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“When I looked into my oldest boy’s little yellow eyes for the first time, I knew I had to try to give him the best life I could.”

“Then you would be willing to restart the Plan? Only by seizing equality—”

“OK, when normal people say that, they don’t mean holding the gods hostage with an unstoppable killing machine via some improbable evil scheme. They mean, like, setting up a college fund or something.”

- The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew, p. 87

As I see it, there are three general ways you can try to live a meaningful life. The first is to “think local,” finding meaning in your day-to-day interactions with friends and relations that bring more joy to their lives. But many people feel a need to contribute something meaningful to society at large, which can be achieved in two ways: individual ambition (e.g. trying to invent a new clean energy technology) or joining a collective (e.g. a large charity helping alleviate hunger in poor and drought-stricken countries).

The collectivist answer is naturally hard for most Americans to accept. From our individualist perspective, “I’m doing my tiny part in a vast organization, and therefore the organization’s accomplishments give meaning to my life” seems like a pathetic excuse for lack of ambition. But then again, believing that you personally can change the world in any meaningful way smacks of childish megalomania to most people, little different from the millions of children confidently planning to become famous basketball players or rock stars.

Why are both of these options so easy to ridicule? Partly it’s because they’re really extreme ends of a spectrum; in between lies the perfectly reasonable ambition of gaining substantial influence within the company or government agency that employs you. But partly it’s the simple fact that set against the scale of the planet or humanity as a whole, a single person is small to the point of insignificance. To quote Douglas Adams, when faced with the size of the world, “Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.” Hence the “think local” solution.

But that solution doesn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m an introvert, so it’s difficult for me to find meaning in my relationships with others; I get much more sense of meaning from abstract philosophical musings like this blog post. Another is that, like many people, I want to feel special and important.

But the biggest problem with “think local” is that I believe it’s an abdication of responsibility. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the magnitude of socioeconomic*, institutional, and infrastructural transformation required to save even vestiges of the climate stability on which civilization is based, I find it totally unreasonable for anyone who understands the problem to refrain from doing everything we can to help solve it. In other words, as my friend Lion would put it, “each of us has to take responsibility for the whole world.”

And yet here I am, continuing to spend 40 hours a week building apps with only a very indirect connection to climate solutions, and only a few hours a month actually working with the Sierra Club Coal Free PSE campaign to solve one tiny piece of the climate problem. Is this simply inertia, motivated by the lack of immediate climate impacts in the place where I live, and a lack of conviction that I have a responsibility to the world or even to my own long-term future? Or is there something else standing between my current life and the life I feel obligated to lead?

“Obligated to lead.” That phrase is a clue, since aiming for the greatest possible impact I can have inevitably means seeking leadership roles. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, partly because such ambitions are at odds with my natural modesty, but mostly because I'm afraid of taking responsibility for enabling other people's success and then letting them down. It's one thing to fail at a task assigned to me by someone else, but quite another to fail at choosing tasks to assign to others that both fit their skills and help advance some strategy for achieving a group's goals.

So there we have it: on one side is my ambition to make a difference in the world, and the sense of shame that comes from failing to contribute what I can toward “saving the world.” On the other side is inertia and a desire to avoid the challenges of changing my life, plus my modesty and fear of letting people down, and that side is currently winning.

And when I think about how many millions of other informed citizens must be blocked from taking substantive action by similar emotional barriers**, I’m struck by the sheer immensity of the gulf between what we’re actually doing to solve this vast crisis and “the best we can do” (which still might not be enough). How to close that gap, I haven’t the slightest idea.


* Oddly, this link is to a group with the acronym ISEC, which they share with another group I’ve worked with, most of whose members are libertarians who wholeheartedly support the dominant growth-at-all-cost economic model.

** Lion participates in a group that claims to have unique insights into how emotions work, but I’m currently avoiding them due to an emotionally traumatic experience I had at one of their meetings, which is a topic for a different post.

