Sunday, 26 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 4: A Reality Based Approach

In this series of posts about BAU (Business as Usual), Crunchiness (those who oppose BAU) and Woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking) I've been promising that I am going somewhere with all this and that I would finally get there. Well, here we are.

The tagline for this blog is, "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity." And that is where I've been headed. There's a lot more meat in that one phrase than you might think. I'll break it into three parts and explain what I mean by each, starting with the tail, then the head and finally (in my next post) the middle, which is really the heart of the thing.

"In The Age of Scarcity"

So first, "the age of scarcity", a term that I am borrowing from John Michael Greer. It refers to where we now find ourselves, trying to sustain a growth economy as the resources it relies on become ever more depleted. Thus the term scarcity. The mouthpieces of BAU would object to this, claiming that things are now better than they ever have been and that technology can bail us out of any problems we may run into. I find that amusing--BAU caused the situation that it refuses to acknowledge and continues to make it worse.

I talked about this in the second and third posts in this series, but I'll recap briefly.

Progress is a religion for BAU, its raison d'etre. It defines progress as increasing material prosperity, physical comfort and convenience for an ever growing human population. The economies within BAU are set up to work well only when growing. Even with the improved efficiency provided by technology, ever increasing amounts of natural resources are being consumed, to the point where the resources that are left are of lower quantity and less concentrated, making whatever is made from them more costly. At the same time, more and more pollution is being created.

All this results in situations like Peak Oil, Climate change and Economic Contraction, of which I've spoken at some length. Since I started writing here four years ago, it has become clear that a shortage of fresh water (Peak water?)should be added to the list. And in an effort to keep business profitable under these conditions, people are being replaced with technological wherever possible, resulting in growing "technological" unemployment. To top it off, the relentless growth of our human population makes all these things worse.

I am convinced that if BAU continues "as usual", over the next few decades we will see a gradual and bumpy collapse of BAU's ability to provide us with the necessities of life. Modern agriculture and industry are unsustainable, and environmental degradation (including climate change, but not limited to it) will place both under ever worsening stress. We can expect a significant reduction in their outputs, leading to a reduction in human population.

In addition to happening unevenly over time, this collapse will be varied in how it is felt across the world's regions, with the result that migrations of refugees will become the defining events of this century. The collapse will also be felt differently across the strata of society. It has already arrived today for those who are homeless and begging for food, with no reasonable hope for improvement in their lot. At the same time the upper crust are enjoying the fruits of progress and living better than they ever have before. Not only can we expect this gap to widen, but the numbers of the unemployed and homeless will grow while that upper crust gets thinner.

As I pointed out in my "Political Fantasy" series of posts, there is much that could be done to fix things within BAU and in the process change BAU into something less destructive. This might have worked 40, 30, perhaps even 20 years ago. But today? It seems unlikely and gets more so as time passes.

When I vote in elections (mainly to preserve my complaining rights) I try to support whichever party looks to be the most aware of this situation and likely to do something about it. But I don't for a moment believe that much will actually be done to change BAU or fix any of the problems it is causing. I prefer to spend the majority of my time and energy getting ready for the more likely (though less pleasant) future.

We're stuck in the age of scarcity and we must learn to adapt. In my case this falls within the realm of crunchiness, not survivalism. And, while you may not like the term "crunchiness", it is the one I have chosen to use here to describe those who would withdraw their support from BAU and try to build something different and better. In fact, of course, people are all mixtures of crunchy and BAU attitudes, and act differently in different circumstances.

A Reality Based Approach

That brings us to "a reality based approach". Which is simply accepting things as they actually are and acting accordingly. The alternative being denial and believing in whatever sort of "woo" it takes to support your favourite ideological position. This applies to both BAU and Crunchiness.

BAU style woo allows people to believe in progress and growth continuing forever on a finite planet. And it convinces them that there is no acceptable alternative.

Crunchy style of woo provides a simplistic route to rejecting BAU for those who are convinced by much of BAU's propaganda, even though they don't like the direction it is taking us. Just reject anything that comes from big business or government, even if it is clearly supported by science. And uncritically accept anything that seems to oppose BAU.

