A Cure for What Ails Humanity
In thinking of the problems which besiege us today, it occurred to me that we are collectively like a sick person, contemplating a potentially fatal cancer. Population growth, global warming, resource depletion, crisis’s in the political and economic systems … all point to possibly intractable problems and a dire predicament. As with any patient faced with such a situation, we are going through the emotional steps needed to come to the point of action: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
There are reasonable solutions to our problems, but they are not necessarily easy or pleasant. Until we recognize and accept the problem, including its severity, there is little hope that we will be able to take the necessary steps to extricate ourselves from the mess we inherited and contributed to.
The solution is simple enough: we must live within our means in a sustainable manner and reverse the environmental damage to whatever extent is possible. Implementing the solution is not so simple. It requires a cultural shift away from consumption and towards sustainability and cooperation. We will need to change our economic and political models as well. This is not likely to happen without a crisis and humanity reaching the point of acceptance.
There is always the danger that we fall into anarchy and resort to violence as a way to secure diminishing resources potentially leading to a feudal war lord system as has happened in Somalia. Let us hope we will react before it gets to that point.
Denial is an adaptive behavior which keeps us from over-reacting to issues that we may not be able to do anything about or which are not worth a response. Like ballast on a ship, it keeps the boat steady through rough water. Unfortunately, it also slows our response to any type of crisis we are not familiar with and exacerbates those problems. Some people go through a lot of trouble to substantiate their resistance to change. For some, there is a short term profit motive. For others, it may simply be a fear of change. Some may have looked into the data and decided that it was not conclusive enough to warrant the drastic steps called for. These groups will quickly adjust their attitude when the crisis becomes manifest.
The people which will have the most difficulty adjusting are the ones who have no motive other than not wanting to change. Many of these turn to superstition and other forms of magical thinking. Against all evidence, they believe in miracles. They hope that their actions will convince God to spare them from the consequences of their own actions. They pray, try to say the ‘right words’, go to the right ceremonies, give to the right causes and belong to the right organizations. The most obvious victims of this type of denial are followers of some of the major religions, but it also includes anyone who is not taking action in hopes of a solution that does not yet exist. Hoping for miracles and putting one’s faith in abstractions is the most insidious form of denial. It has at its base a fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to give up the ‘bird in hand’: the excessive benefits we currently enjoy. The religious world has always had to be dragged kicking and screaming into change. Galileo paid for his heresy with his freedom.
Anger comes after denial. People blame politicians, China, illegal aliens or multi-national cartels for their problems. There is still an element of denial in this as they will often assert that the solution is to punish the scapegoat rather than make changes to their own lifestyle, but at least there is recognition that there is a problem.
Bargaining comes next. If we recycle, can we keep our lawns and our cars? Can we pay China not to pollute or Brazil not to cut down the rain forest so fast? How about if we send aid and medicine to Africa and avoid blood diamonds? How about setting voluntary CO2 reduction targets which we have no intention of meeting? Anything but meaningful change because there is still a market as there will be for the last tree: what would you pay for the last tree?
Depression comes when the problem is beyond denial and has failed to yield to bargaining or anger. What can we do?
Acceptance comes when people are ready to face the problem and have some plan of action. At that point, we have the choice of doing nothing (or committing suicide), taking destructive action (hoarding remaining resources and defending them by force) or taking constructive action.
Constructive action means that we live within our means in a sustainable manner and reverse the environmental damage to whatever extent is possible.
- Live in energy efficient housing: well insulated apartment buildings several stories high, but not so high that they need elevators.
- Housing clustered around town centers where all resources, including mass transit can be reached by walking: this makes cars obsolete.
- Grow as much food and make as many necessities locally as possible.
- Leave large green belts around towns for the benefit of all people and other species.
- Do not live in areas that require large inputs of energy to survive. Eskimos lived in Alaska and the Navajo lived in the desert without the use of power plants or burning fossil fuel. They did have to get creative and make some life style adjustments.
- Do not live in flood planes or other areas which invite natural disasters.
- Avoid the use of fossil fuels. Even though fossil fuels are a diminishing resource, there is more than enough to poison our world before running out. Energy conservation and alternative energy sources must be used. Any industrial use of energy should be justified by its usefulness. This will happen naturally if industry is charged for the full cost of energy, including mitigating the side effects. Industry will pass the cost onto consumers who will make rational choices.
- Conserve water by limiting lawns, swimming pools, inefficient irrigation practices, irrigation of inappropriate crops such as for growing rice in deserts or feed for animals to be eaten (a very inefficient as well as inhumane practice).
