What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

dystopian image

Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

Over the Ultimate City: To Live or Die in L.A.

It is always unnerving yet comfortably familiar to fly into LAX. I will need to do so again in a month or so. The vast urban landscape from Palm Springs westward to the Pacific shore is amazing to behold, if you really look at it. For about 125 miles, the mostly low-lying “built environment” stretches the entire way. It takes 2 or 3 hours…or more… to drive via the freeways, “depending on traffic.” Asphalt and concrete everywhere separates apartment complexes, commercial buildings, strip malls, mega-shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and elite “gated communities.” It has been over six months since my last visit. Still, it is never any less strange and prosaic despite my having lived and worked there for nearly four decades — until I retired over a dozen yeas ago.

Last time I had a window seat aft of the wings. I can never resist watching the mega-city go by below. But I’ve seen it all many times, both as an airline passenger and as a private pilot. I learned to fly in 1976 over this same urban desert. The complexity even back then sure gave me a sense of the importance of the instructor’s official admonition to “stay well clear” of any nearby aircraft. It also instilled an appreciation of the complexity of the air traffic control system as a blend of highly skilled living beings interacting with sphisticated information technology that is always in need of an upgrade.

LA Sectional

LA Terminal Area Chart – LAX at west shoreline.

Whether as pilot or passenger, I experience both the air traffic control system and city below it as marvels of human ingenuity and collective coordination. Yet they seem ever more vulnerable to chaos and ultimate collapse. Sometimes around dusk, I used to fly my little Piper PA-161 from Compton Airport out to the north east below the LAX final approach path under visual flight rules, then west along the Santa Monica Freeway, passing downtown LA to my north, heading toward the Santa Monica shoreline.

That way I could take the coastal route north saving time by not having to file an instrument flight plan. It was quicker that way when controllers were so busy with “rush hour” airline and business-jet traffic and hardly had time to issue another clearance. The city lights of downtown LA, the sunset, the many other aircraft in all quadrants with their nav. lights and landing lights so easy to see threading their way through the geometrically parsed airspace as daylight receded were all so beautiful, yet so delicately tentative and dangerous.

On disembarking into the LAX terminal on my last trip, I faced a mass of humanity flowing haphazardly in all directions in the very large multi-gate concourse. A virtual sea of diversity was lining up at a Southwest gate to board the next flight. I had a sudden sense of the quantitatively unimaginable scale of worldwide over-population rarely mentioned among environmentalists or politicians these days as the consumption of resources and energy by the people of the industrial nations reaches truly crisis scale.

Even as Los Angeles still works, more or less, it is difficult to imagine how such intensity can continue much longer as so much fossil-fuel energy and so many resources reach their extractive tipping points. LA, with its 13.1 million people in the metro area, seems the epitome of the extent to which humanity can appear to overcome nature, then approach a dead end. Big changes lie ahead. Meanwhile, can we learn anything about our future from this glorious megalopolis that may soon die of thirst?

Writing Your Mind while Living in the World

One of the things I’ve done more of since ‘retiring’ is to write. Of course, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I guess I never really wrote “for myself” before, not much anyway.  Most of my writing as a professor involved community research reports, course syllabi, and caustic memoranda to recalcitrant and imperious administrators – deans, provosts, et al. – along with some papers presented at professional meetings, and the occasional book review.

I didn’t much play the “publish or perish” game beyond what was necessary to get tenure. I figured the purpose of tenure was to be able to talk back to megalomaniacal executives and still keep your job. Eventually, I became (in)famous on campus for my caustic memos. It was fun and sometimes quite effective.

Writing for What?

For thirty-five years, I taught mostly adult undergraduate and graduate students many of whom also worked full time, on the most ethnically diverse campus in the nation. All the while, I was writing books in my head, not necessarily on the topics I was teaching. It is not that the so-called “teaching load” kept me from writing those books outside my head. But the teaching component of my professorship had an open-ended supply of matters to deal with.

If I were indifferent to the plight of poorly prepared students struggling to succeed in college, it would have been easy to take the time to write more. However, if you take teaching seriously, there is no limit to the time you can put into it. To teach working adult university students who come from some of the “most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation” – Compton, Watts, and South Central L.A – was a challenge in itself. The Los Angeles Unified School District did not exactly prepare well the people who became our students, for university level performance.

