Category Archives: Our Changing World

Water: a frame of reference

[water, resources, commodities, public attitudes]
by Stan Hirst

CBC television recently replayed a 2016 interview between Peter Mansbridge and David Suzuki. The event was part of a series leading up to David’s 80th birthday.

At one point in the wide-ranging discussions David recounted a meeting he had once had with an oil company executive who travelled from Edmonton to meet with him. David had specifically requested that the visitor drop his CEO mantle and engage in discussion on a man-to-man basis. He recalled that the CEO was not comfortable with this arrangement. David also recollected that in the discussion he had followed his well-used argument that resources such as water and air are used by everyone, that everyone is reliant on these same resources, and that conservation was everybody’s responsibility. That was apparently not what the CEO wanted to hear. As David recollected, the fellow eventually left the meeting after refusing to shake hands.

The issue brought up in this interview segment is one that has much significance for the way in which we live and in which we govern ourselves. The essential question raised here is why so many people cannot or will not acknowledge their basic dependence on resources such as water and air which are so often under siege from development and mismanagement? Perhaps it’s better phrased as – why aren’t they simply more interested?

One reason I suggest is that many people don’t relate to resources such as water in its natural form. For them water for drinking is something that comes out of a faucet at the flick of a wrist or is contained in a clear plastic bottle with buttercups on the label. Much of the air we all inhale daily has been passed through an air-con filter before we city slickers even encounter it. We all do this, not just CEO’s.

However, to the CEO of an oil company water is an important component of industrial processes which take resources in their raw form and refine them into products or concoctions which can be shipped, piped and sold. Extracting, cleaning, purifying, storing and spewing out the gunk they don’t want all incur costs which are summarized as line items in an expenditure account. Those accounting entries are all that most CEOs ever see and so they become the de facto identifiers for the resource, be they water, widgets or people. Something like headstones in a graveyard.

Why is this important? Because it changes the frame of reference between the resource and ourselves. On one hand, we casually accept that water is the key to life on the planet, in fact in the whole universe. We are not too surprised to hear that countries in the Middle East and Africa are a hair trigger away from going to war to secure their water supplies. Water is our predominant resource in Canada in many forms – fresh, marine, snow and ice. Now we’ve chosen to commodify it, deliver it in big blue demi-johns, and put it into plastic bottles to stock on supermarket shelves with Coca Cola.

Why would we do a thing like that? Cory Mintz of the Globe & Mail succinctly spells out the reasons for Canadians:

– because it’s a fashion statement

– because it’s forbidden

– because public access is limited

– because we fear tap water

– and, for 150 First Nations across Canada with no access to natural clean water sources, because it’s a necessity.

Detachment between ourselves and the ecosystems within which we dwell presents a mounting and potentially fatal flaw in our modern belief system. Our actions lack consequences.

Perhaps that’s the point of our otherwise pointless hyper-consumption: it smothers feeling. It is also the effect of constant bombardment by advertising and marketing. The media engineers seek to replace our attachments to people and places with attachments to objects. The next round of advertising then kicks in, aiming to attach us to a different set of objects.

The richer we are and the more we consume, the more self-centred and careless of the lives of others we appear to become. However, even if we could somehow put aside the direct, physical impacts of rising consumption, it’s hard to understand how anyone could imagine that economic growth is a formula for protecting the planet.

As I sat and pecked these words on my creaky keyboard, the TV in the corner flickered with images of Irma battering Miami and the Florida coast. Lots of water there: 5-metre high surges of the noble liquid taking out cars, seawalls and sailboats; horizontal rain dousing through empty streets. Water in plastic bottles too. On the shelves of the darkened convenience store in the back of the gas station.

It’s not as bad as it looks (but is it much worse than it seems?)

