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Youth Futures: 2012 and Beyond (2011 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.
15 October 2011: Is Our Civilization Self-Limiting?
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 4 October 2011.
I have written before in the Youth Futures blog (and many other good writers have done so also) that the "Myth of Progress" we have believed for the past 300 years may be joining many other myths that have served their purposes, but are no longer useful.
The "Myth of Progress" was unique to the last 300 years because that was the period of cheap and plentiful energy (mostly coal, oil, and uranium). It has only happened before on much smaller sales, like when a civilization grabbed (through war) a forest with lots of trees, and for a while they had plenty of firewood.
But the "Myth of Progress" may be just one example of something that happens to all civilizations. There seems to be a set of predicaments that all civilizations get into. A "predicament" is different than a "problem" because it doesn't have a solution. Problems have solutions.
We could simplify the "Myth of Progress" predicament like this: when we get something, we use it like there's no tomorrow, then, when tomorrow comes, we wonder where it all went.
If that sounds like the way a child would think ... well, gosh, children ARE just slightly younger people! And there are other habits we have that always seem to limit our civilizations.
Everyone remember the biblical story of The Tower of Babel? It has a couple of different themes, both of which appear to be firmly-rooted parts of human nature. 1. We like to aim high, do huge projects that impress everyone (even God!) 2. We are surprised when those huge projects turn out to be so difficult and complex that we run into communication problems that totally ruin the project.
Another is the dreaded population predicament. We are not alone, as all other creatures on Earth do the same thing. We like to think we are better than those other creatures, but at least in this way, we are not. All creatures maximize their populations, at all times, within the resources available. This means that whenever we raise our "standard of living" in any way, we will eventually have enough babies to "soak up" the extra, leaving us right back where we were.
Another example, a little more complicated. Right now, most countries in the world are running out of money to pay for things they have promised their people. Take away those promised things, and the people vote you out of office (if they don't burn down your office first). The only thing our leaders can do, it appears, is to "print" more money and hand it out to keep the people happy. (Today we don't "print" money, we just change the numbers in computers.) "Printing" more money causes the money to be worth less and less until it's useless. It's happened many times before. Before there was paper money, the government would put less and less silver or gold into the coins, until there was none, just cheap metals that no one wanted. It's another civilization-limiting predicament that we repeat over and over again.
These, and many other human predicaments, pop up again and again all through history. We don't seem to be able to out-grow them. They are "hard-wired" into our nature, presumably through the genetic information he pass down from generation to generation.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is to someday accept these things about ourselves so that they cease to surprise us. But unfortunately, another one of our civilization-limiting predicaments is out tendency to forget lessons we don't really want to learn.
17 September 2011: When Public Education Fails
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 15 September 2011.
About 150 years ago, 200 in some places, our civilization was starting to feel so rich that it decided to try to educate everyone. That's never been done before in history. It went pretty well until 2 or 3 decades ago, then money started tightening up. That's about when our energy supplies began to show signs of not lasting forever (1972 in the USA).
Public education limped along for a few more decades, with budgets tightening more and more almost every year. The tightening process switched into high gear about three years ago with the financial crisis of 2008. Today, states and counties all over the USA are running out of ways to make ends meet. Schools are not our lowest priority, but they're not our highest either. If it comes to a choice between police protection and education, schools will probably lose.
Education won't go away completely for a while. Classes will get bigger and bigger, and teachers (already low-paid) will lose benefits, and have to provide all their own materials. Private schools will remain for rich people, of course.
Hard to imagine, isn't it?
It's actually not a huge problem. Public education began at a time when most adults were not educated in even basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today most adults, in most countries, are. Almost any community can easily find the people to teach the basics, and most communities can even scrape up teachers for trigonometry, foreign languages, art history, and other less-common subjects. Even most young adults would make perfectly good teachers for children in the basic subjects.
So why is it so hard to imagine?
It's been drilled into us that education must take place in big, ugly buildings by professional teachers. It's even illegal, in most countries, to do your own educating. We have chosen to empower our governments to decide who and what will be taught, by whom, and to pay for it with our tax money.
It appears that all that is about to change. As public education begins to fail, there will be a period of confusion, but the solution is simple and obvious. Any family, neighborhood, or community who wants to educate its young people, is completely capable of doing so. They may be acting "illegally" at first, but eventually those laws will be changed, or just forgotten.
Educating hundreds or thousands of youth in one place requires big buildings with security and alarm systems, offices, janitors, repairmen, and gardeners. Educating a half dozen kids in a local neighborhood requires a kid-proofed room in a house.
Managing a class of 30 or 40 kids, few of whom want to be there, requires a professional teacher who has studied disciplinary techniques and structured learning programs. Teaching 3 or 4 kids to read just needs a literate thirteen-year-old and a shelf of good story books.
Of course, if public education fails, the subjects we will need to teach our young people will probably change a little. They will need more do-it-yourself skills like auto mechanics, sewing, and carpentry. Gardening, animal husbandry, and food preservation will become very important if prices in our grocery stores keep going up. Public schools are not, in most places, ready to teach these things. The community is.
As our economy fails because it needs cheap energy, and our governments shrink because they can no longer tax, borrow, or print money, we will begin a process called "re-localization." Education will be one of the easiest things to re-localize. We already have everything we need.
Can you imagine it now?
10 September 2011: The Myth of Progress
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 6 September 2011.
There are many things we don't understand about our universe, so we make myths, stories we tell ourselves and our children to make sense of it all. One of those is The Myth of Progress. It says that our lives will keep getting better and better, richer and richer, more and more comfortable. Always. Guaranteed.
The only problem is that The Myth of Progress was invented to explain a very temporary situation. Starting in about the year 1700, we found coal and started using it. About 1860, oil joined the party, much easier to use. Finally in 1950, uranium promised to be clean and "too cheap to meter."
Then geological reality set in. In 1972, oil wells in the USA started declining. In 2005, it now appears, the world's oil supply peaked, and the stuff will never again be cheap. And we're wondering if we dare keep on using nuclear energy. All of the alternatives, so far, have a serious problem or two.
We learned The Myth of Progress at the same time as we learned to walk and go potty by ourselves. Things learned that early are difficult to question, which is why so many people deny that the climate is changing, the economy isn't growing anymore, and our energy supplies are getting tight.
People from almost any time in the past (before 1700) would have laughed at the idea that the future will always be better than the past. They knew from experience that it probably wasn't true. Their lives were limited by the sunshine and water that grew their food, human and animal muscle, and the little bit of stored energy in firewood. The only way to live at a higher standard was to enslave other people, or steal from them.
Myths have great power ... over us. They don't have much effect on the geology of the planet. Whenever there's a conflict between myths and hard, cold reality, reality wins. We usually see this as a struggle between Man and Mother Nature. She wins, every time.
Each of us has a choice to make. We can walk into the 21st century with blinders on because we believe what we're told. In every society, there's a class or political party that's skilled at telling people what will keep them happy so they won't notice where all the money and power is going. Hitler's Nazi Party was one of those. He promised continual progress too.
Or we can look at the evidence and think for ourselves.
The evidence for The Myth of Progress is very slim, with just a few items like hope, faith, pride, wishful thinking, and the deeply-felt belief that "we're different from everyone in the past."
Every civilization of the past has believed the same thing, that they would continue on into a glorious future. And yet, every one of those civilizations came to an end. The people didn't disappear, just the civilizations. The people of the Roman Empire, when it collapsed in the 400s, continued living, had children, and became today's Italians.
The evidence against The Myth of Progress includes the facts of geology, the laws of physics, the rules of economics, the lessons of history, and everything we know about human nature.
It's natural to think we're better than people of the past. There is even a sense in which that's true, as knowledge does slowly build, over the centuries, as long as it's carefully preserved. But The Myth of Progress only worked while energy was cheap and plentiful.
That just ended.
2 September 2011: Wealth When Money is Sick or Dying
This is an expanded version of a recent post I made on the Dumbledore's Army group on GoodReads.com.
Young adults usually have little power, little money, and few resources. So knowledge of what's going on in the world just might save your life. Even though you have little to work with, if everyone else (including most adults) have their heads in the sand, you might find you can prepare for "stuff" better than most people. Also, knowledge gives you extra time. It takes time to get over denial, decide what to do, gather your resources, and put your plan into action.
Most of you have probably heard about the huge national debt, banks closing, bail-outs, toxic assets, and many other things that are hard to understand. They are hard for me to understand too, even though I study them an hour or two every day. They're all about money. It's sick, and might be dying.
Most people will pooh-pooh that idea. The great US dollar, the noble British Pound, and the strong Euro could never die! Fact: no civilization in the history of the world has ever piled up huge debts, like we have now, without destroying their money.
What can we do???
First, we need to get past denial. We need to get used to the idea that money can die. It only has value right now because we all agree it does. It can die slowly through "inflation" (prices going up slowly) or quickly through "hyper-inflation" (prices going up so fast that no one can do business any more). Imagine $100 bills or 50 pound notes being good for nothing but lighting fires or wiping your ...
Next, while money still has some value, we can put some of our wealth into other things, things that WON'T lose their value. They are called, as a group, "commodities." They include food, tools, fuel, and metals.
What will you do if you can't buy any food? Maybe there is none to buy, or maybe a loaf of bread costs 2 wheel-barrows full of money, and you only have one wheel-barrow full. (That happened in Germany in 1923.) If things come to that point, it'll be too late to do anything. Look around your kitchen. How long will the food last if you can't get any more? The time to go from a "shallow pantry" to a "deep pantry" is now, while food is still in the stores and money still has some value. Non-perishible food, of course.
Also, you can do something about the possibility of money becoming worthless. One of those commodities is "metals," and one of those metals is just right for young adults.
Silver. In the USA, dimes and quarters from 1964 or earlier, and real silver dollars (old or new). You can't find them in pocket change, you have to go to a coin shop. Right now, dimes will cost you $3-$4, quarters $7-$11, and silver dollars are $45-50. Ask for "junk" or "bullion" value coins, not "numismatic" (rare) coins.
Susan B. Anthony dollars are NOT silver, and Sacajawea dollars are NOT gold. They're just like paper money, and their value can die. Don't be fooled.
The price of silver is going up most of the time. That means that if you buy some now, it'll probably be worth more next year. But more importantly: if money dies, your silver dimes, quarters, and dollars will be worth SOMETHING.
If you have SOMETHING of value at a time when most people have nothing, you will be in good shape. If we get hyper-inflation, people are lined up at the grocery store with wheel-barrows full of paper money, and you show up with a silver dime, YOU will get some food. I hope you bring some big, strong friends along (for body guards).
