Saturday, 24 August 2013

Deliberate Descent – Part 2

In my last post I talked about the idea of “deliberate descent” as a response to the challenges facing us in the age of scarcity. Most of what I covered amounts to “relocalization”, which seems to operate mainly a community level. But there are a lot of things individuals and families can do to prepare for and adapt to the age of scarcity.

Most of us are going to experience a significant decrease in our level of prosperity – to put it simply, we’re going to get poorer. Might as well call this “involuntary descent”. In our society there is a real stigma attached to being poor, and our initial reaction is to try to keep up appearances, to put off admitting our situation until we have absolutely no choice.

The essence of “voluntary descent” is to acknowledge what is coming, to admit that we are not going to be exempt from it, and to take steps to adapt in advance while we still have the resources to do so. Such adaptations will surely be more effective than if we wait until we are backed into a corner with no choices, no remaining resources and no skills at living in a very different way than we have customarily done for most of our lives. Now is the time to develop those skills and the new ways of thinking that go with them.

During the age of growth money could be counted on to make money. This was based on the fact that the economy was growing, and businesses wishing to expand their operations were looking to borrow money and willing to pay lenders for the privilege of doing so. In retrospect it’s starting to look like this actually ended in the mid-90’s, and since then all the “growth” has been in the shape of financial bubbles which have grown and burst one after another while the real economy stood still or declined. One of the reasons bubbles are so easy to get started is that there is still a lot of money looking for a place to grow, so to speak – or rather, people desperate for a place to invest that will still provide the level of returns they became accustomed to before growth came to an end.

I am not really addressing this blog to the sort of people who make a fortune investing their wealth (the 1%, or the “rentier class” as they are sometimes called). Nor do I feel a lot of sympathy for them, but it’s clear that the idea of deliberate descent is going to be pretty foreign to such folks and a very hard adaptation to even consider. They are liable to be left behind, still struggling to make business as usual work like it used to.

Also hard hit are those of us who, after a life of real, productive work, planned to retire and live off our invested savings, or on a pension, which amounts to the same thing. If you have direct control over your savings you probably took a fairly substantial loss in 2008, and since then you’ve likely been disappointed by earnings in an economy that is supposedly "recovering". So, do you focus on adapting to living with less (deliberate descent), or buy into the latest bubble’s promise of higher returns? Remember that every bubble promises that “it will be different this time”, and then bursts just like all the other bubbles – if things sound too good to be true, they probably are (too good, that is). I don’t recommend investing in precious metals either – despite all the talk about them being superior to so called “fiat currencies”, the worth of metals like silver and gold is largely a matter of people having confidence in them, just like paper money.

If, like me, you are relying on a pension you are pretty well tied in to the decisions made by the fund managers. And dependent on them for information on the long term outlook of that fund. I have to say the annual reports I have been reading are pretty honest, except that they are clearly written by people who believe that economic recovery is just around the corner, if not already happening. Without such a recovery, the prospects for the pension fund I rely on are pretty bleak. Now as it happens this pension is guaranteed by the provincial government and we have always believed that things would have to get pretty bad before the government would welsh on the deal. But it is becoming clear to me that at some point throwing “fat cat pensioners” to the wolves will become politically expedient. At that point I expect my pension to be discounted to 70%, 50% or perhaps even less. At some point, it will probably disappear altogether. For many of my fellow pensioners this will come as a horrendous shock. Clearly, the time to prepare is now.

During this sort of financial discussion, people often get into an argument over whether the current financial mess will lead to runaway inflation or continued deflation. If you think that the current economic situation is mainly a money problem, you’ll be worried about hyperinflation caused by governments printing too much money to cope with their debts. On the other hand, if you’re like me and think that the end of cheap energy is what’s hurting the economy, you would expect a continued deflationary trend. Economic growth is over, indeed the economy will continue to shrink until it reaches a size that can be operated on renewable energies – probably 10% to 20% of its present size, depending on how ineptly we handle the change. At the same time, we can expect the price of necessities which are based on cheap fossil fuels to keep on going up, until we can find a way to replace those necessities with alternatives that are not fossil fuel based.

I think it is important to get and keep a firm grasp on what wealth really is. Not money, that’s certain. Wealth comes in two forms. First, possession of real, genuinely useful things. Second, a claim on future productivity – your own, or that of others. That’s where money comes in, of course, since it is a convenient symbol for such claims. Both forms of wealth involve uncertainties. Can you hang on to those useful possessions, and will they continue to be useful as your situation changes? Can that claim on future productivity be enforced and will that productivity stay at the level you are relying on. Currently, much of our productivity is based on access to cheap energy. Maintaining some level of productivity that doesn't rely on fossil fuels is going to be the challenge in the years to come.

After having said all that, it should be no surprise that, based on my expectations of continued deflation and the illusory performance of the markets, I have moved my modest investment portfolio to cash. This amounts to keeping one’s options open in an uncertain situation, always a good idea. Of course, cash investment don’t return much these days – not even keeping up to the current low level of inflation. It’s basically a decision to loose this money slowly rather than quickly. And in the meantime have at least some of it available to use for preparations that I think are more likely to pay off.

Another thing to consider is moving one’s money from big banks to local credit unions. Here in Canada, all the credit unions are striving to turn themselves into big banks, merging with each other and chasing the illusory advantages of “bigness”. So this may or may not be a viable strategy.

One thing that is certain is that debt amounts to signing over your claim to your own future productivity to your creditors.

As I have already said, the growth economy uses debt to create money. Debt also serves to trap us within that economy. I think for many people, one of the attractions of the idea of collapse is a wiping clean of the slate and a fresh start for those who survive, especially when it comes to debt. Of course, this is a fantasy. Many have suggested that a jubilee, a mass forgiving of debts, can solve our economic problems. But remember, your debts are someone else’s wealth. So, debtors’ prisons are another “solution” that I think is equally likely to be used. The key is to not get any further into debt and to expend every effort to pay off the debts we already have.

It has been interesting to watch attitudes toward debt change over the last few years. We started out thinking that debt was the key to getting the best out of life – even toys and vacations could be put on credit. Then it was only investments that could pay themselves back – a house, an education, a business. Then the housing bubble in the States burst and even here in Canada is peaking out, and houses don’t seem like a very good investment; maybe not even as a place to live. Saying that borrowing for an education isn’t wise has been a big step, but now it’s pretty clear that for most students, it just isn’t paying off. And as for borrowing money to start a business – well, good luck finding a bank that will take you seriously.

One of the best justifications for the serious austerity measures I am discussing here is to have some spare cash that can be applied to one’s debts.