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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The long-term goal of the organization called SolSeed is to become an intentional society, with a large number of people living in the same place, a number of businesses and industries, art and culture, etc.  It will be a society of "starfarers," that is, the type of people who are able and willing to commit to massive long-term endeavors such as seeding the galaxy with life.

Solseed is like a religion in some respects.  But unlike most religions, certain governments, and other human institutions such as the global capitalist economic system, it has no interest in converting everyone to its way of life.  The goal is to find people who want to be starfarers, in the broad sense described above, and see if they like us enough to join.  In short, SolSeed wants to be a non-totalizing society.  This is based on our core value of respecting and welcoming difference.

Yet, paradoxically, the sum of all organizations who hold that value, what Paul Hawken calls "the movement of movements," is itself totalizing.  It wants everyone to respect and welcome difference, which implies the abolition of all prejudice.  The only aspects of any culture that this broader movement abhors are those which treat women, gays, minority ethnic groups, people of other social classes or castes or faiths or political beliefs, as second-class citizens.

This "intolerance of intolerance" seems to turn the ideal of respecting difference upside down, because so many of the world's cultures have deeply ingrained prejudices, such as those built into the division of gender roles that was arguably necessary up until relatively recently, when modern technologies and practices made pregnancy less of a limiting factor in women's lives.  In asking such a culture to give women the right to hold paying jobs and even start businesses, as the burgeoning microcredit movement does, aren't we demanding that they give up what makes them unique and become just like us (or even less prejudiced than we are, in some especially hypcritical instances)?

Perhaps, to some degree.  But the purpose of such demands is to grant an oppressed group the freedom to fully express its own uniqueness, collective and individual, and it's held as an article of faith in the movement of movements that this flowering of difference more than makes up for anything that is lost in the process of turning a culture upside down and shaking the prejudices out.

P.S. Happy hottest day in Seattle in recorded history!  Let's see if we can avoid celebrating this again next year!
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"He's bugging your room,
And reading your mail,
He's keeping a file
And running a tail
Santa Claus is tapping
Your phone."
- Anonymous

Okay, now that I've got that image in your head, imagine that instead we had eco- Santa Claus, giving out lumps of coal to folks who used too much coal-fired electricity over the past year--"Especially for that time on August 23rd, when you left the refrigerator door open when you went to work!" according to the accompanying card.

Now let's bring it full circle and imagine a world where the usual suspects--the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.--are tapping, not your phone, but your electricity and water usage, to a terrifying degree of precision. Or imagine that your utility company is doing so, allegedly for the sake of giving you good advice on how to reduce your usage (because your state figured out how to make them happy about selling less), and then passing the info along to the government. Or that an enterprising criminal has hacked into your system to figure out exactly what time you take your morning shower, in order to plan a breakin of your house. Or that you're a desk jockey at some green-tech firm, and you don't get a raise next year because "you never turn your monitor off when leaving your office," and when you bemusedly ask how they knew, they say, "Well, Viridiscope, of course."

That's right, Viridiscope: the system that lets you track your own consumption so you can guilt yourself into conserving in realtime.  Easy to install, "non-intrusive" sensors (meaning they don't have to be physically inserted into the circuits and water pipes) estimate the flow to each faucet and appliance via vibrations and magnetic fields.  In theory, this detailed breakdown would never be seen by anyone but the owners of the building in question, as well as the renters in the case of an apartment block--but you'd always be wondering whether you can really believe that.

But as you'll see if you follow the link, Viridiscope is currently just a research project at UCLA, one of whose lead researchers gave a talk at Microsoft this morning. And frankly, it's probably less frightening than most of the other projects to be presented at the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous Computing.  Ubiquitous computing: the next inevitable advance in creepy yet oh-so-useful Information Age technology.  This time they didn't even come up with a nickname that hides the creepiness, like with "the cloud," a.k.a. the strange practice of copying your personal hard drive onto bits of several different server farms scattered across the globe (but still accessing it as a single seamless entity via the magic of the Internet).

