Simple Complexity at ten thousand five hundred feet

I never stop marveling at the sophisticated complexity of modern technology. The fine performance of that flathead V-8 engine in my 1951 Ford when I was in high school was fully understandable by the average teenager at the time. Today, most of us do not have a clue about how the technologies we use every day actually work.

It is even worse than that. When I taught university students how to do research, I often gave them a “basic skills” test at the beginning of the semester. The test included a question asking where their water came from. Most were unable to describe much beyond the kitchen faucet. Some might argue that we don’t need to know the technical details, just how to turn the faucet on and pay the bill. Tell that to the children of Flint, Michigan. Complexity has power, but can be very dangerous.

The Simple and the Complex in Technology

I’ve always been curious about how the technology I use works. I learned to fly airplanes in 1976. I already understood aerodynamics and studied it further in preparing to get my pilot’s license. Decades later when I retired, I built my own airplane, a Glasair Sportsman II, with the assistance and direction of some incredibly knowledgeable mechanics. You could say that I know my airplane pretty well.

But there is so much more to modern technology than that. When the fuel pressure indicator on the flat-panel primary flight display went wild (see previous posts, “Up in the Air Again,” and “Decision to Land”), I could not determine with certainty the technical source of the way out-of-range indication while cruising at 10,500 feet. Normal fuel pressure is 25 psi; at one point, indicated pressure shot up to 107.

Information Determines Emergency

Was the fuel pump failing? If so, why would the pressure be so high, instead of lower than normal? Would excessive pressure burst a fuel line or connection, leading to a fiery crash? Or, was it just a false reading due to a faulty sensor? No answer to this “mission-critical” question was possible in the air. Even if a catastrophic outcome were unlikely, if it is possible why risk it?

After I made an emergency landing, it took a couple of hours of disassembly and checking various potential sources of the aberrant fuel-pressure reading. A young A&E (Airframe & Engine) mechanic from Alaska diagnosed the problem. He determined that the fuel pump, with its reputation for being “bullet-proof,” was likely not at fault. Besides, producing such high pressure made no sense. Since there were no obstructions in the filters, the fuel-pressure ‘sender’ appeared to be defective (a $32- part). Lucas is a clever innovative mechanic. He used a pressure gauge from his air compressor to test the actual fuel pressure; he got a steady reading of 30 psi. The difference was likely due to the difference between how it read air versus fuel pressure. But it was steady and close to spec.

I had lots of time to contemplate simple complexity as we waited over the weekend to order the part for overnight shipment. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the nearest airport when I decided to land ASAP, we awaited shipment of a new fuel-pressure sender. The “overnight” shipment, ordered Monday, took two days to arrive. Due to the long wait, it cost about a thousand dollars in lodging, food, and incidentals to obtain and install that $32- part. The actual installation took about ten minutes.

No Fail-Safe Technology for the Planet

No matter how sophisticated human technology may become, it is never fail-safe. The ill-fated Challenger spacecraft had many redundant fail-safe systems when it exploded after launch due to a simple oversight. Teams of corporate engineers could not figure out the problem; it took famed physicist Richard Feynman to give a simple tabletop demonstration of the failure of an ordinary o-ring due to freezing weather. Bureaucratic inertia and profit motive were the culprits.

Systems-thinking-01_kindling.xyzThe culture of modernity is stuck in traditional thinking. We live in a world of complex adaptive systems within a vastly more complex Earth System. We must begin to practice systems thinking. No fail-safe technology protects the Earth System against the destructive effects of ever-growing economic production. But increasingly complex and wasteful technologies of extraction, manufacture, distribution, sales, and use devour depleting planetary resources and destabilize living earth systems. We must become aware of the possibility of all sorts of failures, from the smallest device to the planetary ecological and climate disturbances our technological hubris has now produced.

Ecological necessity now calls upon us to engage in a fix so large and complex that it is difficult even to imagine. Yet it is now imperative. “Houston, we have a major system failure,” which permeates our entire industrial economy. We must fix our planetary problem in the air. We have nowhere else to land.

What To Do Now

Another Entry in the Mad Jubilado series

It is the always-present never-ending question of life. Sure, we have good intentions and sometimes they work out – as planned or not. Yet each moment is contingent. The future never arrives; it’s always out there because we are always here, in the present. We have our To-Do lists; we have our schedules. And we have our big plans. They all represent the near- and long-term future. We even have our spontaneous impulses, if we have held on to our creativity. But what to do now?

The Mad Jubilado has said many times, mostly to himself, “you could be run over by a truck tomorrow, so what are you going to do now?” It is just a reminder that life – and its length as well – is quite unpredictable and can end at any time, without notice, despite our attempts at stability through habits. So, what really is important?

Will contemplating such a core existential dilemma affect what we do now? Maybe, maybe not. What difference does the certainty of indeterminate termination make? We all know that we will not live forever, but at a certain level we push that realization out into the future far enough that it doesn’t bother us so much. That is easy enough when you are young, which is why so many die young due to feeling invincible.