As moving goods around the world is becoming more expensive (and forcing us to relocalize), so is moving people. It looks like we will be doing much less long distance travel. Flying is already becoming more expensive and less convenient, and this can be expected to continue until it will be a thing of the past for most of us.

What about cars? It is easy to lose sight of the costs of operating a car and forget that in many cases the benefits may not justify those costs. My out of pocket costs to operate my car are around $5000 a year. If I plan to do so on an ongoing basis, I have to save quite a bit every year so I can afford a new car when this one wears out, that or borrow the money; say $10,000 every year all told.

I am retired from my first career and now work at home. I’m fortunate to live in a small community where walking is pretty practical. It is an hour or two drive to anywhere away from here, but we don’t make that many out of town trips, certainly not daily, often not even weekly. For what I currently pay just to operate my car, I could rent a vehicle when I absolutely need it and have money left over at the end of the year. Quite a lot of money.

Of course, many people live far from work, far from shopping, far from their children’s schools, far from their extended family. Under such circumstances owning a car, probably two of them, seems like a necessity. But turn it around – maybe it’s more of a case of you working for the cars and wasting a great deal of your time driving them back and forth. Seen in that light, rearranging one’s life to be less car dependent starts to sound like a good idea. And that’s without considering the risk involved in driving and all the externalized costs we don’t pay for directly.

I know many people who are driving older cars, are putting away no money towards replacing them and could not afford a major repair bill. They are already teetering on the edge of having to do without a car, and desperately need to find a way to do this. I think at some point most of us will be faced with this decision, as our incomes decrease and the cost of cars, fuel, maintenance and insurance rises along with all our other expenses. Better to have made the transition deliberately than be forced into it by the loss of a job or an expensive mechanical failure.

Along the road to car-less-ness, there are many intermediate solutions that will reduce our reliance on fossil fueled personal transportation. Cutting back from two cars to one, car pooling, car sharing, car co-ops, occasional renting, public transit, bicycling, walking, working at home – to name but a few.

One thing that grew with the economy over that last half of the twentieth century was the size of our homes. This culminated in “McMansions” – those 5000 square foot homes with 5 bedrooms and six and a half baths, most not built to be energy or water efficient, and typical occupied by families of three or four people. The dream was that they would continue appreciating in value forever and thus were the best investment you could make.

And indeed, before the end of growth, investing in real estate seemed like a sure bet. Especially in a primary home, when one had to have a place to live anyway. Even borrowing and paying several times what your home was worth in interest on a mortgage was reasonable, since at the end you could sell the place and have a nice chunk of cash to help with your retirement. This is no longer necessarily the case. For many people, owning even a modest home may be a poor bet in a deflationary economy.

When house prices are declining, one is better to hold onto one’s cash and wait for the market to bottom out. At that point, anyone lucky enough to have cash left on hand will be able to have their choice of some real bargains in real estate. If prices in your area are still rising – that is, the bubble has not yet burst – best to get out before it does. If you bought your home years ago and it is already paid off, this isn’t such a worry. But then you have to wonder if your income declines, will you be able to cover property taxes and maintenance.

I know many young people for whom buying a house is not even remotely an option. In many areas, the available jobs will hardly cover rent. In such a situation, living with one’s parent is nothing to be ashamed of, provided you pitch in with household chores and help out with expenses to whatever extent you can. This is becoming more common, and no doubt the trend will continue. Or get together with some friends and share the rent on a place with several bedrooms. This can be a real learning experience and a wonderful way to find out how mature your friends are. Some people seem to think that lots of personal space and a private bedroom and bath are necessities, but it seems that they are about to learn that nothing could be further from the truth.

The home has traditionally been the center of the informal economy, making a positive contribution to a family’s independence. But sometime over the past few decades, homes became an investment, to be maintained in pristine condition ready for sale at a tidy profit. A working home has become something to be ashamed of. At the same time, we have come to expect larger homes, with more amenities. There is little doubt that this is not sustainable in the long run and in the short run economic realities will force us to change.

Moving to a smaller home may be difficult if you’d be facing a huge loss on the house you’re living in. But filling some of those empty bedrooms with boarders or running a business in some of the underutilized space in your home is a practice that was common in the past but is frowned on or even prohibited by zoning regulations today. This is an example of attitudes and laws that simply don’t fit the new reality and that will need to change as that reality is forced on more and more people.

Similarly, many municipalities or homeowners associations will not allow you to have a clothesline, a rain barrel or a vegetable garden (especially in the front yard). Keeping farm animals (chickens, goats, even rabbits) is almost universally forbidden in urban settings. I’d like to think that the day will come when this will change and you may get a break on property taxes for these things because they show that you are less of a burden to the community.

A home should be set up to waste as little as possible -- water, and energy for heating and air conditioning are the easy targets for improvements that can pay for themselves and go on to save money in the long run. Some energy saving steps such as sealing drafts around windows and doors can be done at a very low cost and make a big difference. Awnings to shade south facing windows in the summer and insulated blinds or insulated inserts for windows in the winter can make a big difference as well and don’t cost a lot if you make them yourself, which isn’t terribly hard to do.

If you don’t have cash available for such improvements (and even it you do), it’s time to learn how to survive without air conditioning and with the thermostat set a lot lower in the winter time. The key to this is remembering that the human body can and will adapt to a wide range of temperatures – if it is given a chance to do so. Nothing is more certain to make summer temperatures unpleasant than spending part of your time in air conditioned spaces.

The relocalization of food is something that can be done at a family and individual level, and it is a valuable response when we find our budgets getting tighter and food prices going up. The first thing is to bring food home. I am told that there are areas in the US where it is actually less expensive to eat at fast food outlets than to buy real food and cook and eat it at home. I find this hard to believe – it certainly isn’t the case where I live and I suspect those who are making those claims do so in ignorance of how economical it can be to cook from scratch.

So, I think we’ll be forced to eat out less and eat less in the way of highly processed convenience foods at home. As unemployment increases the odds are that there will be someone at home who can take the time to cook with basic ingredients. The time spent doing so pays off nicely, in my experience. The ability to do so is a valuable skill and the equipment required is really pretty basic (and not expensive).

While learning to cook from scratch, start keeping a well stocked pantry – enough to get you through a few weeks when cash is short without having to go hungry. This also allows you to take advantage of sales and better prices on larger containers or bulk buying. It is also pretty handy to have what you need to cook a meal already on hand, eliminating last minute runs to the store. And it is also a basic step in emergency preparation. It can be a challenge to do if you are already short of cash, but well worth some sacrifices.

