact y, then…”, “If we can get people to support z, then…” The real question is always: how do we get people to do x, y and z? No analysis is complete before this core conundrum is resolved. Real solutions have to be modelled to demonstrate that they will be adequate, and to uncover any weaknesses and limitations and allow for modifications. Even then, implementation has to be subject to adaptive management. Solutions will have to be smart, in the sense that they incentivize countries and other actors to join in, rather than remain on the outside and disrupt. This kind of analysis is all too rare in our society, and absent from current discourse. Something major has to change, and no stone should be left unturned in order to solve the hard problems that are threatening life on earth.

The Storks of War


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Go ahead, Google it...

Google "i wish my child" and see what the auto complete gives you…

Still unable to learn from other people's mistakes?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

World view

Which book has meant the most to you? No matter who you are, or whether or not you have actually read it, the correct answer is “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin (1859). Before the concept of darwinian evolution by means of natural selection western "civilization" could understand nothing about life on earth. In the words of Theodosius Dobhzanski:  “Nothing in biology makes sense, save in the light of evolution”. No other body of thought has had such an impact on our view of the world and our place in it, on life, of how the world works and of the processes that shape our lives. Without understanding evolutionary biology we cannot think about life on earth. Work on "the new synthesis" from 1930 and onwards combined Darwin's insight with genetics, and made it possible to understand a host of mechanisms that make all living things the way they are.

Copernicus relegated Earth to simply one of many planets; not the Center of the Universe but just another rock in orbit around a rather ordinary star. Darwin did the same with humans; not created in God's image after all, but shaped by the same processes as all other animals, and not fundamentally different from them. Humans are a part of nature, not put here by God to rule it. Darwinism revolutionized the world, even more than the Copernican revolution. For the first time, it was possible to understand life on earth. The movement of planets in the Cosmos had not the same impact on our daily lives as the understanding of how life is shaped by evolution. Before Darwin we could not even place humans relative to the rest of creation. The term "creation" itself, along with "creator" (in the context of life on earth) and "creature", became an unfortunate misnomer.

Ecology made it possible to understand the ebb and flow of population changes and expanded the use of "community" and "society" to other organisms and associations of different species in nature. In a food chain, the species at the bottom support the entire structure, and are paramount for the maintenance of the whole. Charles Darwin made a point to remind himself, repeatedly, not to describe species as “higher” or “lower”. The new science of ecology demoted humanity further from the position evolutionary biology and astronomy had reduced them to. If organisms are mutually inter-dependent like organs in the same body, or the different stages of embryology, which is more important?

When a new world view sweeps humanity it is usually the product of a scientific paradigm shift. Ecology will also force a reality-check on traditional liberalism. There can be no individual welfare, nor freedom, removed from the ecological matrix upon which the individual life form depends. How we treat our neighbor creatures determines how we treat the earth itself. Are we able to perceive the aggregate outcome from billions of isolated actions and choices in a globalized world? Are we as a species capable of curbing our technology and economy, or do they control us? Has our culture outgrown us? Or will we reach a stage, in time, where we manage to control our own species and choose a path towards a future where one would want to live?


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

There will be no tomorrow...

For numerous species there is no tomorrow. They are gone; the more sorely missed the more recent their demise. For thousands and thousands more there will be no tomorrow. They are the living dead, past the point of no return, inexorably on the path to extinction even if people don't know it yet. It is conceivable that some species may still hang on in a bleak and impoverished world. Which category will we fall into? Unlike the other species, we have no one but ourselves to blame—unless we blame our predecessors and our contemporaries. One single species is to blame for all this. What does one do when a growth out of control threatens the viability and health of the whole?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

It's the people, stupid...



Thor is not one of those people who blame corporations for everything. It is PEOPLE who work in or for corporations, buy from corporations, allow corporations and money into politics, allow corporations to rape and kill the earth, allow governments to be weak, stupid, naive, corrupt or to get away with murder, vote for the politicians who maintain the status quo rather than fix the problems and lead the way to a better future, remain passive rather than throw the bastards out or make it impossible for the people in the corporations or in politics to act the way they do, PEOPLE who create more people that again become part of the problem, legitimize the status quo, continue to treat other species with disrespect and ignorance, etc. etc. etc. Corporations may not be people in the way a compromised Supreme Court of the United States has stated that they are, but they consist of people, sell to people, and they carry on with the complicity and collaboration of people. And governments are nothing but people either. Mostly naive and stupid people, or people with good intentions but few degrees of freedom—at least they perceive that they have few degrees of freedom. And they need people to vote for them if they are going to remain politicians. Which probably they shouldn't...

If you resent that people have no choice but to buy from corporations, that corporations have no loyalties other than to the shareholders and their own wallets and careers, that weak politicians pay too much heed to what the monied folks want, that corporations are wrecking the world in which we live while corrupting our politics and our monetary system and making the way people live their lives completely meaningless and ugly, there is only one thing for it: Get organized and do something about it. The difficulty is, of course, all those other people who are oblivious, greedy, pacified, and remain hooked up to the Matrix, and all those people who perceive that they have few degrees of freedom to act any different than they do. How to move humanity away from their all-destroying path... 





Friday, April 20, 2012

Discussions with an economist...

Nice blog posts by UCSD physicist, Tom Murphy, taking on the dogma of growth economics, on the blog "Do the Math": http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/04/economist-meets-physicist/

Thor´s comments: 
As an ecologist I think we face ecological limits much sooner than we face physical limits. Some of those limits are evident every day. Yet of course we have spent so little effort trying to be efficient with anything other than labor and capital inputs that there is great room for improvement—if we would only focus on efficient use of the things that really matter. So we can still do a lot with technical fixes, if we only concentrate in the right arenas (something we have not done in the past). But of course it depends on what is really the limiting factor (water? land? soil? nutrients? recycling capacity? ecological resilience/robustness? absorption of GHGs? primary productivity? energy? low entropy?... clearly the entropy limit is a long way off yet...)

Two points:

1) I do not care only for what is important to Homo sapiens, but also to other species with which we "share" the planet--many of which are going extinct every day on account of the status quo in human society. There must be room for others as well. Furthermore, we have evolved in a world with other species around us, this is what we are used to and we have been evolutionarily adapted to it over millions of years and they are part of what we like and love about this planet (even if H. sapiens has only been around for a little over 100,000 years). That would have to be a mind-numbingly good virtual reality machine... Be that as it may, many of the good things in life already don't cost any money—unfortunately they are being destroyed by other people´s pursuit of money, experiences, family, etc. In the immortal words of Paul Simon, "one man's ceiling is another man's floor".

2) Even if the economy shifts into the non-material world and focus of the economy shifts to quality of life ("insubstantial" aspects such as art, virtual reality, decorative desserts, etc.) that do not require a lot of material inputs, there must be a limit to how much people will or can pay for the massive house of cards that is built on top of the real inputs in the economy (food, nutrients, etc.)...  If food production is the ultimate "real input" into the economy, how big a house of cards can we build on top of that before people are saturated with that immaterial part and will not be interested in paying more and/or the necessary part of the economy is not able to bear any increase in the weight of the "superstructure"? 

Cessation of growth seems inevitable also in the economic sense.



The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
           —Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World

Monday, November 14, 2011