Monthly Archives: May 2015

Ethics after the fall

That a fall from our current technological state of grace powered by cheap fossil fuels is almost a mathematical certainty, it is always interesting to read fiction that could describe our near and far futures, no matter which path we take, or how fast we get here.   Heck, even this blog has a short essay about a possible path downwards.

Part of this fascination is that people get to criticize an author-built world, and wonder what their own reactions and actions would be.    Additionally, there is the ‘nuts and bolts’ part – what technologies would fail, which ones would continue, which ones might rise up – all valid questions, and ones which many authors have attempted to answer.

What really intrigues me, however, and what has always been instructive for me about science fiction of any stripe is that good science fiction (or climate fiction, or die-off fiction, if you are prone to making sub-genre descriptions) shows how changes in technology (either adding or subtracting) change the way people interact and behave.  Hard science fiction is great, as it can come up with technically ingenious and plausible things, but the great writers have always made their stories more than the technology.   Larry Niven is famous for this; he’s written many a hard SF book, and one of Niven’s laws is that ‘ethics changes with technology’.    There are many examples of this in our modern world; how we handle death and the ability to keep people “alive” even when they can’t support themselves is a classic.   Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot series of stories brought many of the issues of robotics to the forefront; the list is long.

Now, let’s turn this advancing technology bit on its head.  As technological suites fail as time progresses, what sort of ethical “reversions” will we experience?   Will ‘lifeboat ethics’ be the norm?   Turning back to Isaac Asimov, there was a critical comment he made on democracy; that it can’t survive overpopulation (“The Bathroom Metaphor”).   Along these same lines, it may be that certain ethical and legal expectations that we hold dear now, everything from minimum wages, fair and just trials for criminal and civil matters,  clean water, the freedom of travel, free medical care at emergency rooms may become unsustainable as we go on.    This may not be because of population pressures (our population might actually decline as time goes on), but because our lack of resources make it impossible for things like fair trials, feeding prisoners three square meals a day, and heroic end-of-life medical care to take place.

Likewise, there may be certain things that we consider completely ordinary (living on your own, eating meat, overeating, flying in an aircraft for pleasure, drinking coffee or tea on a daily basis) that may be seen as reprehensible as slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, or child labor are to many of us now.

One very perceptive and astute individual in my world has been thinking about the question of ‘What happens after democracy?” for quite a while,  and it dovetails nicely with the questions asked above.   The attribution of this quote has been debated a bit, but it brings up the core problem of democracy:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

My short sketch of an answer here is that democracy may survive, but what might happen is that we may have a feudal component of very strong obligations and responsibilities so that we avoid the difficulties that the above concept brings up.   It’s a good question to ask, and how we get and stay there is something to address in detail in a future post.

One of the many intriguing things about these questions of how ethics will change is related to the ‘Seneca cliff‘ plot that is the icon for this blog.   How fast will we lose certain niceties in our civilization may be related to the amount of energy it takes to keep these things running, so things like heroic end-of-life measures, and the benefits given to incarcerated prisoners may change radically, and quickly.   Things such as gay rights, and having women in power, however, because they in essence cost very little (from an energy perspective), may remain with us.

One last point to think about with regards to our ethical future is that because this will be a global phenomenon (something that makes Ugo Bardi think we’ll have a fast crash, rather than Greer’s fractal collapse), things may be harder on the way down than on the way up.  As things fail unevenly, people will see what happens in other places, and may worry about their own situations.  Additionally, because we have a great ingrained history of these ‘rights’ throughout the world, the friction that the collapse will bring might be a lot messier than the friction and resistance on the way up.

From the question portion of this week’s essay:

  • What basic things do we take for granted, as our ‘God given rights’, will go away first?
  • Which ones will be the most difficult to lose for you, personally?
  • What things do we do in our current lives, the really basic ones, will people see as obscene or outrageous in a few generations?
  • What sort of ethical conundrums will arise?  Which ones will go away?
  • Cheap energy allowed us (or actually forced us, due to economics) to make slavery unsustainable.   Cheap energy, effective/easy birth control,  and labor saving devices allowed women to work in office jobs and rise up to positions of power.    Did the largesse of cheap energy cause our increase in democracy?

The loss of rail, in one sad picture

JHK’s post today on rail coincided with a picture taken a few days ago on my bicycle commute.

Here, a pothole (which has been around for at least a month!), with a bit of old cobblestone showing through, as well as what I’m 99% sure is an old rail from a streetcar line that used to exist:


Our rail-friendly past, paved over, with a sad excuse for a road in its wake.   At least the potholes are marked, so perhaps one day, yes, they’ll get to them.  *Sigh*.

Spreading The Truth (Comedians Wanted)

Comedians occupy a special place in our society.   These are the folks that provide relief from the day-to-day grind, and make us laugh at our predicaments, problems, and troubles.  When things get really tough, humor can see us through even the darkest times.   During the Falklands War, British sailors from the HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry sang Monty Python’s classic, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” while waiting for rescue after their ship sank.  Even at wakes and funerals, people will sometimes make great dark jokes, often at the expense of each other and even the deceased.   Humor helps keep our sanity.

