Letters to Readers
Where to Get It
Youth Futures: 2012 and Beyond (2010 Archive)
Starting in 2012, this space will present updates to the book Standing on Your Own Two Feet: Young Adults Surviving 2012 and Beyond, which is a free book for all young adults. Short corrections will be incorporated into the book as soon as possible, but most additions and supplements will be found only here.
The 2010-2011 Essays: Introduction and Overview
These essays are dedicated to young people in the early 21st century. They are primarily aimed at young adults (roughly ages 10 - 20), but some topics may be of interest to younger kids, and much of it will be relevant to adults as well. It will be driven by questions sent to the author, current events in the news, and the whisperings of the Muses (or whatever you want to call those mysterious sources of inspiration).
Even though the author hopes that all young people have wonderful lives in the 21st century, these essays are not about the people, products, events, music, movies, and books that make our lives fun and interesting during good times. Those are covered well by millions of other web sites. These essays explore the challenges young people might face in the future if the problems in our world don't go away, possibly get worse, and can't be solved by the adult leaders of our world.
I'll begin these essays with an overview of problems lurking around in the world that could cause trouble for young people as they attempt to sink their teeth into life. Some of these are interconnected, usually in complex ways that no one can fully understand, and some are not ... at least, I think ...
From Mother Nature we get all the usual floods, droughts, forest fires, tornados, hurricanes, freezes, and earthquakes. These affect small or (at worst) regional areas. We have never had a global natural disaster. If global warming continues, it will probably show up in lots of different way in different places, and will be our first global natural disaster. Did we cause it? Maybe. Can we stop it? We don't know.
Another trick from Mother Nature is diseases. If the climate changes, diseases will move into new areas, and maybe retreat from others. People spread diseases very quickly because we travel so much. Can our medical system keep up? We don't know.
The "economy" is all the complex human systems that involve money. In late 2007 we entered a "recession," a mild down-turn in the economy, felt to different degrees in different places, but generally global in nature. Will it recover, or get worse? People look at the evidence and argue both ways, but no one knows for sure.
"Politics" is the entire complex system of power-struggles among people. It goes on at all levels, from a brother and sister quarreling over toys, to global empires quarreling over resources (land, water, energy, minerals, etc.) At best, huge amounts of our tax money is spent in the process, and at worse, we are called to fight a war (or it comes to us).
Other problems are harder to classify. Obesity (being over-weight), for example, seems to spring from human nature when most people are rich enough to have plenty of food.
27 December 2010: Will 2011 be like 2008?
As 2010 nears its end, far-sighted economists (those without the need to please anyone) are seeing the price of oil creep upward, just like it did in late 2007 (when the last recession began), and are wondering if 2011 will look like 2008.
In case you don't remember, in 2008 the price of crude oil (the stuff that runs our world: gasoline/petrol, diesel, jet fuel, plastics, fertilizer, and a million other things) kept going up and up until it hit $147 per barrel. The result: most people cut way back on transportation, the economy plunged into a deep recession, many banks failed, and many people lost their jobs and homes.
But there are some differences today. The biggest one is that we never really came out of the last recession. Many cities and states are going broke. Several countries are close. The USA is running on debt.
After dropping to $30 a barrel in 2009, about where we like it, oil is back up to $90 and climbing. What can young people do?
- Keep in mind that the price of gasoline/petrol can change quickly. If you need it to get to work or school, set aside more money than you think you need.
- Have a back-up plan. Is there a bus or train you can use? Get a schedule, and ride it at least once so you know how.
- Is your family living on checks from government (at any level)? There is already talk of cutting pension (retirement or disability) payments. Make a plan for how to live if that happens.
Remember: Personal power is the ability to stand on your own two feet, with a smile on your face, in the middle of a universe that contains a million ways to crush you.
Don't forget the smile.
23 December 2010: The Baltic Dry Index and You
This is secret stuff, not for young adults (or even adults) concerned with choosing the best fingernail color, the latest flavor of diet pop, or the coolest phone apps. This secret is ONLY for those few young adults who really want to know what's going on in the world.
Fact is, as some of you already know, most of the numbers that come out in the news that attempt to answer the question "How is our world doing?" are only half-truths. Unemployment, Gross Domestic Product, Consumer Confidence, Core Inflation, Dow Jones, etc., etc. Most of them can be estimated, adjusted, and revised to death. Therefore, politics slips in, and the numbers become what someone WANTS us to think, not what is REALLY going on.
The Baltic Dry Index isn't like that. It's the cost of shipping raw materials across the ocean. If goes down when fewer people want to ship stuff, up when more people do. Shipping stuff across the ocean is the backbone of a global economy.
Even though some people are starting to wonder if a "global economy" was a good idea, it's what we have right now, and the Baltic Dry Index gives us a fairly tamper-proof measure of how it's doing. It's easy to find using any internet search engine. If you can find a 5-year graph, you will find 2008 to be the most interesting year.
