"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

"There is no 'try'...there is only do, or do not." ~ Yoda

Preparing myself, my family and my friends for the Fourth Turning.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Reasons Why (Part Two)

In part one, I disclosed the ontological influences in my ongoing attempt to radically adjust my lifestyle.  This disclosure was a necessary predicate, as there are a number of responses to the conditions I am about to outline that have informed this attempt; I have chosen this one from among many, because of who I am.

These conditions collectively represent what I believe to be our species' present circumstances and the likely outcomes of those circumstances.  Both my circumstances and my ontology shape my choices.  Moreover, my ontology shapes my circumstances, and vice-versa, and feedback occurs.

In order to shape my response to my personal circumstances, it is at first necessary to understand what my personal circumstances are, and from that basis develop a framework of who I am.  Knowing who I am helps me rearrange my circumstances to better suit me, which further defines who I am and shapes the next rearrangement.  As stated in Part One, the goal is the maximally positive outcome possible.

Who I am not can in some respects be readily disclaimed:  I am not, for example, a peasant in China.  Nor am I a Brazilian rain forest aboriginal.  I am likewise not a 5th century monk, nor am I a a prehistoric native American, making my slow way across the frozen bridge linking present day Russia and Alaska, together with my tribe.  In turn, who I may not become is similarly disclaimable.

Thus, my circumstances define the possible range of choices.  My choices define the possible range of outcomes.  The summary outcomes of my choices, coupled with the summary circumstances, choices and outcomes of my predecessors, contemporaries, and offspring dictate the fate of our species.  It cannot be else-wise.  And as always, randomness gets a vote.

My circumstances include certain facts about my being, that are particular to my being: my intelligence, awareness, ability to learn, reason, remember, predict; my physical characteristics and needs; finally, my preferences, regardless of whether they are innate, such as the preference for satiety over hunger, or acquired, such as chicken over steak, are included in my circumstances. 

I note that I have a vested interest in my own survival.  I note that I desire to reproduce so that others like me might arise and I might then enjoy their companionship and foster my genetic continuance.  I do not so far find a reason for this to be so; it merely is.  I finally note that I might, at any time of my choosing, end my participation in life by my own hand, but I feel a strong desire not to do so, and am puzzled by those who do.

To the weight, then, of my ontological imperatives, I add epistemological imperatives:  I am, I wish to survive, circumstances may arise which may threaten my existence, I wish to avoid or counter those circumstances.

This is no different than any human, or any known organism for that matter, does every day of their lives (excepting those who, for some reason, choose to self-destruct).

Being who I am, a somewhat educated, late 20th to early 21st century middle-aged American male with substantial technology at my disposal, some accumulated resources, and relative freedom from oppression, I am able to expand my awareness and understanding of the factors influencing my existence far beyond the sphere of knowledge available to most of my ancestors.  As I have greater knowledge of of existing conditions, I can predict farther into the future, and with more accuracy, ever mindful that randomness gets a vote.

In this, I an not unique in contemporary terms.

In sum, taking account of my present circumstances as far as I am able to determine them; taking account of my knowledge of my self; taking account of my desire to continue as my self (which includes my capacity as a member of a community at some level); and considering that fact that any choice I make comes at the cost of other choices possible, I must make my analysis and plan my path.