I guess next on the list is buying food when it is in season (and available at a lower price) and preserving it to eat when it is out of season. Some foods such as grains, dried legumes and winter squash are dead easy to store, requiring nothing more than a cool dry place. Root vegetables, in particular potatoes, can easily be stored in a root cellar, which is really pretty easy to set up if you are living in a house. More of a challenge for apartment dwellers, obviously. Other foods can be dried, pickled, frozen or canned. These technologies take more equipment and skill but the investment can pay off very well in increased food security and financial savings.

Of course you can store or preserve what you buy at the supermarket, but where this really leads us is to finding local farmers and becoming direct customers of theirs, cutting out the middleman and raising the possibility of having both higher prices for the producer and lower prices for the consumer. A little extra effort may be required on both parts, but with a good return. Especially for fruits and vegetables that have a definite season this can lead to big savings on excellent quality products.

I would also recommend becoming a local grower yourself and starting a garden. This is a prime example of investing your time in the informal economy and reducing your dependence on the formal economy. If you don’t have space, try plants in containers on your balcony or porch, get involved in your local community garden or see about borrowing some garden space from someone who has too much to handle.

In the age of growth, education was available to more people than ever before. Governments and businesses saw the benefits of an educated populace and had the surplus resources to make it happen. Those surplus resources are disappearing and already education is becoming more expensive, or being delivered in a watered down form. Not too long ago, businesses were proud of their training programs, now they won’t hire anyone who is not only trained but also experienced, and at the same time complain about the lack of such people. Of course, this is less an indication of how unreasonable businesses are than a clear measure of the tight spot they find themselves in now that the economy has stopped growing.

In any case, the world is changing so fast that going to school and graduating with some sort of qualification is no longer a guarantee of employment. Traditionally this wasn’t the point of education anyway and things are swinging back in that direction again. At an intellectual level, learning how to learn is more important – once you’ve done that, you can teach yourself what you need to know in the situation you find yourself - especially for as long as the internet is available. At a more practical level there are many skills that would be very helpful in the process of relocalization. But those skill are being lost as the people who once practiced them grow old and die. Some time spent learning such skills, by seeking out those who still know them and by trial and error, should pay off nicely.

What with growing unemployment caused by the contraction of the economy it’s pretty reasonable to worry about job security. Even with all the measures I’m talking about here to reduce our reliance on the formal economy, it’s hard to see how to get by without earning some money. Getting and keeping a job is going to be even tougher in the years to come, especially in the “FIRE” industries: finance, insurance and real estate. Similarly for those industries that will be hit hard by the rising cost of energy – like the airlines, the trucking industry, automobile manufacturing, road construction, industrial agriculture and so forth. It’s tempting to look around for what the next big boom will be – all the talk about growth in green industries is based on that idea. But growth, as I’ve been saying, is a pretty dubious notion. For decades now all you had to do was identify which train was heading in the right direction and hop aboard for what you could expect was a fairly easy ride. I think that sort of train has stopped running. No doubt there will be new jobs related to the relocalization of much of our vital industries, but instead of a train to hop, this will be more like putting your hand to the wheel of a cart, and in many cases one which is heading up hill. But there will be work for those with the skills to grow, make, build or fix things that people actually need.

If we are really going to replace industrial agriculture with small scale, “agroecological” farms, then a lot more people are going to have to be involved in growing food, which should help with unemployment. Other relocalized industries will likely involve fixing and reusing the “stuff” that we will no longer be able to afford to throw away when it breaks or wears out. So there will be opportunities for those with skills at salvage, repair and refurbishment.

Convince someone today that we are facing the sort of problems I’ve been talking about on this blog and they are liable to ask you what they need to buy in order to be prepared. Of course one answer to that is that too much buying is one of the causes of the problems we face – we need to consume less and more carefully. But for the last few decades “stuff” has been cheap and readily available and we’ve all been cast in the role of consumers of that stuff. Industry, driven by cheap energy from fossil fuels, have been desperate to find a market for everything they could make, regardless of whether there was a real need for those products. So a great deal of effort has been made to convince us that all we really need to be happy and fulfilled is more stuff. And my, is there ever a lot of good stuff available and easy credit so that one doesn’t have to worry about saving up to be able to afford it. This is even a good thing is some ways – along with all the cheap plastic junk there are lots of high quality items that no doubt would be useful to have, if we could just find time to use them.

But the situation is changing and it is going to hurt those of us who need a good shopping fix now and again or who believe that success and self-worth is measured by the number of toys you have. Whether it’s because the economy has slowed down so much that what you’re after isn’t being made anymore or whether you can no longer afford it, it’s not going to sit well with people who grew up being able to buy whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. We’ll need to learn to waste less, use less, fix what’s broken and take care of what we have so that it lasts longer. And to find fulfillment from something other than the latest gadget or fashion, even if we are convinced that we “really do need it”.

Entertainment, during the twentieth century, took on a role similar to that of stuff. With the invention of radio, TV and then the internet, entertainment became readily available, and more a matter of passive consumption than it ever had been in the past. When the economy was growing and there was lots of surplus wealth, it became the basis of a thriving industry, providing us with diversion in large and never ending quantities. Like stuff, there is lots of junk entertainment, but also some that is really good – and more of it than there ever was before. as well.

In the age of scarcity, though, we may find ourselves having to make more of our own amusements. For many this will come as a huge shock, and as boredom sets in, the world may seem a much less enjoyable place. Once again, better to be prepared in advance, and learn to entertain ourselves without the aid of the mass media.

I’ve been trying to present deliberate descent as a practical adaptation to a challenging situation, which will in any case involve “involuntary descent” if one doesn’t get ahead of the game. Especially at the individual level it can be applied, to at least some extent, without the co-operation of those around us. And while you may be able to detect my own personal political leanings from what I have been saying here, what I am suggesting will work for people from all political persuasions because it is simply a pragmatic response to the situation in which we are all finding ourselves. It doesn’t really matter how you think we come to be in this situation, the important question is “what do we do now” and deliberate descent provides immediately applicable answers to that question.

Many people put their faith in political activism, hoping to convince those who are in power to solve the problems that they are concerned about. This may even work at times, but I have very little faith in it. Our current power structures, regardless of what political labels they operate under, are actually the source of many of our problems. No amount of fine tuning of the system is likely to fix the problems that the system is, by its very nature, causing.

Better to take one’s own situation in one’s hands, take a realistic (and inevitably somewhat pessimistic) view of what lies ahead and get ready to cope with it.

In my next post I'll be talking about where this idea of deliberate descent might take us – what its consequences might be it it became popular.