Suggested plan for a young adult with $10 a week: $5 in canned or dried food (with promises from the rest of your family to not touch it except in an emergency) and one silver dime from a coin ship (hidden away in a secret place). In a year, you'll have a nice, deep pantry, and a tube of silver dimes that is probably growing in value, and someday could save your life.
27 August 2011: Why Can't the Economy Keep Growing?
Have you ever gotten used to a favorite set of clothes ... they've been washed several times are very comfortable, just the right size, your favorite colors, and in every way they are just YOU?
Then one day, they come out of the washing machine or dryer and have fallen apart some place that you just CAN'T let others see?
That what's happening to our civilization.
300 years ago we had to collect firewood to heat our homes. The young adults in the family usually got to do that. And we made some candles from animal fat, or burned a little whale oil in a smoky lamp.
Then someone started digging up coal, and it was sooo much easier than firewood. And besides, there was hardly a stick of firewood left in most places.
And one day someone punched a hole in the ground and oil came out, and they separated it into light and heavy oils, and one of them, kerosene, was just right for our lamps at night and a LOT cheaper than whale oil. And the lighter oils would run engines so we didn't have to walk or ride horses anymore!
And finally, someone figured out how to make electricity from atoms! They said it was the energy of the future, and it would be "too cheap to meter"!
Those were the comfortable clothes our civilization put on. The best thing about them: they allowed everything to be bigger and better almost every year! More food to eat, faster ways to get around, more machines, more toys, even computers and video games! And, of course, we could have all the babies we wanted!
The best part of all: we could have it all RIGHT WHEN we wanted it! Food-on-demand. Toys-on-demand. Energy-on-demand.
We were having so much fun that we started forgetting. Our great great grand ... someone ... had to collect firewood, but his memories got lost in the mists of time. Our great grand ... someone ... read books by a kerosene lantern, but the ink in her journal faded and her story was lost.
Then came 2005, a year to remember. For the very first time, we wanted more oil and things made from oil, but the oil companies couldn't pump out enough. So the price of it started going up, up, up. That's what prices do when people want more but there isn't enough.
We're not "out" of coal, oil, and uranium, we just can't find it fast enough any more.
Our "comfortable clothes" just came out of the washing machine "shredded," and we're sad, but "mom and dad" (our governments) are saying, "It's okay, don't worry, no problem, we'll find more ..."
Scientists have known, for hundreds of years, that we would someday run out of things like coal, oil, and uranium. But people don't like to listen to scientists. In fact, entire political parties choose to believe the exact opposite of what scientists tell us.
How did scientists know? They looked at the planet we live on: it doesn't go on forever. If we take something OUT of it that has a limited supply, like oil, then someday we will RUN OUT. If we put more and more people ONTO it every year, then someday we'll will RUN OUT of space.
No one knew exactly when we would start running out of oil. One scientist (M. King Hubbert) guessed the year 2000. He was closer (in 1956) than anyone else.
Now there are too many people to heat with firewood and light with whale oil. And it looks like the supplies of coal, oil, and uranium are going to slowly get smaller and smaller.
Someday, in maybe 50 or 100 years, we'll really run out, or at least you'd have to be very rich to get some coal, oil, uranium, or the things they make. But we still have a big problem TODAY.
Over the last 300 years, the leaders of our world have figured out how to run things so that almost everyone can have a job. But it only works as long as everything is getting bigger and bigger all the time. We didn't realize it until recently, but THAT only happens when energy (coal, oil, and uranium) is plentiful and cheap.
And now it's not, and looks like it won't be ever again. See the problem?
It is not, by definition, a problem because it doesn't have a solution. It's caused by hard physical limits, usually geological limits. The only solution, in the sense that most people would want (and will demand from their political leaders) is to find another Earth somewhere, with all its mineral resources still untapped. In the USA we hear slogans like "Drill, baby, drill" to express this hope.
It's a predicament. We will adapt, and survive as a race, but it may be very hard, with lots of blood, sweat, and tears between now and that time. We can only speculate what the world will look like after that adaptation. I would recommand "World Made by Hand" by James Howard Kunstler as one good speculation about that.
The baby steps that contribute to adapting to that situation include anything that strengthens you and your family, makes you independent of handouts from government and corporations, as those will be failing, even if you technically earned them in some way. Also, learning to live with less energy, and the goods that come from energy (almost everything), as the prices will be going up, up, up.
My next Youth Futures blog post will shed some light on ways to preserve wealth.
26 August 2011: Who Killed Economic Growth?
Here's a nice little video, by the Post Carbon Institute, that describes the basic relationships between energy resources and the economy that are changing our world right now:
21 August 2011: Finding Happiness without Money
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 19 August 2011.
What makes us happy? Safety, food, shelter. Without those basics, we are under constant stress. Companionship, affection, love. Those are important for happiness. Finally, meaning and purpose bring a feeling of deep satisfaction.
It's easy to think that if we don't have comfortable middle-class (or better) lives, we won't be happy. After all, we're "consumers," aren't we? How can we be good consumers without lots of money?
That's a choice many people, without thinking, will make if the economy stays bad or gets worse. If their comfortable lives slip away because of unemployment or other big money problems, they will think they have lost their source of happiness. They might become depressed, maybe even kill themselves. Either way, they won't be much fun to be around.
It's soul-searching time. Will you fall into that trap? Does your happiness require spending lots of money? Does your self-worth have a price tag? Are you just a "consumer"?
Until the middle of the last century, very few people had much money. Almost everyone was, by our standards, very poor. And yet, children still played, they grew up and went out on dates, fell in love, and started families. The circle of life goes on.
If you can, find somewhere to sit down on the ground. You know, real dirt or grass. A crackling campfire would be nice, but is optional. Notice the natural things around you: rocks, plants, insects, maybe a bird or dog, clouds, sky. You are now connected to your ancestors going back at least 30,000 years. They lived in caves, hunted animals, and painted pictures on the walls. They saw and thought about the same things you are seeing. A few of those plants might be edible, others poisonous. Some insects sting. Is that dog your protector or your enemy?
Now stand up and look at something recently man-made, like the plastic siding on your house, or your metal and plastic car. Can you feel the connection with your ancestors fade away as your mind shifts to taking pride in your modern comforts?
Sit down on the ground again. Feel that connection once more with the boys and girls, men and women, who painted pictures on cave walls. They had nothing compared to us. No stores, no cars, no electricity. They took joy in the same things that bring happiness today: a tasty meal, warm clothes and bedding, the smile of a friend or lover.
The trick to being happy without money is to choose your "point of view" carefully. If you become poor, and insist on looking "down" on your new situation from where you were, you will only see what you don't have. That'll make you unhappy, guaranteed.
Back on the ground, at least in your mind. Feel the hard floor of the cave, smell the food cooking at the fire, see the eyes of your people gleaming in the dim light. What do you have? Almost nothing. What are you guaranteed? Just death.
Now look "up" from where you are and start seeing what you have. It's a lot more than your cave ancestors had. Will life be hard? Probably. It always has been, except for some of us from 1945 to 2007.
Start with the basics. You need a "cave," some "furs" to keep you warm, and your "weapons" for the "hunt." Those are probably a room and a stove, some used clothing and blankets, and the tools of whatever work you can do. Chances are you have at least that much already.
Now stop. Sit and breathe. Remember that you now have everything most of your ancestors had. Find that core happiness inside you. You are alive on a beautiful planet. If you don't grab that inner happiness now, and instead you start chasing more "stuff," that happiness will always be just out of reach in the future. It's your choice.
13 August 2011: We cannot solve problems with the same attitudes that created them...
As obvious as this seems, few people believe it, and even fewer people do anything about it. The history of the human race is filled with people making the same mistakes over and over and over again. And when we do decide we must solve a problem (usually because it's about to kill us if we don't), we usually do it by "kicking the can down the road," in other words, finding a way to put off solving the problem until tomorrow, or next year, or when someone else is in charge.
This creates a special place and purpose for young people. You are still forming your intelligence and values. Most adults change little of their thinking after about age 20. The few adults who are willing to really grow are usually too few in numbers to change the way the world is run.
At this moment in time, a large number of problems are circling our civilization, like wolves around a camp. Here's a simple list, a dangerous (in my opinion) old attitude, and a possible new attitude:
Running out of Energy and Minerals:
The Rich are getting Richer, the Poor are getting Poorer:
Most adults can't make this huge change of thinking. As strange is it sounds, it would be easier for them to let our civilzation, perhaps our entire race, die. Only young people can do it, because they are growing up with these issues in their faces, and are forming their values to match.
We adults are sorry we have to hand you young people this mess, and we are sorry that we can't fix it before we go. We just...can't. We hope you will be able to, and we wish we could see the world you will someday create.
P.S. Not all adults are stuck in their thinking. Some of us will do everything we can for the rest of our lives to help turn our world toward one that will be livable for you young people when you grow up. You'll know us when you meet us, and we'll know you by the sparkle in your eyes and the courage in your words.
6 August 2011: Keeping a Low Profile
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 4 August 2011.
As riots, looting, civil unrest, and revolutions come to more and more parts of the world, it's good for young adults to have some ideas about how to deal with these things. This post is mainly for those people who are not involved in the violence, but even if you have reason to be involved, or can't avoid it, there may be some useful ideas here for other times.
Most forms of martial arts training include this idea, and a good example can be found in the movie Karate Kid. When a punch is coming your way, "be not there." In other words, the easiest way to avoid damage is to not be in the path of destruction.
In martial arts, this requires quick movement, and not all of us are that quick. But in many other situations, clear thinking can substituted for speed. For example, in a forest fire, a moment of thought about the direction of the wind can save your life. If you are fast, but don't think, you may run in the wrong direction and find yourself surrounded by smoke and flames.
But the fact is that most dangers in our modern world come from other people in one way or another, and usually they are not, at least at first, directly interested in you. The idea of keeping a "low profile" therefore is all about sensing what is important to the dangerous people, and noticing where they are focusing their attention. Only then can you "be not there" in the sense of being somewhere or something they can't "see."
This is especially challenging for extroverts, people people, because they naturally want to attract the attention of other people to help them solve problems. Babies and young children are also this way: it is their nature to cry to attract help.
But assuming we are not prepared and equipped to fight our way out of a dangerous situation, then we must get it clear in our heads that we are trying to NOT attract attention, NOT be seen. In a sense, we are trying to practice invisibility. We can't literally be invisible, like some super-heroes can, but we can make ourselves uninteresting.