May all your holy days bring blessings and wisdom!
17 December 2010: Good and Evil -- Not So Simple
In most stories, Good is good, Evil is evil, you can easily tell which is which (usually they're color-coded), and Good always wins (by the skin of its teeth).
One reason Real Life doesn't often make good stories (without major tweaks) is because it's so hard to tell Good from Evil. Consider:
Does Evil require conscious intent? Is the child-like blundering buffoon, who accidentally gets everyone hurt or killed, good, evil, or something else?
Are Good and Evil relative to human society? Is the non-conformist, who "offends" everyone but truly hurts no one, Evil? Is the smiling socialite, loved by all, good or evil when he sells out his friends to avoid pain?
According to our society, money, political power, fame, beauty, charisma, and sexual prowess are the measures of success. Is that kind of success the same thing as Good?
If you make a mistake, an error, are you evil? (See NEBADOR Book One, chapter 35, if you have one.) What does it take to atone for a mistake, to "make it good"?
Good and Evil are usually considered to he value-level, or spiritual, concepts. How do they relate to the mind-level concepts of True and False? How about the judgments we make about the material world, such as Beautiful and Ugly? It is tempting to say that Good = True = Beautiful, but is that always the case?
We are swimming in deep waters here. These concepts are too complex for simple answers. Anyone who tries to shove simple answers upon you, probably has a hidden agenda. The young people of the world would do well to sharpen their wits now about the natures of Good and Evil, for many judgments will fly back and forth as our world adjusts to scarce resources and expensive energy.
If you can't spot sloppy or manipulative talk, you may find yourself on the side of Evil, believing ideas that turn out to be false, or owning thing that become ugly without the wrapping and ribbon. The author's Fallacies web page might help, as well as many books on logic and critical thinking. Books on wisdom, without getting caught in the traps of political or religious dogma, are very rare.
13 December 2010: Is it a dreadful, or a fascinating, time to be alive?
Perhaps a little of both. Very much, of course, will depend on our attitudes.
Neither I, nor any other mortal, can see the future. Anyone who pretends to is lying. But we can look honestly at the things going on in the present, look back at history to see what happened next when similar conditions existed, and say some general things about the future that have a reasonable chance of being right.
However, we also have to be honest in another way. The past has never been EXACTLY like the present. The conditions have never been EXACTLY the same. Different people are alive today, with different experiences, than ever before. "Black swan" (random, unpredictable) events can ruin the best predictions.
So, keeping all that in mind, here's the rough shape of what young people get to deal with in the future:
1. Our economic systems have stopped "growing," mostly because energy is no longer cheap. We got very used to constant "growth," so many things in our world must now change. We can dread this change, or change with it. Truly productive human labor will probably become more valuable. People who know how to grow food, fix things, and make useful things, will do best. "Paper pushers" and others who don't produce real, useful stuff, will probably dread this time of change.
2. Weather and climate, for whatever reason, is becoming more erratic and extreme. Some places may become uninhabitable, especially with energy costs going up. We can dread this, especially when the electric heat goes off in the Yukon, or the air conditioning in Arizona. Or, with a knowing gleam in our eyes, we can figure our what climate we can enjoy (without huge energy inputs from fragile, far-away sources), and get ourselves pointed in that direction.
3. Huge government and private debt is growing rapidly all over the world. Bail-outs help some people, usually at the expense of others. Voters won't allow tax increases or spending cuts. If we look at history, the usual solution is to inflate and debase the money. As more money is printed, it becomes worth less. If your wealth is in money, you will dread this. There are other, much more real, things into which you can put your wealth. Find them with that gleam in your eyes.
I could go on and on. In a changing world, changeable people, people willing to get their hands dirty, and keep a smile on their faces, will thrive. If you can become this sort of person, you have a good chance of finding that it's a fascinating time to be alive. Very few people who have ever lived, all through history, have witnessed changes as great as those going on around us today. No one before us has seen human society wrestle with problems that are global in scale. If you keep your eyes open, you will learn things that no human being has ever been able to learn before. It might be a wild ride, but if you have the right attitude, wild rides can be the most fun.
4 December 2010: Lullabies
Songs that put us to sleep. Enchantments. Entertainment. Recreational Drugs.
Danger, pain, confusion, terror, hardship, conflict ... many things happen in human life that are easier to take when we're "asleep." So we turn to "lullabies" in many forms so we won't feel the impact of the hard stuff.
Suddenly we have two choices. We can use the "lullabies" to help us relax after a hard day. Or we can use them to AVOID the day completely.
When we relax after a hard day, we feel good. We got things done, solved a problem or two, and moved a little closer to our goals.
After a day of AVOIDING life with our "lullabies," our problems have piled up deeper, and we are further from our goals.