[global change, climate change, understanding, pessimism, optimism, attitude]

by Peggy Olive

In the wee hours of the morning, I listened to a replay of one of CBC’s  thought-provoking programs called Ideas. A career diplomat, Paul Heinbecker, was invited to discuss The Challenge of Peace. Among other positions, Heinbecker served as Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, Ambassador to Germany, and Minister of Political Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He also headed the Canadian delegation to the climate change negotiations in Kyoto.

According to Heinbecker, the real challenge is our inadequate understanding of the world we live in. “Thanks to social media, we are bathed in doom and gloom…an endless repetition of the same terrible stories. It is not surprising that people think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and quickly.”

He goes on to say, “In fact, the reverse is actually true. We are living in a golden age.” Canadians, and the world more generally, have never been richer, healthier, as well-educated, as well-connected, or as safe as we are now.

On hearing this good news, I felt considerable relief, but also some nagging scepticism. Could this be true? Are we really in a golden age (aside from those of us who are golden-agers)? I went to an informative source to answer this question: Our World in Data. This site is hosted by Max Roser, an Oxford economist who says, “Once you turn to statistics, it gets much harder to have a pessimistic story.”

I extracted some numbers from the hundreds of graphs on his site to emphasize the changes that have occurred over my lifetime. Heinbecker is right; living conditions across the globe have greatly improved since I was born. Had I presented the statistics for Canada, a smaller but similar trend would be seen.

So why my scepticism? I noticed that most of the graphs on Our World in Data showed an upward trend as if  this wonderful state of affairs could continue forever. We would live longer, under better conditions, become more educated, and have more abundant food, and all this would be possible as our population climbed above 11 billion.

Continued growth on a planet with finite resources isn’t possible. We will run out of raw materials eventually. Our soils and fresh water reserves are already being depleted and we continue to overload Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gasses that will change our climate for centuries.

Many see this happening in some distant future, and Roser’s graphs confirm that our living conditions have never been better. Even our fears of war and disaster, often exacerbated by the climate crisis, are overblown when compared to the risks of heart disease, cancer, and road traffic accidents. It would appear that we’re worrying needlessly, at least about some things. Paul Kennedy, the host of Ideas, commented briefly on the role media has played in promoting doom and gloom messages, but as Max Roser says, no one listens to the news to hear that nothing bad has happened today.

I don’t  believe that we are ambulance chasers hungry for disturbing news, or alternatively, that the world situation is anywhere near as rosy as these data might lead us to believe. Oddly, Max Roser’s own research is concerned with rising income inequality which is not good news, and does Heinbecker realize that all Golden Ages come to an end? The original Golden Age of Greece lasted only 200 years.

This left me wondering if the positive global trends in our living conditions are part of the reason we are failing to act quickly on climate change. Living in a sustainable way on this planet will be difficult if we see ourselves as better off today than a few decades ago and we expect this situation to continue. Yet there are obvious signs that the gravy train, driven largely by fossil fuels and greed, is at an end. When we recognize that there is only so much track left ahead of us, it is vital that we slow down before it runs out.

Yes, we are very fortunate to have experienced a Golden Age, but we must also recognize that this age is now in decline and it is past time to apply the brakes.

 

Wildfires and climate change: seeking the facts through the haze

by Stan Hirst

Living under smoky skies every day is an uncommon experience for Vancouverites. The TV spectacle of thousands of people having to evacuate their homes and ranches in the interior of British Columbia as threatening forest fires advance is not so unfamiliar. Just one year ago we watched over 88,000 people leaving their homes in Fort McMurray as wildfires swept through nearly 600,000 hectares in northern Alberta. This year nearly 500,000 hectares have burned within B.C., 75% of those in the Cariboo region and another 25% around Kamloops.

It was probably inevitable that the conversation would switch easily to global climate change and its connection to the wildfire blight. For many people and most Suzuki Elders the link between wildfires and climate change is taken as a given. The linkage is now commonly quoted in the press, in current literature and in conversations. The same theme of wildfires becoming ever more frequent as the world warms appears often in the media for western Canada, the western U.S.A., Australia, Portugal and parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

Yet the sceptics remain unmoved and say so through social media. “Fires have always been a feature of forests and rangelands in North America” they say. They point to history books abounding with descriptions of massive fires, some deliberately set, but many linked to natural causes, especially lightning.