My thinking is that the way things are going, eventually the concept of "privacy" will no longer be sustainable, and the only way to keep everyone honest will be to allow everyone to know everything about everyone else.  We'll be like seven billion fish in a very large fishbowl.  Though hopefully, thanks in part to technologies like Viridiscope, those of us currently living near the seashore won't literally be underwater by then.

In other amusing news: according to Dresden Codak, it turns out that panspermia is a cosmic pyramid scheme.  "Forward this to at least TWO of ur favorite planets..."

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1Sky: 1 Climate. 1 Future. 1 Chance.
This is the logo and slogan of the organization for which I have technically signed up to be a "Precinct Captain," though no one has yet informed me of what specific responsibilities come with this position.  I think I'll wait until after the Focus the Nation town hall meeting I'm trying to help organize before I go out of my way to find out.

At any rate, the "1 Chance" referred to here may well be COP15, the negotiations that will take place in Copenhagen this December to try to hammer out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (COP apparently stands for Conference of the Parties).  Al Gore, whose comments to this effect are linked from the COP15 website, and several of the distinguished speakers at Power Shift 2009 were of the opinion that if these negotiations fail to produce a real global commitment to action, irrevocable climate catastrophe is basically assured.  There will simply not be enough time to get the world started down the right path.

On the one hand, this kind of urgency makes it easy to commit to action, because nobody (other than certain Christian fundamentalists) wants to see the end of the world as we know it.  But on the other hand, it also makes despair very easy, because international negotiations frequently collapse, and when they "succeed" they usually result in a compromise that contains few if any binding commitments to action.  Even the Kyoto Protocol itself, which did place a binding commitment on its First-World signatories "to reduce their collective GHG emissions by 5.2% compared to the year 1990," will depend for its success on "the stark decline in Eastern European countries' emissions after the fall of communism," which occurred well before the treaty was even drafted.  "As of year-end 2006, the United Kingdom and Sweden were the only EU countries on pace to meet their Kyoto emissions commitments by 2010."

Do we really think that eight months is enough time to bully our leaders into making sure that sort of thing doesn't happen this time?  It's one thing to claim, as Van Jones does, that my generation was born to change the world.  It's quite another to set such a hard, near-term deadline for that to happen.

I almost prefer James Lovelock's belief that we're already doomed to a new hotter climate equilibrium, and all we can hope to influence is how long it takes to establish itself.  In that case, any progress we make this year would at least be an incremental step toward having a decent length of time available to migrate toward the poles.


Sep. 25th, 2008 10:02 pm
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This speech by Mark Pesce, inventor of the VRML language for doing 3D stuff on the Internet, is very intriguing but left me wanting more. The basic premise is that because digital networks are so good at getting around any attempts to control the flow of information, particularly by governments, our whole present form of government is doomed and the future will be ruled by the networked mob, which means...what, exactly?

Now, to be fair, the incredible rate of change that characterizes our era, and our information technologies most especially, means that predicting even the near future in anything more that vague terms is probably a really bad idea. But still, if Pesce is going to throw out vague statements like "the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges," he ought to explain just what he thinks he's saying.

The idea is fascinating because, as Pesce appears to be fond of pointing out, over half of the world's population are cell phone owners and that fraction is still increasing fast, with poor people benefiting massively from the newfound ease of communication at a distance. So the Third World gets to be part of the mob, too. But is this mob actually capable of doing what democracies and dictatorships now do, providing security, building and maintaining basic infrastructure, and so on? Or will it be closer to the classic image of a mob, e.g. a continuous global riot, a literal "war of all against all?" In short, should we be happy or terrified of the direction Pesce sees us headed?

I'm thinking maybe I should read Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow to try and sort this idea out--the jacket description sounded similar enough to what Pesce seems to be talking about. On the other hand, the book also sounds rather depressing.

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Link to my original post on the topic

[profile] lxpk  recently convinced me to watch Zeitgeist, a web movie chock-full of conspiracy theories. It spends quite a bit of time on the big theory currently in vogue, that the 9/11 attacks were a "false-flag" operation by our own government, but the movie has an interesting way of describing it: apparently, the conspiracy was so ineptly executed that it should be obvious to anyone who looks, to the extent that several of the supposed hijackers are still alive! (Obvious explanation: the hijackers stole other people's identities.)