I note many things about my present circumstances:
  • I live in a global society, where the choices of individuals not known to me nor directly affect-able by   me can be shown to have an impact upon the choices with which I am presented;
  • I live in a world of substantial technical complexity, one in which certain human minds have cast off the constraint of disbelief that ever-more higher technology is both possible and readily available to provide solutions to problems;
  • I live in a world where it is equally misunderstood by certain human minds that the cost of such higher technology may surpass any gain achieved by that technology;
  • I live in a world where, even if the higher technology is both possible and cost effective, it may arrive too late to be of practical value to certain individuals and populations on the planet;
  • I live in a world that has and has had, for the entirety of my existence, access to sources of energy that immensely magnify the capacity for work of any human or group of humans;
  • I live in a country that has and has had, for the entirety of my existence, access to a share of those resources and hence their productive use, disproportional to my country's share of the global population; unlike some other individuals in some other countries, my share is greater;
  • I live in a country, and in a region of my country, that has and has had, for the entirety of my existence, access to fresh water and arable land in quantities greatly exceeding those available to some communities and individuals in my country and elsewhere;
  • I live in a world where the deliberate analysis of those resources, their capacities, their amounts, their usage rates, their replenishment rates, the likely impact of shortages and the range of possible outcomes of those shortages is the widely undertaken, and I have access to the conclusions of such analyses;
  • I am aware that like every other species now existing or known to have existed, the usage rate of resources by my species appears to informed commentators to tend to periodically outstrip the replenishment rate of those resources (resource overreach);
  • It appears to informed commentators that our species has past the point of  of resource overreach;
  • Resource overreach tends to be accompanied, regardless of species, by conflict;
  • I am aware that the climate of my planet appears to be changing; the reasons why are of academic interest only, as I cannot hope to affect them.  My goal is to understand the ongoing changes and their likely impacts; 
  • I am healthy, capable of manual labor, capable of withstanding and/or devising solutions to reasonably undesirable environmental conditions; capable of exploiting available resources to mitigate and counter threats and improve my sense of well-being; and, capable of an exchange of resources, knowledge and skills with others of my kind;
  • I live in a country where it is possible, and I possess the resources necessary, to choose the location in which I live and relocate to that location;
  • To a lesser extent, I am similarly able to choose my lifestyle. For example, I must pay taxes and obey laws, whether or not I like it, but within those constraints I am generally free.
This, then is what I know.  And in none of these points is a value judgment implied.  From these observations, I may reach some conclusions:
  • I exist, and wish to continue to exist;
  • I wish my descendants and certain of my contemporaries to continue to exist (I have no particular desire for any of my contemporaries to perish; I simply am not directly concerned with most of them);
  • I am prepared to attempt to assure my existence, and the continuance of my descendants' existence by various means: first, by work and, where necessary or desirable, commerce; second, by violence where necessary and unavoidable;
  • Others like me exist and appear to share the above characteristics;
  • Some others like me are capable of desiring, may at times desire, and if provoked by circumstances,  will at times act upon the desire for me personally or my society generally or other societies or individuals to perish;
  • My circumstances are no different that those of any previous or extant human in that my circumstances dictate the available means for survival;
  • Threats to survival exist;
  • I can understand and identify those threats, and greater study will produce greater understanding;
  • With greater understanding, I can better develop attempts to counter those threats;
  • Obtaining and managing a personally-owned source of renewable primary resources is very important to continued autonomy;
  • My labor plus my resources becomes my capital.
  • Being part of a community can be both helpful and harmful.
Now, we are to the heart of the matter:  why move to an obscure community, in a state in this country that is experiencing a population decline, experiences some degree of harsh weather, where manufactured or refined resources are scarcer and thus more costly to obtain, and where the government is arguably more oppressive (in its taxation and regulation) than other governments elsewhere?

Why not simply attempt to acquire vast wealth, legitimately or otherwise, and ensconce myself and my family in a castle on some remote island, with a private army at my service?  It falls within the range of possibility.  Why not take up residence on a tropical island, where harsh weather is not a concern, and food is readily available from the landscape?  It falls within the range of possibility.

To answer this, we must accept certain premises.  I am perfectly willing to debate the rationale  for these premises, and the following conclusions, with any comer; I am perfectly willing to be proven wrong in both my premises and my conclusions.  But potential opponents should be prepared to challenge and respond with reason and facts; I shall not entertain challenges arising from raw opinion or uninformed belief.

Premise 1:  Some resources necessary for human life are practically infinite (on human time scales) such as the energy obtained directly from the sun, and some are practically infinitely recyclable, such as water;  others are, for purposes of exploitation over human time frames, finite, such as oil.

One can presume that fossil fuels are even now replenishing themselves.  The problem is, they appear to be doing so much more slowly than we are accessing and consuming them.

Further, while some resources are infinitely recyclable, such as water, there is no guarantee that the recycling of these resources produces usable quantities in one's immediate environment or over the period of one's immediate needs: it is possible to pollute one's drinking water for a period sufficient to provoke the death of the individual or society reliant upon that water.

Premise 2:  The accessible and useful quantity of any resource necessary to any individual or any species is, regardless of actual finiteness or in-finiteness, finite.

Even the sun is finite: it will cease to convert hydrogen to helium when the hydrogen runs out.  The resources of our earth are finite.   While some are perpetually recyclable (such as water), others are not (such as fossil fuels).  Moreover, the aggregate quantity, and as importantly, the quality of resources will be constrained within a particular locality.

Premise 3.  Circumstances and the structure of the organism control how much of a particular resource a particular individual or collection of individuals may access, use, and store.