It’s not uncommon to find fire scars in centuries-old trees such as sequoias and western junipers across western North America. Studies of lake sediments have found wood charcoal layers which can be dated back for thousands of years. Early researchers attributed these historic fires to lightning strikes, but studies in the past few decades indicate that they may also have resulted from deliberate burning by aboriginals to keep forests free of undergrowth and small trees.

The specific question is not whether wildfires are a natural feature of North American forests or not, but whether global climate change is prompting an increase in wildfires. By being overly simplistic about the two parts of the equation (climate change and fire) we could obscure the underlying linkages between the two and possibly mistake the causalities.

I find it helpful to break the subject matter into simpler relationships (dissecting the argument always helps in winning arguments anyway).

First, the question of a changing climate. This is the easy part; the answers are unequivocally yes. Temperature trends summarized by Environment Canada for the period 1948 through 2012 show statistically highly significant rises across most of Canada. Mean increases range from 0.5 to 3oC, with the highest numbers occurring in the arctic and subarctic regions. Mean ambient temperatures in the Pacific region of B.C. rose 0.7 oC over the same period and 1.2oC in the mountainous areas of southern B.C.

There are also statistically significant changes in geophysical and ecological parameters which are driven by ambient temperatures:

  • longer growing seasons, more heat waves and fewer cold spells, thawing permafrost;
  • earlier river ice break-up;
  • increase in precipitation over large parts of Canada;
  • more snowfall in the northwest Arctic;
  • earlier spring runoff and the earlier budding of trees.

Indigenous people of the Arctic are no longer able to predict the weather as accurately as their forefathers did (cited by the Society for Ecological Restoration).

Have wildfires increased significantly in B.C. over the same period? This brings us to the realization that fires can be measured by more than one parameter, i.e. the frequency with which they occur, the area which is burned over, the costs of fire damage, suppression and management, etc. Any, all or none could be linked to climate change.

Three measures of wildfire activity in B.C. are available from the B.C. government website. These are all shown below for the twelve most recent years.

 

The broad conclusions from these data are that while the annual frequency of wildfires across B.C. has dropped by roughly one-half over little more than a decade, the areal extent of wildfires for the same period has increased six-fold and the associated costs of dealing with the fires has increased twelve-fold.

These results are very similar to those reported in the western U.S. for recent years. University researchers and federal and state forest agencies in California have linked the occurrence of more widespread, bigger, longer-lasting wildfires to higher ambient temperatures and less or later snowfall. They have also indicted past practices of aggressively preventing fires as having had the perverse effect of creating much more fuel within forests themselves to feed future wildfires. The average California wildfire in the 2000s was double the size and burned twice as long as the average fire in the 1990s. Escalating fire-associated costs have also been linked to higher levels of damage as more homes are built on picturesque hillsides and mountains and other areas prone to wildfire.

A recently published study from the University of Idaho has neatly linked wildfires in western forests to human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. The research group has quantitatively examined the statistical relationship between the essential requirements for wildfires (fuel availability, fuel aridity, etc.) to climate variables such as ambient temperature and vapour pressure which are changed by human activities such as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The university research group concluded that for the period 2000–2015 climate change contributed to 75% more forested area across the western U.S. experiencing high fire-season fuel aridity. It also added an average of nine additional days per year of very high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate changes were calculated to have accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in forest fire fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests.

Hopefully this all adds a little more fuel to the fire in a quest to hasten meaningful climate action in B.C. and the rest of the reasonable world.