Anyway, this style of theorizing continues through the more interesting part of the movie, which describes "the men behind the curtain" not as secretive Masons or Illuminati but as people who are actually right out in the open, ruthlessly seeking power under the accepted rules of capitalism. Specifically, influential banking families supposedly created the Federal Reserve and pushed American into the three major wars of the Twentieth Century (counting Vietnam), both to increase their profits and to build their influence.  The film predicts that this will eventually lead to a tyrannical world plutocracy with continuous surveillance of everybody, using RFID chips which are even now being implanted in people's arms (that last fact is in no dispute, as the linked Forbes article shows).

If this story or something like it is accurate, one might reasonably assume that the perpetrators, "wolves" if you will, are heartless villains with no sense of compassion. But I'd like to suggest that this isn't the case. The "wolves" are ordinary human beings following the imperatives of small-group loyalty that have served our species for millions of years; it's just that they don't know when to stop. There's a reason that business families like the Morgans and the Rockefellers are so cohesive: it's them against the world, just as if they were a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age, but on a vastly larger scale of power.

In this version of the metaphor, the "sheepdogs" are the relatively crazy people who think we can establish large-group dynamics, such as democracy or true Communism, where the people stand up and tell the leaders what we want, and the leaders listen. As the bumper sticker says, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow." We really have no idea how to make this work, because most of the "sheep" are too involved in their own lives and local communities to care much about global, national, or even state-level politics. But perhaps, thanks to the global store of news and information now available at the touch of a button to anyone with an Internet connection, we will see that start to change.

Even if we're not in time to prevent the world plutocracy, though, I honestly don't believe it can last long in times like these. As I observed in this post, rapid change will not be kind to organizations that try to set up any kind of New World Order. There are any number of forces that could bring down such a world government, including global warming, hackers, internecine warfare among the ruling families--and yes, terrorism.
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"--there is no alternative to global cooperation. We have to admit and celebrate our interdependence, and work in solidarity with every living thing. All God's creatures are living on this planet in one big complex organism, and we've got to act like that now. . . . Recall what it looked like here even five years ago. You can't help but admit that huge changes have already come.

"Now what do those changes mean? Nobody knows. Where will they lead? Nobody knows. This is what everyone has to remember; no one can tell what the future will bring. Anything can happen. Anything at all. We stand at the start of a steep ski run. Black diamond for sure. I see the black diamonds twinkling everywhere down there. Down the slope of the next decade we will ski. The moguls will be on us so fast we won't believe it. There'll be no time for lengthy studies initiated by political administrations that never actually do anything, that hope for business as usual for one more term, after which they will take off for their fortress mansions and leave the rest of us to pick up the pieces. That won't work, not even for them. You can get offshore, but you can't get off planet.

"It's all one world now. The United States still has its historical role to fulfill, as the country of countries, the mixture and amalgam of all humanity, trying things out and seeing how they work. The United States is child of the world, you might say, and the world watches with the usual parental fascination and horror, anxiety and pride.

"So we have to grow up. If we were to turn into just another imperial bully and idiot, the story of history would be ruined, its best hope dashed. We have to give up the bad, give back the good. Franklin Delano Roosevelt described what was needed from America very aptly, in a time just as dangerous as ours: he called for a course of 'bold and persistent experimentation.' That's what I plan to do also. No more empire, no more head in the sand pretending things are okay while a few rich guys wreck everything. It's time to join the effort to invent a global civilization that we can hand off to all the children and say, 'This will work, keep it going, make it better.' That's permaculture, as some people call it, and really now we have no choice; it's either permaculture or catastrophe. Let's choose the good fight, and work so that each generation can hand to the next one the livelihood we are given by this beautiful world.