Needless to say (for those of you deep into the story), there is no place on Ilika's ship for someone (Toli?) who hasn't learned this lesson.
Some things that MIGHT be used to avoid what needs to be done in life: recreational drugs (including alcohol), unhealthy food, socializing and partying, sex, sleep, hobbies, passive recreation, movies, games ... yes, just about anything.
The important decision, in each person's hands, is HOW they use the wonderful ways we have invented for relaxing after a hard day.
FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS: As the world moves deeper into a time of painful change, we will find "lullabies" coming from our televisions and computers that LOOK like news reports, but are designed to make us feel good and put us to sleep. Some people are starting to notice, for example, that no matter how many people are unemployed, the number being reported is always under 10%. The leaders of our world know there is a great psychological difference between a 1-digit and a 2-digit number, and so they use every trick in the book to keep unemployment a 1-digit number. We cannot, and should not, avoid knowing what is coming through the "mainstream" media, but in most countries, we can also look at other sources of news where we will, often, find different information. The "other" source may be twisted in a different direction for some other political agenda, but it will at least give us a more complete picture of what "the field" of information looks like.
28 November 2010: Sleep-walking into the Future
Most people try to protect children from "bad" things, "bad" people, and even most knowledge of those. Luckily, most people are wise enough to bend this rule in order to help children recognize harmful or evil forces, and call for help.
There isn't much disagreement about this, but there is great disagreement about who is a "child" and who is not. Many powerful and vocal people in our world push for young adults to be considered fully "children" and kept from all knowledge of "adult" topics. For example, certain religions would prefer that young people not receive any sex education until age 18. Luckily for young people, most teachers and counselors in the real world know that such a policy would be tragic and bring nothing but pain and confusion.
But there's an even bigger problem. Powerful people in the world (often the same as the people mentioned above) have decided that there is no point in even letting ADULTS know about certain things going on. These people have their fingers deep into government, banking and finance, newspapers and television, and public education. In some countries, they have almost complete control over the flow of information. In the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and many other countries, there is still a push-pull contest going on between the forces of freedom and the forces of secrecy. But in recent years, especially since 2001, the secrecy people have been winning.
This is nothing new. It has been generally true for all of human history. People in power have always tried to keep information to themselves because that increases their power. One negative result of this is that very few people are working on solving the problems that lurk in and near every society. And, to be honest, the problems of the past were fairly small, limited to a tribal area, a kingdom, or a small empire, so keeping most of the people from helping was not a big deal.
The difference today is that the problems we face, and need to solve, are bigger than ever before. They might even be big enough to decide the fate of life on Earth. And yet there are powerful forces putting everything they have into convincing people that nothing is wrong, we can burn and pollute forever and nothing will happen.
Also, forward-looking economists have realized that we are not going to come out of this "recession" (high unemployment, little or no economic growth) because energy will never again be cheap. Yet our leaders have nothing to say other than "increase government spending," "cut taxes," or a few other unhelpful things.
The moral of the story is that only the individual person, whether adult OR young adult, can make sure they are prepared to walk into the future with eyes open. The important information is there, you just have to sniff it out, and use your intuition to recognize when someone is trying to hide it. The future, after all, belongs to young adults even more than it does to adults.
22 November 2010: Privatized or Socialized?
Two big words that are, if understood, powerful tools in your tool box for understanding the 21st century (your century). Two big words that many people out there would rather you DON'T understand.
Two time-honored ways to keep people from understanding important words are to either raise them up on a pedestal and worship them, and to toss them down into a gutter and spit on them. These two words have been treated in both these ways, differently depending on where in the world you live.
So what do they mean?
Shsh! Don't tell anyone! To privatize mean to make private. To socialize mean to make social. When you make something private, you are placing it, and knowledge of it, in the hands of a small number of people. When you make something social, you are placing it, and knowledge of it, in society's hands.
This, more than any battleground, is where the great tug-of-war of the human race goes on. The history of this struggle is long and complex, and you could spend a lifetime studying it. Most people have come to agree that some things are best privatized, like a family, and some things are best socialized, like a government. A million things in between are harder or impossible to agree on, and people argue about them endlessly.
But it gets complicated, and here's where young people can look deeply into things going on in the world right now.
What any individual would MOST like, for their family, business, government, or whatever, is for profits to be privatized, and costs and risks to he socialized. This is the great dream of all people engaged in trying to make a living. If I can get the goodies, and make YOU do the work, eat the pollution, risk going broke, or whatever, I'm better off. Is it fair? Of course not. Does it happen? All the time!
The most recent new invention in this tug-of-war was the company that's "too big to fail." In 2008, they were banks and insurance companies, but they could have been anything. Can you guess what happens when people make decisions about risking money when they know someone else will come to their rescue if they decide wrong? You guessed it. They get careless. It's called "moral hazard" for anyone who wants to look more deeply into it.