 

 

 

Coping with a changing world

[global, change, psychology, pessimism, optimism, attitude]

by Stan Hirst

I spent an hour or two idling along the Ambleside sea-wall this past week. Ships at anchor in a placed bay, azure blue sky overhead with the proverbial scudding white clouds, a pair of bald eagles fishing just off-shore (one fish from 30 dives, and I thought I was a lousy angler). It was the sort of scene that people would pay money to come to. Come to think of it, they do.

So why, I pondered, did I keep obsessing about negative things? Like the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Upper Levels just a few hundred meters from where I sat. Like the burgeoning numbers of people on the once idyllic seawall, detracting from my perception of communal quality with their milling and thronging, pushing and shoving, babbling in incomprehensible languages.

It’s a matter of simple psychology I have recently learned from the Great Fount of Wisdom (sometimes known as the internet). Apparently we humans are mentally and neurologically structured to be a gloomy lot.

Consider this – a British newspaper recently surveyed the U.K. population and found that 70% of Britons think the world is getting worse. Only 5% think it is improving. Now compare this view with Bill Gates’ 2017 report to the World Economic Forum:

  • poliomyelitis has almost been eradicated as a scourge of children across the globe (because of the incredible efficacy of the polio vaccine and the concerted efforts of national governments to get people inoculated;
  • some 122 million children’s lives have been saved over the last 20 years. Since 1990 the number of children dying before their 5th birthday has been cut from 12 million down to less than 6 million by investments in community health in developing countries;
  • some 300 million women in the world’s 69 poorest countries used birth control in 2016 — a jump of 30 million from 2012. Contraceptive use, one of the most effective methods for breaking the poverty cycle and ensuring economic and social empowerment of women, is higher than it’s ever been.

I see two lessons from this. One is that a viewpoint depends very much on where you’re sitting. My carping about BMW’s on the Upper Levels is a world away from a Bangladeshi family’s satisfaction in not seeing their children afflicted by some awful poverty-induced condition. Second is the now –established truth that people are predisposed to think that things are worse than they actually are, and to overestimate the likelihood of calamity.

Why do we do this? One reason is that positive gains are typically measured by data, which most people abhor, despite their pathological attachment to smartphones and other digital devices. People typically rely on the recollection of examples to assess whether something is better or worse than before. On top of that, we are hard-wired in our befuddled brains to remember the bad things rather than the good ones. Ask an Albertan farmer whether wheat prices are more likely to increase or decrease next year. Chances are very high he will say “decrease” because he is apprehensive about that. The true answer is that there is almost an equal chance of an increase or a decrease (check Stats Canada).

Our modern media emphasize the negatives because they garner more attention and therefore sell better. When is the last time you read a news headline proclaiming that “609,000 aircraft land successfully in Canada“? That’s a true statement (again, check Stats Canada). Compare that to the 2013 Vancouver headline “Fatal B.C. Plane Crash Blamed on Pilot’s Loss of Control” which, I would hazard a guess, thousands of Vancouverites would easily recall.

Pessimism has unfortunate political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. The best example is in the U.S. where polling statistics revealed that a whopping 80% of Donald Trump’s supporters thought life has grown worse in the past 50 years. We are all now living with the regrettable political outfall from that sentiment. Amongst Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 60% believed that most children were destined to be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tended to believe the exact opposite.

Although its sometimes difficult to countenance from public behaviour, it seems that people are growing smarter. In the early ’90s James R. Flynn examined IQ test scores for different populations over the preceding 60 years and discovered that they increased from one generation to the next for all of the countries for which data existed. This “Flynn Effect” is attributed to better nutrition over the years, to the spread of education, and possibly to improvements in environmental quality, e.g. the removal of lead from gasoline. BUT, a closer look at Flynn’s findings show that IQ scores increased only for the problem-solving portion of the intelligence tests. They remained pretty much constant for verbal intelligence.