Comedians also perform another important service – they can tell the truth about the world (and in a very clear way) that can even sway public opinion.  From Dick Cavett’s commentary on Nixon and Watergate, to John Stewart’s calling out of countless situations in politics, comedy has an important, if not critical role to play in helping bring up and illuminate what is wrong with society.  Comedians, either alone or in groups, can distill the idiocy of policies in a standup routine or skit, which can have an impact far greater than any book or dry scholarly article.   And, although people and groups who are poked fun at can and do sometimes retaliate (the Charlie Hebdo incident comes to mind), usually, the net result is to make their own cause look even worse than before their counter-attack.

The Peak Oil world/blogosphere is filled with great writers; a good bunch of those (and the folks who write comments) on the blog roll in the side bar give some great milk-through-the-nose one-liners in their weekly rants and discussions.  Yet most of them (if not all) are unknown outside the Peak Oil world.  If you come to the Peak Oil/Climate Change/Financial Catastrophe world because of your temperament, that’s great, but we still seem to be losing the battle, as they say, “for hearts and minds.”

Thankfully, there is a good long list of comedians who raise serious questions (in a funny vein) about some of the outrageously obvious and sometimes taboo-to-discuss problems with modern society.  Some of my favorites are the late Bill Hicks, the still living Louis CK, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, Lee Camp and the entire crew at Redacted Tonight, and of course the granddaddy of them all – the late George Carlin.  His famous quote, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” is something that he had said in front of countless audiences, and who knows how many people might have been enlightened by his combination of biting humor and sharp critical commentary.

There are, of course, lightweights in the comedy world.  Now, this doesn’t mean they aren’t funny, in that they can’t tell a joke.  For a world in crisis, yes, we need to laugh to prevent ourselves from going off the deep end, but to completely ignore what is going on in the world in your work, when you have the power to be wildly funny at the same time seems a bit of a shame.   Jerry Seinfeld, the man who made millions by creating a comedy about nothing, is a driven individual, who (from what I’ve read) is one of the best joke writers in the business, but nothing from his world strikes me as being overtly political or cutting edge.  Perhaps this goes along with his extensive automobile collection, and his popular “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”  His world is framed by the automobile, and it is hard to see beyond that when so much of your life is surrounded by internal combustion engines.

The ironic part of this is that when George Carlin died, Seinfeld wrote an article praising Carlin, and mentioned speaking to him within days of his death.   But his interaction with George doesn’t seem to have rubbed off.  Perhaps Jerry Seinfeld does do cutting political comedy, but that isn’t the immediate vision that comes to mind when his name comes up in conversation.

Imagine George Carlin as Obi-Wan (beard and all, but a hell of a lot more cranky), Jerry!  Learn from the master; use your awesome powers for good!  Sell a good chunk of your cars (keep the first and last Porsche 911s, as a symbol of the death of the old infernal combustion world, of course), rail against the system, and bring up the issues that George Carlin and other comedians have brought up.

The comic book character that has long been associated with Seinfeld is Superman.   Perhaps Uncle Ben (of Spiderman fame) is the one comic book character that could be his next touchstone – “…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”   George Carlin was the kind of guy who gave the world a much needed “intellectual colonoscopy” (with virtual balloon animals on the side, of course) on a regular basis.   More than ever, we need that for people to wake up and realize that the American Dream is over, the climate is truly changing, and the financial system is on its last legs.  We are in for a rough ride, and someone has to write the lyrics for a modern-day Monty Python “Look on the bright side of life,” even when the world is collapsing (rapidly, slowly, or fractally) around us.

To comedians everywhere – use your awesome powers for good.   We need for these truths to be told, and comedy may be the only way for many people to be eased into knowing them.

Just don’t forget Oscar Wilde’s important safety tip – “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

From the question portion of today’s blog:

Who are your favorite comedians that bring up the reality of the world?

Am I entirely wrong?  Does Seinfeld do cutting political or social commentary?


In spite of all of the evidence on climate change and Peak Oil, many (if not most) people simply just continue to invoke the mantra, “They’ll think of something.”  No matter how many charts, how much logic, or how much data you give them, they still live in a ‘hopium’ world where Science Will Solve Everything.   It’s a bit annoying, especially for folks who have technical training, to live in a 400 ppm CO2 (and rising) world, and to hear that said at a party/bar/random event, or even at technical conferences.   People seem to blithely go about their business, thinking of the next sporting event, some new gadget, or new political news with almost no attention to those topics.

One reason this may not be conceptualized is that climate and oil are too abstract for some simple minded folks.   There is one topic, however, that due to its very nature, might be the first way to crowbar your way into getting people to think about a future that might not be so bright and shiny.  Yes, we are talking about MONEY.

