Friday, June 07, 2019

Always Have an Escape Route

One of the things they teach in motorcycle safety training is that when driving on a busy highway you should try to always have an escape route that allows you to avoid an accident.

I'd like to explore extending that advice from the particular to the general. Specifically from motorcycle riding to maintaining a habitable planet.


In 1972 two MIT scientists, who were part of a team of 17 scientists from around the world, wrote a book called the Limits to Growth. I ran across that book years ago while taking some graduate courses in System Engineering. At the time it seemed interesting but I was busy with lots of other things. I've been thinking about it more lately after reading an article like this in the Guardian.

The concept of the book is pretty simple - earth has finite resources, therefore unlimited population and economic growth are not sustainable.

You may think this would not be a controversial idea, however as you can see from the Wikipedia criticism section for the book, it was (and is) controversial and vigorously attacked by a variety of interested people and groups.

Looking critically at the concept that economic growth can continue indefinitely may seem un-American to some people because it seems to imply the end of the capitalist system. That is not necessarily the case as this author argues in the Atlantic Magazine. There is truth in his statement that, "Most people do realize that every country that has ever deliberately set out to create an "alternative to capitalism" has failed to create anything remotely resembling a good place to live."

One of the important features of the book Limits to Growth (and the field of systems engineering) is the idea that the complexity of some systems is such that they are not understandable by mental models. Because of our inability to form accurate mental models, complex systems like this are modeled using computer simulations of varying degrees of accuracy.

These tend to be systems that contain, and may interact with other systems, via positive or negative feedback loops. These types of systems are addressed in a field of study known as cybernetics originated by Norbert  Weiner.

Another important aspect of cybernetics is that understanding and solving problems in complex systems requires the cooperation of experts from various academic and scientific disciplines. Many of the problems we see due to technology are caused by engineers/scientists working in a specialized field with little or no knowledge of the system impacts of their products. An example would be the engineers who design printers or computers or cell phones that become obsolete after a few years, and are then thrown into the waste stream. In addition to the pollution load this causes it will eventually lead to the depletion of the finite rare earth metals used in their production. Under-regulated capitalism contributes to this problem since it doesn't factor in the true cost of this behavior.

There are always people who will argue that no problem is insurmountable if we only find the right technology. What this argument generally amounts to is supporting the status quo by appealing to an unknown technological breakthrough. I am very skeptical. I tend, even though I love technology, to think it is the cause of many problems rather than the solution (see Jacques Ellul).


It's not surprising that in 1972 we (economically developed nations) didn't pay more attention to the idea that constant growth was not sustainable. 

The book Limits to Growth talks about people's interest in their surroundings in terms of space and time. Most of us are by necessity required to be concerned with things/people close to us and what will happen in the near term.

If you're rushing to get the kids dressed, fed and ready for school and yourself off to work you don't have a lot of time to ponder the impacts of what's happening to the world at large today let alone 50 years from now. We by necessity trust that the leaders in our representative democracy were/are looking out for all of us as well as future generations. 

That winds me back to the idea of having an escape route. Our faith/trust in those leaders was misplaced and by the time we started to understand that, we are left considering - what are the alternatives, what are the safe routes out?

Who knows?

What we do know is we have built a society - cities, agribusinesses, transportation, housing and industries that require fossil fuels. 

We had choices to locate work and housing coincident but chose instead to build sprawling suburbs where people have no choice but to drive their car to work. We could have developed, or at least left mass transit like the electrically powered Interurban trains that ran from Everett to Tacoma in 1912 in place, but at least we'll get a replacement by 2036 ...sigh. 

The lack of an escape route (clear alternatives) identified prior to an emergency makes solutions to climate change not insurmountable but very challenging.

If someone is talking about a carbon tax and you are one of those 40% of Americans who can't come up with 400 bucks in an emergency, and have to drive a car to get to work to support your family - you're not going to be too supportive of the idea that the price of gasoline is going to go up to discourage the use of fossil fuel...ditto if you use natural gas, fuel oil, or electricity generated by coal or other fossil fuels to heat your home.

The yellow vest protests in France were at least partially about this issue. As this NYRB article states -
"Driving was already expensive in France when in January 2018 the government of President Emmanuel Macron imposed a tax that raised the price of diesel fuel by 7.6 centimes per liter and of gasoline by 3.8 centimes (about 9 and 4 cents, respectively); further increases were planned for January 2019. The taxes were an attempt to cut carbon emissions and honor the president’s lofty promise to “Make Our Planet Great Again.”
Macron cancelled plans for the carbon tax.

Washington state's 2018 initiative 1631 to add a carbon tax/fee was defeated with 57% against and 43% in favor. Again not surprising that people struggling to make ends meet were not on board with a plan that would increase their transportation and heating costs. Washington state already has a regressive tax system and forcing some person making 30K a year to absorb the same income hit as Bill or Jeff wasn't particularly popular.

A carbon tax might pass if the money collected was used to offset the increased fuel costs for low income workers who often have no choice but to drive whatever car they have to their workplace - which due to the ever rising prices of housing in the cities and the unplanned sprawling nature of development may be a significant distance.

It would seem sensible to me if we reallocated the tax dollars we throw down the military contractor sinkhole to the benefit of the .1% and used some of that money to begin building model self-contained sustainable communities in the areas where poverty is most severe.

I believe government can, and did from post WWII until the 1980's, work for the people. The "no new taxes", "death tax", "government is the problem", mantra of the radical right funded by the finest dark money from America's oligarchs makes that case quite hard to make to the average American voter. I think most voters would agree that they (a) don't want their tax dollars wasted and (b) want everyone including individual 1 and corporations to pay their share.

So it'll be a hard fight and we will have to drastically change our habits of consumption, agricultural methods, and expectations for what constitutes the good life. If I was betting on the outcome I'd bet on the oligarchs holding on to the status quo until some significant obvious shocks occur to the system - either economic or which point human ingenuity, courage, intelligence, cooperation and compassion will be the best escape route any individual can have.


Finally (finally) I think all we can do as individuals is live the best life we can while we are here.

It helps me to keep in mind the Serenity Prayer originated by Reinhold Niebuhr -

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.