In the meantime here is a link to some great resources on in living times of scarcity:
BETTER TIMES ACCESS TO SUSTAINABLE, SIMPLE, & FRUGAL LIVING.
And in case you don't stumble upon it among the many links on that website, here is a page with links to a set of printable flyers that contain extremely valuable information for coping with various sorts of emergencies. Worth printing out and putting in a safe place (after you read them).

Thanks for this go to Bob Waldrop, moderator of the Yahoo group "Running on Empty 2".

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Deliberate Descent - Part 1

In one of my earlier posts (What the heck do we do next), I spoke briefly about my ideas on how to prepare for life in the age of scarcity and promised to return to the subject in more detail later. At the time I was at a loss for a single phrase to sum up the kind of response I was thinking of, but in the meantime Adam, at the Contraposition blog, has coined a phrase that perfectly describes the concept:

Deliberate descent is the name I’m going to use for the whole family of ideas that includes “downshifting,” “decivilization,” “uncivilization,” “sustainable” living, “deindustrialization,” etc., plus the variety of particular proposals for doing so, such as John Michael Greer’s Green Wizardry, Sharon Astyk’s Adapting in Place, and Rob Hopkins’s Transition movement. All of these ideas focus more or less on ways of life that use less energy and fewer materials, and advocate adopting those ways of life before the need to do so becomes dire — ”collapse now and avoid the rush,” as Greer recently put it. Although there are differences among these proposals on the periphery, I take the notion of deliberate descent to be a common core between them.

Thanks, Adam –“Deliberate Descent” is exactly the term I was looking for. I’m going to dwell on this subject for the next few posts – it has many aspects that are worth examining. First I’d like to go into some detail about what I think this course of action actually involves.

It seems natural enough to me that coping with the age of scarcity will mean learning to get by while consuming less. In other words, we’ll be giving up some things that many people think they can’t live without. Of course our grandparents, or great-grandparents, did just fine without them, and a great many people in other parts of the world are doing without them today. One significant feature of the growth economy is marketing – the artificial creation of demand by manipulating consumers. Basically we have been told, “you suck, but buy our stuff and you’ll feel better”. How much of this stuff we really need is a question we should to be asking ourselves quite often.

The growth economy was driven by energy from cheap fossil fuels, so it is no wonder that it is grinding to a halt as the supply of those fuels becomes more and more depleted. It seems that we should be trying to reduce our dependence on cheap energy and get out of the growth economy to whatever extent we can, before we become involved in “involuntary descent”, which we surely will if we wait long enough. In the process we should be careful to do as little damage to the environment as possible and perhaps even repair some of the damage that has already been done, recognizing that as the industrial processes that temporarily isolated us from our dependance on the environment become a thing of the past, that dependence will once again become a clear and personal thing.

But where will such a strategy leads us? Well, it is important to remember that circumstances vary and no one can predict the future. So we need to start out by encouraging a large variety of different approaches. Dissensus, the opposite of consensus, is really a very good idea in this situation – simply agreeing to disagree, while still supporting each others efforts, so we try out all kinds of different ideas to see what actually does work.

But even so, one can see some fairly obvious things to try. What follows is my general analysis of the problems we will be facing and some specific ideas for how to cope with them.

The first place deliberate descent will lead us is home, since globalization is dependent on cheap transportation, which is largely dependent on cheap oil. This idea has even been given a name, “relocalization”, which is the opposite of globalization and involves businesses which are smaller in scale and operate at the local level. The idea of globalization was to produce goods where it can be done at the lowest cost, ensuring the highest profits for the owners of the businesses involved. And despite its negative side effects, globalization did succeed in producing low cost consumer goods – when transportation was a trivial part of the cost of those goods. But this is already beginning to change and as the cost of transportation fuel continues to soar, local producers will be able to compete more effectively.

Unfortunately, the industries that once produced many types of goods here in North America have been largely dismantled. Getting them going again with the economy faltering, demand down and investment capital in short supply may be quite a challenge. Foreign suppliers will be priced out of the market and local suppliers will be slow to develop. As demand drops for expensive luxury goods while the cost of making them continues to increase, many will become simply unprofitable to produce and will be in short supply, if available at all. For necessities, where demand is much less elastic, prices will go through the roof. We will need to get by on locally produced goods and do everything we can to encourage those who would produce goods locally. Money, energy and food are the first areas to work on.

Currently, our financial system creates money by issuing debt and financial institutions profit from this by charging interest. In order for this to work, the economy must grow so that the interest, as well as the principle, can be paid on the loans. This system came about because cheap energy, in the form of fossil fuels, was driving growth and the money supply had to be able to expand to keep up. But now the days of cheap energy and growth are over and much of the debt that exists is unlikely to ever be paid off. Our financial system is ill suited for these circumstances and has entered a deflationary spiral which shows every sign of continuing for a very long time.

Unfortunately, it is not just the financial system that is suffering. Regular commercial business rely on banks to provide short term credit in order to do business. Relocalized businesses are no exception. As the banks weaken to the point where they can no longer facilitate commerce, we will have to come up with some alternatives. Many local money systems have been proposed and a few even tried. It seems that they will evolve from a novelty to a standard feature of localized commerce.

With the industrial revolution, fossil fuel powered machinery largely replaced human labour. There is an old argument about new mechanized industries creating more jobs than the old industries they replaced and, for a while, they did. But we have ended up with a broken economy and high and increasing unemployment. Many of our efforts to cope involve improving efficiency in the sense of reducing the amount of human labour it takes to produce goods, when in fact human labour is the only resource that is not in short supply. As we relocalize industry, it will be necessary to consider more labour intensive approaches which require less up front investment in mechanization – “appropriate technology” rather than the latest in high tech.

But still we are going to need some energy, if only to heat our homes and cook our food, and it is going to have to come from renewable sources. The trouble is that renewables (according the best estimates that I have found) are only going to be able to provide somewhere between 10 and 20% of the energy we have grown accustomed to having available. And that’s if an organized effort is made to switch over to renewables while fossil fuels are still relatively cheap – if it isn’t already too late. Further, it seems unlikely to me that we will be able to operate wide area power grids under these circumstances. In particular, rural areas like the one where I live, where load is spread out and a lot of lines and maintenance are required to service relatively few customers, will be abandoned first by the power companies. We will have to turn to biomass (primarily in the form of wood), small scale water power, wind and solar. But mainly wood, and this will be very hard on existing forests. Efforts to reforest marginal agricultural land should be started before the demand for firewood goes up.

