Tag Archives: technology

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?

Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).

Table 1
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450

Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.

So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.


Food Security in the 21st Century: A Global View

by Stan Hirst

The Suzuki Elders’ Educational and Community Engagement Working Group have identified food security as one of several focuses for its ongoing educational programme.  Two salons on the subject have been held in recent months (summarized at this link and at this link). These meetings were structured as community events and so understandably had a major focus on food issues, concerns and policies in Canada and more specifically in Vancouver and the B.C. lower mainland.

We live in an increasingly connected world. Canada is far from immune to offshore trends, changes and impacts as recent religious conflicts, refugees, pandemics and economic shifts have made clear. It is therefore useful, possibly informative, to examine briefly the hugely important concern of food security from a more global perspective.

Most people in Canada seldom worry about where their next meal is coming from. The most recent statistics indicate that in 2011–2012 only about 5% of Canadian children and 8% of Canadian adults lived in food insecure households. This means that they did not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money. Nunavut currently has the highest rate of food insecurity (36.7%), over four times the Canadian average (8.3%).

In 1900 two in every five Canadian workers laboured on a farm; now the number is more like one in 100.  Statistics Canada data show that in 2015 we imported nearly $50 billion worth of food and agricultural products from a total of 175 countries, a figure strongly suggesting that Canada is a long way from food sufficiency (and/or that our appetites are considerably wider in scope than what is produced by our own farms).

Other parts of the globe are not as fortunate or as affluent. According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) some 2 billion of the world’s current 7.3 billion people do not have enough to eat. Some countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Zimbabwe, to name just a few, depend heavily on handouts of food from international donors such as the UN’s World Food Programme.

By 2050 the global population is projected to reach 10 billion. Add this to the rising demand in the Third World for meat, fish, milk and eggs which require extra fodder to produce, and the extra food needed by 2050 is estimated to be about 70% higher than was produced in 2009 (when the calculation was last made).

Where will all this extra food come from? Indications are that in developed countries the productivity of many staples such as rice and wheat has reached a plateau. Neither new strains nor expensive agrochemicals are raising yields significantly. Unfarmed land that is suitable for agricultural production is no longer available in economically viable amounts in most countries.  To make the situation worse, large agricultural areas in poor tropical regions are now becoming significantly less productive due to increased droughts and increased hail and flooding damage brought about by global climate change. Positive changes in the agricultural potential of northern areas wrought by the same climate changes are thus far too slow and globally insignificant to offset the losses.

What to do now?  Two avenues still remain open for positive change – the development, application and dissemination of new technologies, and the implementation of rational and appropriate government policies.

Agricultural technology is changing at an ever-increasing tempo, much of it driven by corporations and rich-world farmers in North America and parts of Australia and South America.  Crop breeding and cultivation techniques, especially genome-based breeding that can create crops with special properties almost to order, has been applied at increasing rates in the West for a quarter of a century.  They are now being adapted to make tropical crops such as cassava and some rice strains more productive and more nutritious. Such ‘smart’ crop breeding, in combination with genetic modification could conceivably break through the present yield plateaus. It could very well produce crops with properties such as drought- and heat-resistance that will mitigate the effects of global warming. Drought-resistant maize created in this way is already on the market.

Technology is of little use, however, if it is not adopted. In the developing world agricultural innovation applies to existing farming techniques as well as to the latest advances in genetic modification. So far yield plateaus have been a significant phenomenon only in the most intensively farmed parts of the world. Extending the best of today’s agricultural practices to the smallholders and subsistence farmers of Africa and Asia would get them quite a way down the road to a 70% increase in output, which is the figure cited to avoid future widespread famine. Improved infrastructure like better roads and markets would also encourage productivity and growth.

The FAO estimates that about a third of food is lost globally during or after harvest. In rich countries much of that is thrown away by consumers. In poor countries it never reaches consumers in the first place. Bad harvesting practices, poor storage and slow transportation mean that much food is damaged, spoiled or lost to pests. Overcoming such waste in Africa and Asia is largely a matter building things like secure, pest-proof grain storage silos.