If the dangerous people are looking for an easy target to shoot at, then you need to be hidden, in the shadows, behind things, wearing dark clothing - you get the idea. But what if the dangerous people ARE looking for someone lurking in the shadows? Change of plan! Now you need to be out in the open, walking tall like you owned the place. See the difference?
Human beings are territorial. Understanding and accepting the territorial "rules" can save your life. In most cases, the boundaries are defined by something physical like a fence or wall. Or it could subtle, like just grass on the edge of the sidewalk or road. We don't like strangers in our territories, or lingering near the boundaries. The one acceptable thing a stranger can do is pass by at normal speed, acting like you are going somewhere else. If you go too slow, you will look like you are "checking out" the boundary. If you go too fast, people think you are fleeing the scene of your latest crime.
Sound, Posture, Color, Accessories
Most of the time, being noisy draws attention, but if most people are making noise, being silent might stick out (if you can be seen). Just be sure to pick the right kind of noise. If everyone else is laughing and you scream - you get the idea.
Good, upright posture is a symbol for "respected citizen," while hunching and slinking means "guilty." If you feel like freaking out, remember that a certain kind of freaking out means "respected citizen in distress," and a slightly different kind means "mentally-ill weirdo."
Every society has color codes. Bright colors are usually acceptable for women, not for men. Authority figures wear black or dark blue with white, yellow, or orange lettering or trim. Remember that those authority figures don't like civilians pretending to be one of them, but there are so many kinds of private security people today that the lines have blurred. Dark colors are best for hiding, if that's what you need to do. Light colors, and especially warm colors, stick out in any natural environment. The natural world is black, brown, and dark green. Our human world is mostly shades of gray.
If you must carry a bag or purse, is it snatchable? A short strap over one shoulder is easy to snatch, a longer strap over the opposite shoulder is much better. But in any case, a bag means "valuables inside." Are your valuables really inside? Remember that in bad times, a sandwich may be just as interesting to a thief as gold. Be prepared to let go of it - it's not worth your life.
Openly carrying a weapon is NOT a low profile method. It is an implied dare to others, few people are prepared to use a weapon well, and it will probably attract the attention of authorities. An umbrella (in a rainy place) or a cane (that you appear to need) might be much more useful, and will avoid negative reactions.
If our world keeps slipping into tougher times, many people will be defiant, trying to hold onto "The American Dream," or whatever you want to call it. There may be times to stand up and do that, and other times when it is too dangerous. You must choose, and the situation may change from moment to moment. "Low Profile" is just one tool in your personal toolbox, among many others.
30 July 2011: Money Without Jobs
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 18 July 2011.
Young adults, for a long time now, have only experienced spending money coming from two places: an "allowance" from our parents, or a "job." Both sources may be drying up.
The first source, in our younger years, is in danger because many parents are having trouble making ends meet. In late 2007, the world economy entered what became known as "The Great Recession." Adults argue about what caused it even today, but it moved millions of people from the "middle class" into the struggling lower class.
In 2010 we thought we were coming out of it, only to have energy and food prices, rising all over the world, take the steam out of it.
What about a job?
Unfortunately, youth unemployment is worse than adult unemployment. In almost every country, young people are graduating school and finding few jobs, of any kind. With real adult unemployment at about 20% or worse, young people of working age (usually defined as ages 16-24) are finding 40-60% unemployment. These young adults are not happy, and are a major force in the revolutions occurring in the Middle East.
So what to do?
At times like this, we must take a hard look at our assumptions. People have been making money without jobs ever since there was money. Here are some ideas. Every person's situation is different, and some of these suggestions will be worthless to you. But maybe, just maybe, one of them will help.
Casual labor -- Young adults have a long history of doing little jobs for people that would not make sense to hire an adult to do, even part-time. Yard work, painting, recycling, house cleaning ... the list goes on. Elderly people especially need these services, an hour here, two hours there.
Value adding -- We have become such a throw-away culture that we have forgotten how useful things can be if given a little fixing up. Perhaps you've seen grandma scraping out a peanut butter jar, washing it, filling it with something beautiful (but inexpensive, like colored macaroni), and making a gift out of it. We call this the "depression mentality." Well, guess what! It may be just the mentality you will need to live and prosper in the future.
Bartering -- Who needs money? It makes trading more flexible, but if you don't have any, you don't have any. What DO you have? Someone who has something you want will probably be much more willing to part with it if you offer something in exchange, even if it's not something they really need. They might know someone who can use it, even if they cannot.
Marriage -- A "team" of any kind can be much more efficient and flexible in hard times than a single person. Each of you is good at different things. When one cannot find any work, maybe the other can. Many of the expenses of living (such as housing) are about the same for two people as for one. But be careful. Most modern societies do not give young people much, if any, preparation for relationships, so there are lots of people out there who have no idea how to be in one. The list of things other people will tell you that you "must have" to be married is very long, very expensive, and, of course, a completely modern invention that only works in good times.
Community -- When economic times are bad, one of the greatest assets you can have is a community that knows you. All of the suggestions above contribute to community, but I have one additional idea from Saint Francis of Assisi. When you can't find a job, no one has money for casual labor, you can't find anything to fix up, and you have nothing to barter with, just give of your time and skills. If you start doing things for people that they are unable to do (as with elderly people), or don't have time to do (as with people who have jobs), they will, with rare exceptions, make sure you are compensated. Maybe all they can do is make you a simple meal. If you are hungry, maybe that's all you need.
23 July 2011: On Your Own and Okay
First came attitude. You had to ask yourself what you were going to do if YOU were alone, or the one in charge, during a crisis. There are really only two possibilities: FREAK OUT (stay a child and make others take care of you, if there is anyone), or DEAL WITH IT. You know yourself. You know in your heart which you will be.
Next came skills. "First Aid" from last week's post is important, but there are many others that are good to have, and it depends a lot on where you are and what kinds of problems and disasters are around. Some good skills to have:
Now comes knowledge.
You (and I) grew up during the ONLY half-century in all of history when people didn't have to keep an eagle-eye on the world around them for dangers and opportunities. Instead, we had "safety nets" like food stamps, and "authorities" like police, firemen, and medics. We didn't have to look, listen, or think. "They" would do it for us.
Those "safety nets" and "authorities" are disappearing. If you don't know this, that's just the beginning of the KNOWLEDGE you need to start getting.
Don't count on getting that knowledge from the TV. Every society has "filters" for its information sources to keep people from panicking. Those "filters" are usually turned on for any body of information aimed at the general public. For example, the TV reports that unemployment right now in the USA is about 9-10%. That's the "U3" number, it's not true unemployment, and they know it. The "U6" number is closer, currently about 17%. Even it excludes some people, so real unemployment is probably 18-20%.
A good library can be your friend, and the internet also. You'll have to look at "fringe" stuff, stuff that the "mainstream" would like you to ignore. If something bad is happening, and you want to know about it, you'll have to listen to the "bearer of bad news." All through history, that person has been spat upon, and often killed. You'll have to listen to him, and also pick out and ignore any "craziness" he brings along.
Why go to all that trouble to get knowledge?
Because knowledge is power. Knowledge gives you the ability to plan ahead. Just taking a few minutes to IMAGINE a bad situation, and a way you might deal with it, puts you way ahead of most people.
As soon as you have done that, you can start to think about any skills or supplies you would want, but don't have. You can SOMETIMES gain a little bit of skill the first time you have to do something. You can NEVER get supplies if you wait until you need them.
Let's try it. Electric power goes out at night. Imagine getting to your little sister in another room, who is screaming. Remember, it's PITCH DARK. What do you need? Flashlight. Is it somewhere you can grope for it by feel from your bed? It's supposed to be in a drawer in the kitchen. That's a long way to grope, but you make it, on hands and knees. It's gone! Someone didn't put it back last time they used it. Note to self: your OWN flashlight (they're not very expensive) in YOUR drawer, in YOUR room.
"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."
P. S. Two sets of alkaline or lithium batteries, one in the flashlight, one spare. Welcome to life.
16 July 2011: On Your Own!
This continues last week's post with some detailed thoughts. Older adults who might be reading this should remember that it is primarily aimed at young adults, roughly ages 10 - 20.
The name of the game is: Get Real.
If things get rough, and YOU are responsible for your own life, maybe also the lives of others, many things that usually have a place in your life must be set aside RIGHT NOW: email, text messages, Facebook status, tweeting, what's on TV, you know the rest. These are all relationships with people who are not with you, some of whom you don't even know. They can't help you, and you can't help them.
If the telephone system still works, there may be people CLOSE BY that you should communicate with. They may be trying to get home to you, or tell you of a place you should go to avoid danger. Remember that the land line system will work much longer than the mobile phone system. But even if telephones work, remember that you can't help aunt Helen who lives 2000 miles away, nor can she help you, so chatting with her is a VERY low priority.
And it's all about priorities. The highest priorities are the things that can kill you quickest.
And remember, we're talking about a time when the USUAL people who come to your rescue are not available: police, firemen, doctors, nurses, social workers, whatever.
Here we go.
Heartbeat? Yes, I know yours is beating. What about your little brother who just got an electric shock. He's got about one minute to live. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Yes, you.
Air to breathe? Of course there's always air ... unless your sister is choking on a piece of food, or there's a fire and the air's full of smoke.
Bleeding? No, not your period. Real, live, red stuff gushing out of a deep cut. You have to stop it NOW. No, you can't sew it up, super-glue it, or duct tape it, and you probably can't even use a first aid kit, as most of them don't have what you need (compresses). That's right, you'll probably have to use your hand, which means you'll have to touch the blood, and probably get it all over you. Either do it, or wave good-bye.
Bones? Now you can slow down a little. The important thing is to keep the person, or at least the part of the body with the broken bone, still. If the bone has broken the skin, that's a bleeding problem. If the person is in so much pain they go unconscious, watch the heartbeat and breathing closely, and think about finding someone who can set broken bones.
Burns? 1st degree burns are just red and need little care. 2nd degree are blistered: keep the blisters clean and unbroken. 3rd degree burns crack or char the skin, must be kept clean (plastic bag or wrap) and the person will need antibiotics.
Whew. How are you doing? That was just the most immediate, in-your-face stuff. Next week I'll talk about what comes next.
9 July 2011: On Your Own?
Remember the "Home Alone" movies? Let's look at that idea a little more seriously. This post will just be an introduction, as it's a huge topic.
One of the strange things about young adulthood, roughly that second decade of life, is that you know stuff but you don't, you can do things but you can't ... so why is that? A hundred years ago, most people in the 10 - 20 age range knew most of what they needed to know about life, and could take care of themselves in all but the most challenging situations. Only a very, very few extremely rich kids were "led by the hand" through young adulthood.
