Bye Bye Apocalypse: 5 Hopeful Trends

February 16th, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Bye Bye Apocalypse: 5 Hopeful Trends)

Ok, the future of doom and gloom is getting old fast. At this point, nobody can predict the future, not even Bruce Sterling, Dmitri Orlov or Warren Buffett. Even the billionaires are getting hosed by the economic downturn.  But what this really proves is we have entered a new era where the old rules no longer apply.  That prospect scares a lot of people, especially the ones who’ve gained the most money and power by maintaining the status quo.  The elite have become naive enough to think they can continue getting away with theft and cronyism without any consequences (i.e. mob revolt), but this time they’re wrong. Asynchronous power is getting stronger all the time, which is why the worlds most powerful military is loosing to a small number of decentralized insurgents. I predicted the current economic crisis back in 2002, in my post Capital, Power and Ecology, simply because business as usual is not sustainable.  It was destined to collapse, and my best guess at the time was that it would happen sometime within the next decade or so.

There is nothing like a crisis to spur rapid evolutionary growth. We are witnessing a level of creative destruction that is unprecedented both globally and historically. Yet solutions for every problem we face are already available right now. We have all the information we need. In fact we are drowning in it.

The current economic collapse, rather than being a indicator of worse things to come, is instead a wake-up call to re-engineer our society from the bottom-up to become more resilient, capable of withstanding unexpected change and upheaval. A resilient economy is also one that is more sustainable and integrated with the planetary ecology, and more responsive to the needs of all of its citizens. Economic growth can and will accelerate, but not by converting precious resources into cheap disposable products, but by making more intelligent use of the materials we already have! There is no reason why this intelligent growth (getting more from less) can’t increase indefinitely, or at least until we’re ready to leave the planet. This is what is called a regenerative economy, or what Bucky Fuller called, ephermalization, which is the idea of progressively doing more with less.

What most doomsayers like Dmitri Orlov don’t get is the process of ephermalization.  His prediction is that our only solution is to accept that we’re all going to be a lot poorer, and we should just get used to it. This is just nonsense, and he’s not helping the situation any. I suppose if wealth is defined as having tons of disposable material goods, then yes our wealth will diminish.  But is that what we really want?  Having an economy that depends on cheap imported products from China, using up more non-renewable resources powered by coal-fired plants polluting the atmosphere while inducing severe climate change, is just plain stupid.  So yes Dmitri is right, we are going to become a lot poorer in terms of Stupid Wealth, but a lot richer in terms of Smart Wealth (Please read the Smart Growth Manifesto for a great explanation of this idea).

The answers to future growth and wealth production are decentralization via localization, regeneration, remediation, renewables, and cybernation all of which results in greaterresiliency.  If we can achieve both local and global resiliency we can grow out of our technological adolescence and become a type 1 civilization.  This means the odds of our species surviving this century increases dramatically, and we can go on to become a space faring immortal civilization should that be our wish.

Here are details for the five trends I listed, and how each can change the world for the better:

Decentralization

This applies across the board.  Anytime critical needs are centralized the resources for those needs are subject to attack and failure.  If one power plant fails a domino effect can take place, knocking more power plants offline. The solution to creating a resilient energy supply that is resistant to overloads or sabotage is to localize power production through locally available renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal.  If every community had at least one power generator for every thousand people in combination with more renewable energy being generated on local rooftops, there is nothing short of a nuclear blast that could shut it all down. The more decentralized, localized and miniaturized the power generation, the more resilient and reliable it becomes.  In an ideal world all the power would be generated by the house or building itself.  This applies equally to food production, means of exchange (localized currency), manufacturing and defense. For an interesting read on localized defense, read John Barr’s Power To The People. The topics John covers are both frightening and reassuring. But here is a good excerpt:

A newly vigilant and networked public will push for much greater levels of transparency in government and corporate operations, using the Internet to expose, publish, and patch potential security flaws. Over time, this new transparency, and the wider participation it entails, will lead to radical improvements in government and corporate efficiency.

On the national level, we’ll see a withering of the security apparatus, but quite possibly a flowering in other areas. Energy independence and the obsolescence of conventional war with other countries will reduce tensions between the United States and the rest of the world. The end of oil will also force corrupt states, now propped up by energy income, to make the reforms they need to be accepted internationally, improving life for their people.

Perhaps the most important global shift will be the rise of grassroots action and cross-connected communities. Like the Internet, these new networks will develop slowly at first. After a period of exponential growth, however, they will quickly become all but ubiquitous–and astonishingly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the networks arrayed against us.