As you watch the news during the coming decade, try to spot what's being privatized, what's being socialized, and why. Especially watch for those cross-overs like "too big to fail," and then ask "Cui bono? Who's benefiting from the situation?"
18 November 2010: Following the Mysteries
Throughout most of human history, almost everyone was poor, and so they had to keep their eyes open for the little bits of luck, good fortune, and pleasant surprises that came their way. For most people, there would only be a handful of those mysterious gifts in a lifetime. They might include the inheritance of a good plot of land, a generous gift from a rich person, a pretty girl or handsome lad offering/accepting marriage.
Then the 20th century came along. Suddenly the wealth that coal and oil brought into our civilization made many people, in some countries (like the USA) most people, think they were entitled to a lifetime FULL of good things. We began to think that we didn't need to watch for those mysterious bit of good fortune any more, we could just demand them, at will, whenever we wanted them. We ceased to look for opportunities to help others, as we no longer needed the gifts that might come from doing so. Suddenly the girl/boy down the road wasn't pretty or handsome enough. We wanted that ideal person we saw in the movies or on TV.
The International Energy Agency just verified that we reached the peak of crude oil extraction in about 2006. We have been using more than we found for decades. There are several possible candidates for a substitute, all of them less good in one or more ways. Energy, more than any other single thing, equals wealth. If we have to use less, we may find that we can no longer have the goodies of life just when we want them. We may have to re-learn the skill of watching for those little bits of good luck that the universe sends our way.
1 November 2010: Two Realities
What's real? People have been arguing about it for thousands of years. The different ideas mostly fall into two major groups, and they closely follow the personalities of the people talking.
Social people (about 3/4 of us) usually believe in social reality. It's also called "relative" reality, because the values of things are seen relative to the world of people, human culture, politics, and public opinion. It's a kind of reality that's constantly changing as stuff goes in and out of fashion, and demand goes up and down.
More "down to earth" people (farmers, fishermen, builders, mechanics, etc.) are more in touch with "absolute" reality, the kind that doesn't change with public opinion. A one kilogram rock is pretty much the same today, tomorrow, and a thousand years from now.
Both kinds of reality are important to understand, and both effect our lives in many ways. Both also have their "fallacies," ways they can trick us if we're not careful. One of the easiest ways to be tricked is to confuse the two.
If I walked into a medieval castle and offered a bar of chocolate to the king as a gift, he would probably reward me with gold. Chocolate was rare or unknown, and so it was precious. If I offer the same bar to a president or prime minister today, it would probably be scanned for explosives, and I would be investigated as a possible terrorist. Chocolate is common, and so my gift is suspect. The absolute nature of my gift was the same, its relative value was very different.
The difference between these two type of reality is very important when we try to solve our energy, food, and environmental problems today. Most of our efforts to "solve" these problems go on in the social world. People write or talk, trying to out-write or out-talk the people on the other side of the issue. Political parties stir up the emotions of the people, and make promises. Preachers preach. Newspapers choose to print or not print a story, slant it one way or the other. Leaders struggle to put the right "spin" on everything they say. The price goes up and down with fashion and demand.
But energy, food, and the environment are real-world physical things. They are not effected by the relative reality of human opinion, money, and power. Mother Nature follows the physical "laws" of the universe, not the laws and whims of people. In the final analysis, there is only one thing that Mother Nature cares about: the flow of heat from the sun to the Earth, and then out into space. The unit of measurement is the calorie, and the study of it is called thermodynamics.
Perhaps now you can see why so little gets done about energy, food, and the environment in the halls of government today.
26 October 2010: Cui bono?
It's a simple question, but a powerful tool of looking deeply into things going on in the world.
Although human beings have many weaknesses, and we are not all-wise, neither are we completely stupid. Most people are content to only "figure out" their own lives, but some are skillful at figuring out larger puzzles. Wealth and power usually flows to those smart enough to organize people, manage businesses, or lead nations.
As you watch events in the world, you will notice that some things just don't make sense. Leaders elected to solve a problem just make it worse. Laws designed to take us one direction wind up taking us a different way, sometimes the opposite direction. Conservatives don't seem to conserve anything, and liberals seem unconcerned with freedom. Democracy leaves the people with little power, and "free markets" are usually manipulated to death.
Enter the detached observer. You and I, as we watch events in the world, can step back and look for the flows of wealth and power. The essential question is "Cui bono? Who benefits by it all?" It will often be someone who isn't admitting they benefit, perhaps who doesn't appear to even be involved.
If we continue to damage the ecosystem of our planet, who benefits? If we send all our jobs overseas, who benefits? If working people get poorer and poorer, who benefits? If we don't prepare for a future without cheap oil, who benefits?