Today, when you finish elementary school, you're told you're still a child and now you have to go to middle school, then high school. When, with great effort, you graduate high school, you're told you qualify to pump gas or baby-sit, and now you have to think about college. What's up with that?
Adults like to forget that learning to take on responsibilities requires PRACTICE. In my experience, those (few) kids whose parents make them practice responsibility from age 6 or 8, grow up with confidence that they can handle large and complicated projects. Those (many) kids whose parents would rather do things for them, grow up ... um ... as lazy and whiney marshmallows.
Let's imagine, just for a moment, that the economy continues to crumble, safety nets like unemployment insurance keep tightening up or go away completely, the weather gets weirder and weirder as the climate warms, and the price of almost everything, especially food, keeps climbing.
Conditions like that will make it very hard for parents to fulfill part of the "American Dream," the part that says they should protect their kids from all dangers, troubles, and even inconveniences. It won't be because they don't want to, but just because those protections take money, a home, a car (or two or three), groceries, memberships, subscriptions, utilities, and lots of other things. Most parents, as they lose those things, will do everything possible to hide it from the kids, just as our governments are hiding poor people by giving them unemployment payments, social security benefits, food stamps, and all that.
For both the government and many parents, there may come a day when it can't be hidden anymore. This may or may not mean your parents are actually gone. They may still be there, just not able to give you anything. They may even be in physical or emotional distress and need help from someone, and the only someone around may be you.
Are you ready?
3 July 2011: Emotional Resilience
This essay was first syndicated at Blogging Authors on 30 June 2011.
One of the most powerful tools for dealing with a changing world is the ability to keep our heads (rational minds) in control, even when our hearts (emotions) would rather be. This is also called Emotional Intelligence, but there is an even older and simpler term: Maturity. If your emotions are always in control, you are a child, no matter how old you are.
This does not mean NOT feeling. Our emotions are very important when we need to sense things about our environment, make judgments about people and situations, and form bonds (or run from them).
What it does mean is FEELING the feelings, not ACTING on them. That's the key. If you feel something and act on it without thought, you are a slave to your emotions. Slaves are seldom treated well by other people or events.
But if you FEEL the feelings, then DECIDE what to do with a clear head, you have the best chance of staying alive, and maybe even being happy.
Yeah, I know. Easier said than done.
Have you taken a Myers-Briggs personality test? For NEBADOR readers, there's a simple one in Book One, chapter 15, and the Deep Learning Notes explains it. There are also tests all over the internet you can use. It's not a "right-wrong" kind of test, but instead it just figures out which of 16 personality types you are.
Those of you who have a "J" as the last letter in their type are in most danger of acting on feelings. "xxFJ" types do this routinely, but "xxTJ" types can also do it when things get stressful. That doesn't mean these types are bad, it just means they are better adapted to stable social situations. If you pay attention to the main characters in books and movies, they are almost always "xxFJ" types because we love their spontaneity and courage.
Back to Emotional Resilience. Once you clearly understand the idea of keeping your mind in control even when feeling, and you decide you want to do that, the next step is to practice. It's the kind of thing that you can't really practice at times and places you choose, but instead just have to wait for emotional situations to pop up in life, do your best, and look back to see how you did after it's over.
There are a few rules that can help.
Never do anything dangerous, if it can be avoided, when feeling deeply, even if you think your mind is in control. If nothing else, your reaction time will be slowed. Good pilots never fly aircraft when feeling emotional. Remember: driving is a kind of piloting.
Never make big, important decisions, if they can be avoided, when feeling deeply. Your rational mind, even if in control, is not operating on "all cylinders." Save decisions about education, employment, marriage, etc., for when you are clear-headed.
If everything is basically okay in your world (parent has a job, food in the kitchen, etc.) it may be hard to see how important this stuff is. But the world is changing rapidly, and many young adults may soon find themselves dealing with difficult, sometimes dangerous situations. You might have a parent, friend, or boy/girlfriend at your side to help, or you might be alone. Even if someone is beside you, you might discover that THEY are consumed with emotions, and YOU will have to think clearly, if anyone is going to.
2 July 2011: The Future of Young-Adulthood -- Childhood's End?
a talk by J. Z. Colby at the MENSA Annual Gathering 2011, Hilton Hotel, Portland, Oregon, USA
An extended childhood was one of the perks of a century of wealth from cheap energy and the technology to use it. That era may well be winding down. If so, today's young adults -- roughly, those between the ages of 10 and 20 -- will be facing a tough transition just as their parents are struggling in other areas. The NEBADOR series of young-adult science fiction novels was inspired by Muses who obviously believes that young people need to begin sharpening their wits and honing their skills now, before the future forces them to do so.
25 June 2011: Your Own Personal Web of Life
People can't live in a "vacuum." We are biological beings, animals, mammals, who must have connections to our world on many levels.
Our connections start with Planet Earth, Terra, Gaia, Earth Mother. Without air pressure close to one atmosphere, which is 20% oxygen or so, we will die in seconds or minutes. Temperatures outside of about 10-50 degrees C (50-120 F) will kill us in a few hours without protective clothing. Without a litre (quart) of water a day, we won't last a week. If we can't scrape up a thousand calories a day of food, we'll waste away in a month or less. Protein, vitamins, and minerals are also necessary, or diseases will get us.
Beyond the basics, we need safety from whatever dangers are lurking about, and shelter from sun, wind, rain, and snow.
If we have all that, we might be alive, but we won't be happy.
We are social creatures who need companionship and love. We are dependent on parents for five years in a simple society, and ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty years in a complex society. We need friends to share thoughts and experiences. Most of us need a lover, and someday a mate and children.
Some of us are happy with that much. Some of us aren't.
We need meaning and purpose. Skills and abilities, and a job or business in which to use them, brings that for many people. Some need an art medium with which to express their creativity. Some need sources of knowledge and learning. A few crave to exercise power.
What do you need?
Get blank paper, pencil, and eraser. Write "ME" in the middle, and close around that, put the things and people most essential to you. A little farther away, put the things and people who are important but not essential. Farther away still, those that are nice but not too important ... you get the idea.
Draw different kinds of lines from "ME" to each thing or person, perhaps a single line to friends, a double line to your girl/boyfriend, a dotted line to your boss at work, or whatever seems right to you. Some of the other people on your diagram have relationships between them, such as your parents, who were mates, or your friends, who might also be friends with each other.
Your personal web of life may need to be drawn several times to get it right. You might discover things/people who are missing that you want to add, others you want to get rid of. Put a date on it, and expect to redraw it once a year, maybe more often. It's a powerful tool to understanding your life and your sources of strength and happiness.
18 June 2011: Some Thoughts on Last Week's Recap
Several young people have written with questions and gripes about last week's post, so here are some clarifications.
There has certainly been some "economic activity" in the last three years, but that's not the same as "economic growth." And even though our governments report some "growth," many economists have analyzed it, and realized that it can all be account for by "stimulus" programs, like "cash for clunkers" that paid people to buy new cars in 2009-2010. That's not real growth because it just adds to the national debt.
It's true that in the USA the government reports unemployment in the 9-10% range. That's "U3" unemployment, which doesn't count people employed part-time who want a real job, and people who have given up and are selling their family heirlooms on eBay. That more complete measure is called "U6" and is usually about twice "U3." Even "U6" misses some people.
Climate change can never be "proven." It's too complex. The countless interactions going on all over the planet between sunshine, clouds, air, water, earth, and ice are beyond any human mind (or computer) to fully understand. That, in my opinion, is not a good reason to pretend nothing is happening with our climate.
Some of the other "safety nets" that young adults might lose include: access to healthcare, protection from slavery and forced marriage, and not being held legally responsible for committing crimes.
"When a problem is in your face, it is often too late to prepare." Most kinds of preparation take time. Examples: If you hear that the grocery store is running out of food, remember that everyone else heard that too, and they are on their way, probably ahead of you. If you discover you need to fix your own car, you will need tools from one store, a repair manual from somewhere else, replacement parts from an auto parts store, and advice from someone with experience. If you're already late for work, then you had better start walking or riding your bicycle, at least for today.
Thank you, everyone, for the feedback, and I hope these comments help.
10 June 2011: Recap of Threats to Young Adults
After writing about many different topics in this blog over the last three-quarters of a year, all of which are or can easily become threats to young adults, I've received a couple of requests for a recap (short for recapitulation.) Since I don't have any topic begging to be explored this week, it seems like a good idea.
There is growing awareness that economic growth, which stopped in 2008, won't get started again without cheap energy. In our world today, that mostly means cheap oil.
We now have several years of data about oil production since it stopped rising in 2005, even though demand and prices continued to rise. As oil fields all over the world are producing less and less, the problem is no longer demand, it geological limitations. Prices can fly to the moon (as they did in 2008 and are thinking of doing again), and there still won't be more oil. Unless there's more oil than we want, it will never again be cheap.
There are several possible substitutes for oil, but they all seem to have a huge problem, some more than one problem. Electricity, in general, is very hard to store, and never densely enough to use in aircraft. Solar and wind generation is difficult to scale up to the size we need. Nuclear is too dangerous. Tar sands and shale gas cause pollution we can't afford, and ethanol costs more than it's worth. Maybe one of today's young adults will discover our next good energy source, if there is one.
Our economic systems are designed to grow. If they can't grow, they start to fall apart. As everyone scrambles to cut losses and protect what they have, "non-essential" workers are the first to go. Young adults, with little experience and education, have a much higher unemployment rate (40-60%) than older adults (about 20% in the USA). Young adults may be forced to find new ways to make money, of just live without it.
To try to keep paying all the bills, our government creates more money (it's one of the few things it has the power to do). That causes prices to rise, especially energy and food. If the government doesn't stop creating money, we'll get hyperinflation, when you need a wheel barrow to carry your money instead of a wallet. That's just before money dies completely. That would be a dangerous time of confusion when the only way to "buy" something would be to trade for something else useful.
Climate change is showing itself more and more often all over the world. Weather is becoming more extreme, hot places getting hotter and drier, wet places wetter, and storms more violent. Often these changes hurt our food supplies, or bring new disease outbreaks. Our adult world leaders refuse to do anything about it. Young adults will inherit a planet that will probably be unable to support human life in many places it now does, especially when rising energy costs (for heating, cooling, pumping water) are considered.
Many of the services and protections young adults gained during the 20th century are going away. As the world gets poorer, schools will get their budgets cut, and libraries will close. Social safety nets will disappear, and labor laws will be ignored. Young adults will need to earn money, but there will be few jobs, and money will be worth less and less.