Risk aversion grows with age, more or less. So grows the awareness of the certainty of death in the much nearer future for this seventy-eight year old Mad Jubilado than for the twenty-eight year old brazen base-jumper. To live well may not require taking high risks, but some risks will arise on their own whatever we do. I was about twenty-two when I barely avoided a head-on crash with a truck on a narrow bridge in central Mexico, with what seemed no more than a couple of centimeters between us as we simultaneously crossed that narrow bridge in opposite directions.

That got my attention. I realized that luck as much as skill allowed me to continue to Guadalajara and beyond to the rest of my life. Of course, I attributed survival to my own skill in “threading the needle” between the on-coming truck and the bridge abutment. Yet it shattered part of my youthful sense of being fully in control. We must play the hand we are dealt. Yet, our play may or may not be enough.

Anyone who has lived as long as this Mad Jubilado has seen others of her/his generation die; s/he usually takes notice. That has happened to me several times in recent years. Since about the time I retired, three of my university colleagues in California have died of pancreatic cancer. What is it about LA?

Then, now already three years ago, one of the most joyful life-loving women I have ever met, the wife of a close friend in Santa Fe, died too young after a shared struggle both of them endured for four years. Throughout that battle with cancer, they both lived life as fully as possible – more so than many do living in comfortable risk-averse habituated routine.

Habits can enhance stability, but they contribute little to “the hero’s journey.” It is always an honor to know people who live their lives creatively and fully. Adventure is the essence of the hero’s journey; it always involves struggle and the resulting unbounded joy in living, which should be a lesson for us all. No matter what happens, there is only one thing to do now: live!

So Much Stuff, So Little Time!

This past Christmas morning, as I watched children opening presents to the point of their exhaustion, I had the urge to write something about the surfeit of “stuff” in our lives – to use George Carlin’s term for the myriad of personal possessions in modern life. I held off. Now looking back as Spring begins, stuff looms more prominent in my mind. The holiday season things-we-don’t-really-need overload is but a magnified symptom of the core cultural defect that supports and is driven by the economy of endless resource extraction, economic growth and waste, all year long, relentlessly, every year.

All that plastic packaging often costs more than the various gadgets and trinkets of international manufacture, mostly from china, that it holds. Fun at first, disturbing by the end of that annual morning ritual, only later did that small epiphany gain full power. It was not the absolute excess of commercialized gift giving that was most disturbing – after all, I had grown up with it. The connection of the customs of everyday life as we know it to the larger problem of an economic system of financial gluttony, international aggression, and resource waste for profit is far more disturbing than the distorted orientation to “stuff” in the form of endless impulses to consume driven by manufactured desires rather than by need.

Holiday season overload is merely the peak of the constant pressure imposed by media-driven consumerism. We are all familiar with the critique of consumer culture – the externalization of the self in the objects of consumption, the personal identification with corporate images, the depersonalization of social relations, etc. But a much greater danger now lies in the fact that the role of consumerism is so central to keeping the growth economy going – right to the inevitable collapse of the economy and to political chaos as well. The greatest danger, we now understand, is not just the degradation of a culture. It is now clear that the leviathan of ever-growing industrial extraction-production-consumption-waste is destroying the very biosphere on which it and we depend for survival.

The Culture of Economic Growth is, unfortunately, most deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Americans, but is also blooming around the world. It is hard to imagine how such an entrenched way of life with all its enticements can be radically changed, despite the fact that “life as we know it” is unsustainable. The anthropogenic character of climate change is now scientifically certain. All sorts of details in the process and impacts of global warming are uncertain. Far more important, the overall trend and its impacts on the biosphere are undeniable as the speed of their occurrence accelerates. But the biggest question now is how human perceptions of risk can be attuned to the reality we face, in the context of the regular ‘forcing’ of public perceptions by the mass media that shape public opinion and are so closely aligned with the economic interests that profit from the causes of climate chaos.

Some research has begun on public perception of risk as a function of the relationship of existing belief systems to levels of awareness of extreme weather events and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, by The National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center and others. But we know from vast quantities of prior research in the social and behavioral sciences that belief systems are highly resistant to change and that new information that contradicts them tends to be dismissed or ignored until overwhelming evidence forces a change in consciousness, a “paradigm shift” that is very hard to predict. (The evidence is well established, but is being blocked from the public by the mass media.) The big question now is whether such a powerful change in consciousness can occur in time and produce a “tipping point” in popular awareness sufficient to produce the massive social mobilization necessary. After all, we must overcome the resistance of the economic and political power elites that continue to profit from ‘climate denial.’ So far, they are limiting our collective response to small incremental improvements in carbon emissions that are clearly analogous to Band-Aids placed on a severed artery.

If civil society waits for the power elite to take actions necessary to experience its own paradigm shift to reach a transformative tipping point, then all is lost. Elites have so much to lose in short term profits and politics that they are blind to the long term consequences of their actions. The old sociological principle that consciousness is shaped by interests certainly applies here, particularly in the decisive short term. Only a massive civil uprising will get their attention. Even then, the elites have become so reliant on force or the threat of force in sustaining their power around the world and in the “homeland,” that they are likely to respond to broad public demands for rapid change by labeling them “terrorist” and attempting to suppress such demands by force. That is why non-violent civic action is the only hope left.

So much stuff, so much to change – behavior, culture, the political economy – so little time!