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Our opposable thumb

Our opposable thumb

Stereoscopic vision, depth perception, certain emotions and other perceptions, and the ability to stretch our thumbs farther than most other species, the ability to build and destroy things, and many other traits individually or in combination separate us from other species, not necessarily all species though.  Other animals with opposable thumbs include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other variants of apes; certain frogs, koalas, pandas, possums and opossums, and many birds have an opposable digit of some sort.  Many dinosaurs had opposable digits as well.  Granted, most of these are primates, as are we.  I wonder if rationalization is something unique to humans.  The ability to ponder may be as well.”

Humans are not the only species with an opposable thumb.  We are not the species with the largest brain.  We are not the only species to communicate or walk bipedal.  So what does make Homo sapiens unique? Perhaps it has something to do with our imagination, our ability to ponder “what if?” and our stubborn persistence.  Long ago I realized that I depend very strongly on my ability to imagine.  Confronted by a challenging situation I imagine choices unfolding into the future.  “Will this work?” I let my imagination run and a scenario plays out allowing me to decide “yes, I think this will work” or “no, I don’t think this will work.”  I wonder, is imagination the real strength of Homo sapiens?  It certainly helps when deciding a direction of action if we can picture a scenario in our head and imagine future outcome, assuming our assumptions are correct.

Now let’s take it one step further, what about belief in the absence of knowing?  What does it mean that we can act even in the absence of logical argument?  True story.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

We’ve taken a somewhat rambling route in our discussion of how each of us can haul ourselves up out of the swamp of abstractions in which modern industrial society is sinking fast, and find our way to the solid ground of things that actually matter. I know some of my readers have been baffled or irritated by the vagaries of that route, but that can’t be helped. Our sense of where to look for straightforward solutions is exactly what’s led us into this swamp; raised in an era of abstraction, we instinctively try to solve problems caused by too much abstraction by piling on more abstraction, or swapping out one set of abstractions for their opposites.

As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve a problem by using more of the thinking that created it. What’s more, the solutions to really intransigent problems usually have to be found by asking questions about the most basic assumptions that undergird the thinking that created them. One of Einstein’s odder contemporaries, the irrepressible Charles Fort, put it this way: “It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made.”

For most of two thousand years, to cite a useful example, astronomers across the western half of Eurasia had tried to make sense of the motions of the planets under the assumption that the sun, moon, and planets moved in circles. The result, as observations piled up, was a vast creaking mechanism of epicycles, eccentrics, and equants—geometrical gimmicks intended to force circles into copying the simple and elegant motions of the heavens. It took a mystical astrologer named Johannes Kepler, who’d brooded over Renaissance sacred geometry for decades, to see through the clutter, realize that the planets moved in ellipses rather than circles, and send the whole lumbering mass of fudge factors into history’s compost heap.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Solutions Only Arise Outside the Status Quo

Solutions Only Arise Outside the Status Quo

Solutions are only possible outside these ossified, self-serving centralized hierarchies.

Correspondent Dan F. asked me to reprint some posts on solutions to the systemic problems I’ve outlined for years, most recently in How Much Longer Can We Get Away With It? and Checking In on the Four Intersecting Cycles. I appreciate the request, because it’s all too easy to dwell on what’s broken rather than on the difficult task of fixing what’s broken.

I’ve laid out a variety of solutions to structural problems in my many books, and I’ll attempt a brief synthesis in this post.

1. The dynamics of stagnation are built into the system. Centralized systems optimize specific solutions to a specific set of problems that prompted the development of the system.

In the U.S., the empire that resulted from the global effort to win World War II and the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union spawned centralized bureaucracies to manage the complexities and budgets of this new era.

In effect, the system was optimized to the circumstances of 1950 or perhaps 1960. Though circumstances have changed, the system remains essentially unchanged, except bureaucracies and budgets have ballooned in response to the dynamics of bureaucracies: the initial purpose erodes and is replaced with self-aggrandizement of insiders and bureaucratic bloat.

As the systems optimized for a bygone era start failing, due to the erosion of accountability and transparency as insiders mask their self-serving ineffectiveness, the organizational structure attempts to meet the challenges by doing more of what’s failing: since every layer of bureaucracy now has a constituency that will fight to the death to maintain its power, budget and perquisites, a ratchet effect is the dominant dynamic: budgets and power cannot decline due to resistance, but the path to increases in power and budget is well-greased.

Since the structures are optimized for a bygone era, the institutions are fundamentally incapable of responding effectively or reforming themselves.The universal solution to failing institutions and hierarchies is to throw more money at the failings in the doomed hope that doing more of what’s failed will magically solve the systemic problems.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Are We Fiddling While Rome Burns?