Steven Pinker, the Canadian-born Harvard professor of psychology, holds that humankind is now experiencing a “moral Flynn Effect”. As people grow more adept at abstract thought they find it easier to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. He believes this is one reason why society has grown more tolerant. It may seem counterintuitive to state this, considering the daily TV offerings of racial and religious violence in the U.S. and Europe, but the world is actually safer than it used to be. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago. Statistics show that we all overestimate how much terrorism there actually is. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down the stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Analysts with nothing better to do tell us that children’s nursery rhymes are 11 times more violent than television programmes aired in prime time.

As a crusty old Elder maybe I should just belt up and put up. Of course things change continually. Careers die, so do loved ones and relationships. Children show up and grow up. Positive changes need adaptation just as much as negative ones.

We don’t seem to notice or pay much attention to small or expected changes; it’s when we are caught off-guard that we react negatively. The best response might be to firmly convince ourselves that millions of changes are going to happen in life – some good, some not so good, so we should just roll with it. Even Einstein said it – “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.

Elders know that life can be difficult to navigate in our ever faster-moving society. The only real survival tool we may have is to learn at our own pace and to deal with the changes going on around us. I hear the younger generation counselling me to chill out and go with the flow. That’s probably the most comfortable way to deal with the future, so I’ll do it.

 

Looking for Hope in a Hopeless World

by Jim Stephenson

Earth Day Sermon 2017, Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Earthly prospects seem less hopeful in 2017 than on previous Earth Days. The window of opportunity for an orderly transition off fossil fuels is rapidly closing, and recent election results offer little promise of timely action. The whole idea that our species has and uses rational decision making is now questionable. In the face of this, how does one find hope and live a life based on purpose, morality, and optimism?

Since the first Earth Day in 1970 environmental movements around the world have had many successes and many failures.

Ten years ago my friend Rex Weyler gave the Earth Day sermon from this pulpit. Things were still cautiously optimistic 10 years ago. Today, however, things have changed. A proposed budget reduction of 30% for the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is but one of the many symptoms. The problems are not limited to what’s going on in the US; recall the recent reactions in Canada to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of an eventual phase out of the oil sands.

How bad are things?

It’s been known for some time that the sooner humans started reducing their CO2 emissions the easier and less costly it would be to reduce the risk of global warming. One estimate was it would require only a 3% per year reduction if we started in 2005. Starting in 2015, on the other hand, would take a 6% per year reduction, while waiting another 10 years until 2025 would require a 15% per year reduction. This increasing cost of waiting is what we refer to as the closing window of opportunity.

Some are more hopeful. James Hansen, regarded as the father (or now perhaps grandfather) of the effort to recognize and stop global warming, was the first to testify before the US Congress about the problem. Hansen has a new plan calling for a 6% per year reduction in CO2 emissions starting in 2021 which, his calculations show, would keep us below a 2o C rise in global mean temperature, and perhaps even closer to 1.5oC. Why does his plan not start until 2021? That’s after the next US presidential election.

Regardless of which estimates are correct, there is a window and it is closing. Whether we can solve the problem with a 6% reduction rate or we really need a 10% reduction, the fact remains that in our world today emissions are still increasing.

We’ve known about the problem for quite a while. The basic science of climate change due to CO2 emissions was known in the 1800’s, demonstrated in the 1950’s, and reported to President Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1965. It was with the testimony of James Hansen before a congressional hearing on June 23, 1988 that global warming finally received international awareness. Hansen spoke of a “99% confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. If humanity had acted on that warning at the time our prospects would have been much brighter at a lower cost. But instead many of our leaders either denied the facts on global warming outright, or simply expressed concern but took little action.

There is no rational basis for denying global warming

What is logically required to reject the science of global warming? One has to reject either (1) that humans, through burning fossil fuels and deforestation have emitted gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans, or (2) that the measured buildup of this CO2 does not produce a greenhouse effect and warm the earth.