Now, finance and finances can be pretty daunting, and good chunk of the folks in the financial world are folks who through the magic of survivorship bias think they they have a handle on financial reality.  In truth, they are only running one of the most massive Ponzi schemes ever, filled with concepts like ‘fractional reserve banking’, ‘fiat currency’, and the concept that money can buy anything, if the price offered is high enough.   For the record, you can make a lot of money on Wall Street.  Sure, you can invest in companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and a host of other market darlings, but good luck sleeping with yourself at night (this will be another topic down the road).

One of the clearest presentations I’ve seen on the not-so-shiny future we’ll be heading for was done by the film I.O.U.S.A.  Now, although the film doesn’t address Peak Oil and climate change, it does bring up the serious multiple deficits (budget, savings, trade, and leadership) that exist in modern America.  One of the best things about this film is David M. Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General.   He was essentially the government’s top green-eyeshade accountant, and is about as button-down as they come.  One of the key elements of the film is that given the multiple deficits we have, there is absolutely NO WAY we can ‘grow’ our way out of the problems we are in, and some tough measures are going to be required, or else we’ll be in a lot of trouble.

If you can’t get people to come around on Climate Change or Peak Oil, maybe talking about something they are familiar with on a daily basis is a good way to get them out of their zombie worldview.

I.O.U.S.A. is usually available from your local public library as a book, and as a documentary DVD.  You can also find it on some video sharing services, if you must.

Tiny steps, first steps

There are lots of websites and blogs out there telling you how to prepare for the coming unpleasantness due to the Peak Oil/economic “re-balancing”/climate changes that are on their way.   Some folks are even making a living at it (on the Internet, no less).   No problem there; part of this blog is about spreading the news of reality – things are going to be different, the religion of progress has promised things that can’t continue, and yes, serious climate change is afoot.

It is hard, however, once you discover the truth of Peak Oil, and the corresponding unpleasantness noted above.  We are emotional beings, and our resistance to reality (cue Kübler-Ross, of course) is always a problem, especially if you are older.   Changes we should make to our lives are put off, and old habits are sometimes hard to break.

For example, if you get up in the morning, and have to go to work, you can opt to drive, take the train or bus, or bike.   If the weather is perfect, your company or workspace has a locker room and showers, and your arrival time isn’t critical, taking the bike seems like an easy choice.  But if the weather is bad (or not perfect), this smart-for-you-the-planet-and-your-wallet choice may not be the one you take.   The reason this particular vexing situation is brought up, of course, is because this is one of those things that happens to me semi-regularly!   My office is only about four miles away from my residence, and biking is actually the fastest mode of transportation, but in the middle of a New England winter, it can be incredibly daunting.

The reason this is brought up is because my usual mode is to take my bicycle – it is actually faster, parking isn’t an issue, it is good exercise, and yes, the environmental impact is far lower than driving.   It has become my go-to mode of transport, but still, the automobile option still awaits (on miserable days) and still, there are times when getting in the car is an option for me.

The why of using a bicycle was relatively a no-brainer; the implementation was a bit tough.   Taking a bike means thinking more about what is in your backpack; bringing a patch kit; paying attention to the weather, and logistical concerns.   The interesting thing is, as soon as you get over the ‘activation energy hump’ of starting to bicycle places, biking feels so much better – especially when you get to your destination, and parking isn’t a problem!

This step of ‘doing the good/right/sensible thing’ is obvious in retrospect, but getting over that first hump is the tricky one.   Quitting smoking and exercising, going from junk food to eating more sensibly – all are in the same category, and again, there are legions of books and websites about how to achieve these goals.

Bicycling, becoming a pescetarian (eating only fish, and cutting out chicken/pork/beef), working on things that feel in line with an internal moral code, learning lots of new skills, investing in real goods instead of ephemera, not watching television – these are all things that have been hallmarks of ‘peak awareness’ in my life.  Talking (and blogging!) as the old proverb goes, “doesn’t cook rice.”  It isn’t easy.   There are still days of backsliding, but also ones where forward motion happens.

Different people have different difficult tasks.  If you live in a rural area, biking places might be tough, but raising a garden might be easier.  In a major city, finding work more in line with your own moral code could be easier than if you lived in a one-company town, if you had kids, if you had specific skills that made it tough to move, or if you have a crushing student loan debt.

One of the easiest ones to transition to (and one that can be done generally anywhere, in my opinion), was becoming a pescetarian.  Eating meat, as tasty as it was, isn’t that good for most of us, and the environmental impact is pretty big.   Not flying was another one.

As always, these posts bring up more questions than answers:

  • After you discovered these new realities, what concrete steps did you take, even if they were tiny ones?   Did someone personally clue you in to these things, or was this something you discovered on your own?
  • What was one of the easiest thing to do?
  • What was one of the hardest?
  • How did you handle backsliding?
  • How did you convince your loved ones to change their habits?
  • What would you recommend to others, in any circumstances?
  • What do you want to do, but are having trouble doing?
  • Are there things you will never give up?

We, of course, close with this classic:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.