Localization

This is really the same thing as decentralization.  The localization movement is definitely picking up steam, as more people are beginning to realize that governments don’t work very well, and needs are best met locally.  The aftermath of Katrina is a classic case of government gone wrong. There is a great book called The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, which is a users manual for transitioning your community from one dependent on centralized sources of food, energy, and currency to a localized one.  A localized resilient community would be one that generates all of its own food, energy and many or most of its products. Desktop manufacturing will do a lot to bring the power of production down to the local level, reducing the current expensive and polluting means of transporting products from one corner of the globe to another. A product designed in Malaysia can then be sent online to you in Kansas, where it can be manufactured locally. A resilient community would also have a robust locally issued currency that is immune from government issued fiat currency that is fixed and manipulated by the most powerful for their benefit at the expense of everyone else.(See the video Money is Debt, for a fantastic explanation of the evils of corporate banking and government issued fiat currency). Localized currency is the way to go, and their many thriving examples, including the Totnes Pound in the UK, and the Berkshares in Western Massachusetts.  At last count there are over 1200 local currencies in the US alone. The Totnes Pound was the brainchild of the author who wrote The Transition Handbook.  He’s created a network of towns in the UK that are all making the transition to local resilience.

Another great idea is a Time Bank, where you deposit time by doing tasks for other members, who in turn get paid for your services with time they deposited. Time Banks are now operating in 22 countries and growing.  Here’s a good quote from a guy who has combined the two concepts of local currency and time into what he calls Ithaca hours, in Ithaca New York.

We printed our own money because we watched Federal dollars come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and fight wars. Ithaca’s HOURS, by contrast, stay in our region to help us hire each other. While dollars make us increasingly dependent on transnational corporations and bankers, HOURS reinforce community trading and expand commerce which is more accountable to our concerns for ecology and social justice.”

Regeneration

Regeneration is the ultimate endpoint of comprehensive recycling.  To accomplish this will require two primary fronts of advancement.  The first is new, efficient and cost-effective means to recycle materials we’ve already created, and the second is transitioning more of our products to using materials that can be recycled.  Advances on both fronts will result in a middle ground combination of materials that are biodegradable, low or negative carbon footprint specific, and/or easily recycled non-biodegradable stock.  Advances are happening on all these fronts, and those companies willing to spend money on research and development stand to reap huge financial rewards from innovation in recyclable materials and processes.

In the meantime, there are huge tracts of land that have been destroyed by pollution or non-sustainable agricultural processes.  The solution is to engage in aggressive bioremediation efforts to regenerate the soil, clean up the toxic waste and polluted water stores.  Solutions for this are already here, including nanofilters for cleaning water, microbes for cleaning and rendering harmless toxic waste, and advanced permaculture methods for bringing dead land back to life. John Todd developed what are called Living Machines, that can turn waste water back into drinkable water.  With Todd’s help the Tennessee Valley Authority has already done this with their water supply, and has cleaned up their polluted river in the process. There are many good sources for information on how to  do this for yourself. Some good starter books include Introduction to PermacultureFrom Eco-Cities To Living Machines,  Edible Forest Gardens, and Mycelium Runnng (which shows how to remediate dead soil using mushrooms).

Renewables

This is a no-brainer.  If your energy supply is produced locally from readily available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, there is no dependence on outsiders, whether it be large energy corporations or foreign states for supple of your energy needs.  The added bonus is the energy is clean, green and non-polluting, which in turn eliminates the expenses added by pollution, including health costs and remediation of polluted lands.

Cybernation

This involves both the continuing transformation of more of our world into bits, which can be transported and replicated at next to no cost, and the increasing intelligent automation of more of what makes our world run.  If more of our services and products are conducted and generated online, it reduces the need for material and energy costs of doing the same thing in the analog world.  Just imagine how much energy costs will be reduced by reducing dramatically the need for transportation of goods, when they can be made locally by the advancement of desktop manufacturing technologies.

Then there is the continuing network effect ov more people get online, more high quality information becoming available, and connections to people and resources becoming more relevant through semantic intelligence, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and better social networking services.  And with Moore’s Law of accelerating returns we’ll continue to get computer power for less and less money.  Advances in all the areas mentioned above will become accelerated too, as everyone can connect with the right people at the right time, spreading knowledge, know-how and creative solutions more rapidly than ever before.