Have humans emitted CO2? We actually have a year-by-year accounting of human CO2 emissions. Between 1850 and 2007 emissions totalled 384 gigatons from fossil fuels and 160 gigatons from land-use changes. Of the fossil fuel emissions, 48% came from coal, 36% from oil, 13% from natural gas, 2% from cement production, and 1% from flaring. Of the total emissions 54% were absorbed by the oceans and soil, and the rest stayed in the atmosphere to raise the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 390 ppm by 2007. By 2016 mean global CO2 concentration had reached 405.1 ppm.

Does higher atmospheric carbon dioxide create warming? To me the most persuasive evidence of the effect of CO2 on the greenhouse effect is how the CO2 concentration is measured. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been monitored daily at the top of Mona Loa in Hawaii since Charles Keeling started these measurements in 1953. To measure CO2 concentration, you pass an air sample through a tube with glass windows on each side. Through the windows, you shine infrared light radiation (like that radiated from the earth’s surface). You can precisely measure how much of the infrared light passes through and how much is absorbed by the CO2. If CO2 gas in the atmosphere didn’t absorb infrared light radiation, this measurement simply wouldn’t work. And yet, it’s been precisely calibrated under laboratory conditions.

Despite the closing window and the continuing denial we shouldn’t give up hope

First – we probably still have time to avoid the worst consequences as reflected in Jim Hansen’s latest plan.

Second – it is possible for political inaction to quickly change.

Think back to 1983 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in accordance with Reagan’s guidelines, stopped all research on ozone depletion. On September 16, 1987, (just four years later, while Reagan was still president), 24 countries including the US, Japan, Canada and EEC nations signed the Montreal Protocol, pledging to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) . One reason for the quick turn-around was that there was a ready technical fix in the form of an alternate, less damaging chemical (hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)) to replace CFCs. Another factor was that a giant hole in the ozone had been discovered over Antarctica and it showed up on NASA satellite images. World citizens responded to the disturbing visual and factual evidence.

Third – a lot of good things are happening. Click here to learn why 2016 was a good year for humanity on a number of fronts.

But: humanity is behaving irrationally when it comes to global warming

Stopping global warming has never been a question of whether it was possible to do so, or even if it could be accomplished without unreasonable sacrifice of our modern lifestyle. It’s always been a question of whether humanity would recognize the science and organize internationally to make it happen. That is seemingly easy for a species which has developed modern medicine, transportation and communications. Perhaps its not so easy given the results of recent elections. Today it’s an election in France.

The failure to act on global warming has called into question the whole concept of humans being rational and having the ability to use foresight. As rational humanist Unitarian Universalists it seems so straightforward to recognize a problem, analyze options, and then implement a solution. It’s hard to understand how so many, particularly those in power, can deny the problem and reject any solution offered. What can they be thinking?

One plausible answer is related to the free-market dogma and a preference for reducing the role of government which has gained such ascendancy in some countries in recent decades. Addressing climate change requires greater government action, more regulation, and more government involvement in the market. Think carbon taxes to correct price signals, regulation of emissions, and promotion of green energy over fossil fuels. Is it any wonder that those opposed to increased government action will be tempted to deny a problem whose solution requires more government action?

If we’re going to understand and respond to this irrational behavior, we should turn to psychology

Jonathan Haidt is a psychology researcher who has scientifically studied how people arrive at their values. He has published a number of books and given some TED talks, which I highly recommend. Some of his research has examined the differences in values of liberals and conservatives.

Haidt has identified five foundations of morality: Preventing Harm, Ensuring Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity or Sanctity. Everyone on the spectrum agrees about Harm and Fairness, but only conservatives value Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity/Sanctity. Liberals are 2-channel, Conservatives are 5-channel.

Sometimes the difference is what we apply the value to. The political right may be criticized for its moralizing about sex, yet the political left moralizes about the purity of food.

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at a cost to those at the bottom. Haidt postulates that righteous minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.

We may not be so rational ourselves

What we want is a passionate commitment to the whole truth. Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on possessing this commitment. But do we practice it?