The Suzuki Elders have thus far not addressed food security issues on scales larger than urban (Vancouver) or regional (British Columbia lower mainland).  The first step in widening the scope could well be a sensitisation of members and supporters to the magnitude and gravity of the situation.  Hopefully this post will contribute towards that.


Elder looking back – the Armstrong years


News of the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a release mechanism for a lot of pent-up memories. Like me, Neil was born in the decade leading up to the Second World War. The “Silent Generation” was one label applied to people born in that era, and was apparently coined by Time magazine, who described us as ”grave and fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, and expecting disappointment but desiring faith”. Hardly an accurate description of Neil Armstrong. I too would certainly not want to lay claim to any of it, except maybe for the “fatalistic” and “expecting disappointment” bits.

I can recall exactly where I was at 17 minutes and 39 seconds past 1 p.m. PST on Sunday 20 July 1969 when the Eagle touched down on the moon – 25 kilometres south of Hebo, Oregon. I was an impoverished grad student in a clapped-out Ford making my first-ever visit to the Pacific Northwest. National Public Radio was broadcasting the landing live, and I decided on safety first for my long-suffering wife and two small kids, rather than trying to listen to the radio and simultaneously negotiate the tight curves on the forest highway. The kids lost interest and wandered off to watch the chipmunks, and I was left sitting and marvelling at the historic moment and somewhat in awe of American prowess in science and space technology.

Curiosity-Rover-Safely-Lands-on-MarsI still am. Looking at the latest imagery coming from Curiosity on Mars, one has to marvel at the intellectual power that can design and send an unmanned craft 560 million kilometers from earth to Mars and land it safely while retaining full operational capability. And then I wonder why the same intellectual power gets shelved when my American friends turn their attention to other things, like building automobiles, managing their vast wealth, managing their own environment, or winning wars.

During my grad days in the U.S. of A., that country was in the process of losing a war in Vietnam. They subsequently went on to lose one in Iraq, and are now pretty busy losing yet another in Afghanistan. It was a naturalized American – Albert Einstein – who famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I don’t think Einstein was thinking of war in that context, but it’s obvious the Americans aren’t very good at it.

v17_10210227Not that there wasn’t great protest to the Vietnam War in the decade when Neil Armstrong made his historic flight to the moon. University campuses were humming with marches, speeches and placard carriers. Except in Utah where I was – trust me to wind up in the most conservative state of the union. But we did get the benefit of the musical spin-offs from the protest movement. There will never be another Pete Seeger or another Joan Baez.

effluentIn my tiny cubicle in the grad student room I had a poster pinned to the wall “The Effluent Society”. It showed a huge factory spewing out huge quantities of luridly coloured smoke and murky fluids. The title was a take-off on the famous 1958 book by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All the grad students had similar posters on their walls, except for Smith who had a Playboy bunny.

Which reminds me (the effluents that is, not the bunny) that the sixties were when environmental impact assessment first became policy in the U.S. The man who signed the National Environmental Policy Act was, of all people, President Richard Nixon, one of the most conservative of latter day presidents. At the signing ceremony he said “A major goal for the next 10 years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air and the water, and that means moving also on the broader problems of population congestion, transport and the like. Congress has acted very commendably in setting up the Environmental Council by this bill, and we already have an environmental courichard-nixon4ncil within the administration. A great deal more needs to be done There are many areas where you can work, maybe this year or 5 years or 10 years from now. But this is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later. That is the way I feel.” I can only conclude that the definition of conservative has changed radically since then!

HAL-9000We thought we were living in exciting times back in the Armstrong  years. We had no idea. We had never contemplated the possibility of climate change, we had no inkling of the coming internet, laptop computers were at least two decades down the road. When Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released we were awed by the concepts and the story, but credibility? I was carrying my thesis data around in boxes containing hundreds and hundreds of Hollerith cards, and here was Kubrick depicting a master computer which spoke, reasoned and listened (although not too well). Phooey.

And there is precisely the problem we elders have today. Most of what Kubrick showed us back then was to become factual down the road, but we would never have believed it. The best I can do in the prognostication business is to state that technologically, the sky is indeed the limit. We will explore the universe, one way or another. We will employ technology to achieve amazing things in medicine, science, energy and computing. But we will continue to founder within our own societies, our own communities, and with one another. As far as social science is concerned, we’ll just have to take it one day at a time, and deal with it the best we can.