In my last post I talked about the pseudoscience and magical thinking (woo) that is in vogue among Crunchies. I included a bunch of links that where intended to show that in their rejection of science, Crunchies persist in believing things that science has already proven wrong, and refuse to believe in much of what science has proven right. Not stuff that is out at the frontiers of science where there might be some wiggle room, but stuff about which there is a solid scientific consensus, which will no doubt be refined as time passes, but is unlikely to undergo major change.

Crunchies tend to reject the positive achievements of BAU along with its downsides, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I would say the biggest challenge facing the Crunchy movement is to succeed in rejecting the woo which is the essence of BAU without rejecting the scientific method and the valid scientific consensus that has come out of BAU. This is tricky since much of the woo in BAU is part of our common culture and it is difficult to question or even recognize for what it is.

In their rejection of BAU and their intention to turn away from it and do less harm to the planet and their fellow man, Crunchies are definitely on the right track. There is no need to glom onto a bunch of woo in order to differentiate themselves from BAU.

Back in the first post of this series, I spoke briefly about the pitfalls of binary thinking and how much of the woo that both BAU and Crunchy people subscribe to exists to maintain their separate positions and convince themselves that the other side is wrong. I'd like to see both of those positions abandoned and a reality based approach adopted by everyone involved. Of course I know that there is little hope of changing minds that are firmly made up, but I hope there are a few minds out there that aren't made up--or at least not too firmly. I've engaged in enough social media link wars to know that there's no winning them--everything seems black and white to both sides, and they both have lots of so called "evidence" to support their positions. But in reality, away from the keyboard and screen, things are not so--there are many shades of gray, and alternatives that neither side is willing to consider.

To take a more balanced and nuanced approach is challenging, but well worth the effort. First, look at the current scientific consensus and use that information to evaluate the position in which we find ourselves. And then look at what we can realistically do about it, since we are constrained not just by what is scientifically possible but also by the practicalities of the actual situation.

If we do nothing, we may be "lucky" enough to survive and find ourselves coping with the devastating effects of randomly eliminating half or more of the population. That's certainly where BAU is heading and I would like to avoid having to picking up the pieces as part of the shell shocked remainder still alive after collapse is well under way.

In my next post, I'll tackle the third part of my tagline, "to life" and talk about how we might approach the challenge of actually living in the age of scarcity.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 3: Focusing on the Woo in Crunchiness

In my last post I talked about what's wrong with BAU (Business as Usual—the "culture of maximum harm") and how Crunchies are those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet.

I chose to use the terms "Crunchy," "Crunchies" and "Crunchiness" in this series of posts to reflect the degree of derision heaped by BAU culture upon those who are looking for solutions outside that culture. I know full well that many people who are seeking alternatives to BAU will be offended by the term "Crunchy", but I would urge them to wear the term proudly, to make it clear that they are withdrawing their support from BAU. That withdrawal is a very important step to take.

In any case, such people should take heart, because I am about to be pretty hard on the standard sort of flakey Crunchy, pointing out that there is a whole lot of woo bound up with their position, too.

BAU's "religion of progress" teaches that cultural change for our species takes place along a single path, from the "caves to the stars", so to speak. The intended direction is "forward" and anyone who questions this is accused of wanting to go "backwards". This is nonsense, of course, since cultural change can in fact take place along many dimensions, the great majority of which we have not yet explored. Indeed finding a different path is what much of Crunchiness is about.

Of course, another large chunk of Crunchiness is a reaction to what BAU is doing wrong. This is totally appropriate, but it's also a source of the major weaknesses in Crunchiness. Crunchies largely reject the scientific method, I think mainly because of the great degree to which it seems to have been co-opted by BAU. When they don't rejected it, they use it the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, rather than illumination.

The trouble with this, of course, is that when you reject or misuse the scientific method you have no reliable way of checking to see if your ideas are correct. Ideas which are not correct then get adopted and propagated with great enthusiasm, just because they seems to support the ideology. If you really want to succeed at saving/changing the world, it would be a good idea to make sure your methods actually work.