Resiliency & Anti-Fragility and Thrivability

So what’s the result of all this?  Our quality of life will improve dramatically because we’ll all be wealthier, healthier, and safer from smart growth.  This will produce cost savings in the trillions per year, reductions in pollution and far greater resiliency for our world.  Imagine the incredible reduction in cost when all of the materials that are currently being chewed up by mining, the cutting down of rain forests, and the pollution of lands and waters, are no longer needed.  Imagine if you can get almost everything you need within 5 miles of your home.  Imagine the cost reductions when food, energy and materials are all available locally through permaculture, biointensive gardening, local aquaculture, living machines, abundant clean energy and desktop manufacturing.  It’s a future worth working on, and we can start building it today.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Survival of the Weakest

February 14th, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Survival of the Weakest)

Although the article does not explain precisely why the weakest of three species in a cyclical hierarchy, it is an interesting read nevertheless.  It compares the process to the rock, paper, scissors game where each species has at least one advantage over the other.

LMU researchers have now simulated the progression of a cyclic competition of three species. It means that each participant is superior to one other species, but will be beaten by a third interaction partner. “In this kind of cyclical concurrence, the weakest species proves the winner almost without exception,” reports Professor Erwin Frey, who headed the study. “The two stronger species, on the other hand, die out, as experiments with bacteria have already shown. Our results are not only a big surprise, they are important to our understanding of evolution of ecosystems and the development of new strategies for the protection of species.”

“Such cyclical interaction is also familiarly termed “rock-paper-scissors” interaction. This is where the rock blunts the scissors, which cut the paper, which in turn wraps around the rock. Together, these non-hierarchical relationships form a cyclical motion. “The game can help describe the diversity of species,” explains Frey. “The background is a branch of mathematics called game theory, and in this case evolutionary game theory. It helps analyze systems that involve multiple actors whose interactions are similar to those in parlor games.”

“This “law of the weakest” even held true when the difference between the competing species was slight. “This result was just as unexpected for us,” reports Frey. “But it shows once more that chance plays a big part in the dynamics of an ecosystem. Incidentally, in experiments that were conducted a couple of years ago on bacterial colonies, in order to study cyclical competition, there was one clear result: The weakest of the three species emerged victorious from the competition.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The 2009 quest for Edge is “What will change everything?”. There are lots of great ideas, many of them transhumanist in flavor, including indefinite lifespans and superintelligence. Below are some of my favorites:

The Limits of Reductionism in an Open Universe from Stuart Kauffman:

The evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open. Many physicists now doubt the adequacy of reductionism, including Philip Anderson, and Robert Laughlin. Laughlin argues for laws of organization that need not derive from the fundamental laws of physics.

I’ll give one example – autocatalytic sets. The central point about the autocatalytic set theory is that it is a mathematical theory, not reducible to the laws of physics, even if any specific instantiation of it requires actual physical “stuff”. It is a law of organization that may play a role in the origin of life. But then it is not true that the unfolding of the universe is entirely describable by natural law. This contradicts our views since Descartes, Galileo and Newton. The unfolding of the universe seems to be partially lawless. In its place is a radically creative becoming.
The Renaissance of Global Education:

Haim Harari has this to say:

First, a technology-driven globalization is forcing us to see, to recognize and to fear the enormous knowledge gaps between different parts of the world and between segments of society within our countries. It is a major threat to everything that the world has achieved in the last 100 years, including democracy itself. Today’s world, its economy, industry, environment, agriculture, energy, health, food, military power, communications, you name it, are all driven by knowledge. The only way to fight poverty, hunger, diseases, natural catastrophes, terrorism, war, and all other evil, is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, i.e. research and education.  The time is with cheap and ubiquitous communication technology to make all the worlds knowledge available to everyone.

As someone whose spent any years teaching young people, I found Chris Anderson‘s words inspiring.

Take this simple thought experiment. Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same in-built-but-unlocked abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the contribution they made? Of course not. They would never have received the education and encouragement it took to achieve what they did.  Conversely, an unknown but vast number of those grinding out a living today have the potential to be world-changers… if only we could find a way of unlocking that potential.

Two ingredients might be enough to do that. Knowledge and inspiration. If you learn of ideas that could transform your life, and you feel the inspiration necessary to act on that knowledge, there’s a real chance your life will indeed be transformed. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students.

The realization that today’s best teachers can become global celebrities is going to boost the caliber of those who teach. For the first time in many years it’s possible to imagine ambitious, brilliant 18-year-olds putting ‘teacher’ at the top of their career choice list. Indeed the very definition of “great teacher” will expand, as numerous others outside the profession with the ability to communicate important ideas find a new incentive to make that talent available to the world.