Are We Fiddling While Rome Burns?

Solutions abound, but they require the retirement of obsolete systems that defend entrenched interests and soul-crushing inequalities.
It turns out Nero wasn’t fiddling as Rome burned–he was 60 km away at the time. Did Nero Really Fiddle While Rome Burned?
The story has become short-hand for making light of a catastrophe, either out of self-interest (one theory had Nero clearing a site he desired for a palace with the fire) or out of a mad detachment from reality.
Are we fiddling while Rome burns? I would say yes–because we’re not solving any of the structural problems that are dooming the status quo. Instead, we’re allowing a corrupt, corporate mainstream media to distract us with fake “Russians hacked our election” hysteria, false “cultural war” mania, and a laughably Orwellian frenzy over fake news which magically avoids mentioning the propaganda narrativespushed 24/7 by the mainstream media–narratives that are the acme of fake news.
The media is only half the problem, of course; the audience doesn’t want to hear about structural problems that can only be fixed by disrupting the status quo. If we don’t accept that the financial system we inhabit is imploding, maybe all the problems will go away.
The system is coughing up blood and we still want to believe it is “recovering” from a cold.
Here’s a short list of structural problems we should be tackling:
1. Soaring inequality and the institutionalization of economic privilege.Systemic economic privilege doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it’s enforced by a centralized hierarchy, a dynamic I describe in my book Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege. Systemic inequality doesn’t just undermine the economy–it also undermines the social and political orders.
2. The central state (government) has one default setting: endless expansion into every nook and cranny of daily life. There are no mechanisms for contraction and no institutional memory of government reducing its control of every aspect of life.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Got Food? How Local Food Systems Can Build Resilience for Turbulent Times

Got Food? How Local Food Systems Can Build Resilience for Turbulent Times

Corey Templeton
The Deering Oaks farmers’ market, held every Wednesday and Saturday in Portland, Maine.

Consider, for a moment, that lettuce leaf on your plate. It probably traveled a long way to get there—about 1,500 miles, on average.1 In fact, your dinner has probably seen more of the world than you have: the average American meal contains ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.2

The complex, globalized system that puts food on our plates is a technical and logistical marvel, delivering unprecedented quantities of food at historically low prices.3,4

But that system is surprisingly fragile. Its globe-spanning supply chains are easily disrupted and its vast monocultures are vulnerable to drought and disease.5,6 And, because the system is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, it is subject to the shortages and price swings that afflict those commodities.7

New Yorkers got a firsthand look at the fragility of the food system when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the city in 2012. Days after the storm, trucks were still stranded on roadsides, unable to make deliveries. Some grocery stores saw their stocks destroyed by the storm surge; others lost power and trashed their perishable goods. Thanks to “just-in-time” supply chains that kept inventories to a minimum, shortages set in quickly.8 As a result, hungry New Yorkers stood in line for hours, waiting for emergency supplies of food and water.9

Most New Yorkers weathered those shortages, and a massive crisis was averted. Still, Sandy should serve as a wake-up call. In the era of climate change, our cities will face more monster storms, floods, and other extreme weather events.10 At the same time, a wide range of natural and human-made crises—from epidemics to terrorism—have the potential to bring our food system to its knees.11

In these turbulent times, we need to make our food supply systems more resilient. Producing and distributing food on the local level could help us weather disruptions of all kinds.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

The Boundaries and Future of Solution Space – Part 5

The Boundaries and Future of Solution Space – Part 5

Solution Space

To use the word ‘solution’ is perhaps misleading, since it could be said to imply that circumstances exist which could allow us to continue business as usual, and this is not, in fact, the case. A crunch period cannot be avoided. We face an intractable predicament, and the consequences of overshoot are going to manifest no matter what we do. However, while we may not be able to prevent this from occurring, we can mitigate the impact and lay the foundation for a fundamentally different and more workable way of being in the world.

Acknowledging the non-negotiable allows us to avoid beating our heads against a brick wall, freeing us to focus on that which we can either influence or change, and acknowledging the limits within which we must operate, even in these areas, allows us to act far more effectively without wasting scarce resources on fantasies. There are plenty of actions which can be taken, but those with potential for building a viable future will be inexpensive, small-scale, simple, low-energy, community-based initiatives. It will be important to work with natural systems in accordance with permaculture principles, rather than in opposition to them as currently do so comprehensively.

We require viable ways forward across different timeframes, first to navigate the rapid-onset acute crisis which the bursting of a financial bubble will pitch us into, and then to reboot our global operating system into a form less reminiscent of a planet-killing ponzi scheme. The various limits we face do not manifest all at the same time, and so to some extent can be navigated sequentially. The first phase of our constrained future, which will be primarily financial and social, will occur before the onset of energy supply difficulties for instance. Some initiatives are of particular value at specific times, and other have general value across timescales.