The mainstream adult world is still hoping that all the bad stuff going on in the world is just a "soft patch." I hope they are right, because I like movies, pizza, and Disneyland too. But those of us who pay attention to reality (geology, ecology, climate, and history) aren't holding our breath.
Young adults can prepare themselves for an uncertain 21st century by sharpening their wits and honing their skills before they are face to face with a dangerous situation. When a problem is in your face, it is often too late to prepare. Yes, some people will laugh at you for growing a garden or learning a martial art (for example) when everyone else is shopping and partying. That's one of those tough choices in life.
3 June 2011: Are we Angels or Reptiles?
If this sounds suspiciously like a Biblical question, I suppose it is, but we're not talking about it just because it's in the Bible. It's important enough to be a huge concern for us now, just as it was 2000-3000 years ago.
It's a question about human nature, about the connections in our brains, about the gene sequences in our DNA. It's very hard for us to look at, for two reasons.
First, it's all in code. When we open a human brain, even under a microscope, we can see the connections, but we don't know what they mean. When we look at the genes in our DNA, we can write them down, but again we don't know what they mean. We're just beginning to notice that certain gene sequences come with certain traits or diseases.
Second, when we DO learn something about ourselves, layers and layers of defenses kick in. Since we're looking at ourselves, we see what we want to see, our bruised egos exaggerate good things, reject unpleasant things, and our social groups (from a lab team to national government) tell us what is okay to find, and what is not.
So, given all the difficulty in looking at our human nature, we'll keep this simple.
Most of the time, we float along through our daily routines being "civilized people." We say "please" and "thank you," we pay for what we take, stop at red lights, etc. That civilized behavior is possible because we're well-fed, we have a home, someone loves us, and the police take care of the bad guys.
Take away one or more of those "nice" things, and something strange happens.
Inside each of us is a "reptile," a simple creature who is concerned only with safety, food, and sex. When some important aspect of civilization goes away, our "reptile" usually comes out, and is not afraid to run away, or fight to the death, to get its basic needs met.
Inside each of us is also an "angel," a being who wants to help others and cooperate with everyone, even in the middle of danger, hunger, and loneliness. The "angel" is even willing to risk death to save others.
Which are we? We can go either way, and sometimes swing back and forth. We have the choice, although it may not feel like a conscious choice.
The "reptile" isn't perfectly adapted to life because we can't think very far ahead when consumed by fear, anger, and other strong emotions. We elect leaders like Adolf Hitler, we fear anyone who is different in any way, and we see everything as "us or them" battles.
The "angel" isn't perfect either, perhaps letting a friend die instead of finding the courage to kill the bad guy.
Young people can get to know both their "reptile" and their "angel" by experiencing things that are "outside their comfort zones." Sports, camping, hiking in the rain, going a day without food ... the list is different for each person. By getting to know your reactions to "uncivilized" situations, you will have more choice and more personal power when a REAL uncivilized situation comes along.
28 May 2011: A Magic Word for the 21st Century: EROEI
I've received several questions about it recently, so let's get serious about exactly what it is. Like many magic words, it's hard to say. But if understood correctly, like a magic word should, it has great power.
Energy Returned On Energy Invested.
Coal doesn't sit on top of the ground waiting for our shovel. Gasoline/petrol doesn't grow on trees. Kerosene/jet doesn't flow down hillsides in streams. Propane/methane ("natural gas") doesn't pop out of the ground and jump into tanks. Electricity only occurs naturally as static in dry weather, and lightning, the first too small to use, the second too large.
No matter what kind of energy we use, it takes lots of work to collect it, get it into the right size and shape, move it to the place we want to use it, store it until we want it, and finally turn it into something useful (heat, motion, etc.)
Back in the 19th century, when the first oil wells were drilled in Pennsylvania and Texas, oil gushed out of the ground all by itself. EROEI was about 100:1. Today, in Saudi Arabia, about 30:1. In the USA where all the oil fields are past their prime, about 20:1. In very old oil fields where we're trying to get the dregs, 10:1.
But those numbers only count the energy used directly to pump the oil. They don't take into account all the energy used to make all the tools and materials, and support all the people, that it takes to make an oil field work. They don't include the costs of transporting and refining the oil. Even once it's in our cars and trucks, some of the gasoline/petrol/diesel is used to carry the weight of it in the fuel tanks.
I bet we could safely cut all those EROEI numbers in half if we want the TRUE energy cost of getting our energy.
Now comes the interesting part. Fact is, we picked the "low-hanging fruit" first, the easy-to-get oil on land and in shallow seas. As we go into deeper and deeper water, and into countries where people are killing each other all the time, the costs go up. Now we are even thinking of drilling in the arctic.
As EROEI moves down, costs go up. We'll never "run out," we'll just be unable to pay for it (except for a few very rich people).
Guess what happens when EROEI drops to 1:1 or less? You guessed it. Everyone goes home. It's better to keep the energy we started with.
Sometimes we pretend to "make" energy at an EROEI of 1:1 for a little while because our governments pays the extra costs. That's the situation with the ethanol we are making from corn right now. However, the government is running out of money, and the price of corn is going up because of this. It will probably end soon.
The EROEI of alternative energy sources like wind and solar (photovoltaic) are low, in the range of 10:1 down to 2:1. I'm sure they will form part of our energy collecting systems in the future, but they will probably never give us "cheap energy."
Can our world run without "cheap energy"? Not the world we have right now. Young adults will have the task of designing a new world that will run on what's left of our coal and oil, and what we can get from sources that will last, like wind and solar.
23 May 2011: Is This a Test?
Let's imagine for a moment that the universe is run by some form of intelligence. Most people think so, and call that intelligence "god."
Let's further imagine that "god" has to, at some point, test his "children" (us) to see if they should go to "college," just get a simple "job," or perhaps are "disabled" and will need on-going supervision long after other "children" have left "home."
What might "god" do to test his "children"?
I am talking about a test that would apply to an entire "people" (species, race, nation, whatever), and not to individuals. We know very well that within a species or race, individuals grow up at different rates, and achieve different levels of maturity.
It would, ideally, be a test that that would tempt us with something like candy, something that immature children cannot resist, but mature young adults and adults can.
There would be only a small amount of this "candy," for "god" does not want us to have it forever, because it's not good for us. It's just there for the purpose of the test. We'll have "good food" after the test, but most of the "candy" will be gone. There might be a little left for special occasions, but not enough to gorge ourselves on.
To make the test more challenging, "god" has hidden some of the "candy" in places that are very hard to get to. It won't just run out, it'll become more and more expensive to find. We'll have to dig up our "gardens" to find some of it. We might even have to tear down our "houses" to get to the last little bit.
Does anyone have any doubt what this "candy" might be?
Just as there is for individuals, there might be a different future in store for the "children" of "god" who can out-grow their craving for "candy" at the end of childhood, compared to those who wait until much later in life, if ever.
Young adults today can take responsibility for themselves by out-growing their craving for various kinds of "candy," but they cannot take responsibility for their entire nation, race, or species. It may be that some individuals pass the test, but we, as a whole people, do not. In that case, young adults can learn by watching, and look for opportunities to prosper IN SPITE OF the choices that are made by their nations, races, and species.
14 May 2011: Painting Ourselves into a Corner
Remember what "efficiency" is? Doing the same work, or making the same product, with less materials, energy, or labor. Or using the same amount of stuff to do/make more.
As we've talked about before, people have a natural tendency to look for efficiency in everything we do. If we're trying to make money, greater efficiency means we make more money. If we're trying to solve a problem, greater efficiency often means that (at least it appears) we found a solution.
An example: if we are using more electricity than we can generate, if everyone switches to fluorescent light bulbs, which use much less, then the problem will be solved!
Unfortunately, it isn't that easy.
First of all, solutions involving efficiency are often just "social" solutions. They are designed to make people feel good, and cause them to vote for the leaders (who came up with the idea) in the next election.
It so happens that most of our electricity does not go to lighting, but to heating and other uses that do not have any easy efficiency improvements. Electric heat, for example, is already 100% efficient at the point of use.
Also, Jevons Paradox, which we've talked about before, kicks in. People put in fluorescent lights, see their electric bills go down a little, and think, "Great! Now I can turn up the heat!"
Another huge problem with efficiency gains is that they usually work against "resilience." Resilience is the ability of any system to take shocks without breaking down. Those fluorescent lights are more expensive, are much more complicated to make, won't work with dimmers, create audible and radio noise, and give many people headaches. They make a lighting system much less "human," and much less resilient.
We've talked about all that before. Now we need to look at a much more dangerous effect of too much efficiency.
Every time we use an efficiency gain to solve a problem (or more often, just to appear to solve it), we move ourselves closer to the point where no more efficiency gains are possible. We "paint ourselves into a corner." Efficiency can only approach 100%, never quite get there, and NEVER go beyond. In real-world systems, 80% or 90% is usually the limit. There are always losses any time we change one material into another, or one kind of energy into another.
Also, pushing efficiency up and up requires greater and greater expense and complexity. If fluorescent light aren't efficient enough for us, we can use LEDs (light-emitting diodes). They require a billion-dollar high-tech factory (only a few in the world, mostly in Asia), and use expensive "rare-earth" metals.
The drive to solve our problems with efficiency gains (which is in high-gear right now because we are experiencing so many problems) leads to the edge of a cliff. When we have pushed all our systems to a high level of efficiency, no more gains are possible (at least that we can afford), and all those systems are brittle and inflexible, what do we do then the next problem comes along?'
As young adults, if you keep your eyes open, you will see some very interesting things going on in the world during the next few years as adults try to solve our problems. If you watch closely, you will learn more about how the universe works than your parents ever knew.
7 May 2011: Shame
Several things got me thinking about Shame this week (a question on the Ask Kibi page, and an article by John Michael Greer, author of "The Long Descent"). For the individual, Shame is very powerful. It is a deep fear of rejection by other people, based on our long experience, going back to caveman days, that we have little chance of surviving alone.
But what happens if everyone in a large group of people experiences Shame all at the same time, or perhaps the whole world feels it all at once?
We may be at a moment like that for the human race.
Many philosophers today are looking at events in the world, and realizing that we had plenty of warnings, about 40 years ago, and we didn't listen to them them.
Our first "oil crisis" warned us that we couldn't guzzle gasoline/petrol, diesel, and jet/kerosene forever. We brushed the warning aside and started importing oil. Today, the whole world is running short, and there's nowhere else to import from.