Premise 4:  The discovery of fossil fuels as an energy source dramatically affected the global population of humans.

Prior to the industrial revolution, itself an outcome of access to abundant, easily transported, and easily employed energy fewer than one billion people at any time inhabited this plan.  This, over a measurable historic period exceeding 40,000 years.  We now number 6.9 billion humans (source).  3.5 million people are born daily; 150,000 die daily, resulting in a daily! increase of 3.35 million people.

This is only possible because we as a species were able (are able) to exploit the energy and nutrients contained in fossil fuels to dramatically increase food production on a global scale.

Premise 5:  The population of the world has surpassed, or is very close to surpassing, a level which is calculable to be sustainable given resource limits including starting quantities, usage rates, replenishment rates, and recycle rates under existing technological conditions:

While technically a conclusion, Premise 5 is stated here as foregone conclusion.

Every species now known  to exist or known to have existed undergoes a 'bloom and bust' cycle when presented with a windfall resource or resources.  Every species will exploit that resource to the fullest, increasing its population, until the limits of the least available resource place a check on growth.  When growth is checked, an abrupt collapse typically follows.

Our species includes members who have already calculated and published both the usage rates and replenishment rates for numerous societies individually, and our species collectively, and shown them to be unbalanced.  We have 'bloomed'.  The 'bust' awaits.

Premise 6:  Humans, both individually and collectively, are capable of a range of behaviors, such as cooperation, neglect, and hostility.  The behavior chosen by my contemporaries affects me.

Premise 7:  As resources become scarcer through overuse, misuse, or failure to recycle, as climate shifts affect local weather and thus food production; as technology falters in an attempt to retain current circumstances for lack of sufficiently robust energy inputs, there will be conflict.

Premise 8:  Conflict has begun.

With these premises in mind, and with the supporting facts and conclusions listed above in mind, it became clear to me that a change is my personal circumstances was necessary in order to improve my chances, and by extension my family and friend's chances, of survival.

I personally do not believe that some technological white knight will appear on the horizon with nuclear fusion in his fist and a cache of technological solutions to the other problems facing humanity in his saddlebags.  Perhaps one will appear.  Perhaps aliens will land, and solve our problems for us. Perhaps this is behind the reported (and since denied) recent UN selection of a Malaysian astrophysicist as head of its Office for Outer Space Affairs (report) .

Nothing prevents one from irrationally hoping for a Cargo Cult solution as opposed to taking decisive action.  But if an exterior solution is not forthcoming, then the world is unlikely to intervene to save us from our own inaction, should we find our survival threatened.

Therefore, better to develop a working solution whilst one is able, and in the event aliens or time travelers arrive with nuclear fusion, spare planets, and beneficent intent we may adjust both our circumstances and our expectations.

I will readily confess that Upstate New York is not the ideal place to which to retreat;  that said, most ideal places are spoken for, or otherwise out of reach.  Indeed, the search did not begin with a search for an ideal place; the search began for a sufficient and attainable place.

Further, lest anyone think otherwise, it has never been our intent to relocate and forgo the trappings and pleasantries of civilization; I am no Luddite, protesting technology in general, nor even technology which threatens my way of life, so long as it does not threaten my existence.

I embrace technology.  I write this from a hillside shed with no electricity save that produced by generator, no plumbing, and with access to the Internet provided by a Blackberry and a laptop.  The trouble is, a lot of our technology is dependent upon energy; without energy, most of it is useful only as raw material.  What good is a backhoe without fuel?  What good is my generator, or my laptop, or my Blackberry?

I want as much technology as I can get my hands on - but I want technology that either requires only limited energy inputs to use, safely and reliably produces energy itself, draws energy directly from the environment on a sustainable basis, or mitigates the loss of energy in useful systems.  And I want this because it is my sincere and firm belief that numbers don't lie: the pace of human growth and resource consumption are about to collide, and as a bit-player in that collision, my own ability to access large quantities of cheap energy will substantially diminish.

It is no longer the experience of most of our society (although it remains so for a goodly portion of the world) that some things which seem both easy to obtain and relatively cheap are in fact neither.  If you don't believe me, go and get yourself a cold, pasteurized gallon of milk.  Without visiting a grocery store, without using any means of conveyance that isn't either an animal or one you have made yourself from raw materials (animal, vegetable, or mineral) by hand without access to electricity, and with a container of your own devising, also made from raw materials by hand .