Currently the industrial food system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Fuel for agricultural equipment, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, transportation, refrigeration, processing and so forth all rely on cheap energy to provide food at an affordable price. Industrial agriculture has also been optimized to produce well only under ideal weather conditions. There is a commonly accepted myth that large scale, energy intensive industrial farming is the only way to feed the already large and still growing population of the planet. If this is so, we have a problem. The industrial food system is acutely sensitive to a number of the threats we now face. As the price of energy goes up, so does the price of food. As climate change progresses and the weather becomes less reliable, yields go down drastically. And industrial farming relies on credit to buy its inputs so the collapse of the financial system can have a direct and detrimental effect on it.

Already the poor are having trouble feeding themselves and almost all of us can expect to become poorer as time passes. Add to this the fact that the food distribution system relies on stable financial and political conditions, and it seems likely that trouble will start long before there is an actual shortage of food. Fortunately, that myth I mentioned about industrial agriculture really is just a myth. Sustainable eco-agriculture techniques can outperform industrial agriculture and are much less dependent on cheap energy, ideal weather conditions and easy credit.

We should be looking for local farmers who are switching over to sustainable practices and encourage them to supply us directly with food. Unfortunately, the people who own the majority of the farmland are firmly tied to the present system. In many areas getting access to land on which to grow local food is going to be one of the main challenges.

As you may have been noticing, relocalization seems to work pretty much at a community level. The age of growth taught us all to work as individuals – we have largely forgotten how to function at a community level. This is going to make relocalization a lot harder than it needs to be.

But there are a lot of things individuals and families can do to prepare for and adapt to the age of scarcity. Most of us are going to experience a significant decrease in our level of prosperity – to put it simply, we’re going to get poorer. Might as well call this “involuntary descent”. In our society there is a real stigma attached to being poor, and our initial reaction is to try to keep up appearances, to put off admitting our situation until we have absolutely no choice. The essence of “voluntary descent” is to acknowledge what is coming, to admit that we are not going to be exempt from it, and to take steps to adapt in advance while we still have the resources to do so. Such adaptations will surely be more effective than if we wait until we are backed into a corner with no choices, no remaining resources and no skills at living in a very different way than we have customarily done for most of our lives. Now is the time to develop those skills and the new ways of thinking that go with them.

That will be the subject of my next post. In the meantime, check out some links that will give you a wider look at the idea of deliberate descent.

The Transition Town Movement

Transition Network
Transition Culture, Rob Hopkins blog
Transition Town Totnes – the first Transition Town
Transition US website
Transition Canada Facebook Group

Adapting in Place

Sharon Astyk's Blog
Sharon's books at New Society Publishers
Sharon's books at Amazon.com

Green Wizardry

John Michael Geer's blog
JMG's books at Amazon.com
JMG's books at New Society Publishers

The Simpler Way

The Simplicity Institute website
The Simpler Way website

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Sustainability?

Sustainability is a concept that has been abused to the point where it is almost meaningless – it is widely used to refer merely to practices that claim to be more environmentally sound than others. Even those who understand its real meaning have begun to use other buzzwords like resilience or even anti-fragility to describe what they mean.

“Disingenuous” is another big word, one that is used much less, but I think neatly describes much of the abuse that the word “sustainability” has endured. Wiktionary defines this as “assuming a pose of naivete to make a point or for deception.” It seems to me that people on both sides of the sustainability debate are guilty of this (especially the “for deception” part), to the great detriment of a discussion that is of critical importance today. There is much to say about this, but it would probably be best to start by saying what I think sustainability is really about, frankly and without any “disingenuousness”.

Wikipedia says, “Sustainability is the capacity to endure. In ecology the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.”

The Wikipedia article goes on at some length but only touches briefly on what is, for me, the core of the issue. And that is that, for humans, the capacity to endure is in serious doubt. It is this concern that makes sustainability an important issue. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, we are completely dependent on the living environment of this planet for air, water, food and much else that we need to survive. There are, quite simply, limits to how many humans this planet can support.

The fact is that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of this planet. How is this possible? Well, the term “carrying capacity” refers to the population that can be supported sustainably, that is, on a long term basis without causing degradation to the environment. We are managing to exceed this limit by borrowing from the past (using fossil fuels) and the future (overexploiting aquifers, forests, fisheries, topsoils and so forth). We are depleting these resources and using them in such a way that the byproducts pollute the environment. All this reduces the carrying capacity of the planet and at the same time our population continues to grow.

Other species in this sort of situation experience a population collapse, a dieback. This continues until what is left of the environment can support what is left of the population.

So, are we headed towards some sort of a crash – a dieback of the human population? Will we take a great many other species along with us, due to the way we are destroying their habitats and ours? To me it seems a certainty, if we do not make some changes in the way we are currently living to drastically reduce the burden we are placing on the environment.

Many people, when faced with this reality, fall back on the idea that our ability to anticipate and solve problems will see us through. And I agree, but in this case the solution is going to be a broad cultural change, not the painless application of higher technology that most would expect. And there is also a good chance that inertia, denial and short term thinking will prevent us from responding in time, with disastrous results. Reality will likely be somewhere between the best and worst possibilities, but the sooner we get going, that better our chances are.

So, if you are wondering what the big deal is about sustainability, that’s it, and it should be enough to make anyone stop and think.

Please note that I am not talking about some sort of apocalypse. But a slow degradation of conditions on a timescale of years and decades seems inevitable. Global warming is already starting to undo the ideal conditions that our agriculture depends on. A few more years of drought like the one we experienced in North America in 2012 and we will find ourselves genuinely unable to feed everyone. Since our capitalist system is set up to administer “rationing by price”, the poor will feel this first and hardest.

The size of the burden we place on the environment is determined by the size of our population, the level of material affluence we enjoy, and amount of waste involved in attaining that level of affluence. This is the classic consumption equation, I = P × A × T, where: I = Environmental impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology (what I refer to as level of waste, or efficiency). Each of the terms in that equation warrant a little further examination.

Population: There are currently over 7 billion people on this planet, with 9 billion expected by the middle of this century. The most reasonable estimates I have been able to find point to one or two billion as a sustainable level of population. Other things being equal, it is a straightforward conclusion that a reduction in population would reduce the stress on our environment. But things are not equal, because the other two terms of the equation vary greatly across the human population.

Technology: we have such a love affair with technology these days that it is easy to jump to the conclusion that technology must have a value less than 1 in the equation, thus reducing our impact on the environment, such that an advance in technology would enabling us to enjoy our current level of affluence while using less in the way of energy and material resources and creating less pollution. For many of the poor in the world this is true – a little more access to technology, just some better tools and techniques, really, could greatly improve their lives with little additional impact on the environment. When the rich adopt new technologies, though, it often actually leads us to higher levels of consumption and/or pollution.