At the same time, many students’ main goal was to “get that piece of paper” so they could get a promotion or a better job. Critical thinking, computer literacy, writing well, and sociological theory or research, were not at the forefront of their minds. Nevertheless, many had high ambitions and were quite smart. The tragedy was that they had been dealt a bad hand by their primary and secondary “education” institutions. The skills of many fell way below their intellectual talents. I found that quite upsetting and worked long hours with those who understood the depth of their own “remedial” needs. Some, of course, had both the intellect, skills and motivation, like Derrick, Darby, and a few others who have now gone on to complete their PhDs at major universities.

Writing My Mind

I’ve almost completed one of those long-deferred books now. “At the Edge of Illusion,” I call it. The subtitle is “Preparing for the New Great Transformation,” since it addresses the multiple converging crises of economic instability, ecological degradation, and climate chaos humanity now faces and so many deny. These converging crises are forcing the living Earth systems we live in to destabilize. The world has begun to go through a great new transformation as a result, yet humans have hardly noticed. We are wildly unprepared. To deal with it we are going to have to transform our relations with the planet and each other in ways not previously imagined.

Actually, I began working on preliminary essays leading to the book by writing some free flowing essays on related topics in this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com as they came to mind over the past few years. I also enjoyed writing some of the “Learn More” articles and a blog called “Diary of a Mad Jubilado,” for A Parallel World, and exiting new site that provided information to environmentally conscious consumers on local sources for low carbon-impact products. Unfortunately, that site was taken down by unknown bots and trolls; after all, it threatened the progress of the fossil-fueled industrial—consumer leviathan.

A book I initially called The Social Illusion has been in my head, in ever-changing form, for a long time. Today, almost ready to submit to publishers, it is quite different though, because the world is so very different. After ten years of research for the book, my view of things has changed a lot too.

At the Edge of Illusion

The trajectory of humanity has reached a crossroads. Humans are now confronted with the absolute necessity to take massive collective action to halt and reverse the damage we have caused “in our own nest.” If we do not take such action to stabilize the complex living Earth systems we have so long ignored except to exploit them, we are likely to become involuntary participants in the “sixth great extinction” now underway.

Unfortunately, a vast complex array of social illusions prevents or delays the most important actions needed to allow the survival of humans on the only planet we have. It becomes increasingly paramount to write one’s mind about the world we live in and the social and ecological illusions we retain at our peril.

In the coming months I will post some excerpts from At the Edge of Illusion on this site, and report progress on its publication and related events.

 

The Heart of the Matter: It’s More than Your Doctor May Know

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I keep finding myself in conversations of health and illness, as I grow older. The Mad Jubilado experiences by the very course of nature and time more health related situations and conversations than in previous stages of life. In such conversations I have noticed a certain irrationality in searches for “the solution,” where no simple (and also effective) answer can usually be found.

Along with simplicity, too many “patients” rely blindly on the “authority” of various assertions by their doctors. It is so much more comforting to find a simple solution provided by an authority figure, requiring little thought and a one-step implementation, than to pursue diverse sources of information from scientific research.

The denial of complexity is similar to denying that there is a problem. Some folks about as old as this Mad Jubilado would like to live in an age like the ideal pastoral existence they think they remember from childhood. Some things always were more complicated than we remember; many others have become even more so.

Some folks, on the other hand, revert to the no-solution solution. I remember too many conversations about which I do not remember anything else but that they contained a certain attitude of fatalism in the guise of scientific skepticism. This seems to happen less often now since most folks seem to have at least some grasp of how certain things damage people and other living things. Such conversations go something like this:

Mr. A – “Did you hear about the medical studies that show that people who eat X have a 42% greater chance of contracting colon cancer than those who don’t?”

Mr. B – “Oh, well, it seems that every day they claim that something else we eat is going to give us cancer. What are we supposed to do, stop eating? Have they really proved it? I know lots of people, for example, who smoke and don’t have cancer. It’s ridiculous; I’m not going to worry about it. We can’t control everything.”

Defeatism, Denial, and Delusion in the face of complexity: None of these is particularly useful. We do live under historically unique conditions. So many materials and chemical compounds now impinge on our lives every day that were never present in the natural environment before industrial civilization.