James Hansen, in a recent address to the Vancouver Institute, suggested that speaking truth to power these days is pretty much a one-way street. He views nuclear power as playing an important role in the carbon-free economy. He thinks of the typical environmentalist opposition to 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear energy as “religious dogma”. Many of my Unitarian friends seem more willing to have an objective discussion of religion than of nuclear energy. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima: these were all shocks to our emotional systems which make rational analyses and discussions of nuclear power difficult for us.

There were various nuclear reactor designs proposed 30 years ago. While molten sodium and molten metal designs have some obvious advantages, boiling water reactors were chosen, apparently due to the US preference for this design in nuclear submarines. The safer designs shut themselves down if they overheat, produce much less and easier-to-manage waste, are less susceptible to proliferation and fuel theft, and would not require any additional uranium mining for more than 2 centuries. Bill Clinton shut down research into these designs under pressure from environmentalists.

Nuclear power might not be chosen in an unbiased, rational analysis, but it seems to me that it was not rationally considered by most environmentalists. Now Germany, the poster child of green energy, has closed its nuclear plants and replaced some of that capacity with coal, which has led to increasing CO2 emissions.

What Makes Us Happy?

Besides exploring the increasing divide between the political left and right, Jonathan Haidt has written a book titled The Happiness Hypothesis in which he examines the factors leading to greater happiness. One finding is that each person appears to have a happiness set-point. Some people tend to be happier than others independent of circumstances. He regards those with a high happiness set point as winners of the genetic lottery. While good or bad fortune may temporarily change one’s level of happiness, over time we return to our set points. If one person wins the lottery and another is paralyzed in an auto accident, within a year both will be back at their happiness set point.

The second main conclusion in The Happiness Hypothesis is that happiness comes from social connections with friends and family more that from material possessions. This is the wisdom we all seem to know rationally but keep forgetting as we pursue material success and go shopping. This point is relevant for preventing global warming, because the sources of true happiness are low carbon activities, while travel, shopping and status seeking, which do not lead to true happiness, are carbon intensive. We’re destroying the environment for all the wrong reasons.

So, where does this leave us in our hopeless world?

First – it’s probably not too late, but it will be before too long. So, this is a great time to work for a solution. If it is too late and we are destined for run-away global warming, we will need the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the 5 stages of grief. In the meantime, we should follow the guidance of Joanna Macy. In her book Active Hope she is adamant that we should be realistic about how dire the situation is, but not allow despair to be incapacitating. Joanna Macy’s four-part spiral of the Work That Reconnects includes coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.

Second – the enemy is not evil. They’re different, but they’re as rational as we are. Which isn’t saying much. If we’re going to stop global warming, they will have to be brought on board. Marveling at their stupidity isn’t a very effective way of getting them on board. We actually have to befriend them, respect them, and understand and acknowledge their concerns about loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. We may well have to consider the purity of both sex and food. No one wants to destroy the future of their grandchildren, not even conservatives. This may be our most urgent need for befriending the “other”.

Third – we need to enhance our happiness by living simpler, more sustainable lives with lower carbon footprints. You will be happier, whether or not your simple lifestyle filled with meaningful human interaction leads to a successful world-wide effort to save our environment.

 

A shift in consciousness

by Stan Hirst

I’ve been pondering on three items these past weeks.

The first one was an observation I made some two months ago while travelling through Argentina.  Visiting the Iguazu Falls had been a firm item on my bucket list for more than 30 years, in fact ever since the movie The Mission hit the circuits.  Iguazu did not disappoint – an incredible natural spectacle and, I thought, one of the great natural wonders of the world. I took 160 photographs of the Falls and their environs – thank heavens for digital cameras!

As to be expected, the whole area surrounding the Falls and the many walkways were clogged with tourists of all shapes and sizes.  The overwhelming majority carried smartphones or tablets and all were shooting pictures from every angle. What intrigued me about my fellow Falls gawkers was that more than 9 out of every 10 shots I saw taken were selfies of themselves with the Falls in the background!  This spoke volumes about their underlying motivation for using photographic recording.