At about the same time, we quit backing our money with gold, and the rollar-coaster ride of inflation began. Again, we ignored the warnings. There was money to be made in the new situation, after all, by people who knew how, and our leaders knew how. Today, the rollar-coaster hill is getting very steep, and we don't know if there are tracks on the other side.
Also at that time, we were warned that there were "Limits to Growth." We didn't want to hear that. We wanted to grow forever. The growth stopped in 2008, and today we can't figure out how to get it going again.
Finally, the 1970s gave us countless warnings about the environment and the climate. We didn't listen. We wanted jobs, not flowers. Today we are getting monster storms everywhere, Russia and Texas are burning, and our glaciers and icecaps are melting away.
I would like to suggest that it is not shameful to make mistakes. Children make lots of them while growing up. What is deeply shameful is KNOWING a course of action will harm our planet, our one and only home, and doing it anyway.
We were warned. Soon it may be time to experience Shame like the world has never seen before.
But here's the good part: young adults today were NOT the decision-makers of the 20th century. The Shame is not yours. YOU can make the 21st century as different from the 20th century as you want it to be.
30 April 2011: Free Energy Becomes Expensive
Continuing last week's thought, we can now look at some of the reasons that energy, given to us freely by the sun shining upon the Earth, becomes expensive, and perhaps someday soon, too expensive.
Sunshine will always be free, to all the creatures of the Earth. But we don't get any at night, or on cloudy days. Most creatures bask in the sun when they can, take shelter at other times. We humans like stuff-on-demand. We want light and heat at the flip of a switch. Storing energy is very difficult and complicated, so we have to pay for it.
Water will turn a turbine in a canyon, wind will do the same on a prairie, but most of us want to live other places. We want it WHERE we want it. Moving energy from place to place is complicated and expensive.
All forms of energy take SOME effort to get, in other words, they use some energy that we got somewhere else. The first oil wells in Pennsylvania had an "energy return on energy invested" of 100:1. Today we have to pump the oil out of the ground using electricity, so we get an efficiency of about 20:1. Some "solutions" to our energy problems, like ethanol from corn, are close to, maybe below, 1:1. They take as much as they give. That means they're not energy sources at all.
As we've talked about before, people like to expand their "kingdoms" into every niche they can find, and that includes using every bit of energy around. When something becomes scarce, we compete for it by fighting, or by bidding. When fighting, we spend more blood, sweat, and tears. When bidding in a "marketplace," we spend more money.
So as you can see, energy gets expensive because of our choices, conscious or unconscious, as human beings.
Young people today can prepare for a world of expensive energy, and maybe scarce energy, by making life-choices that keep their energy usage low and flexible. Boots. Bicycles. Small, insulated houses. You know.
Or they can look for a really, really good job. Good luck with that.
20 April 2011: Free Energy!
As electric bills go up, natural gas or propane prices do the same, and gasoline/petrol spikes (as it did just 3 years ago) toward levels that make us stop driving, we often hear people say, "We need free energy!"
Surprise! We do have, and have always had, free energy.
When we dam a river to make hydro-electric power, does the river send us a bill? Of coure not! It's free energy!
When we sink an oil well, does the Earth require us to put coins in a meter? Never!
Does uranium wait for payment before emitting sub-atomic particles? Nope. More free energy. When the first nuclear power plants were built, their designers declared that the electricity they produced would be "too cheap to meter."
Do trees refuse to be cut down for firewood?
Does the sun shine only on people with plenty of money?
Does coal hide deep underground unless we pay up?
Planet Earth has just the right amount of solor energy striking it, large amounts of stored solar energy (coal, oil, gas, and wood), a healthy hydrological cycle that fills our reservoirs with rain and snow melt, and an ecology that is (or at least, until recently, was) in good balance, giving us plants and animals for food and many other purposes.
So what's our problem?
15 April 2011: Risk = Probability x Severity
Recent events in Japan are giving us an excellent example of something that doesn't fit well into human consciousness.
Imagine that the part of the universe we can easily think about is a box floating in space. That box has dimensions. When a thing or an event is too small or too big, it falls outside that comfort-box and is hard for us to see and think about. Too fast or too slow, same problem. Some things fall outside that box because they are too rare.
An 9.0 earthquake, which caused a tsunami 2 meters higher than we planned for, just isn't supposed to happen. It probably won't happen again for a thousand years, maybe a million.
Does that make the nuclear mess in Japan any better?
No, because the problem is so severe. It is ruining an industrial nation, will take years or decades to clean up IF ALL GOES WELL, is costing vast amounts of money we don't have, and might make half of Japan uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years.
As is human nature, we discounted the RISK because the PROBABILITY was so small. Now we are getting a taste of the SEVERITY of a nuclear power plant failure. We've only seen it, to this degree, once before, at Chernobyl.
The only question remaining is: will we just "taste" the severity, as we did at Chernobyl, or will we have to "eat" it all. The answer is not yet known. The Fukushima power plants are right by the Pacific Ocean, which is part of one big world-ocean that we all share. The air above Fukushima is, of course, part of the Earth's atmosphere.
Even if the adults around you can't or won't, young people might want to do some homework. Some key words to put into your favorite search engine: "iodine 131," "thyroid cancer," and "potassium iodide." Don't like to think about such uncomfortable things? You have lots of company.
9 April 2011: Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%
The title of this post is borrowed from a recent Vanity Fair article by Joseph E. Stiglitz. That article is about the concentration of wealth in our world by fewer and fewer people that is going on today.
I do not plan to take sides on this issue. It's obviously good to those in the top 1% (and a few others who benefit by doing business with them), and not so good for the rest. Instead, I'm going to talk a little about how this fits into history, and what we might learn from it.
Throughout most of history, rich people have been very few, poor people were very numerous, and the "middle class" was small or non-existent. In the first 3 books of the NEBADOR series, which take place in a medieval kingdom, the upper class was the king, a handful of noblemen, and a few high priests. The middle class was a few dozen large business owners, including Sata's family, and a few high-ranking soldiers. Everyone else was in the lower class. Beheath them, slaves formed a fourth class, having no rights or wealth.
What I have just described is the normal human condition on planet Earth. It is what naturally happens when people have just the basics to work with: sunshine, plants to grow for food, animals for food and some labor, and fellow humans for whatever they can provide.
That situation changed temporarily starting in about 1750. We discovered the first of 3 reserves of energy hidden in the Earth. First came coal, then about 1850 crude oil as added, and finally about 1950, uranium.
With these 3 new energy sources, we did several things. We made life easier for ourselves as fast as we could. Machines quickly replaced our own labor and the labor of animals and slaves. We made things bigger, better, and more complex. And we had lots of babies.
Also, because of this bounty of cheap energy, the average person enjoyed more freedom, equality, and justice than ever before. The height of these aspects of our civilization was somewhere between 1950 and 1980.
All the evidence says that these 3 energy sources are starting to dwindle, or become too dangerous to use. World oil extraction peaked about 2005. People argue about how long coal will last, but certainly not forever, and it's dirty. Uranium for nuclear reactors is becoming a "hot potato."
If our energy sources dwindle away, where does that leave us? Unless we discover another, we will have sunshine, plants, animal-muscle, and human-muscle. If we take history as a guide, about a billion people can live on planet Earth under those conditions. That's 1/7 the number currently alive.
The process of shifting our civilization back to a lower-energy classical (Roman-like) or medieval system has begun. This will be very good for the top 1%, just as the "cheap-energy" 20th century was very good for the lower classes.
Young people, with sharp eyes and ears, are in a better position to adapt to such a changing world than anyone else. Such a world will need skills and craftiness that adults haven't practiced in centuries. Every time you watch a movie about Roman or medieval times, pay attention to what people had to do to survive and prosper. You may need those skills someday...perhaps very soon.
2 April 2011: Just in Time?
This phrase is haunting the world right now. Over the last decade or two, business leaders in many industries learned that if they kept their stocks very low, and had new stock arrive "just in time," they would make more money. Huge stores like WalMart took this idea to an extreme, keeping almost nothing in the back room.
Then came an earthquake, which caused a tsunami, which caused several nuclear reactors to shut down (to put it nicely) in Japan, a country that made electronic parts for millions of products all over the world.
Less than a month later, parts for cars made in Europe, on the other side of the world from Japan, are running out. Factories all over the world are shutting down because they can't get the parts they need. Those parts were made only in Japan.
Those parts could be made in other places, but it takes a long time to set up the machines to make a certain computer chip or other delicate part. The USA quite making most electronic parts decades ago, sending all that work to Japan, China, and a few other places.
"Just in time" stocking is a method of achieving high efficiency. As we have talked about in previous YOUTH FUTURES blog posts, efficiency is the opposite of resilience. When a system does not have resilience, it breaks easily. Our system just broke.
So "just in time" might be taking on a new meaning. Will we learn our lesson "just in time" to make important things in at least two, maybe three, places in the world, so if disaster strikes one of them, we won't be left with nothing?
Will we learn how to run nuclear power plants "just in time" to avoid a really big nuclear accident?
Will we learn how to safely pump oil from deep-water wells "just in time" to avoid killing ALL the dolphins and sea turtles in the oceans?
(Insert your favorite example.)
Unfortunately, people aren't very good at learning lessons.
Young people won't have much say in this stuff right now, but you can watch, and remember the mistakes that older people are making. Some day, possibly much sooner than you want, the world will need your new ideas. Will luck, your ideas will come "just in time" to save the good parts of our global civilization.
26 March 2011: Who ya gonna call?
Recently, a 9.0 earthquake moved some parts of Japan several meters. It's not the movement, but the vibrations, that do the damage. Luckily, Japan has been building things to survive earthquakes for many years. But if YOUR house was unlucky, who do you call?
Police, fire fighters, medics, and other emergency helpers are able to handle a few problems at a time, not hundreds or thousands.
The earthquake caused a tsunami (they used to be called "tidal waves," but since they had nothing to do with tides, we switched to the Japanese word). When that monster wave hit Japan, it was seven meters high. Towns, factories, and anything else in the way were flattened. Who do you call?
The police, fire fighters, medics, and other emergency helpers lived in the same towns. Their homes, cars, police stations, fire stations, and hospitals were flattened too. They were unable to help much.
The earthquake and tsunami caused the cooling systems at about 10 nuclear reactors to fail. When nuclear fuel isn't cooled, it gets hot, melts, and sends radioactive poisons into the air and water. Who do you call?
Emergency helpers have to eat, drink, sleep, and protect their families, just like everyone else. If the problems start spreading, like the radiation in Japan, the emergency helpers might find themselves "inside" the problem, instead of "outside." In that case, they have to take care of themselves and their families.