- Conserve farm land and top soil by good farming practices and accepting the higher price of food which may result.
- Reduce meat consumption which uses up to 10 pounds the vegetable protein to make one pound of meat protein on top of polluting the land and air, inhumane practices and an increase in health problems.
- Most people in the USA, Canada and Europe would benefit from eating less and walking more.
- We can turn down our thermostat and use insulation, clothing and each other to keep warm.
- We can generate energy locally where there are fewer line losses and we can use the waste heat to heat our homes and use it for other industrial processes. If that energy is generated by burning organic material or fossil fuels, then employ scrubbers which remove pollutants and CO2 from entering into the atmosphere.
- Use LED or natural lighting and coordinate our lives with daylight rather than clocks.
- Use reusable containers and keep them in good shape.
- Make things so that they can be fixed and reused many times.
- Lower people’s expectation of consumption and wages so that things can be made locally and things can be fixed.
- Create two types of currencies: a local currency based on a unit of labor (which works if students are paid to learn their trade so the doctor is paid the same as the mason) and a world currency for trade between villages. This is a difficult concept and will require a lot of refinement in order to determine how one acquired the world currency at some exchange rate for local currency or by separate effort. It also has to account for the need to motivate people for quality output rather than mere time present.
- An equitable system will have to be found to employ all the people who can work despite the fact that only a percentage of the people are needed to produce all the goods and services needed (especially in a simpler society) and only a few more are required to administer it all. It may be necessary to have people work fewer hours, which would be an improvement in quality of life as long as they were able to earn a living wage with those reduced hours. Right now, there are many unemployed, under employed and many people doing unnecessary or redundant work in government, the service sector and the military. There are lots of middle men and sales people who offer little added value or efficiency, yet add greatly to the cost: the cost of making most products is typically 20% of the sticker price. The rest of the price is due to inefficient distribution and several layers of profit taking.
- People should be rewarded for productive work rather than designing weapons, gambling on the stock market or manipulating financial instruments. Professionals should be rewarded for results rather than volume: doctors could be in the business of health rather than disease, technicians would get things running again with a minimum of time and expense rather than ratcheting up repairs to maximize their profits. Laws should be clear and justice consistent.
- Politics would be much more meaningful if each village chose their representative amongst people that they knew. Those representatives could then vote directly from their communities rather than going far away to an isolated town full of intrigue and the potential for corruption. With today’s communication technologies, there is no justification for the Electoral College or the massive costs and corrupting influence of political campaigns.
- The downfall of most economic systems comes from people becoming disenfranchised in a system that does not seem to value them. The communist systems removed the incentive to contribute by rewarding their ideologues rather than those that contributed at any level, socialist systems too often give incentives for people not to contribute, market systems reward those who have while exploiting the majority of people and creating a high stress unsustainable society. What really motivates people is a combination of material rewards and recognition. You can put it as money and status. Put together in balanced proportion, they are much more powerful than either by itself. For a system to work, it is not necessary that the spread in financial rewards by several hundred to one. Five to one in combination with recognition and the free time to enjoy one’s bounty is more than enough to motivate people. When too much money is involved, it becomes an end in itself and reduces the incentive to produce.
- The concept of work should be expanded so that it includes child care, care for the sick and elderly and time training for skills that are useful for the community. Communities would benefit from providing child care for care givers who want to work outside the home: this would relieve much of welfare by making it possible for the working poor to work and providing jobs as child care workers. It would also relieve some of the pressure on criminal justice system by providing adequate care and alternatives for kids with less than ideal home lives.
Some may argue that this could not work unless the entire world bought into the system. I think that we should start here and now. We would be better off for it and we would show the rest of the world how to have a good quality of life in a sustainable manner. I believe that people all over the world will want to adapt some of the better ideas as it suits them. It is best that changes be made in a few places first and the problems worked out rather than try a wholesale experiment.
The biggest shift that has to be made is in people’s attitude and expectations. When our heroes are people that contribute to a better society and our goals involve a balanced life including time with family and friends, then we can start to live again. When we value a balanced and healthy life rather than compulsive and excessive consumption and hoarding (he who dies with the most toys wins), then we have hope. When we take individual responsibility for our actions and the health of our community, then we can make a difference.
What can we do right now, before the world is ready for a real solution? We can implement the solutions that we can and work on the other solutions so that we can improve them and bring them into the popular discussion. People are much more willing to face difficult problems when they see a solution. Proposing viable solutions is a powerful agent of change.
by Didier G.