Monday, September 26, 2011

Types of Compassion

I had a bit of a discussion with my significant other a couple days back that got my juices flowing. We started talking about how it appears that the governments of the world really won't do anything at all about greenhouse gas emissions until it is much too late to prevent significant change.  I suggested that the thing that gives me hope is the option of geoengineering.   That is, that it should be possible to manipulate the climate in order to deal with some of the worst aspects of climate change, which would give humanity time to work at our greenhouse gas emissions.

Mention this subject to most people and they get very nervous about monkeying around with the climate.  I do too, and all things being equal, I'd be opposed to even thinking about it.  But things are not equal, they are seriously out of whack.  And even if we have serious qualms about what would happen with geoengineering, we might end up having to do it if we want to avoid climate catastrophe from runaway climate feedback.  If we get into a feedback loop like that, we could end up with a population crash that would result in billions of people starving to death as their agricultural systems collapse.

What surprised me about this discussion was the blythe way my significant other contemplated the nasty, horrid deaths of these people.  It isn't because she lacks compassion, indeed, she freaks if her cat catches a bird and makes a huge personal investment of her scarce resources to help friends when in need.  In this sense, she is a far more compassionate person than I am.  Yet I become extremely fretful over the prospect of billions starving in a way that she doesn't.  Could it be that Stalin was right when he said "One death is a tragedy;  one million is a statistic"?  

Being the wise person she is, my fiancee didn't get all emotional about this, but instead talked the point through with me.  She said that if a village of people were starving right in front of her she would get involved in trying to help them. (Of this I have no doubt.)  But contemplating numbers in a theoretical scenario was too abstract for her.  In contrast, when I am confronted by an actual person who is in dire straights, I often become fearful about that person dragging me down, in a way that she does not.

Ultimately, who is the more compassionate person?

Another element that she pointed out was that no one on the earth is able to avoid a death sentence and one way or another, the population has to shrink.  We all die.  My response was that it is better for people to die of old age than for them to die of hunger.  I'd rather that the population shrank through birth control than through a mass die off.  She could respond, "yes it would----but what are the chances of that happening?"   Not great, of course.

This leaves us with another issue.  If the population doesn't crash because of climate change, and it simply will not decline any other way, won't geoengineering simply postpone the inevitable and ensure that a population crash will come for some other reason?

She makes a very good point.

At this stage, all I can do is try to analyse my emotions and try to understand why I get so cranked up about climate change.   I understand that emotions are the drivers of behaviour.  I have been very involved in a wide variety of environmental projects simply because I get so emotional about all this stuff.  But this emotional response ceases to productive when things have reached this stage.  The rational response is to understand that the Dao is not going to deal with climate change the way I would have wanted it to.  Instead, it looks like we are on the edge of a crazy mega-experiment that will directly affect the lives of everyone on the earth.

My emotions, therefore, come down to a sort of existential dread, and not much else.   In a sense, my fear of the nasty, painful death of billions is ultimately connected to my fear of personal death.  If I can accept either one with equanimity, I can accept the other.  I understand this point intellectually, but not "in my bones", as the Zen people say.  When I can do this, then I will have achieved true equanimity.

I suppose many people who call themselves "Daoists" would say "well duh".   Certainly many folks I've met seem to not be able to understand why it is that i fret about this so much.  But I've always had a certain suspicion that this sort of thing is worthless unless it comes from real soul-searching and perhaps even suffering.  My feeling is that glib affirmations rarely stand significant stress tests.  So until someone really understands the horror of existence, they don't have the right to suggest that it is nothing but an illusion.  My better half has suffered a fair amount in her life, which is why I tend to believe her when she makes statements about this sort of thing.  Perhaps others I've met have too, and I was too callow to understand that.

Either way, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the issue of compassion, what it means for the future of the earth, and whether my equanimity will ever be able to completely stand in the face of mega-suffering.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Environmental Vow: Part 15

Some People's Curious Unwillingness to Admit That Sacrifice Even Exists

There is yet another issue at play that needs to be discussed:  the relationship between “freedom”, “choice” and “sacrifice”.  I think one of the best ways to understand the relationship is to consider the significant fraction of the public that has been so seduced by the ideal of “do your own thing”, that they seem to believe that the concept of personal sacrifice is conceptually impossible.  Primarily, this boils down to the notion that no one ever does anything that they do not want to do simply because if they didn't want to do it, they wouldn't.   This response often comes out in conversations similar to the following one that I once had with a friend after I mentioned to her that I had decided to never fly again.