[Originally posted September 12, 2012 by Stan Hirst]

Climate change, fossil fuels and the end of the world as we know it

by Stan Hirst

All my life I have harboured the notion that things could and would get better. The concept was drilled into me from the outset. “Work hard at school”, they said. “Get good grades, go to university, get a good job”, they said. And so I did, and it worked! Sure, there were some bumps and potholes in the road as I went along, but that’s the way the world worked. The good would always outpace the bad in the end, we were told. “God helps those who help themselves” was an oft-quoted expression in my youth and cited, I thought, in the Good Book. Only recently I discovered that it was in fact invented by an 18th century political scientist.

I have not been alone in my perceptions. Human development has indeed been guided by the feeling that things could be, and probably will be, better. The world always seemed to be rich compared to its human population. There were new lands to conquer, new concepts to build on, new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of history, amongst which were a few of my predecessors, were spurred on by the belief that there was a better place somewhere else. Civilized institutions arose from the idea that restraints on individual selfishness would eventually produce a better world for everyone.

But it seems I’ve had it wrong all along. The world is not getting better, in fact it’s in real trouble.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been studying global climate for almost a quarter of a century, says that climate change is having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans. Oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide emitted into the global atmosphere by vehicles, thermal power plants and industry. Ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and many terrestrial and aquatic species are migrating toward the poles or even going extinct. Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting and its decay is releasing methane that will cause further warming.

We good folks who have lead the good life on this Earth are about to get our come-uppance. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change” says the IPCC. The world’s oceans are rising at a rate that will soon threaten coastal communities. In some parts of the world the land on which coastal cities have been built is subsiding at rates greater than sea level rise.

Climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, erode food security and prolong existing poverty in poor countries and communities. Parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out, and political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa linked to conflicts over land, water or other resources are being reported. The IPCC have cited the risks of death or injury on a wide scale, impacts on public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations. I didn’t really need to read the IPCC reports to glean all this info, I could simply have perused the news and weather reports from any number of national and international newspapers.

Not scary enough? The IPCC states that, while the impacts of global warming may be moderated by factors like economic and technological change, disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. Moreover, the problem will grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

How will the fossil fuel industry react to this situation? Not well. A European brokerage company has estimated the loss of revenue which would result if the fossil fuel industry (mostly oil, gas and coal) were to take decisive action over the next two decades and essentially remove carboniferous fuels from the global energy system to be $US28 trillion. That’s 28 with 12 zeroes behind it. That’s also equivalent to one-third of the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world. Is the fossil fuel industry therefore likely to take up this challenge of moving away from carbon-based fuels? I would think the probability is about the same as me winning next year’s Boston Marathon.

The world’s population was just over 2 billion when I was a wee lad. Now its over 7 billion and will be over 8 billion by the time my grandkids are out there fighting for economic survival and admission to university. Nearly a billion people in the world, including many children the same age as my grandchildren, are always hungry and severely malnourished. With increasing droughts, water shortages and political conflagrations, what are the chances of them ever getting out of such a situation? Virtually nil.

Most of us elders grew up among the reverberations of the 1960s. At that time, there was a sense that the world could be a better place and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. We felt this way because there was new wealth around, a new unifying mass culture, and a newly empowered generation whose life experience told it that the line on the graph always pointed up.

But what happens now? We’re begun to feel that maybe there is no “long term”, nothing much positive to look forward to. Instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise, we have a perception that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, and prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water.

Edge.org, an online intellectual salon, annually assembles a group of contributors who represent the cutting edge of global culture and poses a question designed “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge”. In 2009 they posed the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” In response Brian Eno, artist, composer and recording producer, and old enough to qualify as an elder, offered the view that human society would fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on long timescales and require structures of social trust, would not cohere, there wouldn’t be enough time. Long term projects would be abandoned – the payoffs would be too remote. Global projects would be abandoned – there wouldn’t be enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce would be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility would be seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism will rule. Might will make right.

That reminds me, I must pen a few letters of apology to my grandkids before I leave.

[Originally posed on May 1, 2014]

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