We have a sense that so many things just could not all be bad for us. At the same time, those who profit from our ignorance try to convince us that the pollutant their industry emits and we are concerned about is really harmless. Don’t forget, the fossil-fuel companies hired the same public relations company to promote climate-change denial that worked for the tobacco companies to convince folks that cigarettes were safe.

We live in a single-cause-of-evil culture. We want to identify the bad guy and have the Lone Ranger come and take him out. Otherwise, things should just be rosy. Just look at foreign policy; well never mind, that’s another very long story… Fact is, life can be and often is, complicated.

And so it is with our health and its relationship with the medical industry as well as the many industries that pollute our air, water, and land. One small part of the denial of the overwhelming evidence of growing climate chaos is the denial of complexity, even to the extent of imagining vast (necessarily complex) conspiracies by climate scientists all over the world to construct stories of complexity in what deniers insist is a simple world.

Recently, by not believing the standard, simple, one-culprit story of arterial plaque that dominates the thinking and practice of cardiology, I was able to dodge what I call a “standard of care” bullet. What might have induced panic about a “life threatening” condition, was resolved by turning to more data on a variety of factors and a scientific analysis of the complexities of biochemistry.

My plaque score was off the charts. Yet I passed the stress test with flying colors, demonstrating by the performance and by imaging that I had no arterial blockages. Yet the cardiologist insisted that I was in grave danger and urging that I take high doses of a new statin drug. I investigated the facts of plaque beyond the ideology of the high-end cardiologist. I consulted with a lipidologist and learned about the complexities of blood lipids and plaque, apparently beyond what the most cardiologists know.

I discovered that a high score on a narrow measure of arterial plaque was not the final word on the matter. Old plaque is essentially scar tissue, yet retains the calcium that was in the original plaque. So it results in a high score. Scar tissue does not flake off like new plaque in the artery.

Facing complexity and seeking to understand it led to a better more complete understanding of risk management and a better approach to maintaining heart health. The heart of the matter reached beyond the standard of care typical of the practice of cardiology. The same prinicple applies to many areas of risk in our complex world.

Why Trump Does Not Matter, and Why He Does

It is so easy to ridicule a buffoon. I have done so more than once in various blog posts on this site. I referred to Trump as an empty clown suit because of the vacuous nature of his essentially false and tragically comic-book persona. He could easily pass for Batman’s “The Joker.”

Joker-Trump

The Joker in Chief

But really, isn’t the focus on the peculiar personalities of politicians a large part of what is wrong with American politics? We tend to focus on personality and image rather than issues. The Republicans are better at that, using as they do, core patriotic imagery and buzzwords to frame their position in debates and win support for their corrupt exploitation of the commonwealth.

In that regard, the Democrats always seem to be tag-along copycats. The analytics and lofty yet detached liberal rhetoric is to most voters just boring and hollow. The allegiance of the Democratic ‘leadership’ to corporate and financial elites is clear despite being not quite as strong as that of the Republicans. Their lofty ideas rarely lead to action.

Then, along came Bernie with his old-style New Deal social-democrat ideals and specific proposals that suddenly caught the imagination of old and young alike. It was clear that Bernie simply is what he is. Not perfect, but real, the unabashed ethical Grandpa, corny humor, caring and all. Well, that certainly clashed with the goals of the DNC and the corporate Democrats who run the party.

From Russia with (Laundered) Cash

Of course, Trump, the false outsider, a caricature of McScrooge, is nothing if not unreal. I could go on indefinitely about that. Many have. But to what end? Does it matter that Trump is the epitome of the politics of dishonesty and a hollow persona of personal greed, reflecting a deep narcissism and sociopathy? Do the fact-checking counts of the endless lies and distortions really matter? Well, yes and no.

On the one hand, Trump really is a buffoon open to endless ridicule for his complete lack of presidential demeanor and his gross life-long personal corruption. On the other hand, however disgusting or embarrassing, that is not the deeper problem he represents. That problem runs even deeper than his possibly traitorous but certainly corrupt dealings with Russian oligarchs so close to the Kremlin.

Internationally, he is clearly an embarrassment to our nation. Domestically, he could not act with much less civility or inspire much more racist, neo-fascist, or misogynist reaction to the world as it is. The damage he sows to national unity is real.