Although most of us are hurt by unsolved problems, and maybe all of us in the long run, there is always some group of people who benefits, at least in the short term, by NOT solving problems. If you can see who they are, you will be a big step ahead in figuring out this world of ours.
21 October 2010: The Hardest Decisions
Although Ilika's decision about Zini in Book One was not easy, there are sometimes decisions in life that are even harder. Some people would say they are outside of human ability. Perhaps ... Wednesday Addams could handle them.
One of the hardest is called "lifeboat ethics." Lifeboats, those little boats tucked away on large ships in case the large ship starts sinking, create a situation that is not found at many times and places in life. The lifeboat holds so many people, maybe a few more in a pinch. If too many people are crammed in, the boat quickly becomes overloaded and will sink very easily, especially in rough ocean water. There even comes a point when the boat WILL sink, without question, even in calm water.
This means that those in the boat, at some point, have to make the decision to pull in another person or not. It becomes a choice between letting those in the water die, or swamping the boat and everyone dies.
Sometimes the "women and children first" rule helps a little, but is hard to use after the boat is already loaded and more women and children are found still in the water. Eventually, even with just woman and children in the boat, the same question would arise.
Every boatload of people seems to include some willing to let those in the water die, and some who will pull everyone in. Each group will accuse the other of being "evil," "inhuman," etc. The question is usually resolved by an officer of the ship with a gun on his belt.
6 October 2010: Lessons from "Alpha and Omega"
Tribal warfare, a caste system, abduction by aliens, plenty of sex carefully crafted to avoid censorship ... even a Romeo and Juliet scene! This movie has lots of fun and interesting themes.
Perhaps the one we can learn the most from is the constant tension, all through the story, of social convention vs. individual happiness.
Social convention is necessary for any stable community, from wolf pack to global empire. We need it to assign tasks in any large or complex project. We need it to pass on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. But if taken to extreme, social convention gives us the hive, in which the individual has no freedom and is completely replaceable.
Individual happiness is necessary for people to find meaning in life. We are mammals, not insects, and we can't stand the hive for very long. We need to test ourselves in the wilds, stake out a little territory, and find love. But if everyone seeks only individual happiness, the result is wilderness.
If our economic and ecological problems continue to grow, we will find many wanna-be leaders promising to fix it all with some sort of hive. Many other wanna-be leaders will tell us to throw out all the rules and laws, and THAT will make everything okay.
Humans have tried both extremes, and neither works for us because we are, and always will be, social animals who need some individual space. Beware any plan to fix things with someone's version of the hive, or the wilderness. We need a little of both. Beware anyone's "simple" solution. Six billion people (or however many we wind up with), on a small planet, learning to get along with each other, and with the ecosystem, is NOT going to be simple.
In "Alpha and Omega," the solution was to join the packs with bonds of love that ALSO gave the individuals happiness. To do that, the caste (or class) system had to be broken. Social conventions often lose sight of their purposes, and have to be shaken up so they'll remember.
2 October 2010: Fundamentalism
Not the religious kind.
Common sense. Intuition. The small, still voice. It has many names, but human being have a sense (which they don't always listen to) about what is really important, what in fundamental, what is at the bottom and so supports everything else.
When a storm or other crisis is about to hit, people like to stock up on ... guess what? Food! And when it looks like the crisis might last a long time? A garden and seeds! We must eat, and the bottom of the food chain, that supports everything else, is growing green plants, who need fertile soil. Fundamental.
When the power goes out and we get bored because we can't surf the internet, what do people turn to? Art! The foundation, the very bottom of human creativity, only needs a few simple tools. With paper, pencils, a penny whistle, and a drum, we have a gallery and an orchestra, so we can express our hopes, dreams, and emotions. Fundamental.
When a neighbor timidly knocks on the door because his car won't start, or he needs to borrow something, do we open the door? The foundation of civilization is not governments, churches, police, or armies, but simple respect, the ability to be near each other, sometimes cooperate, without killing each other. Without it we just have chaos, war, and the dangerous wilderness. With it we have community, the marketplace, the arena for games, the music hall, and roads to travel upon. Fundamental.
When someone points at us and screams, "He did it!" do we feel safe, knowing we did nothing and the justice system will provide justice? Maybe. Depends on the justice system. When crimes are acts of harm against other people and their property, protected animals, and the ecosystem that supports us all, then we can easily remember what not to do. When acts that merely offend someone become criminal, then no one is safe, no one can remember all the things that might offend. Fundamental.
Practice. Whenever you see or read about some complicated situation, try to spot the important thing, the foundation, the bottom. It may be the one thing no one is talking about.
29 September 2010: Who Owns Mother Nature?
An article published just today in the Energy Bulletin (Economics for the Hurried, Part 1, Richard Heinberg) explained well one of the biggest problems we have when trying to understand why our economy isn't working very well these days.