“Why would you decide to never fly in an airplane?”
“Jet aircraft release a lot of climate changing C02 into the atmosphere, so I've decided that this is a sacrifice I can make for the good of future generations and Mother Nature.”
“No, it's not a sacrifice. You simply choose to not fly.  You're afraid of flying, aren't you?  Don't worry, it's safer than driving a car.”

What I believe is happening in these sorts of situations is that people are confusing several different things for a variety of reasons and on the basis of that confusion jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

It is true that people often do announce that they are making a sacrifice for the greater good when in fact what they really are doing is seeking social recognition and status for their actions.  The corporation that “donates” money to a university but expects public recognition, a tax write-off and demands to set research priorities is an example of this sort of “giving” that really turns out to really be a purchase.   This sort of “sacrifice” is really a very self-conscious act of hypocrisy.  A more subtle, unconscious type of hypocrisy can also cloud sacrifice---as when a grasping parent demands constant attention by children for the “gift” of birth and nurturing until the age of majority.  An even more subtle case involves the sense of self-worth that can come from “doing the right thing” when everyone else isn't.  This sort of behaviour is common in religious organizations and usually labelled “self-righteousness”.   Finally, as in the example above, the “sacrifice” could be an excuse to cover up some other, not necessarily self-serving, reason for following a course of action---such as when my friend assumed that my decision to stop flying was just an attempt to hide my fear.  

In the case of environmental activism, it certainly could be the case that some people in leadership positions are enamoured by the attention they receive from the media and citizenry.  This cannot be a universal phenomenon, however, simply because for every person in a leadership position there needs to be many more who are supporters.  If only a small number of people involved in a situation can bask in the glory, it cannot be the case that everyone is in it for the prestige.  

And the issue isn't just one of activism.  People routinely “do without” in order to support some sort of higher ideal.  For example, a woman who has a child doesn't “want” to go through childbirth, have her sleep constantly interrupted or clean dirty diapers, yet she does these things willingly because they are necessary if she is to be a mother.  They are undesired yet necessary means to a desired end.   In much the same way, soldiers do not want to advance into battle and all monks have problems with at least some elements of monastic routine---yet they accept that these undesired things are necessary to pursue the desired ones.   In a similar vein, some people do choose to live without an automobile, not fly on airplanes, eat relatively inconvenient and expensive locally-grown, organic food, etc, because they think that the act is in defence of Mother Nature.

Yet, like my friend, many people are loathe to admit this.  I suspect that they often do so for two reasons.  First of all, if they admit that they didn't actually like doing the unpleasant means that they already do, they might feel that they are betraying the desired end.  In the case of a mother, she might feel that she is betraying her child if she admits that it isn't much fun washing dirty diapers.   Secondly, if a person admits that people do often do unpleasant things in order to pursue some other desired end, an implicit moral imperative comes into play.  When Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes in support of what he considered an unjust war (against Mexico) a visitor asked him why he was behind bars.  Thoreau's response was to turn the tables on the questioner and ask him “Why aren't you in here with me?”

This raises another important point.   When I brought up Cicero's definition of “freedom” as participation in power, I suggested that the relevant issue is engagement in the process.   I went on to suggest that the emotional connection with the community that comes from engaging with it has a lot to do with the experience of living a “free” life.  I would also suggest that there is an other element of engagement that needs to be considered:  personal responsibility.

A lot of people understand “freedom” in terms that take out any sense of personal responsibility.  That is, “freedom” for them is just another aspect of consumerism---like when you wander down the isle of a grocery store and have to choose between Coke and Pepsi.   This sort of consumer “choice” is totally value-free because there is little (if any) difference between the two options.  Both are  carbonated sugar-water beverages flavoured with cola nut extract, produced by multinational corporations and packaged in disposable aluminium cans.   There are consequences to both a person's health and to the environment (both negative) if a person decides to purchase either one of these products, but there is none at all over which particular brand.   If you look at people's lives, you find that even though North Americans have an enormous ranges of choices in their lives, the practical impact of those choices is limited---mother nature and your liver don't care whether you purchase Count Chocola, GMC and a split level as opposed to Lucky Charms, Chrystler and a ranch style.