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Affluence: specifically, material affluence, the amount of resources each of us consumes and the amount of pollution we create in the process. It is important to note here that once the basic necessities of life are provided, additional material consumption and “quality of life” are not strongly linked. Consumption increased dramatically in North America over the last century, while quality of life actually decreased for many people. It you are or have ever been “stuck in the rat race”, you’ll know what I mean.


Source: World Bank, 2008 World Development Index, 4, http://data.worldbank.org.

It is a bit little hard to see the numbers in the graph above, but what it is really about is the great discrepancy that currently exists between rich and poor. Specifically, it shows us is that the poorest decile (10%) only consumes half a percent of the total and poorest 20% only consume 1.5%, a small fraction of an even share, which would be 10%. While the richest decile of humans account for 59% of consumption and the richest 20% account for a whopping 76.6%. This means that the richest 10% out-consume the poorest by a factor of almost 120! So it’s pretty clear that the poor are not to blame for our overall overconsumption, and controlling their population isn’t the real issue. The real issue is bizarre levels of overconsumption by the rich.

It is interesting to engage in a moment of daydreaming about what the effect of reducing that overconsumption might be. If that richest 20% of our population was to reduce its consumption down to an even share (20%), our overall consumption would be reduced to less than half of its present level. And in the process no one would be denied the necessities of life, in fact those in the top 20 percent would still consume more than the rest of the population, just not by so wide a margin.

I am not suggesting that this is exactly what we should do, and it would by no means completely solve our problems, but it would give us breathing room to begin seriously doing something about them. Like getting our population under control by educating women and making family planning alternatives available to them. Like reducing the burden on the areas of the environment we have not yet seriously damaged, and allowing those areas that are seriously damaged a chance to recover.

Of course I do realize that the richest 20% are also overwhelmingly the people who run the world. For the most part they run it for their own short term benefit, so nothing of this sort is likely to happen any time soon.

This where the word “disingenuous” comes into the discussion. If you listen carefully to discussions of sustainability by the overconsuming rich (and most people in the US and Canada fall into that category) you will hear a lot of deception disguised as naivete. Sadly it is to be found on both sides of the argument. Let me explain what I mean.

On one side of the discussion are the “Business as Usual” people, who have a great deal invested in the way the world currently works, and want to see it continue that way. Here is a link to a pretty good statement of their viewpoint: only growth can sustain us. I am pretty sure that these people realize that we live on a finite planet and that there are some pretty clear limits which are already bringing an end to unbridled growth. But they simply cannot conceive of any alternative to an economy based on growth. How they reconcile the conflict is quite simple: as long as more and more people consume less, a few can continue to consume more. The people at the top of the heap earned their position there and they deserve their privileges. (NOT!) This may even represent a real solution to our sustainability problem, albeit a repugnant and immoral one from my viewpoint.

The majority of people in political positions of power hold this viewpoint and they know they can stay in power by convincing the public that everything is OK and that with just a little tweaking the system can be switched back into growth mode again and everything will return to normal. And of course they are the ones with the expertise to do that tweaking. One even hears these people spouting bogus ideas like “sustainable growth” and “being rich enough to afford to fix the environment”.

This sort of playing dumb to sell a position beneficial to your own interests is what I would call really disingenuous. It is compounded when powerful organizations (usually corporations with a vested interest) spend money to set up fake think tanks or supposedly “academic” institutes which then proceed to produce misinformation/pseudoscience about peak oil, global warming and so forth.

On the other side of the discussion are the people we might as well call the “greens” (small “g”). They are quite aware of the sustainability challenges we face. They also believe (as I do) that the place to start reducing our burden on the environment would not be among the poor, but among the rich who consume so much that their lives are actually burdened by that consumption. But they are equally aware that being less rich is a pretty tough idea to sell. So they have a conflict to resolve as well. It is a serious one because, for the purposes of this discussion, the great majority of people in a places like the US and Canada qualify as rich.

The greens resolve this issue this with the “soft sell”, trying to make sustainability a “cool idea” and fun to take part in. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the Transition Town movement. Their leaders are clearly aware of the seriousness of the challenge we face and the degree of change in our lifestyles that is going to be necessary. But they speak of a process which is “more like a party than a protest march”. In fairness, I believe that is a reference to the camaraderie experienced by those by those working together in this cause, but I have also observed that many of people who are attracted to the Transition movement are not fully aware of the situation, and would not be so enthusiastic if they knew where the movement was really leading them.

And, not just to pick on Transition alone, there are many other groups selling ideas like saving polar bears, investing in renewable energy or buying “carbon credits” as the answer to the problem – answers that won’t require any significant change in our lifestyle.

I guess by this point it should be clear that, once again, I see this sort of thing as really disingenuous. It is vital, in my opinion, that we come to grips with the reality of the problem facing us and having done so, get to work fixing it. There is a solution, it’s just that the people who are causing the problem (and have the power to solve it) have all agreed not to discuss it. Until this changes, things will only get worse.

Here are some links to further discussions of sustainability:

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

What I Believe

In an earlier post I defined belief as "a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer your questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions. Beliefs should be avoided at all costs, much better to admit that we don't yet know and just continue searching. But the world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief."

So you might expect that I don't believe much. But as I said, the world being what it is, there are many decisions to be made and we don't always know enough to base those decisions on knowledge. So one has no choice but to formulate a belief, based on little more than a gut feeling -- intuition if you will. There is actually quite a bit to be said for intuition in the many cases where there is not a better way of knowing.

It's time that I 'fessed up and shared some of those beliefs with you. The first half of this post was available on this blog, not as a post but as the separate page "What do I believe" for some time before being posted here. But I've added quite a lot of new material in the second half.

To put a name to it, I am a monistic materialist (or materialistic monist, same thing). This means I believe there is only one thing, and that is the material universe that we see around us and that we are part of. That's where the materialistic part comes from. It does not, by the way, mean that I am a materialist in the sense of "he who dies with the most toys, wins." Far from it. But more on that later.

The "monistic" part is important too -- there really is only that one thing and everything is part of it. The many "dualisms" that people believe in are serious errors in thought, with big and nasty consequences. Here are a few of them:

1) That there is a god separate from and outside of the material universe, who is its creator. This unnecessarily complicates one's thinking. If the universe had to be created by someone, then so did god, and whoever created god and so on in an infinite regress that gets harder and harder to believe. Stop at just one hard thing to believe: that the universe simply is. Furthermore the idea that the world was "designed", that the way things are is "meant to be", is a fallacy. The way things are is a combination of natural law and chance. When applied to life, we call this evolution. But something very similar has been going with the inanimate part of the universe as well. And it is very important not to start making value judgements about how things are. Because there is no creator and no "intention", one way is not inherently superior over another.