For more than 2000 years, from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), economists understood that "wealth" had 3 parts: land, labor, and capital (money and tools for business). Mother Nature is hiding in the word "land" of course, and because there is only so much land, these thinkers knew the economy couldn't grow forever.
But that idea became inconvenient in the 20th century. Everything seemed to be growing, with no end in sight. Another economist, Adam Smith, pushed the idea that economic growth (or "progress") could go on forever. To do this, they had to take "land" out of the list of things that made up wealth.
Land, and the need for land (and the entire ecosystem) didn't go away, of course. But they decided it was just another kind of "capital," and so it was replaceable (if in short supply or damaged) by some other form of capital (a machine, maybe, or some money).
The problem with that is, I hope, obvious. The ecosystem is NOT replaceable by anything people can make. Land is much more than another kind of "capital." Until we rediscover that bit of wisdom, we have little hope of understanding what is happening in our economy, or on our planet.
26 September 2010: Carrying Capacity and Overshoot
Someone once stuck 29 deer on an island where there was lots to eat, but no other deer and no predators. Deer like to have babies as mush as anyone. The population exploded to about 6000, they ate all the food, then the population crashed to 42, who were all starving.
Every "island" has a limit to the number of animals it can feed. An "island," of course, can be a little island, a continent, or a planet. The number of animals the "island" can feed, year after year, is called the "carrying capacity."
No animal is smart enough to figure out the carrying capacity of its "island" and hold its population, by choice, to that number. Mother Nature limits all populations by starvation, disease, and predation (being killed by other animals).
As happened with the deer on the island, a population can temporarily "overshoot" the carrying capacity of the island. When that happens, Mother Nature gets busy to correct the problem, but the environment is usually damaged, and the new carrying capacity is lower than before the overshoot.
In about the year 1900, people reached the carrying capacity of Planet Earth. Then we discovered we could raise the carrying capacity of the planet by using crude oil and chemicals to grow more food. Now there are signs that we might run short of oil and chemicals (especially phosphorus). Are we smart enough to figure out the carrying capacity of the planet and limit our own population? We don't know yet. Can we find new sources of energy and chemicals? We don't know yet. If we don't, will Mother Nature help us bring our population back to the carrying capacity of the planet? That's about the only thing we know for sure.
17 September 2010: Hyperbolic Discount Function
An example will best explain, so I'll make it a relevant example:
We'll never run out of oil.
Millions of years of human evolution have created in us a strong preference for ONLY dealing with problems that are immediate and "in our face." Dealing with things that are "way off in the future" seems like a waste of time and energy. If we plot a graph of typical human reactions, against time (before a problem is felt), we get a hyperbola: our reactions stay close to zero until the problem is "in our face" and ready to bite us, then we suddenly jump up and do something.
But what happens if a problem is sneaky, moves very slowly, is hard to see, and requires lots of time to do anything about? For example, changing our transportation system to use something other than oil (gasoline, diesel, jet) will probably take many years. For another example, lowering the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere to avoid global warming might take decades, maybe longer.
If we, and our leaders, continue to be incapable of seeing beyond the next election (usually 4 years or less), then one or more of these big, slow-moving, slow-reacting problems may turn out to be unsolvable by the human race. In a democratic society, nothing much gets done until most people agree on the need. By that time, will it be too late?
12 September 2010: Who has a job?
It's a very tricky question. In the USA, the news says unemployment is about 10% (10 out of every 100 people don't have a job). But the truth is, there's no way to really tell. Different methods of guessing come up with different numbers, so people pick the number that best suits their purposes.
The "best" (lowest) unemployment number is the one used by the government because out leaders look bad when unemployment is high. That's the 9-10% number you hear all the time. It's called "U3" and doesn't include anyone who has run out of unemployment benefits, or can be ignored for some other reason.
Another guess is the "U6" number, and it tries to count all the unemployed people that "U3" ignores. It's usually about twice as high as the official "U3" number.
Finally, we know about how many people ARE employed, about 58% of adults in the USA right now. But, of course, not all of the other 42% want a job, like college students, housewives, etc.
Unemployment can be much worse for certain groups of people. When jobs become hard to find, young people, old people, and minorities, have much higher unemployment. Right now, in the USA, only about half of young people 16-24 can find a job.
So when the world throws numbers at you, always think about what they mean, and who might be pushing them up or down for some purpose. Not everything can be squeezed into a nice, neat, simple number. Having a way to feed and shelter yourself and your family is very important, very personal, and our world does not offer any guarantee that it will always be easy.
8 September 2010: Minorities
Since the author has spent most of his professional life helping young adults to grow and understand the world, he is especially concerned about them if the world is unable to solve its current host of problems. That concern is really for all minorities, groups of people who share some quality that causess them to be easier to oppress, exploit, and abuse than most people.
