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.


Andrius said...


I allways enjoy reading your blog. This time I'd like to share my ideas on this matter.

First of all, if in a „workers union“ video the word “fight“ is mentioned ten times more frequently then the word „work“ then it's no surprise that there is such an economic downturn.

Also, I'd like to offer a slightly different view regarding the natural resources. It is true, that each resource is finite in physical sense. However it may actually be, that our resources are infinite in an economical sense. Look at it this way – oil in it self as a physical thing is not a useful resource. 200 years ago it was not only useless, but positively harmful. It is our knowledge how to use it that makes it useful, and if we continue to improve our knowledge we will be able to use it more effectively – that's the same as having more oil created out of nothing!
Secondly, just like oil was useless there are now all kinds of other things that are useless for us now, but will become useful once our knowledge increases.
Third thing is that we're not really using up oil in a sense of us consuming it and it disappearing. Strictly speaking we are transforming oil into all kinds of other products (including byproducts that we currently don't know how to use). We're not losing anything here. At a later point we'll be able to transform those products again into something that at that time will be more useful for us.

So, in a sense, the resources in our world are endless. Strictly speaking, there is only one resource – human intellect. This is what turns all other materials into resources.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Good to see you. I do disagree however.

It strikes me as pretty much ridiculous to blame the members of trade unions for the current problems our economy is facing. Some very screwball macro-economic policy has been followed in both the USA and Europe. No union organization ever had any say in the creation of the housing bubble or the sub-prime mortgage fiaso. The Canadian example seems to be the exception that proves that---our government didn't allow this stuff to happen and we'd be in pretty good shape if we didn't have to content with the American downturn. Unions have to fight in order to exist, so it is very appropriate that they do so. The point I was trying to make is that this important insight can be counter-productive if it isn't balanced with an insight that management often has to deal with real problems.

Without trying to offend, I'd suggest that your point of view is exactly one of those "prisons of the mind" that I was trying to suggest cause us so many problems.

The point of view you are espousing is pretty much orthodox economics. But it is, IMHO, magical thinking. It is true that fossil fuels are only of value if someone figures out how to use them. But they exist in a context of the laws of thermo-dynamics. If they require more energy to access than they give off, they are useless.

This is part of what I was trying to point out with regard to comparing the first oil wells in Petrolia Ontario versus the tar sands in Alberta. The former oil source had a very low entropic level whereas the latter have a very high one. The difference in entropic levels has bearing on the "surplus value" that oil production has on society. More surplus value, the more the energy source is an engine for economic growth. If oil has a higher entropic level, there is a decline in surplus value, which acts as a break on the economy.

A second issue comes down to the amount of existing investment a society has made in a given way of doing things. It probably is the case that if our infrastructure was made a lot more efficient that sustainable energy systems like wind, solar and geothermal would be able to deal with energy needs. But out society has built itself around oil to the point where it would take a huge amount of capital to rebuilt society around the new means of doing things.

Insulating your home to cut fuel bills is a good idea. But it is impossible to do so when you just lost your job and at the same time that you have buy a more fuel-efficient car and appliances that run on less electricity. That, in effect, is the problem that our entire society faces.

As for oil changing into other things, most of what we are changing it into is CO2 and water. Yes, we could change it back, but that would require a very large energy investment. Where would that come from? Ultimately, oil is only used in our society because it is a source of trapped solar radiation.

If we think that "human ingenuity" will somehow solve this problem, I think we are treating science and technology like some sort of magical servant that can solve all of our problems without having to make any effort on our own part. This, again IMHO, is dangerous, magical thinking.

shadowplay said...

One of the many reasons why I appreciate your blog is that you connect Daoist spirituality to the big picture - as opposed to some kind of narcissistic personal growth narrative or a consumer product (please, no more "Tao of" books or another advert for Qigong Tantric Sex!). Your intellectual and spiritual honesty is immenesely refreshing.

In this you've identified what is arguably one of the core beliefs of a consumer society - the belief in endless, exponential growth. That you can't have limitless growth and expansion on a finite planet should be obvious, but then again nobody really paid attention to the conclusions of the the Club of Rome Limits to Growth study several decades ago, either. In spite of all the evidence there is a rock solid faith in that the economy should and indeed will inevitably expand - a faith that seems stronger and more universal than any sort of formal religion.

Another excellent set of videos to watch is Chris Martensen's "Crash Course", which explains the converging economic, energy and ecological crises. The whole series is available for free on his website here. Andrius and others should probably watch the section on Peak Oil:

This puts things in perspective and dispels the misplaced faith that we can just roll out some magical replacement for the lifeblood of industrial economies.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


That's a pretty good little video about Peak Oil. As for daoism, my understanding about it is that it is a really practical way of looking at the world. Too bad, as you rightly point out, it gets kinda "dumbed down" a bit. It may well have suffered a similar fate in China, but we only get to see the really good stuff. ;-)