So here's the score:
If the problems facing you are local, isolated, and short-term, emergency helpers will probably get to you. (There are places in the world where this is not true, and you probably know if you live in one of them.)
But if the problems involve large areas, or last a long time, then the emergency helpers can easily be overwhelmed or completely unable to function. In that case, it's up to you to think, figure out what you need, find the needed resources, and do whatever needs to be done to stay alive, and help anyone in your care.
At times like this, young adults can easily find themselves on their own, possibly caring for children, and maybe even the only ones around thinking clearly enough to be leaders.
19 March 2011: Earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns ... Are the "End Times" coming?
Whenever there is bad news, people open their Bibles and Korans to the "End Times" prophecies, or dust off their conspiracy theories, and look for explanations. Why?
2500 years ago, the Egyptian, Greeks, and other early civilizations had gods, goddesses, and temples for every bad occasion. Why?
Same reason, then and now.
We hate not knowing. If we can't REALLY control our world (which, very often, we can't), we like to PRETEND we can by having a name and an explanation for everything.
And, of course, if we control how an event is explained, we can slip in our "message." In politics, we can use the bad news to push for more power or money going to our favorite "thing." In religion, we can say the bad news is God's punishment for tolerating our favorite "bad guys." In business, we can sell people whatever they believe (or we can make them believe) will help.
Sharp-eyed young people can practice spotting the "human messages" when reading about natural events. Those messages aren't necessarily wrong, but can usually only fill our human needs to explain, blame, or profit. They can't tell us much about the natural events going on in the world. Geology, weather, climate, and other natural forces do not care about human politics, religion, and economics.
But, of course, those "human messages" can tell us a lot about people, including ourselves.
11 March 2011: Did we build our own trap?
A new era for the human race began slowly about 300 years ago. It really picked up speed about 1800, and went into high gear about 1900. We saw the first "speed limit" sign about 1970, but were going too fast to care. In 2005, a new sign said, "Danger, Curve Ahead!"
During the last 3 centuries, for the first time in history, we've had an expanding civilization powered by coal and oil. Compared to everything that came before, this new situation was a complete party atmosphere, punch and cookies, moon rockets, everything we'd dreamed about.
However, it was very new to us, and we had to invent lots of new systems to make the most of it. We're smart, so we did. We invented democracy. The idea wasn't new, but had never before given a political voice to almost everyone. We invented capitalism. The simple marketplace had been around for thousands of years, but we were ready for much bigger projects that needed serious funding.
Three hundred years, or even 100, is plenty of time for people to forget old ways. We've had an expanding civilization so long that we've forgotten that a non-expanding one is possible. All of our current political and economic systems must constantly GROW, or they will die.
In 1970, oil wells in the USA peaked and began to decline. In the UK, 1999. For the whole world, it was 2005 (the International Energy Agency says 2006).
Many people hope alternative sources of energy will save us. Scientists, who have to look at real-world factors like energy density and scalability, aren't so sure.
In the meantime, all our political and economic systems are screaming because they can't GROW anymore. As soon as a "recovery" starts, the price of energy snuffs it out. It happened in 2008, and is about to happen again this year, or I'm a purple donkey.
So now we're trapped by our own creations.
This is where you young people come in. Adults are very bad at changing things they have grown to know and love. We need new political and economic systems that don't need constant growth. Guess who will have to invent them!
5 March 2011: What was the Wisconsin governor's mistake?
The government of the state of Wisconsin is faced with a big problem. They don't have enough money to pay the salaries and benefits of all the state's public employees (teachers, office workers, police, etc.) And it doesn't look like they are going to find the money in the future.
When human beings are faced with a problem, we usually have one of three reactions:
1. Ignore it, "sweep it under the rug," hope it will go away, and pass it along to those who come after us.
This was done in Wisconsin and just about everywhere else over the past 30-40 years. The wealth in our world was shrinking, mostly because energy was getting more expensive. We ignored it, pretended everything was just fine, made promises of higher salaries and better benefits, and hoped that future leaders would find a solution to the problem. The "party" lasted until about 2007.
2. "Use" the problem to make ourselves richer and more powerful, and to hurt our enemies.
This is what the current governor of Wisconsin is attempting, and it is, just like #1, a completely natural human response. Labor unions, with "collective bargaining" power, have been one of the major forces working for higher salaries and better benefits. They are also the political enemies of the current governor. So he decided to label the unions as the "cause" of the problem, and try to take away their right to collective bargaining.
3. Actually solve the problem, after looking at it with an open mind to truly understand it.
This is rarely attempted by human beings, mostly because people who don't use #2 almost never become our leaders. Also, having an "open mind" is hard for us. It is much easier to sling mud (or bullets) at our enemies.
In the current situation in Wisconsin (and many other places), the real problem is that the government, over the last 30-40 years, made promises to pay people salaries and benefits without having the money to do it. That is not the fault of the people who bargained for the highest salaries and best benefits they could get. Those people were not in control of the government's money. The government was.
Any solution to this problem, even using #3, is going to be painful. The governor has tried #2, and demonstrations all over the country suggest it is not going to work this time. Will he have the wisdom and courage to try #3?
Both wisdom and courage are difficult for human beings. But when problems are rooted in physical realities (energy, resources, food, water, etc.), methods #1 and #2 tend not to work. Any young person who wants to be prepared to deal with the problems racing toward us should think about the differences between #1, #2, and #3, and look for every opportunity to gain wisdom and courage. You will need them.
25 February 2011: Are they doing any good?
Demonstrations and revolutions are erupting in many places in the world. Some dictators are getting thrown out. Some tax increases and cuts in government services ("austerity measures") are being challenged. Will it do any good?
In Egypt, everyone is wondering which is worse: the old dictator, or the new (probably Islamic) government. The Islamic government in Iran isn't well-liked by its people or the rest of the world.
Greece is rebelling against higher taxes and fees. The people of Ireland are considering defaulting on their national debts (as Iceland did not long ago). Wisconsin and several other states are trying to take away the collective bargaining rights of labor unions.
Changes in government, by vote or revolution, tend to get rid of one set of bad leaders and replace them with another set of bad leaders. After all, the old leaders were human, and the new set are also, alas, human.
Sometimes certain leaders are particularly bad and need to be replaced by someone, anyone. That's probably the situation in Libya.
But there's a theme running through most demonstrations and revolutions these days. People, especially young people, are unemployed in huge numbers. The prices of food and fuel are rising quickly. The middle class is shrinking, rapidly joining the ranks of the poor. At the same time, rich people are getting richer and richer.
Although some people like this situation, most people in the world are getting very angry. Will their demonstrations and revolutions do any good?
If these problems were caused by the bad decisions of a few leaders, than replacing those leaders might solve the problems. One of the dreams we hold dear is that any problem can be solved if "our" people are in charge, and if "our" ideas run the world.
But there's another possibility. What if the big problems in the world right now are being driven by factors we can't control, and no amount of talk or political action will fix them? The climate and weather of the planet. The amount of oil and gas in the ground. The amount of good farm land in the world.
We control our responses to these things, of course, be we have no direct control. They are the natural foundations of our existence, they come before us, and they limit us. We try very hard to forget this fact, but it remains true.
If climate, weather, natural resources, and good farm land are behind our current problems, then replacing our leaders, even our forms of government, will have little effect.
So when you see prices going up in the grocery store, stop and think. Is it because the president or prime minister is too liberal or too conservative, or might it possible have something to do with our relationship with the Earth, its cycles, and its limits?
12 February 2011: Jevons Paradox
Back in 1865, William Jevons shined a light into a dark corner of human nature. No one likes to hear what he found. Truth can be painful.
He discovered that if we increase the efficiency of a process that uses fuel, the use of fuel will not go down, as we would expect and hope, but rather it will go up. That's because the cost of running the process goes down, and so we have money to spend to do more of it, or other things, all of which take fuel.
He was looking at coal-burning steam engines. It works the same for any fuel or resource.
The fact is, we human beings love to maximize our happiness. That means maximizing our "standard of living," the number of "toys" we have (dolls, cars, bombs), the size of our "kingdoms" (houses, businesses, governments), and the number of our "loyal subjects" (employees, members, babies). It's natural for us. Whenever we see a niche into which we can expand, we set to work doing so as quickly as possible.
This fact about our nature is why it's so difficult to succeed at any conservation effort. If we save a little electricity, someone will quickly sell us a gadget to use the extra. Same with water, minerals, oil, land, food ... you name it.
This is also why we can't voluntarily reduce our population. It is such a touchy question that we rarely want to even talk about it. On the occasions we try something along these lines, we soon hear that some other group of people have filled the gap, and they will soon migrate from wherever they are to here.
Any attempt at leadership in the 21st century, that does not take into account Jevons Paradox, is doomed to fail. The leader might make a good salary, and win a few elections, but he or she will not solve any problems. Human nature cannot be "legislated away." It has been tried many times.
Young people who can understand hard, cold truths like Jevons Paradox will be prepared to NOT be fooled by the many ideas floating around that will NOT help us in any way. These young people will also be best prepared to become our leaders in the 21st century, a time when we're going to need good leaders more than ever before.
5 February 2011: Inflation
Yes, you're starting to hear the word more often. So what is it?
It's just the thing that's going to steal all your stuff, and all your hopes and dreams for the future.
If you're smart, it won't get ALL your stuff and ALL your dreams. Maybe half. Not so smart? Then all.
It's about money, and it's an analogy with a balloon. When you inflate a balloon, it gets bigger and bigger, the skin get thinner and thinner, and finally the balloon pops.
The balloon analogy has one weakness. It's easy to let the air out of a balloon before it pops. It's much harder to stop the inflation of money.
Inflation happens because most people are a little greedy, and would like to have a little more money and stuff than other people. So they raise the price of stuff they sell, just a little, or ask for a little raise at work.
Did you notice the word "little"? It seems okay if we just want a little more. The problem is, everyone's doing it, all the time. When I get a raise at work, my boss has to raise prices, so people that buy his stuff have to ask for raises ... around and around it goes.
Now the jungle gets thick. Usually there's some inflation during good times, but little or none during bad times. We're still in a recession with unemployment between 10% and 25% (depending on who you ask, so there's no way to ever know). But inflation is starting up. Why?
Inflation also happens when demand (that's you and me wanting stuff) hits a resource limit (people who make stuff just can't make any more). This kind of inflation doesn't use the word "little." When this happens, prices head for the sky.
Today, 2011, we've got three musclemen pushing a little girl on a swing. She's starting to scream and wish she had wings.