 

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

Let us stop talking about collapse, peak oil, and global weirding and begin a conversation about what is cool and what is uncool.

In Nine to Five Jane Fonda’s character, Judy Bernly, is the office newbie.  In a scene evoking Lucille Ball on the assembly line, she pushes too many buttons on an enormous Xerox machine and fills the floor with blizzard drifts of copy paper.

Technocornucopians see the world of the future as a great 3D printer with an unlimited supply reservoir. Push a few buttons and we can fulfill everyone’s wildest dreams. What need have we for terror or strife? Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research for Singularity University says:

The next decade will be the most innovative decade in human history: technologies are advancing so rapidly, entire industries will be wiped out and new ones created out of nowhere. … We don’t think about man-machine convergence or all this sci-fi stuff. We talk about practical implementation of today’s technologies — harnessing advancing technologies to do good for mankind.

Think of each piece of paper flying out of Judy Bernly’s grasp as just another great solution searching for a problem. Go ahead Judy, push that button again. The machine will know what to do.

It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology. We can, we must, but these four elements must all be present: Political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem; institutions must support its solution; It must really be a technological problem; and we must understand it. The Apollo mission, which has become a kind of metaphor for technology’s capacity to solve big problems, met these criteria. But it is an irreproducible model for the future. It is not 1961.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

 

Progress in an Uncertain World

Progress in an Uncertain World

Strong Towns is often accused of offering doom-and-gloom diagnoses of problems but being light on solutions. “You don’t tell us what we can actually DO to fix our insolvent cities,” goes the response. “You’re just so negative all the time.” This is not true, but I also don’t think it’s true that these criticisms are made in bad faith.

Rather, I think we have articulated a vision of what should be done to build Strong Towns, and done so in great detail. But that vision is heavy on experimentation and small-scale risk-taking (with potentially great rewards). It is heavy on civic engagement and grassroots action. And it is notably light on technocratic policy interventions: to the extent we talk about policy, it’s often about what policy makers should NOT do, not what they should.

There is a good reason for this, and those with a technocratic mindset (i.e. that the problems of cities will be fixed by top-down, data-driven policy tinkering) would do well to consider it.

The City as Ecosystem

Chuck occasionally has called mathematician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb the “patron saint of Strong Towns thinking.” I strongly urge anyone who has not read Taleb to pick up his books—Antifragile if you’re only going to read one, but also Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. They are deeply intellectual and cross-disciplinary, but not overly wonky: accessible and entertaining for non-academic readers.

The central thesis of Taleb’s work is that complex systems are inherently unpredictable and prone to “Black Swan” events: unforeseeable and unprecedented cataclysmic changes. It’s not that we haven’t figured out yet how to completely predict their behavior; it’s that it is far from even mathematically possible for us to do so. Think of a natural ecosystem. Global weather patterns. The stock market. The human body. A city.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

Let’s Talk About Solutions, Not Fake Fixes

Let’s Talk About Solutions, Not Fake Fixes

Since the status quo has no workable Plan B to “growth” in an economy in which household incomes have declined 8.5% in a supposedly expanding economy, real solutions must arise outside the status quo.

It’s a lot easier to talk about what’s wrong with the status quo and fake fixes than it is to talk about real solutions–for a number of reasons.

1. It’s clear to virtually everyone who isn’t being paid to make absurd claims that everything is peachy that the status quo is failing, so discussing the failings is like shooting fish in a barrel.

2. Grousing indignation (at all the failings) is an easy state to sustain; solving problems is an entirely different and not-so-easy state to sustain.

3. Emotional numbness brought on by financial distress and exhaustion reduces interest in solutions–there doesn’t seem to be any when you’re exhausted.

4. The predatory, parasitic status quo generates social fragmentation and an incoherence that breeds disassociation and alienation, neither of which are conducive to discussing solutions.

5. Since the status quo has no workable Plan B to “growth” in an economy in which household incomes have declined 8.5% in a supposedly expanding economy, real solutions must arise outside the status quo, which means the vested interests will lose their stranglehold on wealth and power. This is a no-no, so any solutions that lead to this are marginalized, ridiculed, labeled “impossible,” etc.

6. To solve a problem we must first diagnose the problem correctly. The correct diagnosis of the current pathological status quo is: the problem is not X,Y or Z–the problem is the system itself.

I am indebted to correspondent Tom R. for extracting what might be the core diagnosis of our ills from my discussion with Max and Stacy: “We’ve been brainwashed into financializing the human experience.” (at the 9:20 mark)

 

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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