Being susceptible to woo also leaves you open to predators who will use your credulity to take advantage of you and make a profit in the process. Indeed there is a great deal of supposed crunchiness that is really just greenwashing by unscrupulous businesses who are clearly part of BAU.

Related to the rejection of science is the personification of nature, including the Gaia hypothesis and the default, but erroneous, assumption common among Crunchies that whatever is natural must be good. And along with this goes technophobia—fear of the many new things created by modern man.

And, ironically, Crunchies often seem to accept BAU's "single path" woo and try to move backwards in order to avoid the consequences of moving forward along that path. Unfortunately there is just as much in BAU's past that we should avoid as there is in its present and future. It may prove beneficial or even necessary to move to a level of energy consumption similar to what was common decades or even hundreds of years ago. This does not mean that we have to adopt a similar level of social justice or scientific/medical/nutritional ignorance. We have learned a lot since then that can be successfully applied to a society that uses much less energy and gets by with much less stuff. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Rejecting science and what's good in the modern world leads to problems in several areas and I think it would be useful to look at a few specific examples. I've included links to further details about many of the areas I mention below. If you are a "flakey crunchy", but your mind is even a little bit open, they are worth following. Maybe not the very best that is available on the internet, but good.

One of the best examples is alternative "medicine" which, sadly, is quite popular with Crunchy folks. When an alternative medical technique is proven to work, it becomes part of conventional medicine and is no longer alternative. What's left behind is all the techniques that don't work. But because conventional medicine is very much a part of BAU and because alternative medical practitioners don't really get the scientific method, they keep pushing techniques that are no better than placebos. Naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, herbal medicine, reflexology, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic. and the anti-vaccination movement are all examples , but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

One of the wrong-headed ideas common in alternative"medicine" is that the human body is a perfect creation—that its default, normal state would be complete health. In fact, we are a chance product of evolution, the least worst of all the competing alternatives—just barely good enough to do the job, and with all kinds of built in problems.

There is a lot of money to be made by practitioners of alternative medicine, so it seems very likely that at least some of the people involved are well aware what they are doing, but don't care one bit.

A related area is that of food, nutrition and farming.

There is so much controversy these days about nutrition that it is difficult to sort out, even if you try hard to go with the science. If you don't, then you are open to a great deal of nonsense. All sorts people are making a living promoting fad diets, telling us what we should and shouldn't eat, with little or no science backing it up. Many Crunchies seem to lap this stuff up. The current concerns about gluten and high fructose corn syrup are good examples of this.

Part of the problem is being too eager to accept any single scientific finding that seems to support what you already believe, instead of looking at the overall consensus in the field. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a very strong scientific consensus in this area and what consensus there is, is changing rapidly. Best to wait and see, rather than committing to ideologically based nonsense.

Crunchies tend to reject modern industrial farming and the food it produces because it's "not natural". I've spoken at length elsewhere on this blog about what's wrong with modern farming—mainly that it isn't sustainable.

But there has been nothing natural about agriculture since it was invented 10,000 or so years ago. Agriculture is a human creation which isolates us from natural sources of food. Traditional farming techniques are no more natural than modern agriculture.

Organic agriculture started out with a set of techniques to promote healthy soil, which is surely a good thing. But to do agriculture on a commercial scale and produce uniform, blemish the free fruits and vegetables that today's consumer expects, you have to use pesticides. Conventional agriculture chooses its pesticides to maximize effectiveness and minimize harm. But in order to be a certified organic farm, you have to use naturally sourced chemicals rather than synthetic ones. This is based on the fallacious idea that natural is automatically better. With apologies to friends who are practicing what they call organic agriculture (but I would call sustainable agriculture) today's "organic agriculture" is a marketing technique more than anything else, aimed at getting higher prices from people who have been fooled into thinking that "organic " is more natural and produces food that is safer and more nutritious. I am referring, of course, to the large scale industrial organic type of farming, which is no more sustainable than conventional farming and uses "chemicals" with similar abandon, even if they are "naturally" sourced.