2) That mankind is a special part of nature, created to have dominion over it. This is the source of much of our current abuse of the environment. I would say we are a part of nature, with no special status or role, and actually totally dependent on nature -- it feeds, waters and clothes us and provides for us to continue breathing. When I was younger I thought that we would someday have the technology to overcome this dependence, but now it's looking pretty unlikely.

3) That there is a material universe and a separate mystical or supernatural one. Nope, there is only one universe – the material one. Our brains, however, can generate many experiences internally which seem "real" in some sense, but are not in fact experiences of any sort of external world. Having an active internal life is a necessary consequence of being able to think, but a great many people have made the mistake of thinking that their internal experiences are putting them in touch with another, perhaps higher, level of reality. Such experiences can be brought on in their most powerful form by using psychoactive chemicals of various sorts and can leave the most skeptical user convinced that they are real in a very concrete sense. Prayer, meditation, fasting, oxygen deprivation and rhythmic activities like chanting, drumming and dancing can also be used to cultivate mystical experiences. The important thing to realize is that the only thing you are getting in contact with through these practices is the inside of your own head. That in itself can be useful, but only if kept in the right perspective.

4) That our soul is a separate thing from our bodies with an independent existence that is eternal. Rather, I would say our consciousness is essentially a computing process running on the biological computer between our ears. As long as that "meatware" is running, our consciousness (or spirit or soul) exists as an emergent property of that process. It is not separate from our brain and can perceive and act on the material world only through our bodies. When the meatware stops running, the soul ceases to exist.

After hearing all of the above, it will surprise many conventionally religious people that an "atheist" like me is big on spirituality. Though what I mean by spirituality, since it doesn't include the supernatural, may be a little different from what you'd expect. Over the last few hundred years, science has displaced religion in providing our understanding of how more and more things work. For those who accept science, the realm of spirituality has shrunk and shrunk to almost nothing. Even our consciousness is understood as just a property of the computing processes going on in our brain. All that is left to the religious is some sort of supernatural essence whose existence is not even falsifiable – I would say it is simply imaginary. But I would also say that it is time to expand our understanding of the soul back to include what it properly should. Here I'll borrow an idea from Plato, via John Michael Greer (who gave it some modern twists) and add a few more of my own. Liken the soul to a chariot, which has three active parts. The driver is your mind or intellect, which is in charge of two unruly horses. One is your body with all it physical sensations and appetites -- pain, thirst, hunger, the sex drive and so forth. The other is the world outside your skin, which you are part of and which influences you in many ways. Since we are a species which naturally lives in groups this very much includes the obligations, influences and pressures from the people around us, but it also includes the rest of nature. If it sounds like I am saying that our souls are made up of our minds, our bodies and the surrounding universe, that is exactly right. We are part of nature and it is part of us. Everything is connected together, and I do not mean in some mystical, supernatural sense, but in straightforward chains of physical cause and effect.

We must learn to use the mind to control and balance both internal desires and external pressures -- not just to rein them in, but also to give them their heads when appropriate. All without letting the intellect itself get out of control. This endeavour is what spirituality is all about.

But our souls don't come with either an operating or a maintenance manual, so this is quite a challenge. Especially since so much of the supposed wisdom on this subject is complete bunk. How can it be that so much of the world's sacred knowledge is actually nonsense? That is a question that deserves an answer, and I think I have one.

Remember that for most of mankind's history you came to know things by accepting what older and wiser people told you. Only since classical times (a couple of thousand years) have ideas been required to be internally consistent. Only since the enlightenment (a couple of hundred years) has the practice of checking our ideas against reality been seen as a necessity. And even now there are still a great many people who aren't anywhere near that rigorous in their thinking. Of course, there are some pretty big advantages to accepting traditional knowledge. Much of our success as a species comes from not having to rely solely on inherited instinct, being able benefit from what previous generations have learned and to pass what we have learned on to future generations.

But there are also some disadvantages to this, the foremost being that those older and wiser people are in a position to seriously take advantage of you, especially if you've been brought up to blindly accept rather than question and test what you are being told. Religion has traditionally held a monopoly on spiritual guidance. The leaders of your religion may have the best interests of you and your soul at heart, or maybe that's a secondary concern for a large and complex organization whose chief goal is to maintain and extend its position of power in society, which is based on its having power over you.

If our spiritual guidance is not to come from religion, then where? There certainly no lack of spiritual guidance out there, the trick is to sift the good bits from the chaff. I believe in using my intellect to do this, and this means striving to master and use the best thinking tools available. This starts with logic, critical thinking, the scientific method and skepticism. A skeptical attitude is extremely useful, and constitutes the basis of true spirituality in my opinion.

As with any tool, it is important to be aware of the limitations of these methods. Mechanistic, reductionist science does a fine job of dividing natural phenomena into manageable bits and then describing and predicting their behaviour. But when it comes to understanding how these bits fit together into systems and predicting the behaviour of those systems, our current methods have limitations. It's worth discussing this a bit more, since so much of our Western worldview is based on it.

Take celestial mechanics, which applies the principles of physics to predict the motion of celestial bodies such as stars, planets and moons. 150 years ago this was viewed as one area in which mechanistic science ruled supreme and it did much to advance the idea of a clockwork universe. The idea was that if we know the current state of a system and the physical laws that govern it, we could predict its future behaviour. But we were kidding ourselves. Even now we haven't solved the three body problem in celestial mechanics. That is, predicting the movements of three masses in each others' gravitational fields. For two bodies we have a clean, precise mathematical solution. But for three or more, a true solution has thus far eluded us. Given time and sufficient computing power, we can use "numerical methods" to come up with reasonable accurate approximations in most situations. But as systems grow more complex this becomes more difficult. Some of the moons of Saturn move in "chaotic" orbits. In this sense, chaos refers to the behaviour of a system where small differences in initial conditions yield widely diverging outcomes. This renders long-term prediction impossible in general because you'd have to determine those initial conditions with infinite accuracy in order to know where the system is going. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This happens in some pretty simple systems. Most of the really interesting systems such as weather, organisms and ecologies are interconnected, complex and non-linear which makes them very difficult even to describe, much less predict. This should bring us up short whenever we talk about controlling or “fixing” those kind of systems. Our continued survival on this planet is utterly dependent on the continued functioning of such systems and while they can stand a little bit of tinkering, they don't respond well to the sort of wholesale exploitation that has been going on recently.