The comforts and conveniences provided by our energy use are so commonplace to us that they are taken for granted.  Yet it is far from so for a good deal of the world, and it is unlikely to remain thus for ourselves for much longer.  Unfortunately, we seem collectively incapable of acknowledging this fact and people, if asked, either dismiss reality or else invoke some mysterious 'they' as being in the process of concluding a technical solution to be shortly made available, at low cost.

However, when we as individuals and collectively as a society face a significant and prolonged energy shortage we will all very quickly learn how much things truly cost, and how hard they may be to obtain locally.  Abundant energy in the form of fossil fuels pervades our lives.  Without it, most of what most of us do to survive cannot be done.

To understand this, simply imagine your life if the the laws of physics suddenly changed and the electricity went out - right now - forever, and imagine if right now, forever, fossil fuels disappeared from the Earth.

This was more or less the human experience until about 300 years ago.

It doesn't take advanced mathematics to calculate that substantial energy shortages are not only a possibility, but are in fact likely , particularly in this country, as we use a disproportional share of the energy owned by others. Others, both owners and non-owners of energy sources, are starting to want more even as the amount available declines.

We are going to face shortages.  As energy becomes less available, our lifestyles will degrade.  I would prefer for mine to degrade as little as possible, and I would like to have as much control as possible over the changes.  And by degradation, I mean our use of energy to accomplish basic tasks: there is no need for our quality of life to degrade just because we have to press the oil for a lamp ourselves in order to have light at night.

Therefore, Nina and I have chosen to obtain a primary resource - land with running water, trees, game, and arable soil - where we may substantially mitigate the impact of externally produced energy scarcity on our lifestyle, by judicious development and careful exploitation of this resource to in order to replace community provided secondary goods, services, and utilities with self-provided secondary goods, services and utilities where shortages occur.

I am extremely fortunate in that I have substantial energy available to me to assist me in developing this capacity. It would be much harder without it.  I am extremely fortunate in that I have a spouse who understands all that I have outlined, and is a willing partner.  It would much harder without such support.

I acknowledge that I will continue to have energy available to me - sunlight will fall upon my land, and, when combined with other resources (nutrients, organisms, and water) can be harvested as food and fuel.  I can directly collect sunlight for conversion to electricity, or to do other forms of work; heating water, drying food, generating temperature differentials in my house that cause air to flow.  Water can drive a stream turbine. I can combine energies to convert its form: grain and the efforts of yeast will produce alcohol; with fire I may distill it to a useful fuel.  I can use a hand-cranked press to obtain oil from plants.

And this primary resource is most useful to me if I select technology - and develop the skills and understanding necessary to employ it - that maximally, sustainably exploits those resources, including locally produced energy.

An ATV is an example of a technology useful in exploiting these resources - it could be used to drag logs from the forest to my wood yard. I could distill alcohol for is fuel.

But a horse can also drag logs.  And a good horse can be had for as low as 250 dollars in this area; this is around 1/10 the cost of even a basic four-wheel utility ATV. And the fuel for the horse is growing right outside, and needs very little interaction from me to keep right on refueling the horse.  Further horses produce more horses, all on their own, and in a pinch, they can be eaten.

But in addition to choices about what technology I purchase, I must also consider my own training requirements.  I don't know what it's like to survive for very long periods without external energy inputs.  And it occurs to me that if I really propose to survive without said energy inputs, then I am far better off learning to do so when it is an option, as opposed to a requirement.

We have acquired this resource in a place where people are generally leaving; we are leaving a place where people are generally gathering. Thus, the competition for resources will be less severe.  Land is currently fairly cheap.  The community is small enough that we may hope to know most members, thus cooperation should be more likely than conflict during crisis.  The land is good and resource-rich.  There is abundant water in the region.  There exists, in the form of the Amish and others, practical knowledge on how to do things with limited energy.

We are close to several Universities and Colleges, one of which, Cornell, has several colleges devoted to the study of agriculture, and the mindset in this region is generally concordant with our own.  The climate, in conjunction with a properly designed and constructed house, removes the need for generated interior cooling during summer months (a huge energy savings).

Climate change is the unpredictable factor:  how will the weather here change?  We cannot know, but we can make reasonable predictions: generally warmer, wetter, and with a longer growing season, punctuated perhaps by more frequent severe weather occurrences.  This is better than the alternative: hotter and drier.

Finally, one needs only look at the mess humans have made of this planet to understand that a different way must be found. Someone has to start.

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