Friday, November 14, 2008

The Political Problem

Many groups are working on the problem of sustainability. I'm an engineer so I look at sustainability as an engineering problem. First, it would NOT look like Brundtland's meaningless, "feel good" definition. Ultimately, sustainability would require limits on human mobility, reproduction, and consumption.

For many years, thousands of members on my email lists have investigated all, or almost all, disciplines and historical examples of sustainability that others have suggested. With a couple of irrelevant exceptions (e.g., a religious sect that died out) not one example of an intentionally-sustainable (engineer's definition) society could be found.

The central problem that planet Earth faces today is NOT a problem of "running out of energy," or "overfishing," or "the wrong kind of farming," or "the depletion of aquifers," or "too much CO2 in the atmosphere," or [fill in the blanks]...

The problem that threatens to exterminate most higher forms of life on Earth — and soon — is the problem of "human behavior." Therefore, if one is searching for "solutions," one must look closely at what one sees in the mirror every morning. That's the central problem on planet Earth. It lives with all of us. WE ARE THE PROBLEM.

The problem of sustainability can be neatly divided into two sub-problems: 1) An engineering problem. 2) A political problem. [1]

The engineering problem

Even though the engineering problem is gigantic, its solution is fairly straightforward. We need so much of this type of food here, this much of that type of vaccine there, water can't be pumped from an aquifer any faster than that, wastes can't be discharged any faster than this, fishing can't exceed… And so on. Moreover, the problem must be approached globally due to the way our ecosystems are interconnected. Although the problem is immense, I think we could do it.

The political problem

A solution to the political problem of sustainability does not presently exist. Moreover, if we can't solve the politics of sustainability, then nothing else matters. That's Liebig's limiter: politics. To emphasize the point: if we can't solve the political problem, then more efficient PV panels, wind turbines, etc., won't help — and may make the die-off even worse.

Politics is where "evolutionary psychology" (EP) comes in. If a solution to the politics of sustainability can be found, it will be found by those who study human behavior via the scientific method. [2]

EP is a true science based on Neo-Darwinism, [3] which is the name of the modern theory of evolution, and it is the only scientific theory which explains how we became human.

EP attempts to explain mental and psychological traits — such as memory, perception or language — as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection. Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary psychology applies the same thinking to psychology. [4]

EP argues that our brains come from the factory with hundreds of built-in programs structured to solve prehistoric environmental problems. Throughout life, especially before age ~ 25, these built-in programs are updated by interaction with a person's environment and respond to stimuli from the environment, or from other parts of the body itself, to produce our behavior. In theory, human behavior can be explained by reflex-like brain algorithms.

EP aims to understand how and why our brains make the decisions that they do. EP is a true science unlike the "politics-in-disguise" disciplines of economics and sociology. [5] Therefore, EP represents the possibility of finding a humane solution for our present crisis while economics and sociology represent dead ends (literally.)

To reiterate: WE ARE THE PROBLEM. More energy, less fishing, less CO2, etc., won't solve the problem. Two methods exist to change human behavior: 1) Force. 2) Persuasion.

I think that finding a humane solution for our present crisis is incredibly important. That's why I have dedicated the last fifteen-or-so years of my life to it. The alternative is horrible. No solution yet, but perhaps tomorrow...


[1] Politics: social relations involving authority or power. More at