So analytical thought, using present day tools, has limitations. Maybe someday we'll develop better tools (it's happened before), or we'll learn to cope better in an uncertain universe – that's where my efforts are focused. I'm not saying that logical thinking is useless, far from it. Or that we should give up on critical thought and wildly accept any sort of bizarre notion. Just that we shouldn't get overly cocky about what we can understand and control. But analytical thought is not the only thing our intellects are good at – creative thought is also important, and without it life is sterile and meaningless. We should occupy ourselves not just with sorting through existing ideas, but also with generating new ideas which can then be sorted. There are tools for this kind of thought as well, and it is worth studying up on them.

Beyond that, there is much more to life than just thinking. The intellect may steer the chariot, but our motivations, the things that get us up in the morning and keeps us carrying on with life, come primarily from our physical desires and the connections we have with the world around us and the other living beings in it. Curiosity and creativity are just about the only intellectual motivations. Other than that, if you think that you are doing something for logical reasons, you're probably kidding yourself. Look a little deeper and you'll find that your real motivation is a physical desire, or more likely, a connection that you feel to another living thing or things, usually but not always, another human being. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, often it is a very good thing, but if you aren't even aware of it, then you certainly won't be able to decide whether it really is a good thing or not. You'll just be along for the ride.

This brings me to the issue of free will. Current research on the workings of the human mind leads us to believe that free will may be an illusion. You decide to move you hand, but in fact the nerve impulse telling your hand to move left your brain a fraction of a second before you experienced making that decision. It appears that your consciousness is building a narrative of what's going on in your head after the fact, that the ability to make a decision is an illusion, or maybe a reflection of something going on at a much deeper level, of which we aren't directly conscious. This places all the traditional thinking on morality on very shaky ground. But regardless of the underlying reality, we do have the experience of being able to make choices and even deciding not to choose is in itself a choice. So best to proceed as if you have free will and choose to do the right thing. But wait a minute, I just chucked out millenia of wisdom on what the right thing might be. What do I use to guide my decisions?

The thing to do is to think about consequences. If you do, or don't do, something, what will the result be? Of course, many people are very good at taking the first step in this direction. If we do such and such, then the result will be what we planned and all will be well. But actions don't usually have just that one intended result, but other unintended results as well, and beyond that the world tends to react to what we have done, and in ways we never expected. Be aware of this, plan for it, but try not to be paralyzed by it, either.

When dealing with other human beings, two principles can be appled: benevolence and universality. Do no harm and when possible, actually help. This applies not just to people in your own "in group" but to all others, as well.

I think that this should probably be extended to the rest of nature. But one must be aware that benevolence may take different forms when applied to nature than to humans. Specifically, I am thinking here of the circle of life, and the fact that we as omnivores are part of that circle, naturally causing death so that we can eat and then dying in our own turn and returning to the soil.

Of course, what I believe is a work in progress, and I don't mean to tell other people how to live. In fact, I don't believe that I should. So it is almost time to stop, but just to stir things up a bit, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on some of the current standard controversial issues. Let me preface this by saying that I don't believe in "inalienable rights", but there definitely are privileges that a society should attempt to guarantee its members if it is to be successful. So I'll use the term "right" below, but that's what I really mean.

GLBT(That's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender for those who haven't been following this one too closely.) This is the latest civil rights issue, not that racism has been eliminated or feminism achieved its goals, either. But I'm against racism, in favor of feminism (or more properly humanism), and definitely in favour of GLBT rights. Love is rare enough and I wouldn't outlaw it in any form it might take. The Wiccans have a couple of good sayings about this: 1) “any act of love is an act of worship of the goddess”, and 2) “and it hurt no one, do as you will.” Good advice, though the second part is a lot more restrictive than it might appear at first glance. Unfortunately, the patriarchal religions have used sex and love as a way of controlling people, restricting them to heterosexual marriage sanctioned by the church, on pain of eternal damnation. Talk about using “spiritual guidance” as a way of manipulating people.

Abortion. What this is really about is a choice between murder and slavery. Yes, abortion is clearly the murder of an unborn child. But forcing a woman to carry that child if she does not wish to do so is clearly slavery. As is so often the case, we must choose the lesser of two evils. For me, the lesser evil is to murder an unborn child who exists mainly in potential. Enslaving women is a much more serious evil. Unfortunately, it is one that we (even women) have become accustomed to.

Capital punishment. Seems to me taking irreversible action on limited information is a bad idea. The real world is a messy place and very rarely do we know all the circumstances surrounding a crime. I'd always rather let one guilty man go free rather than execute one innocent man. And why not address the root causes for crime for a change?

Gun control. Technology is designed by people, deliberately, with an aim in mind. It is NOT neutral. In the case of guns, that aim is to kill. This is not an unintended consequence — it is the very heart of their being. It is fairly hard to imagine what else one might do with a gun (use it as a club, perhaps?), and most shots fired during history have been fired at other people. We use a lot of euphemisms in connection with guns. We say “put” down suffering animals, or “control” pests, but we mean kill them. We talk about “hunting”, but we mean killing wildlife, perhaps for food that we need to live, but more likely for sport, trophies and some very high priced luxury meat. We say we need a gun for safety, but what we mean is to kill anyone who we perceive to be threatening us. It’s all killing, all death. Some of these deaths can be justified, others not so much… But gun control is a done deal in most countries except the US, where guns are readily available and the public is very much inclined to use them. Seems to be a feeling there that violence is the solution to your problems (though obviously, not everyone in the United States fits that stereotype). To someone from Canada, this is a bizarre situation without an immediately obvious solution. But making it harder to get guns has got to do some good.

War. War between states is all about building and maintaining empires. Or opposing empires, if you are on the other side. While war doesn't benefit people, it certainly can benefit the states who use to maintain and expand their empires. Accordingly they do their best to convince us that there are good reasons for going to war. Don't be fooled.

All this talk about controversial issues reminds me of what I call The "Not Two" Thing. This is related, I suppose, to those erroneous dualisms I mentioned back at the start of this post – sort of. Basically, whenever you hear someone presenting an issue as consisting of two opposing sides, alarm bells should go off in your head. Pick one side or the other and you have already been manipulated in taking sides and accepting a simplified version of things. The odds are that someone benefits from this, but probably not you. This binary thinking is a form of laziness and whenever you find yourself falling into the old binary groove, try a little harder to see that in one sense there are many sides to the issue, many possible solutions. And in another sense, there is only one thing – one universe, one planet we're living on, one human race and that the supposed opposing sides may actually have common interests. Many or one, but not two.

I said earlier that our soul comes without either an operating or a maintenance manual. So far we've been talking about operations, but maintenance is also important. Occasionally it is important to give the intellect a rest, exercise the body and enjoy some contact with nature. So go take a walk in the bush, it will be good for you. Or a walk in the park, if that is the best you can do.