Then there is the "bee thing"—the persistent myth that honeybees are about to be wiped out, their decline often being attributed to synthetic pesticides.

Crunchies also seem to fall pretty uniformly on the "anti" side of the genetic engineering controversy. This is a great pity, because it completely ignores the scientific consensus and rejects a technology that has great promise for enabling a more sustainable agriculture.

A good example of the sort of flakiness I am talking about here can be found in "permaculture", a branch of organic agriculture that aims to make agriculture permanent (thus the name)—that is, sustainable on an ongoing basis. This is certainly a laudable goal and one that I would really like to be able to support. Unfortunately I have some serious reservations, because "permies don't do numbers". That is, the promising techniques these folks are so enthusiastic about never get tried out in the sort of way that could determine whether they work or not. This sort of testing involves actually measuring and quantifying results, and would allow the techniques that don't work to be identified and discarded and even more important, allow the ones that do work to be refined and improved upon. Interestingly there is quite a bit of disagreement on this subject even in Crunchy "organic" circles, so it's possible that the "permies" may someday get their act together. One can hope.

When it comes to potential harm from toxic substances, Crunchies' lack of a scientific approach and discomfort with numbers leave them prey to a great deal of fear mongering. The party line seems to be that if something is toxic, then it is toxic even in the tiniest concentrations. The word "chemical" is used to mean something entirely different from its dictionary definition, something like "scary sounding synthetic compound". Of course, all matter is make up of chemicals—many of them, even synthetic ones, are quite beneficial and, in any case, the basic foundation of toxicology is that dose determines toxicity. That is, in sufficiently small doses a chemical may be harmless or even beneficial, while in sufficiently large doses the same chemical may be deadly.

The Crunchy attitude toward radiation is similar to their approach to toxic substances, and is driven by fear and ignorance. Again, understanding that dosage is what determines the harm is critical to understanding what sort of a threat radiation really is. We are all exposed to a background level of radiation and have evolved to cope with this level of radiation rather well.

The long term effects of radiation on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are a good example of how the same numbers can be used to support widely different conclusions. Anti-nuclear people will tell you that there was a measurable increase in the incidence of cancer in those survivors, and that sounds like a confirmation of our worst fears about radiation exposure. Pro-nuclear people will tell you that this measurable increase amounted to a little more than 1%. Considering that this was exposure to a nuclear weapon going off and there have been over 70 years for cancers to show up, this sounds amazingly minor to me.

Whenever you get a case of ideology trumping scientific fact, you find some people making a living writing books, giving speeches and essentially being cheerleaders for the ideology. There is also a tendency to toward telling outright lies to support the ideology. Crunchiness is no exception. A couple of names that spring to mind are Vandana Shiva and Rachel Carson. There is much that both these ladies have (or had, in Carsons's case) to say that I agree with, but in their efforts to support their ideologies, they have both played fast and loose with the facts, which detracts considerably from their credibility. One can see how this sort of thinking develops from "it would be great for our cause if that was true", to "it must be true because it would be great", to "of course it's true". This is a shame in so many ways.

Why would Vandana Shiva lie about her educational credentials or about farmer suicides in India? Why does she spout nonsense about Monsanto subverting the whole scientific establishments concensus on the safety of GMOs. Especially when the oil companies, who are larger and more powerful, have had no luck doing this when it comes to climate change. Clearly because in the short term it advances her cause. In the long term, though, she will surely be seen as a fraud.

For details, check out these links:

Note that the argument in favour of DDT use against disease carrying mosquitoes is weak since mosquitoes soon evolve resistance to DDT if it is used regularly. DDT has been used in many areas and then abandoned when it become ineffective. My concern is that Carson's pseudoscientific approach detracts from the credibility of the environmental movement. Why not stick with the facts and present a case that is iron clad, instead of a superficially stronger case built on a flawed foundation?