This type of choice wouldn't be a problem but it has become so ubiquitous in our consumer society that many people confuse this “choosing” with the sort of important morally-based decisions that we have to make as both individuals and a society.   This leads to a conflation of the idea of consumer choice with democratic referendum.  Consider the sort of routine arguments that come about from public planning.  If the city suggests that suburban sprawl damages the economic and environmental viability of the community, and therefore zoning should be changed to force higher-density development, at least some members of the community will start arguing that developers “only build what people want” and if “people wanted higher density, they'd build it”.   This argument totally misses the point that the benefits from living in a low-density suburb go to the individuals that bought the home whereas the costs (such as increased infrastructure expenses) are paid for by the entire community.  

In situations like the planning of cities, freedom as “participation in power” involves getting the entire community involved in the process through elected representatives and hired staff who are expected to think about the good of the entire community.  In contrast, freedom as “consumer choice” narrows the terms of reference to “what's in it for me?”   Amongst other things, freedom as “consumer choice” is freedom devoid of any personal responsibility for the consequences of your individual decision.  “Participation in Power”, in contrast, suggests some sort of engagement with the wider community (i.e. the other people “participating”) that places a burden on the individual to think of the consequences of his decisions on these other people (and, by extension, the community of nature.)

Almost all environmental decisions suffer from this confusion of consumer choice and free choice because almost all environmental problems are the result of choices in the way people live their lives.  If we continue to labour under the assumption that being able to live “freely” ultimately means not having to think about how the impact of those choices will affect other people, it is hard to see how anything at all can ever be done to avoid ultimate and total catastrophe.   In effect, if the world is going to deal with the environmental crisis and remain a democracy, people are going to have to make personal individual sacrifices in how they live their lives.  As Mohandas Gandhi would have said, people are going to have to learn how to “Live simply that others may simply live.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Prisons of the Mind

Where I work we've recently gone through a negotiating process in order to sign a new collective agreement between the University and my union.  I found it a depressing exercise in observing people who've become trapped in collective delusion.

I first got the feeling about this when I walked into a union meeting and saw this video from our union being projected on the screen above us.

Don't get me wrong.  I like this video and support it's creation and dissemination (that's part of the reason why I'm embedding it in this post.)  But I simply do not believe that it is apropos for where I work.  My workplace is more than a little paternalistic in the good sense.  As near as I can tell, the management really does look out for its employees.  Indeed, my supervisor used to be head of a union and is very pro-labour.

It's true that the university is looking to ask the union for concessions on our pensions, but the fact of the matter is that with the decline in interest rates and stock values, the present system will crash and burn if we don't put more money into it and cut back a bit on the benefits.  That's why every other union that I know of in Ontario has made concessions with regard to pension plans.

What bothered me about the local union leadership was the way it argued that the management were evil greed-heads out to screw the little guy instead of being in the difficult position of trying to protect an institution that is starved for money and suffering from economic forces outside of its control.  In effect, it "pumped up the volume" amongst the membership in order to put more pressure on Administration.  And since ever action creates a re-action, the administration decided to ask all the membership to turn in their keys on the day that both sides were legally able to stop work (either through a strike or a lock out.)  I've worked on campus for 23 years and I've never been asked to hand in my passkey.  There were a LOT of very long faces leaving the university after work that night.

Low and behold, however, a tentative contract was signed that night and I leave to vote on it today.  It will pass, of course, as I think both sides were plenty scared by all the brinksmanship that was employed by both.

My response is to think "how ridiculously stupid!", it was just like two male gorillas meeting in a forest to pound their fists against their chests and try to scare the other into backing down.  Surely there has to be a better way of dealing with a disagreement.

When I was talking to my co-workers, however, it became clear to me why things had escalated to this point.  A lot of people simply do not understand how much the world has changed and how this is going to impact the way they live their lives.

The entire basis of our economic system is ultimately based on a fallacious assumption that the economy can grow by geometric progression indefinitely.  That is what we call the "miracle of compound interest".   In effect, when someone says that the economy has grown by 3% per year (roughly what the Canadian economy has been growing by for a long time), it means that on average there has been a 3% increase in the number of cars being driven on the roads, houses being lived in, smart phones being called on, etc.  It is this constant growth in the amount of things being produced, bought, paid for and thrown away that ensures that on average a dollar invested in something will produce 3 cents in return per year.