"That's the plan, folks. I intend to convince the Democratic Party to continue its historic work of helping to improve the lot of every man, woman, child, animal and plant on this planet. That's the vision that has been behind all the party's successes so far, and moving away from those core values has been part of the problem and the failure of our time. Together we'll join humanity in making a world that is beautiful and just."

-Presidential candidacy announcement of Senator Phil Chase, from the novel Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson
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" 'Your dream is a good one,' said Ender. 'It's the dream of every living creature. The desire that is the very root of life itself: To grow until all the space you can see is part of you, under your control. It's the desire for greatness. There are two ways, though, to fulfill it. One way is to kill anything that is not yourself, to swallow it up or destroy it, until nothing is left to oppose you. But that way is evil. . . .'

" 'I see,' [the alien] said. 'The tribe is whatever we believe it is. . . . We [and other tribes] become one tribe because we say we're one tribe. . . .'

"Ender marveled at his mind, this small [alien]. How few humans were able to grasp this idea, or let it extend beyond the narrow confines of their tribe, their family, their nation. . . .

" 'You humans grow by making us part of you . . . Then we are one tribe, and our greatness is your greatness, and yours is ours.' "

- Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

". . . and sometimes in the afternoons, first listening to a proposal to genetically engineer kelp to produce bulbs filled with ready-to-burn carbohydrates, then talking for an hour with the UNEP officer in town to plan a tidal energy capture system . . . and then speeking to people in an engineering consortium of government/university/industry groups about cheap efficient photovoltaics, he would come out of it . . . dizzy at the touch of the technological sublime, feeling that a good array of plans existed already--that if they could enact this array, it would go a long way toward averting catastrophe. Perhaps they were already in the process of doing so. It was actually hard to tell; so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from 'desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored' to 'minor problems robustly dealt with.' It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below (which depicts a much more believable version of the Day After Tomorrow abrupt-climate-change scenario)

These quotes show that growing and managing global consciousness is quite a Herculean task if we want to do it right. Humanity is so big that just comprehending what it means to be "all one tribe" takes a lot of effort, almost a shift to an alien mindset. Some science fiction authors use the phrase "growing up as a species" to describe this immensely difficult transition. But now, with catastrophic climate change looming mere decades in the future, as well as potentially massive risks to civilization due to habitat destruction, widespread genetic engineering of crops, and many other issues, we have run out of time. We have to grow up now, or face a population crash that will make nuclear terrorism look like a statistic about deaths caused by vending machines.
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When a software developer learns a new programming language, s/he usually starts by writing a simple program that just makes the text "Hello, World!" appear on screen. Similarly, a brief crowd shot on the Bravo Channel coverage of the Live Earth concerts showed a homemade banner with the words "HELLO EARTH."

It was a stunt, of course--an attempt to stand out among the shots of seas of ordinary people which composed a tiny fraction of the footage that supposedly has been seen by two billion people worldwide. But the impulse behind it is worth considering: during and after this glitzy event that celebrated mostly those who are already celebrities, ordinary people from around the world want to communicate with each other. They perhaps even want to unite, to join hands in a common purpose against a threat so large in scope that it may in fact take billions to apply the pressure needed to avert it. (Consider that the combined populations of the U.S. and China, the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, are not far short of two billion.)

The concert organizers recognized this impulse, in a small way. They created a miniature contest in which sending a text message meant that you could get your name and hometown scrolled across the screen, providing a miniature "hello, world" for thousands of viewers. Among the several text messages you could send was "SHARE," which registered your commitment to text five friends and thus establish one of those expanding chain-mail networks which can theoretically encircle the world.

But what I think would be more interesting would be a random pen-pal system where you could hook up directly with a Live Earth fan in another country, learn about what drew him or her to the concerts, and swap stories and ideas about solving the climate crisis. If we could use this event to build real, active connections between people around the world, rather than simply sharing a status as passive onlookers to a global happening, I think it would be a step toward uniting all the world's anti-global-warming movements into one meta-movement, which in turn could serve as a model for a powerful form of global democracy. But then again, maybe I'm just being needlessly grandiose because it's past midnight and I'm not thinking straight.

March 2015

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