Young adults are inexperienced. Children are dependent. Women have smaller muscles than men, and are often burdened with child-rearing. Racial minorities can be visually identified. Cultural and religious minorities evoke fear of strangeness. Any group weakness or identity can be (and has been) used to oppress, exploit, and abuse.
During the 20th century, most minorities in most parts of the world gained rights, freedoms, opportunities, and levels of respect that they had never before enjoyed. Young adults gained protection from many forms of abuse, were able to stay out of the workforce longer, and got more education than ever before.
The 20th century was also the time when we became rich by tapping into the stored energy and mineral wealth of the planet. The author is worried that if we start to run short of that wealth, minorities may begin to see the gains they made, during the 20th century, slowly fade away and return to the systematic oppression under which they lived in the 19th century and before.
Young adults could again find themselves subject to extreme poverty, forced labor at young ages (as in NEBADOR Book One), forced marriage of girls (as still happens today in places), and little or no education. Young adults can be better prepared to deal with these situations, if they come about, by imagining beforehand how they might be able to protect themselves and avoid the worst effects of oppression, exploitation, and abuse.
2 September 2010: Efficiency
Three big words are important to understanding the future, and we'll all be hearing them a lot. The first is EFFICIENCY, which basically means doing more with less. It is sometimes a very good thing, like when we insulate the walls of our houses so they'll stay warm in the winter, and use less fuel for heating.
But we humans make the mistake of thinking that something like efficiency is good all the time. We make it into a myth, a story we tell ourselves to help us understand the universe. "Efficiency is GOOD!"
Except ... it also tends to back us into a corner. Eventually we run into a law of nature that can't be violated. A well-insulated house with electric heat (the most efficient kind) gets cold when the electricity goes off.
RESILIENCE is the ability of a system to take bumps and shocks without failing. Very efficient systems tend to be fragile, the opposite of resilient. Gas furnaces and wood stoves need ventilation, making them less efficient, but they might save your life if the electricity goes off.
But that gas furnace, run from propane bottles, and that wood stove, fueled from a small pile of wood in the garage, may not be SUSTAINABLE. Emergency back-up systems can be very important, but we have to be honest with ourselves about how long they will last. If you live in a forest, that wood stove will be sustainable. In a city, you might have to burn your furniture.
So when someone throws a big word, like EFFICIENCY, at you, take a moment to think about what it means, when it is a good thing, and when it might turn against you.
30 August 2010: Why can't adults fix the problems?
This is a paraphrase of a question from William, 17, a Nebador citizen. Here are my thoughts, without claiming to really know the answer(s) to this question.
We are creatures of habit, and don't like change. We usually hope the future will be like the past, especially if the past has been pretty good (and for the last 2/3 of a century, it has been very good). Most people have learned how to prosper and be happy in the "status quo," the conditions that have been around recently, and the future always threatens to change those conditions, and so upset our prosperity and happiness.
Also, I'm sorry to have to say, there is money to be made, and power to be wielded, by NOT solving our problems. Some people take great pains to position themselves to profit by bad times, and those people often have great influence in our world. That is just one aspect of living in a relatively free society.
But a large part of the reason we aren't very good at solving big problems is just our human limitations. The world is very big and hard to understand. We have been managing cities and little countries for a long time, with fair success. Large countries, with political and economic influence all over the world (called "empires") are harder to manage, and our only long-term success story so far has been the Roman Empire at about 500 years. Persia, England, the USA, and Russia have also tried it, with less success. China avoided many of the problems of empire by sticking close to home.
Now some of the problems on our horizon are global in nature. We have NEVER done anything on a global scale, and have no idea if we even can. The United Nations, the Olympics, worlds fairs, and many other events, are all venues where we can talk and exchange culture, but have no real problem-solving power at this time.
The biblical story of the Tower of Babel seems to be a good example of human limitations. Someone tried to build a tower to Heaven, and the project failed largely because of communication problems. Today, when dealing with global challenges, we still have about a dozen major world languages to deal with. Meaning is easily lost in translation.
Please let me know if you think of any answers to this question that I have missed.
27 August 2010: Energy
Until about 300 years ago, people had only the same sources of energy they had always had: sunshine to grow food, human and animal muscle, and firewood. Suddenly, coal appeared, and about 150 years ago, oil. All other sources (hydro-electric, nuclear, etc.) are vary small in comparison.
With this new wealth of cheap, plentiful energy, we made things. Most things we use today require large amounts of energy to make, or are literally made from oil (all plastics). Also, we made people. Three centuries ago, the human population was about 1 billion. Now it is more than 6 billion. We made 5 billion extra people because our energy wealth allowed us to grow more food and move it around. A typical meal in the USA takes 10 calories of energy (mostly from oil) to grow and transport, for every 1 calorie in the food, and it traveled 1200 miles to get to your house.