It is this on average increase in the economy that allows an institution to toss a huge amount of money into a wide variety of investments and believe that this will accumulate value over the long haul.

There is a huge problem with exponential growth, however, in that the Earth and everything on it that we depend upon for our livelihood is fixed in size.  That means that there are going to be limits to how much our economy can grow.   The best way to understand this is to go to one of several websites that have compound interest calculators and punch in a few numbers.   For example, I wrote earlier that the Canadian economy has been growing at the rate of 3% per annum for a very long time (now, of course, it isn't.)  Canada, as a dominion, was created in 1867 or 144 years ago.  If we continue to have 3% average economic growth for the next 144 years, that means the economy will be over 70 times its current size! 

It is fundamentally absurd to think that our economy can grow to 70 times its current size given our ecological limitations, yet that is what our entire economic and political system demands in order to preserve the status quo in terms of pension benefits and government spending!!!!!

There's another element to this thing that makes it much worse.

The classic demonstration of this issue has been around for a very, very, very long time:

One of the key things to understand from this demonstration is that 3/4's of the rice will be on the last two squares of the board.  What this means is that not only is exponential growth unsustainable, it tends to "sneak up" on people and hit them without warning.  (If any of this is new to you, take a look at these series of YouTube videos, which are aptly named "The Most Important Video You Will Ever See". )

I'm not someone is able to see the future, but for a long time I have thought about these issues and expected that they would have a significant impact on my life----if I live to any sort of age.  My belief is that the current economic crisis we face is not some sort of momentary "blip", but rather the working through of the mathematical contradictions that our entire civilization is built upon.  Peak oil, for example, is not primarily a problem of running out of oil, per ce, but rather that of demand (created by global exponential economic growth) outstripping oil production, dependent as it is on a limited earth.   In the same way, climate change is also a creation of the collision between an exponentially-growing economy and a limited ecosystem.

Both peak oil and climate change will act as brakes on economic growth.  This will either happen because society will institute mechanisms for weaning us off fossil fuels or because scarcity will drive up the cost, which will pull money out of consumer's pockets so it can be used to chase fuels that are more and more expensive to produce.   (The first oil wells in Canada were in Southern Ontario and were simply hand-dug wells that people could lower buckets into.  Now we have to mine the oil out of tar sands in the extreme North and heavily process it in order to make crude oil.)   If we don't prevent climate change (actually that horse has already left the barn) then we are going to pull more money out of consumer's pockets to pay for storm damage-----like the Texas wildfires and the New England hurricane.)   Both mechanisms are going slow down economic growth and ultimately shut it down.

And that ending of economic growth is going to wreak havoc on things like pension plans and government spending.   And because most folks in the labour movement and government simply don't know about this sort of thing, we are going to have a lot of labour unrest as people fight to prop up something that simply cannot be propped up much longer.

The sad thing about all of this is that all this energy would be much better spent trying to manage change towards something better. But people have such an emotional investment in the status quo, and are so fearful of change in general, that they would rather shut their eyes to the big picture.  This came home to me in an exchange with a co-worker.  He's a smart guy, and as I explained the above argument, you could see that he was processing but scared of the implications.  Ultimately, he said "That's OK for you, you're a idealistic person.  But me, I think for myself first."  What I had a hard time explaining to him is that it isn't a question of choosing one point of view versus another, it was a question of understanding the world around you and adapting to circumstances instead of trying to fight them (and ending up in big trouble as a result.)

Where this fits into Daoism is the idea that Daoists try to understand the Dao and build their lives around it instead of the notions that dominate our culture.  Indeed, one of the things that my significant other said about me when we first became connected was "You are the biggest 'big picture' person I have ever met".   It was exactly this point that she zeroed in on.  (I learn a lot from her.)

So if I would make any sort of suggestion to anyone who reads this blog, try to understand the giant forces that are work in our lives.  You cannot fight against them with any hope of success.  But you can adapt and flow with them.  That will not guarantee success (that is in the hands of fate), but it will certainly increase the odds.