The first muscleman is oil. Everything we buy, eat, or move from place to place, needs lots of oil. Our oil wells peaked in about 2005. The price flew to the moon and back in 2008, and is thinking of doing it again.
The second muscleman is food. We all have to eat. Prices are climbing fast in most parts of the world, and will soon come to a supermarket near you. Partly, they are pushed by oil, the first muscleman. But also, this year, weird weather all over the world is causing poor harvests.
The last and most dangerous muscleman is our own governments. One way to make an economy LOOK like it's improving is to print more money. And political leaders always need to look good. But increasing the money supply ALWAYS causes inflation.
What does this have to do with you?
With those three musclemen pushing, we could go from slow, manageable inflation to hyper-inflation. When that happens, money loses value day by day, and finally ends when the old money dies, and has to be replaced with some kind of new money.
Is your wealth, like most people's, in money, or anything valued in money? Just be thinking about what you could put your wealth into, things that wouldn't be eaten up by inflation, and destroyed by hyper-inflation.
30 January 2011: It's Not Fair!
The human race has been dedicating a large part of its intelligence, for a very long time, to finding new and better ways to pass today's problems on to the future. Not fair to young people.
Economics, finance, and the entire banking industry -- almost everything that has anything to do with money -- is neck-deep in the search for ways to pass today's debt to the future -- in other words, to enjoy the wealth of the future today. Very not fair.
Politics -- the struggle for power -- is consumed with getting into office and staying there. That means focusing all attention and effort on the next election, usually just 4 years away. Anything with a longer time-scale is unimportant. Unfortunately, the future of children and young adults has a longer time scale like that. Way not fair.
Occasionally, some little problem must be solved to keep people happy. In every society, at least one political party (usually the one in power) pledges to its voting "base" to solve as few problems as possible. After all, the current structure of society, with all its problems, is what put them in the comfortable place they find themselves. Fair to THEM, of course.
A college education, during the 20th century, was a ticket to success. Now, students are graduating with a huge mountain of debt from student loans, and finding few jobs. As the lucky ones flip hamburgers, they wonder how they will ever pay off all that debt. Totally not fair.
As pointed out in this blog recently, the shape of both the energy crisis and the environmental crisis were known in the 1970's. An entire generation of leaders and voters chose to do almost nothing about it. Instead, they made borrowing from the future an "entitlement." Before 1980, it had primarily been used to finance wars. Ever since then, it has become part of the "American Dream" (but is not, of course, limited to the USA). Really not ... you know.
Now young people are about to inherit the biggest mess and the biggest pile of debt the world has ever seen. Is that fair? Duh.
What to do? Breathe. Hold hands. See the world with clear, sparkling eyes. Start imagining ways to save your wealth that don't involve money, because money is how today's debts, and most other problems, are passed off to the future.
24 January 2011: Too Slow to See?
Once upon a time, someone figured out how to boil a live frog without it hopping out of the pot. The secret was to turn up the heat very, very slowly. If the temperature changed slowly enough, the frog was incapable of noticing. Until, of course ...
In NEBADOR Book Three: Selection, the students traveled through a rocky, twisted land shaped by mountain-building forces at a tectonic plate boundary. They found it hard to believe that the twisting was going on right before their eyes, just as quickly as it always did. Geologists understand.
We humans have a certain scale in which we can live in the world and understand the universe. Anything outside that scale is difficult or impossible for us to see.
We can see stars, but galaxies require telescopes. We can see bugs, but germs need microscopes. Both were invented very recently, few people have them, and most people have no idea what they allow us to see. (Remember that the average human being is a rice farmer with little education.)
In addition to being too big or too small, things can move too fast for us. The wings of humming birds and insects are a blur. To rays of light and other forms of energy, those humming bird wings are standing still.
Back to thing that are too slow. Our own history moves very slowly. Combine that with our natural dislike of "looking in the mirror," and you have a real problem. We like people who smile, believe everything is wonderful, always has been, and always will be. We hate messengers with bad news, often yell at them, sometimes kill them.
The economic and environmental problems our world is struggling with today started, in clearly-visible form, about 40 years ago.
In the early 1970's, oil production in the USA peaked and we had a crisis. We "solved" it by borrowing money to import oil. World oil production peaked in about 2005. No, there's no oil on the Moon or Mars.
Also in the 1970's the USA began exporting it's manufacturing industries to other countries with lower standards of living. At that time, the wages of the average worker in the USA quit growing, and recently has begun falling.
In the 1970's, we realized that our wastes and poisons were hurting the environment. We banned a few chemicals, but mostly kept on with "business as usual."
As we all, especially young adults, wrestle with unemployment, weird weather, climbing food prices, species extinctions, and other problems, there are many, many questions we need to ask. But there is no need to ask "How did all these problems get started?" We already know the answers, as our history books and newspapers are filled with them. It's just difficult, and sometimes painful, to look at them.
15 January 2011: The Tower of Babel
"The United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative."
This idea seems to apply to people everywhere, not just the USA. Often solving a problem means waiting for a crisis to happen, caused by the problem, that is so bad that no one dares suggest we ignore it any longer. It also usually means waiting for an entire generation of people, who are stuck in some old way of thinking about the problem, to die off.
Through most of history, problems have been pretty small, never affecting more than a small fraction of the human population. We have been able to take our time solving them. The worst that could happen was that WE (our country or region) would be in trouble. The survival of the human race was never a problem.
The biblical story of the Tower of Babel has many messages for us. As you may recall, it was an attempt to build a tower to Heaven. Using mud and straw, the available building materials, it did not succeed.
The story suggests that we can only build so "high." The word "high" is a simple idea that is easy to understand, and for those of us who can think a little deeper, the word "complex" is more useful. Building something very high requires extreme complexity. Many other difficult goals require extreme complexity. The problem is that when things get extremely complex, they start to TAKE more (energy, time, value, etc.) than they GIVE.
Problems of complexity can often be solved if we have lots of time. It is difficult to know exactly when the Tower of Babel was built, but 478 B.C. is the LATEST possibility I can find. That means we set foot on the NEAREST heavenly body (the moon, 1969) 2,447 years after beginning the project.
Now, a troubling question comes up. What happens if we have a difficult problem, that requires a complex solution, and we don't have thousands, or even hundreds, of years to solve it?
Climate scientists are starting to suspect that there exists a "tipping point" in the warming of the Earth that if we pass, the process will not be reversible. Some scientists think we have already passed it. Others aren't sure.
Many engineers think that rebuilding our transportation system, to use fuels that don't come from crude oil, will take 20 years or more. The price of oil has already skyrocketed once (2008), doing great damage to our economy. It looks like it might do it again this year. We may not have 20 years.
There is nothing shameful about being human, with human limitations. The shameful thing is thinking we are gods, and can ignore the laws of physics, the laws of nature, and the limits of the planet we live on.
8 January 2011: Do animals have souls?
This question was recently asked by a reader. I see reasons to think so, and reasons to not think they don't. Here are a few that come to mind.
There is a logical fallacy sometimes called the Point of View Fallacy, which involves making statements that require a certain point of view that the speaker does not have, and cannot have, either personally or through the perception of another. We cannot directly perceive the internal states of another person or animal. When we judge that a person or animal does or doesn't have "intelligence," "feelings," "wisdom," "remorse," etc., all we can really say is that the other is not showing the behaviors that we would have, or that we assume they should have, if they had that internal state. The same goes for "having a soul." There are some examples of this fallacy on the Fallacies page of www.nebador.com.
Another important reason is that many non-human animals actually do most of the things we think of as being uniquely human. They make and use tools, play, show mercy, and sometimes even sacrifice themselves for each other. People who work closely with animals know this, even though the rest of us cling to the myth that humans are unique. About the only thing that remains uniquely human is high technology, which does not tell us much about "having a soul."
Another thing to keep in mind is that not all things are "black" or "white." I would think that "having a soul" probably has many "shades of gray." It may be convenient for people (especially in positions of religious or political power) to see themselves in one box, and all other animals in another, but mental boxes like that seldom match reality.
Perhaps the most fundamental reason is plain, old RESPECT. We know that we humans have big egos. We know that we CAN'T know, in any direct way, if another creature has a soul. So are we going to assume the worst of another creature, or the best? The answer, of course, depends on how mature we are, and how big our human egos are.
What does this have to do with young adults in the future? As the world your parents handed you changes because the energy that powered it becomes too expensive (or unavailable), there will be moments when you have some say in designing a new world. You will only know what to do at those moments if you have thought about the mistakes your parents and grandparents made. If you have not, you will certainly make the same mistakes again. The treatment of non-human animals is just one of many.
1 January 2011: A Message for Us from TRON
Although TRON is set in a technological fantasy world that is, in itself, completely disconnected from the real world we live in, its primary theme is just one tiny step away from one of the biggest problems facing our world today. TRON proposes that "perfection" can be evil.
Most religions think of "perfection" as a quality of god. In TRON we see that "perfection" can also become an evil thing if followed by those with much less wisdom than god.
I'm sure pro-religious and anti-religious people could argue about this forever, but the interesting thing, for young adults facing the future, is how close the idea of "perfection" is to the ideas of "efficiency" and "productivity," both of which have a big part to play in the economics messes we are in right now.
Efficiency is a measure of how much we get out of a process for what we put in. High efficiency means we get a lot out compared to what we put in, and low efficiency means we get little out. For example, the first oil wells, from which oil gushed forth all by itself, had an efficiency of about 100:1. We got about 100 times as much energy out as it took to run the wells. Today, oil wells are about 30:1. Alternative fuels like shale oil range from 10:1 down to 2:1. Ethanol from corn appears to be less then 1:1, meaning we are losing energy by doing it.
Productivity is the same thing applied to people. When people work hard, for low wages, without benefits, as is usually the case in hard times and poor countries, productivity is high. A lot gets done for very little money. When people are lazy, sit around in meetings, or get high wages, productivity is low.
The problem with both these ideas is that they are machine concepts. They are about relationships between objects and sources of power.
As people begin to think about a human civilization that could live in harmony with the Earth, not destroy it with pollution, and not suck up its reserves of energy leaving nothing for our children, some new ideas emerge that are very different from efficiency and productivity.
Resilience is the ability of any system to handle shocks. When things aren't resilient, they are fragile, easily broken. Unfortunately, most efforts to raise efficiency take us further and further away from resilience.
Efforts to raise productivity make some people richer, others poorer, and the difference between the two greater and greater. That situation usually leads to an economic depression, or some kind of revolution.
Both efficiency and productivity are deeply embedded in our current economic system. In a sense, they are two of our most important gods. I do not know how much longer they can keep that status without destroying us.
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