The second thing clicking through my rickety brain was related to the December 19 election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the U.S.A.  That event in itself was enough to give me serious cerebral machinations, but one specific thing jumped out at me. Believe it or not, Trump’s success has been attributed in large part to Facebook!  The social media giant has been credited (!) as being massively influential in the election outcome, not because it was tipping the scales with fake news (although it probably helped some there), but because it helped generate the bulk of the campaign’s $250 million in online fundraising.

The third item of reflection related to a recent meeting of the Education & Community Engagement group of the Suzuki Elders where, after some raucous round-table discussion, it became evident to me that my fellow Elders had little clue about blogs, websites, electronic bulletin boards, hyperlinks and electronic media in general.  I was left musing how this meshed with our view of ourselves as personifying the traditional repositories of societal wisdom.

Over the past few decades modern writers such as Ray Kurzweil, Roy Ascott and others have elegantly pointed out to us that people across the planet are changing radically in body and mind. It’s not just a matter of the prosthetics of implants, artificial body-parts or surgical face-fixing, however much such technologies may seem a godsend to us Elders. It’s also matter of consciousness.

People in the 21st century have acquired new faculties and a new understanding of human presence. We have developed the ability to inhabit both the real and virtual worlds at one and the same time.  We can now be both here and potentially everywhere else at the same time. This is giving [some of us] a new sense of self and new ways of thinking and perceiving that extend beyond what we have long believed to be our natural, genetic capabilities. In fact, authors like Ascott and Kurzweil go so far as to state that a debate about artificial and natural is no longer relevant in this context. We are increasingly interested in what can be made of ourselves, not what made us.

The sanctity of the individual may now be a defunct concept. Thanks to social media we are now each of us made up of a set of selves, so we are actually many individuals. Actually, the sense of the individual is giving way to the sense of the interface.  We are now all interface – computer-mediated and computer-enhanced.

These new ways of conceptualising and perceiving reality involve more than simply some sort of quantitative change in how we see, think, and act in the world. They constitute a qualitative change in our being, a whole new faculty. Ascott has coined a term for this post-biological faculty –  cyberception.

Ideas come from the interactions and negotiations of minds. We are looking at the augmentation of our capacity to think and conceptualise, and also to conceptualise more richly and to perceive more fully both inside and beyond our former limitations of seeing, thinking, and constructing.  We now have a new term for the sum of these artificial systems of probing, communicating, remembering and processing the data, satellite links, remote sensing and telerobotics  – the cybernet.

How is cyberception different from perception and conception? It’s a lot more than simply the extension of intelligence provided by silicon chips in our computers, smart-phones and robotics.

We are offered the opportunity of a new understanding of pattern, of seeing the whole instead of just the parts, of flowing with the rhythms of process and system. Until recently we have thought and seen things mainly in a linear manner, i.e. one thing after another, one thing hidden behind another, division of the world into categories and classes of things. Objects have had impermeable boundaries, surfaces have had impenetrable interiors.  Simple vision ignored infinite complexities.

Cyberception means getting a sense of a whole, acquiring a bird’s-eye view of events, an astronaut’s view of the earth, a web-surfer’s view of whole systems. It’s brought about by high-speed feedback, access to massive databases, interaction with a multiplicity of minds, seeing with a thousand eyes, hearing the earth’s most silent whispers, reaching into the enormity of space, even to the edge of time.

If my Elder colleagues have read this far they will doubtless be asking “What does this bafflegab have to do with anything?”  Well, everything!

We’ve seen how hand-held devices such as smart phones can influence political decisions at the highest levels even while the owners think they’re doing nothing more than polishing their own vanity by taking a selfie or clicking an innocent-looking link which sends $5 to somewhere or other.  We’ve all become cybernauts of one kind or another.

Our choice now is to join the cybercommunity and participate at a meaningful level or let others do it for us.  Which choice would best represent the elder perspective for us?

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