Unfortunately, both coal and oil are non-renewable resources. There's a certain amount in the Earth, and when it's gone, it's gone. Oil production peaked in the USA in 1970. In other words, even though the price went way up, the amount we could find and pump out of the ground went down. Oil production in the UK peaked in 1999. Both those countries, and most other countries, have been importing more and more every year from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, and a few other countries.
It is too soon to know for sure, but world oil production has been flat since 2005. It may have peaked. It will take a while to be sure because some countries keep their production records secret.
For about the last 200 years, people who study the economy have mostly ignored the influence of our almost-free sources of energy. They saw the economy growing (most of the time), saw that people were getting richer and richer, and assumed that growth was a good thing that could go on forever. They didn't bother to stop and realize where that growth was coming from.
Now some economists are starting to realize that the "great recession" that started in late 2007 was not caused by a few poor people defaulting on their home mortgages. That was just a side-effect. It was caused by oil prices. They had been rising for years, peaked at $147 per barrel in 2008, dropped low for a few months as demand dropped, and were quickly back up to $70 or $80 a barrel.
What will the future bring? Except for a few people who will always fight (or try to cover up) change of any kind, most geologists and economists are trying to figure out if coal and oil production will decline slowly, over the next 100 years, or more quickly. Every time there is a jump in price, or a fall in supply, our civilization will be "shocked" and have to make adjustments.
Young adults can begin thinking about a world with less (and more expensive) energy, and how that will affect them. Some philosophers anticipate that we will travel less, make things (including food) closer to home so it doesn't have to be shipped so far, and live closer to the land. (Before energy became cheap and plentiful, about 90% of the people were farmers, fishermen, and others who produced food. Now, in the USA, about 5% are.)
22 August 2010: Resources
I was recently asked "What will we run out of first?" The answer, it may surprise you, is that we will never run out of anything. But keep reading, because that doesn't mean we are in good shape about resources.
First, let's be clear about what a "resource" is. There are two kinds: renewable and non-renewable.
"Renewable resources" are the ones that make themselves, and we just tap into the continuous flow. These include sunshine, plants of all kinds (food, lumber, paper, some medicines), and fresh water. These will, as far as we know, always be available as long as we don't harm the environments they need, or use them faster than they can replace themselves.
"Non-renewable resources" are the ones that have just a certain amount in the Earth, and when we use it up, it's gone (except for recycling what might be left in our trash). These include coal, crude oil (gasoline, kerosene, asphalt, plastic, etc.), metals, and other minerals.
We will never run completely out of resources because, as they become scarce, the prices will go up. Higher prices will force us to use less. If water is $1 a gallon, we'll take very short showers. If gasoline is $100 a gallon, we won't drive much.
But we have discovered that our civilization is "shocked" and forced to change when a resource reaches its "peak" of production, the point when production can no longer keep up with demand because the resource is getting harder and more expensive to find.
Some resources that are at or near their "peaks" include: crude oil (for gasoline, plastic, etc.), rock phosphate (for fertilizers), and rare earth metals (for electronics). Over-use and environmental damage, in many places, threatens fresh water, timber, and seafood. The prices of both crude oil and rock phosphate will directly effect the price of food everywhere.
19 August 2010: Jobs
Today I'll look at a questions that made me decide to start writing this blog. One of the honorary Nebador citizens, mid-teens, recently asked me "What are we going to do about jobs?" This is right where many of you are going to be hit first, long before global warming and other (hopefully) slow-moving problems.
A little history. During most of the past, good-paying jobs have been rare. In the middle ages, most people worked all day in fields in exchange for part of the food from those fields, enough to keep them alive. The "middle class" (people with good-paying jobs) was very tiny. You had to be born into the rich "upper class." In the early 20th century, that began to change a little. The middle class began to grow, and during the "Roaring Twenties," more people had money to spend than ever before. It fell apart in 1929 (the "Great Depression") and didn't really recover until World War 2 (1939-1945). Since then, jobs have been pretty easy to find for most people, so you, and even your parents, got very used to that situation. Times have been good for so long that it almost seems like a job and spending money are "rights" we'll always have.
Now jobs are hard to find, but about 80% of the people who want a job (in the USA) have one, although many people are working far below their skill level, and the situation is worse for young adults. Will it get better or worse from here? No one knows, but the Muses are whispering to the author that he needs to help young people whenever he can with this problem.
If it gets better, no problem, end of topic. If it gets worse, it might be time for an attitude-check. It has usually been worse, much worse, and young people found ways to survive and be happy. Even if "jobs," in which you get regular hours and a set wage, become rare again, there are many ways to earn money. Little odd jobs doing yard work, errands, repairs, maintenance, childcare. Increase the value of stuff by fixing it, painting it, whatever, and re-selling it. NEED less money by sharing space and cars, cooking your own food, reading books to each other instead of downloading iTunes, you know. Imagine what young adults at just about any time in history (before 1945) would have done to live and be happy. You can too.
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