I could go on for quite a while yet with examples of the woo that is embraced by many Crunchies, but I'll stop here, having covered the sort of things I have most often encountered. You might say, "Well no one is getting hurt, so what's the problem if a few people have confused ideas about how the world works."

But if you look carefully at the examples I have chosen, you'll see that in each case, there is harm being done, sometimes to the folks involved, sometime to those around them and, if nothing else, resources, effort and time are being applied to solve false problems while real, serious problems are being ignored.

Here are some links to a few good sources that will help you sort out science from flakery and woo:

I imagine there are some people ready to fill the comments section with counter arguments proving that their favourite bit of pseudoscience is really legit. Save your breath (or wear and tear on your keyboard)—I'm not here to change the mind of anyone who is already convinced, or to have my own mind changed by anything short of solid scientific evidence. And by the way, when there is one study out of 100 that supports your position, this does not mean your position is proven—in fact just the opposite. I regularly see the purveyors of woo quoting the one outliner study that supports their position, as if that makes everything OK, even though there are many, many other studies which stand against their position, effective disproving it.

There is also a strategy common among Crunchies to discredit science based on where it was done. Scientific results that come from government or corporation labs are viewed as being suspect, if not outright biased. But if they are peer reviewed as part of the publication process, and can be reproduced by other labs, such results are not invalid. They should probably be reviewed with extra care as there is likely more conflict of interest involved than there would be in an academic setting. But the scientific method gives us a way to eliminate that sort of bias. Scientific fact is scientific fact, regardless of the source.

Back at the start of this series of posts, I promised that I was really going somewhere with all this. In my next post, I'll make good on that promise and bring the series to a finish.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2b: More on what's wrong with Business as Usual

In my last post I talked about some of the problems with Business as Usual (BAU), particularly that it is based on the Religion of Progress, which is nothing but woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking). That post was getting close to long enough and I still had quite a bit more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so here we are.

Pseudoscience in BAU

For some people the ongoing economic growth aspect of BAU has been a real bonanza. They tend to be the people in power and they aren't about to admit that anything is wrong or there is any need for change that would jeopardize their position. Much of the woo common to BAU is directly linked to the position in which these people find themselves.

They feel a huge incentive to maintain the status quo, to stay in their privileged positions. It's only natural these people want to deny things that would threaten their profits or require them to abandon the profit motive. They believe (and would have us believe) that there is no way to back down gracefully from a growth economy, and that the inevitable results of trying to do so would be disaster. This is pure woo, and it leads to some strange thinking and strange behaviour.

One example of this is the tobacco industry's response when the news about tobacco's health effects came out in the mid-twentieth century. They could have faced up to reality, reinvented their business in a less harmful form and been ahead of the game. Instead, they denied the findings of medical science, spent a lot of money to promote pseudoscience about tobacco's health effects and did everything they could to keep as many people addicted to tobacco for as long as possible.

Another example is the fossil fuel industries' response to the news about climate change, which they became aware of in the 1970s. They could have become leaders in a switchover to low carbon energy sources. Of course, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. The kind of changes that I am always advocating, actually. Instead they spent a lot of money to spread pseudoscience denying anthropogenic climate change and keep the demand for fossil fuels growing for as long as possible.

There are many other examples of BAU denying inconvenient facts so they can continue to make a profit in the short term.

Because many businesses are set up so that what really matters is the next quarterly report, they have a great deal of trouble taking a long range outlook on things. Probably the best example of this is the depletion of fossil fuels. Depending on how you interpret the resource and reserve numbers, we won't be running short of oil, for instance, for several decades yet. Of course, it may well end up being sooner and in the meantime what oil is left is more expensive, often disastrously so. The solution would have been to lead the switchover to renewable energy sources. As already mentioned, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. Seeking to avoid such changes the BAU response is that there is really nothing to worry about, by the time we get there, we'll have found a solution for that problem. And then they go on "as usual", not even starting to look for a solution. "We've got enough trouble making growth targets for this year, the next generation can worry about what is basically their problem anyway."