However, the press obsession with whether and to what extent his climate denial is real or just posturing for his “alt-right” violence-prone base, like his other disgraceful behaviors, diverts media attention from the real and growing crises we cannot avoid no matter who resides in the oval office. It is his appointments of barbaric executioners to kill all protectors of the public interest in health, safety, and security for the people, who cause the deeper destruction and pose the greatest danger to the nation and the world.

The Nation Is as Trumpery Does

The rise of Trumpery is, in fact, the extreme expression of the underlying problem of a nation’s elite destabilizing the society it dominates, along with most ecosystems and the global climate, in order to gain even more power in the short term. It is not only a matter of Trump’s dance with the devil. Trumpery is a death-dance to which we are all invited.

We will soon reach the tipping point leading to unstoppable climate chaos, ecosystems collapse, and global financial bedlam. Are you worried about population growth? No need to. Under rapidly deteriorating global conditions, population decline is inevitable and will not be pretty.

The processes of destabilization and destruction were well in place before the political rise of Trumpery, which continues to accelerate the rush to societal as well as ecological and climate collapse. We desperately needed a great turnaround. We got just the opposite. What matters about Trump is that he may have prolonged and accelerated the downward slide of the nation and planet into such deep chaos that the living Earth systems upon which humanity depends will disintegrate beyond hope.

Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.

COP_21_Paris_Agreement-Celebration_Christiana-Figueres_Laurence-Tubiana_Ban_Ki_moon_François_Hollande

Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

Seventy-Five and One

Oh my! Seventy-five! Seems like it happened just yesterday. Actually, it was two and a half years ago. Copper is no longer a puppy. Yet, full-grown now, she still has quite a lot of that puppy playfulness. I have not changed much. When I turned seventy-five years of AGE, three quarters of a century seemed a strange reference to me. Never been there before… In comparison, seventy-seven doesn’t seem to matter…much.

I remember my mother used to say at various points in her later years, “…but I don’t feel like 80 years old; I feel like I’m forty.” She was a vigorous ‘power walker’ until her hips gave out, and she lived until just before her ninety-fifth birthday. She always retained her curiosity. Life’s trajectory remains a mystery in some ways, especially in terms of how we feel and how we categorize , interpret and judge who we are.

Often, I think, people fall into a narrow range of categories by which others defined them most of their lives. They perceive and define themselves by the categories that stuck to them, even though many of the alternatives they refuse to consider may have had better reflected their talent and potential. But if you study language much, you begin to see that all categories are largely illusions anyway.

Some illusions work just fine, some much worse than others. But they are all mental constructions. Language grew out of need and capacity. Before the massive changes of the modern era, language and life were often quite stable for long periods – if not necessarily easy. Now, change is rapid and increasingly catastrophic. The concepts we use to define ourselves and our lives can be liberating or constraining forces, because we believe in them.

So, however mythological we may judge the concepts and categories of so-called “primitive” peoples, they worked just fine for those folks in their own times and places. We live in a different kind of language environment today, just as we live in a different technological and economic environment. In my 77 years, change has accelerated in the extreme, resulting in a New Great Transformation, which I’ve discussed in other blog posts and my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion.

We live in an environment of change, rapidly accelerating change by any historical measure. With this in mind, we need to recognize that most categories are contingent and increasingly transitory. One of the most dangerous things you can do these days is to lock on to some categorization, of yourself or your world, and firmly believe that it is some permanent “reality.”

IMG_0731Copper turned one year old a few days before I turned seventy-five. I noted the contrast. Well, of course, Copper was a puppy then, a beautiful Vizsla whose name matches her color. In puppyhood, of course, she knew nothing of the world, but was open to and sought out all new and interesting things – everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all retain much of that openness to the world and the curiosity of youth throughout our lives? But to do that we would have to relinquish the pseudo-control we feel when we retreat into the certainty of the rigid categories that actually stifle us.

I was hesitant at first to get a new puppy “at my age.” But Copper turned out to be quite a resource for me in reflecting on the best outlook for this Mad Jubilado in the coming years – along with being an endless source of joy and frustration. Ah, but that is the nature of puppies, and life too, eh? You cannot become a liberated Mad Jubilado and hang onto the arbitrary social definitions of what it means to be “retired,” or a “senior,” or anything else. Keep moving.