Achieving A Type I Civilization

A lot my thinking, especially recently, has centered around how we can become a Type 1 Civilization.  Doing so means we have grown up and matured out of our technological adolescence. We’ve achieved global peace and prosperity, created a total regenerative and environmentally sustainable economy, and abundant clean energy.  It means we have learned to live in peace with ourselves and our fragile planet, and our ready to move off-world and begin colonizing the galaxy.  (See my post Healing the Planet, on some ways we might achieve this).

From Michael Shermer:

This January, 2009, in particular, finds us at a crisis tipping point both economically and environmentally. If ever we needed to look to the past to save our future it is now. In particular, we need to do two things: (1) stop the implosion of the economy and enable markets to function once again both freely and fairly, and (2) make the transition from nonrenewable fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy to renewable energy sources that will allow us to flourish into the future. Failure to make these transformations will doom us to the endless tribal political machinations and economic conflicts that have plagued civilization for millennia. We need to make the transition to Civilization 1.0.

Let me explain. In a 1964 article on searching for extraterrestrial civilizations, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev suggested using radio telescopes to detect energy signals from other solar systems in which there might be civilizations of three levels of advancement: Type 1 can harness all of the energy of its home planet; Type 2 can harvest all of the power of its sun; and Type 3 can master the energy from its entire galaxy.

We are close. Looking from this past toward the future, we can see that the forces at work that could prevent us from reaching Civilization 1.0 are primarily political and economic, not technological. The resistance by non democratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Type 0.4 chiefdoms. The opposition toward a global economy is substantial, even in the industrialized West, where economic tribalism still dominates the thinking of most people. The game-changing scientific idea is the combination of energy and economics — the development of renewable energy sources made cheap and available to everyone everywhere on the planet by allowing anyone to trade in these game-changing technologies with anyone else. That will change everything.

The Transhuman Cambrian Explosion

I think the metaphors most futurists use limit the imagination of what’s possible.  Talk of “machines” or “robots” or “artificial intelligence” simply doesn’t do the post-human universejustice.  I do like Andy Clark‘a crack at it:

But what really matters is the way we are, as a result of this tidal wave of self- re-engineering opportunity, just starting to know ourselves: not as firmly bounded biological organisms but as delightfully reconfigurable nodes in a flux of information, communication, and action. As we learn to celebrate our own potential, we will embrace ever-more-dramatic variations in bodily form and in our effective cognitive profiles. The humans of the next century will be vastly more heterogeneous, more varied along physical and cognitive dimensions, than those of the past as we deliberately engineer a new Cambrian explosion of body and mind.

A Never-Ending Childhood Through Re-establishing Brain Plasticity in Adults

From Leo Chalupa:

Several laboratories have already discovered ways to manipulate the brain in ways to make mature neurons as plastic as during early development. Such studies have been done using genetically engineered mice with either a deletion or an over-expression of specific genes known to control plasticity during normal development. Moreover, drug treatments have now been found to mimic the changes observed in these mutant mice.

In essence this means that the high degree of brain plasticity normally evident only during early development can now be made to occur throughout the life span. Imagine being able to restore the plasticity of neurons in the language centers of your brain, enabling you to learn any and all languages effortlessly and at a rapid pace. This technology could provide a powerful means to combat loss of neuronal connections, including those resulting from brain injury as well as various disease states.

I am optimistic that these treatments will be forthcoming in my lifetime. Indeed a research group in Finland is about to begin the first clinical study to assess the ability of drug treatments to restore plasticity to the visual system of adult humans.

See Alison Gopnik for more implications of this.

Beyond Governments and Markets: Fluid Social Cooperatives

New social systems have been the hope of utopian and hippie thinkers, but maturing networked communications technology could make it practical and achievable.

From Yochai Benkler:

The Great Deflation of 2008 has shown the utter dependence of human society on the possibility of well-functioning government to assure some baseline stability in human welfare and capacity to plan for the future. On the other hand, a gradual rise in volunteerism and cooperation, online and offline, is leading to a reassessment of what motivates people, and how governments, markets, and social dynamics interoperate. I expect the binary State/Market conception of the way we organize our large systems to give way to a more fluid set of systems, with greater integration of the social and commercial; as well as of the state and the social. So much of life, in so many of our societies, was structured around either market mechanisms or state bureaucracies. The emergence of new systems of social interaction will affect what we do, and where we turn for things we want to do, have, and experience.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail