A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams


global crisis

A Journay Towards Resilience: Part 1 “Awakening”

It’s a cold, rainy morning in Tokyo. I have all my heaters on, included my electric carpet, and a pot of ginger chicken broth simmering on my kerosene stove. My weasels are in all likelihood cuddled up deep in the folds of my goosedown winter comforter. With a pot of tea at hand and my home filled with the warm smells of winter, this is the perfect time to share the cumulation of many years of thinking on the subject of happiness, health and the future of our planet. So pour yourself a mug, put on your fluffy socks and grab a blanket; this might be a long post.

To say my journey started when I decided to get divorced would be a simplification of the process. Indeed I have felt a strong need to be resilient ever since I was a child. I had asthma and I had to wear glasses and I lived in a house in a suburb surrounded by concrete. I grew up in Miami and hurricane Andrew arrived when I was ten years old. Much to my dismay, I slept through the whole storm. However, when I woke up the world around me was pulsing and shuddering with the aftermath of natural force that had just blown through the city. I felt alive walking through the debris covered streets, climbing over and under fallen trees and feeling the wet exhausted wind against my skin. My house was old, made of solid concrete and we had bolted it down well. We had plenty of water and food so I did not feel afraid, only exhilirated by the jungle that had grown around my neighborhood overnight. To me, the days after hurricane Andrew were not a calamity, but a brief foray into the wilderness where all things truly alive reside.

I remember walking the streets and thinking to myself: I have to do something about my glasses. If a true disaster were to befall us I would be crippled without my glasses. When five years later Lasik became a thing, I couldn’t get the procedure done fast enough. While my Grandma encouraged me to see a doctor for my asthma and always carry an inhaler with me, I chose a different route. At twenty I decided I was done with being physically handicapped and so I began running. It was terrible. I couldn’t make it to the end of the block without a stinging pain spreading through my chest followed by an acute sense of hardening in my lungs. I was ashamed of my weakness and so I would run alone and in spurts. Sometimes not running for months at a time because it was just too difficult for me. My lungs were my weakest point back then and somehow I knew I had to make them strong. Eventually I ran a full marathon and raced a half-century. It took me nearly ten years but now my body is finally strong enough that I can say I am ready.

Ready for what? I am only now beginning to see what it is that I have somehow always known I needed to prepare for. As a child and then as a young adult in school, and even now as a professor of economics, I keep hearing the same story over and over: our world is dying. The foxes have disappeared from the neighborhood, the fish are disappearing from the oceans, the trees are disappearing from the forests and the mountains are disappearing from the horizon. I know that “global warming” is a subject of political debate and many treat it like a religious belief, too, “Do you believe in global warming?” I don’t need scientific proof and I know better than to believe that the health of our planet can only be observed through the minute fluctuations (+/- 4ºC) of the average annual temperature. I can see the death and destruction all around me. Never once in my life have I seen a building torn down and a forest or a park put in its place. It has always only ever gone one way. To me, the growth of human civilization is undifferentiable from the death of the planet. Economists talk about the efficient “allocation” of resources, but we don’t allocate them, we just use them up. We don’t move a rainforest to build a cattle pasture, we simply burn it down.

If you look at the history of humanity it is tempting to conclude that this destruction and greed is just human nature. The endless and single-minded pursuit of profit is built into our DNA. The commercial conquest of the world is simply a modern expansion of our Darwinian need to survive and become fitter. Just as the Europeans outsurvived Africa in the colonial era, and men everywhere have outsurvived women always, today the countries with bigger and more profitable corporations will outsurvive those who have not caught up to technological speed.  Underlying this story of human nature, conquest, growth and destruction is the belief that over time humanity has only ever improved its lot over what it had when it first branched off from the rest of the apes. This belief, however, is dead wrong.

While the old story that women are subservient to men because we are physically weak and therefore necessarily reliant on the stronger sex for protection, food and shelter never sat well with me, I could not until recently put into words my objections. If you believe the story that humans have always and forever been a selfishly competitive lot, then the historical use of women as breeding livestock makes perfect sense. So it wasn’t until I read Sex at Dawn that I learned that humans were, in fact, profoundly happy, healthy, lazy and incredibly promiscuous right up until we figured out how to farm and store food. It’s certainly not an expected connection to make, but it was in my efforts to understand human sexuality that I made my first discovery about the reality of our global economy: The damage that we have caused over the last 10,000 years is not the inevitable result of our evolved human selfishness, but instead it is the result of putting humans who were evolved to be carefree and lazy into a world where they had to work and compete with each other for survival.

My own field can be described as behavioral economics. I study “anomalies” of human behavior that have been evolved into our decision making process, but have not adapted to the modern world of global trade, advanced marketing, financial assets and long range economic planning. Because most economists are still very antagonistic towards the use of behavioral theories in their traditional models, much of my effort goes into justifying why I am not studying a world composed of homo economicii (my pluralization of homo economicus, the fictitional human that embodies the economic ideal of decision making). One of the major sub fields of behavioral economics is what is called “other regarding behavior.” In essence, whenever a person chooses an action that benefits other people when they had the opportunity to benefit themselves even more by ignoring those people, we call it other regarding and label it an anomaly. Most people who are not economists are familiar with this type of behavior and use the colloquial terms “having manners,” “showing respect,” “loving,” or “being decent” instead.  It really isn’t a foreign concept at all, and yet it is aggressively defended against in areas of public policy and economics.

In the process of researching my dissertation on violence, I came across a lay article on biological taxonomy and evolution. Many animals have physical features that cannot be explained well by the simple application of “survival of the fittest/strongest.” In this case, the article was talking about social versus solitary distinctions. The degree of cooperativeness of a species can be measured very reliably by the amount of white that shows around the colored parts of their eyes. The theory goes that a lone hunter would not want to give away the location of its quarry by allowing another hunter to see where it was looking. On the other hand, animals who act as a group for protection or for hunting would want their clan to know where they were looking in order to better coordinate. Among all mammals, human eyes are the easiest to read, moreso than dogs, wolves or even the great apes, considered most cooperative among mammals. Humans, therefore, can be proved on a sound scientific basis to be profoundly cooperative.

In addition to being strategically cooperative, humans participate in what Professor of Sociology R. Collins calls interaction rituals. By participating in a common and ritualized activity, we synchronize our emotional states with each other. A successful ritual leads to greater cohesion in the group while an unsuccessful ritual leads to feelings of isolation or even existential unease. Broadly defined, even sexual intercourse falls into the category of these interaction rituals. Church, spectators sports, and drum circles are other less ubiquitous examples of the same. By synchronizing our emotions we also synchronize our incentives and are more inclined to act towards the unified interest of our group rather than in an independent selfish direction.

Anthropologically, biologically and psychologically humans are clearly a cooperative species hardwired to care for each other and take group actions to benefit the whole. So why is our world so bloody fucked up? Let’s go back to the Story of Isolation*. Even though the science says one thing, “history” says another. History says that we have always been selfish and single minded, but the problem with relying on the historical record is that it does not include the part that happened before we started keeping track. It does not include the part where we did not have civilization and instead lived in relative, albeit primitive, harmony. In essence, history is a biased data set on the nature of humanity.

Now that I know that the wisdom and common sense that I was brought up on is built on the invalid conclusion that humans are selfish utility maximizers, I can begin to unravel the many layers of “fact” that have clouded my perspective over the years. For example, consider the “fact” that land prices always rise. For those of us who love the unbridled wilderness, we must accept that nature is a scarce resource like oil, gold, and leg room on airplanes. That it gets more expensive every year is the inevitable byproduct of human population growth. Those who are most willing to pay for it are those who will be able to enjoy it, and for those of us who “can’t afford” to buy our own piece of nature we must just accept that the rich obviously appreciate it more than we do.  Moreover, not only do the rich and the corporate appreciate the land more than we do, they also put it to better use by ripping it up and consuming its natural resources. For years I thought this was the truth about everything I loved. Sad as it was, I thought it was an unyielding fact about the human condition.

If anything, I think the progression through agriculture, feudalism, colonialism, industrialism and globalism was inevitable, but I don’t think that this is the end of the story for us and I don’t think that the future will follow quite the same course. Instead, what I see as the only sustainable future course for us is one of deep appreciation for the natural world and for each other. Money has proven ultimately inefficient at allocating resources when they are truly scarce. Until now there has always been another continent, another ocean, another oil field… but there are no more places to expand to anymore. Furthermore, we are consuming the earth’s resources at so great a rate that we can no longer afford to make decisions independently of each other. In economics we talk about the Tragedy of the Commons which is the simple premise that if everyone has to share and no one regulates how much each person can use, we will all take too much and cause the collapse of our community. What we are looking at now is a global tragedy which is here because we have repeatedly failed to regulate the use of our shared resource, the planet.

Community will be key in the future to survival on a very very basic level. The tower we have built our civilization on is swaying terribly in high winds and very soon we will have none of the far reaching support we have grown accustomed to. International bananas and avocados, Canadian tomatoes in winter, American beef in Japan, all these things will go away because they will simply become too expensive to continue to consume. Many other luxuries that depend on oil as a material input or for transportation will become very scarce and this is almost everything we consume on a daily basis, right down to the shrink wrap our food comes in. The only viable alternative is one of community resilience. Without the tentacles of a bloated government and commercial system to sustain us from thousands of miles away, we are going to have to make do with what we have available nearby.

This making do is what I call resilience**. It is the ability to live, indeed to thrive, on what is available with what one has on hand. I know now that my calling all this time has been towards personal resilience. Ironically, it is not towards hermithood somewhere far removed from society, but in fact it is towards a strength of spirit and body that will complement the community around me. Because the crises we face are multifaceted and immense each in its own right, the solutions will have to be holistic ones. I believe at this point my body and my spirit are ready. The remaining steps will be to put myself in the right position to act when the storm finally breaks.

Part 2 “Preparation”

*words given to me by Charles Eisenstein.
**words given to me by Chris Martenson.

The tyranny of the majority

Why do some mountains have stairs in them? It’s because people want to pretend that they are hiking through nature, but they don’t want to experience the icky bits of real hiking through nature that involve things like getting sweaty, or dirty, or actually having to touch the nature.

Two mountain bikers obviously just wrecking this busy mountain trail

I was out riding my bike yesterday, and one of the guys I was riding with commented that he used to have a lot of trails available to him back at home in Yokohama, but in recent years they have all been chocked full of stairs and are now unrideable. This is on top of plans by the Tokyo prefecture to outlaw riding mountain bikes in any of its public parks because they are “dangerous” and “damaging” to the trails.

I love riding mountain bikes. There’s nothing like it! I love riding my cyclocross bike, too. I have been a voluntary bicycle commuter for working on four years now and every year my commute gets longer. This year I’m up to twenty-five kilometers (around twelve miles) in each direction.  When I lived in Philadelphia I was an active member and supporter of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and between my personal experience and their research, I have come to the conclusion that bicyclists are the middle child of society. Everyone hates us despite how hard we try.

Many mountain bikers will, of their own accord and because no one else will do it, go out to trails to reinforce them against runoff and erosion. To clear them of fallen logs and to add stones or other solid objects for safer and less environmentally damaging water crossings. Many road cyclists go out of their way to signal to other road users, stop at stop lights, give the right of passage to pedestrians. On the whole, I think people who really love bikes are pretty damn awesome citizens. And yet on the trails we are banned because most people don’t want to have to share with us. They don’t want to have to learn trail manners, wear lights or bells to make their presence known to other trail users, or walk through passes that aren’t boarded up with stairs. On the roads, we are banned from sidewalks because we are dangerous to pedestrians (pedestrians don’t move as fast as bicycles. Simple physics), but are we protected from cars when we ride in the streets? Of course not! Cars are busy being driven by busy people who are too goddamn busy to pay attention to whether or not their actions could kill someone.

It doesn’t matter that bicyclists have been shown time and again to benefit the environment and to benefit the economy. The reality is that most people own and drive cars and most people do not ride bikes. What happens is that an activity which is good for everyone but only practiced by a few, an activity that is beautiful and healthy and clean and provides thousands and thousands of humans a critical sense of freedom and exhilaration in their life, is being snuffed out by the tyrannous majority of lazy, pampered, but most importantly obediently consumptive humans the world over.

Well, if you want to live in a world where the only way to get around is by gas guzzling carbon belching automobiles, a world where the closest you ever get to nature is through the bullet proof glass at the gorilla exhibit in your local zoo, a world where everything is dumbed down and sterilized for your convenience, go ahead and have at it. If you want your stairs, go to a fucking park.

Just stay out of my mountains.

From Every Perspective, Community

In trying to understand the state of the world today, I have come across three major theories: Peak Oil, Income Inequality and the Separatist Standard Narrative. All three of these stories assert that the world is in crisis and seem to be drawing on the same fundamental observations. They also seem to call for the same actions.

The Standard Narrative is the broadest and most encompassing explanation of the ailments of today’s world. Stories lie at the foundation of everything we believe. Facts, even, are only true within the context of a broader story. A story is kind of like an axiom for a mathematician. It isn’t something you question based on its truth value, you simply accept it as true based on its usefulness in interpreting the things you want to understand, and on your own personal feeling of comfort with it. The Standard Narrative is the guiding principle behind scientific discovery and economic exploitation and it goes something like this: Humans are the result of billions of years of evolution wherein soulless protein molecules that were able to replicate themselves grew in number. As molecules replicated, they grew more complicated and some replicated faster than others. Eventually cognition developed as a result of this evolutionary process and molecules which had joined together to become cells and organisms began to assert their will over their environment in an effort to reproduce even faster. Humans are the penultimate expression of this single purposed competition to reproduce and we are not only able to control our environment with extreme precision, but we are also able to develop schemes and meta-schemes which guarantee the survival of our offspring. To that end we constructed “society” and “civilization” so that we could reduce the exposure of ourselves and our progeny to the forces of nature while simultaneously employing the skills of others to our advantage. Love, human affection and morality are all psychological byproducts of our incredible and unparalleled cognitive capacity and are not so much perceptions of a higher truth as they are built in safety measures to ensure that we operate within society to both our own selfish best interest and the interest of our offspring. They make sure that we appear cooperative enough in order to ensure future contributions by other members of society. Our evolution from protein molecule to an organism capable of dividing atoms into their tiniest parts is proof of our superiority as a species. As a corollary we are not obligated to consider our impact on other members of our species, or our planet, except inasmuch as our impact might prevent the success of future generations of our own offspring. Indeed excessive concern for individuals other than ourselves would be detrimental to our own survival and is not recommended.

Modern social, business and political policies reflect a belief in the validity of the standard narrative. Capitalism is based on the idea of competition wherein weaker companies, those who cannot produce at low enough cost or whose profit margins are smaller than other companies, go out of business leaving stronger, fitter, more efficient companies behind. New companies join the market as a result of entrepreneurship, which is an analogue of the spontaneous mutations in evolution. Within the standard narrative, there is no call for government action to meddle in markets because at best it would be prolonging the operation of companies that overuse resources and provide a lower production to input ratio. In otherwords it would mean we are getting less stuff out of more resources. Unemployment is considered a necessary process of purging obsolete skills from the job market. The amassing of wealth and market power into smaller and smaller subsets of the population is also a necessary evil as it serves to encourage the constant struggle towards ever greater efficiency. In the standard narrative of markets, success and failure are all expressions of our individual fitness; similarly, pain and pleasure are are the personal indications of our survival or our failure to adapt but are in and of themselves not meaningful.

To the extent that people believe the standard narrative, they are also willing to accept the rules and policies that structure our society that are based on that narrative. However as markets fail in greater numbers to provide the prizes they promised in exchange for hard work, long hours and proper training, people are beginning to find difficulty in accepting the validity of that system. When college graduates routinely find their best prospects for work are as restaurant staff, when families see that their children, despite their best efforts at providing and preparing them for adulthood, are simply incapable of supporting themselves, and when the better and more prosperous world that the evolution of our markets is supposed to deliver us repeatedly fails to arrive, people begin to doubt. What the standard narrative fails to recognize is that people, in addition to their physical well being, also need a sense of identity and a sense of community. We are social creatures and are actually not equipped to make decisions well in the relative vaccuum of the atomic family unit. Many of our decision making processes are adaptive to social decision making in an environment that changes much more slowly than the one we live in today. What the standard narrative fails to recognize is that we are living beings wholly intertwined with our surroundings and that if you place all your energy and focus on one dimension of our existence, such as material consumption, you neglect the other critically important avenues of well being, without which we cannot thrive.

An alternative story to the Standard Narrative is one of interconnectedness wherein human well being is bolstered by the health of their environment both physical and social. In this alternative story, no decision on the market can be made without accounting for its impact on an array of factors that are not necessarily aggregatable into a single dimension. That means that money alone is an insufficient measure of value because it will not be able to account for a sense of belonging, of love, security or connectedness.

Peak oil and Income inequality are two stories about the state of the world that talk about our system directly. Peak oil says that the resources in our planet have peaked and that from here moving forward they will increase in cost and difficult to access. This is a result of the balance between the renewability of those resources, the technological capacity to extract and consume those resources, and the population of humans who depend on those resources. Over the last several hundred years we have been growing our population and our consumption of resources at an exponential rate. However, the resources themselves renew at slower than exponential. The result is that we will, or perhaps already have, inevitably hit the boundary of our ability to grow and the pace will stop very suddenly and probably painfully. Economic institutions like the financial system which depend on a steady growth rate of the economy will fail when this boundary is hit. The money supply, for example will faulter significantly as the growth of the money supply depends on the repayment of debt with interest. The reason people are willing to accept a loan with an interest payment is because they believe that they will be able to produce enough wealth in the future to pay back both. In other words, they believe they will be able to produce more in the future. This means that they believe they will have access to either more technology or more resources, or maybe just more money. When oil and other critical resources run out, which for our purposes simply means become available at a slower rate than the expansion of the economy, people will not receive the raises they anticipated when accepting the loans because companies will not be able to increase production enough to pay the wages. As a result, there will be a default on loans and the money supply will either contract naturally, or governments will step in to expand it artificially.

The difficulties that peaking natural resources bring to the world are more than just the need to rebalance our budgets to pay for increasing gas prices. First of all, we must stop and think about exactly what part of our budget does *not* depend on oil. Anything that is imported, anything made of plastic or packaged in plastic, anything that relies on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, many medications, and yes even our electricity all depend on oil. So in order to be prepared for the exponential rise in the price of oil that we will inevitably face (as the distance between our needs and the earth’s ability to produce grows exponentially smaller), we will have to make our consumption of all of these goods exponentially smaller. If this is not a disaster, I’m not sure what is. But moreover, we will have to become conscious of how our money system, the lubrication that makes the market go, depends on growing access to energy. If the actual volume of production in the economy suddenly screaches to a less-than-exponential-growth halt, the money supply will have to slow down, too. With so much of our economy dependent on the idea that more money will always be available in the future, we will have to rethink the way we do business entirely.

The changes that will come with peak oil are huge and unavoidable. They will be changes to the most fundamental aspects of our lives and our thinking because oil is at the basis of everything we have grown accustomed to today. On an indiidual level, each person will be called upon to shift their dependency off of oil and onto renewable resources. This is not a new idea by any means, but the severity of the need is much larger than any electric car commercial would have us believe. Renewability will also mean locality as transportation of goods and services itself depends on oil. We will also need to reduce our reliance on money as a means of making transactions. This is huge. Most of us today don’t know what it means to do business without money, but actually the alternative is not some technological alternative (like Bitcoin), but in fact an old fashioned method: we will have to rely on our communities and personal relationships. Without money to keep a record of who has put in what effort and who is entitled to what resources we will have to rely on our own memories. The colloquial term for this is favors. Money transactions will have to be supplemented with gifts and favors, both of which require personal relationships. Given how globalized our world has become in the last fifty years, it is not feasible to imagine that all of us will, within our lifetimes, be able to transition out of the cities and onto self sustaining communal plots. Some things like medical technology cannot be replaced with personal favors. However reducing our reliance on money, and in particular our reliance on money to purchase oil-based products, is a necessary adaptation to the economy post-peak.

In some ways peak resources and the standard narrative go hand in hand. Those who are already beginning to feel the strain of our over populated overly oil dependent planet are not surprisingly also those who are beginning to doubt the narrative of separability and who have begun to seek other more sustainable alternative lifestyles. Without money or access to non-renewable resources we are really left with only one choice, which is the one to respect our place on the planet as only one of many life forces all intertwined and dependent on each other.

Finally, the third perspective on the state of our world today is one of resource distribution. The United States has terrible income inequality with the richest 400 citizens holding more wealth than some 250 million* of the rest of us. I made those numbers up, but they make my point and can be verified in the book After-shock by Robert Reich. The revolving door between politics and money creates a flow of change that consistently moves in one direction. Inequality is an unvaoidable feature of any society. However, there are degrees of inequality that are acceptable and perhaps even beneficial, and there is an extent beyond which inequality undermines the stability of a country. As wealth begins to amass in a smaller set of hands, those hands will naturally seek to protect and grow their own wealth. When their surplus is large enough they will feed that money into the political system in order to encourage the development of policies that will benefit them. In other words, when people have enough money they are able to buy rules that make it easier for them to get and hold more money.

As with the theory of peak resources, the primary economic problem with runaway income inequality is that it creates an imbalance between the monetary value of an individual or organization and the actual ability of that entity to produce enough stuff to live on. The richest members of society are first the bankers and second the CEOs of large multinational corporations. In the language of old, these are the business class. On a fundamental level, business people don’t actually produce anything. Their wealth comes from coordinating the production of others and then skimming a profit off the top. This is not a bad thing, but when the majority of the purchasing and decision making power in a country becomes concentrated in the hands of people who don’t actually produce anything, we have a recipe for inevitable social collapse. If we imagine that the current state of affairs be allowed to run interrupted to its logical conclusion, what we would see is ever increasing purchasing power in the hands of a small subset of the population that does not produce anything. The remainder of the population which does produce will be stripped of their ability to choose how to allocate their resources, meaning they will supply the physical maximum amount of labor possible while simultaneously consuming the cheapest products available. Cheapest, of course, is a function of price. So long as the economy is growing, prices can be lowered by exploiting resources that are not owned by anyone, and therefore need only be extracted at the cost of technology. When these resources run out, the producers will fail to produce and the wealthy will have all the resources and none of the abilities to produce anything with them. The result is chaos and massive human welfare decline.

Not surprisingly, the solution to rising income inequality can also be found in a shift towards local and community based systems. We can call for governments to reduce the policies that have caused this great imbalance, but we have no reason to believe they will listen to us now when they haven’t in the past. Instead, the solution is, like with Peak Oil, to reduce our dependency on money-based markets. Because wealth and income inequality is largely measured in dollars, by increasing our command of social capital, favors and gift-based obligations, we can increase our wealth and our purchasing power of critical necessities without needing governmental intervention or a rise in our wages.

While the problems facing our world today are insurmountable in the current framework of markets and politics, the solution is simple and available to all those who would seek it. Communities can be built without any additional physical resources, but merely a redistribution of our time and attention. Moreover, by solving the problem of our failing global economy with the substitution of personal relationships we also transfer value and meaning into the lives of a vast majority of humans who have been told for decades now that their failure to produce large sums of money through their labor is proof of their uselessness to the greater society. Farmers, carpenters, restaurant workers, care givers and any other human who makes their living by physically providing a service or producing a good that people can use are the people who will support and carry our world through the next years of transition. These are the people who have true power to affect change because they are the ones most connected to the world. At the same time the business people and bankers are those who are most invested in the system remaining the way it is. While they are highly adapted to operating in an economy which will grow perpetually, they are painfully and woefully divorced from the realities of where our livelihoods actually come from. When the world does finally begin its shift towards a contracting global economy, these people are going to have the most difficulty adjusting because they will find their entire skill sets are suddenly obsolete.

I am personally frightened of the changes that I am now convinced are waiting on a very near and very certain horizon. However, after a year of searching and reading and thinking, I have concluded that the solution the the world’s problems, and indeed the world that is waiting for us just beyond that horizon, is a beautiful one that will enable each human to thrive more wholly and more authentically than we have been able to for centuries, if not milenia of our history. It is a thrilling time to be alive.

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