Continued economic and population growth means conversion of ever more of nature to human uses. BAU sees nature as something outside the economy, as source of material resources and a sink for pollution and wastes. Because BAU sees itself as separate from nature, what happens to nature has no consequences for BAU. Again , this is woo—the economy is in fact a subsystem of the natural environment, and relies heavily on "biosphere services"—thing like air, water, soil, forests, fisheries and so forth—without which it would be much more expensive to operate a business.

Neo-liberalism, the only remaining political party

Neo-liberal politics and the economics that goes with it is an organized effort to deny the problems with BAU and to continue on "as usual" for as long as possible, regardless of the consequences. This sort of politics has become the default for most developed nations and the ideal that developing nations are expected to strive for. According to this ideology the value of a thing is determined by its price in monetary terms and things which do not have such a price have no worth—if it doesn’t have a price tag on it, it’s not worth anything. More and more, even personal relationships are "monetized" and reduced to individuals paying other individuals for services.

That it would be "bad for business" is reason enough to avoid any change, no matter how vital, regardless of the damage to people and the environment.

Rich people are seen as superior to poor people, and poverty is seen as a moral failing. Financial success is everything. No unprofitable enterprise is worth pursuing, even if it provides great benefits that don't show up on the profit and loss statement. And all profitable enterprises are worth pursuing, even if they cause great harm to society and/or the environment. Economies must grow no matter what the cost.

The strategy of "externalization of costs" is used to reduce the expenses a business is held responsible for, and thus improve its profitability. Typical externalized costs are the effects a business' operation has on the environment or on the community it operates in. Usually those costs are transferred to the public (via government and taxation) or to future generations.

The free market is held to have essentially magical powers to regulate the economy, when in fact it is mainly valued as an excuse to free businesses from cumbersome regulations (so they can be competitive) while at the same time they strive to control the market as much as possible to protect themselves from competition.

One of the consequences of all this is ever greater economic inequality. Despite its faith in human progress, BAU has relegated most people to the role of consumers/workers. We are encouraged to concentrate on our own individual success and gratification, rather than our relationships with other people. Our primary motivations end up being fear, greed and selfishness. This is not really what people need from the society they are living in. Still, this was "fine" (in some strained sense of that word) as long as growth continued and we consumers could rely on improved working conditions, better wages and better toys to spend our earnings on.

But as depleted fossil fuel resources began to supply less surplus energy, business had to turn to automation and globalization to stay profitable, leaving fewer and worse jobs for most people. Without work (and money) it is hard to fulfill one's role as a consumer. We are left wondering how long the leaders of BAU think this can go on. Clearly they have bought into the woo that it can continue forever.

The load we are putting on the environment, our reliance on the "biosphere services" it provides, has continued to increase while at the same time we are destroying more and more of the biosphere that provides those services. The result is that we are in an overshoot situation, using more than the planet can supply in any sustainable way. With our population continuing to grow, there will inevitably come a point where what's left of the environment won't support us and the human population will begin to collapse. BAU is blind to this, striving ever harder to use up more resources to support a growing population with increasing prosperity, regardless of where this may lead.

As we wait for this unpalatable future to play out, it becomes less and less comfortable for ordinary human being to live as part of BAU. We spent the last few million year evolving to live in small groups in which people mutually supported each other, providing for their material and psychological (spiritual, if you insist) needs throughout their lifetimes. We are ill suited to live in BAU where the needs of business must always come first and those of people second at best. It's hard on our sanity and it brings out the worst in us.

What's worse, it seems very likely that this is not at all necessary—people's needs can come first if we simply decide that is the way we want to live and apply our resources to that instead of generating ever increasing economic growth. But we are paralyzed by BAU woo that says we are already on the right path, the only path.

Author Daniel Quinn refers to what I've been calling "BAU" as "the culture of maximum harm". That would make Crunchies those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet. This definition leaves room for a pretty wide range of opinions within this movement, and I think that is a very good thing.

In my next post I'll talk about some of the problems with Crunchiness and the challenges this leads to for those of us who would like to take a reality based approach to doing less harm.

Once again, thanks to my son Dan Mills for his help in writing this.