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Deep thought - Apr 14

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Make Birth Control, Not War
Thomas Hayden and Malcolm Potts, Miller-McCune
Close your eyes for a moment and cast your mind back to the dominant news stories of early 2010. The economy in tatters? Certainly. Global stalemate on climate negotiations and unbreakable gridlock in Congress? Of course. And don’t forget the terror — on Christmas Eve, 2009, a lone Nigerian man boards an airplane in Lagos and travels some 18 hours toward Detroit in what can only have been a dizzying combination of anxiety, fear and elation, and a grandiose sense of his own destiny. It all ends with a little ineffectual fumbling in the underpants, cut short by the heroism of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s fellow passengers.

The official response to the underwear bomber reveals the usual inability of large bureaucracies to connect the dots or take meaningful action on real threats. Instead of understanding and reassessment, we get yet another late, inappropriate and costly escalation in airport security and political infighting about the treatment of Abdulmutallab — all of it embedded in an unacknowledged but resolute refusal to see the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, the real killing continues to elude the headlines. It is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province where allied Western soldiers struggle with the almost impossible task of attacking the Taliban without killing civilians. It is in Darfur and the Congo, where death tolls are in the millions, not the thousands, and it is in Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims meet. Here is primeval warfare in full abundance, where bands of men are knit together by ancient bonds of shared violence. They are motivated to kill their neighbors systematically and deliberately, not just by lust for land and resources but also by hatred of the “other” and a too-seldom acknowledged love of war and warring ways. It is in these places, and scores of others where the violence simmers just below the surface, that people live close to one of the darkest realities of human nature.

Humans — human males, really — are not peaceful animals. They are in fact a spectacularly violent species, and very nearly uniquely so. Despite high-minded modern wishes and the received wisdom of three generations of anthropologists and sociologists, warfare is not an aberration in human development, nor is it a learned, culturally determined behavior. War and its ancillary behaviors — including racism, slavery, mass rape and the subjugation of women — are not cultural problems and thus do not have neat, sociological solutions. Along with terrorism, these most destructive of human behaviors derive clearly and directly from our biology, bequeathed to us by an evolutionary pathway that we share with just one other extant species, the chimpanzees.

War, simply put, is in our genes. It is a complex behavior built up out of a series of emotions and impulses that are, in general, expressed more in men than in women, and more in young men than in old. It arose early in our evolutionary history because the most violent of our pre-human male ancestors had more offspring than their more peaceful or timid competitors; it has been with us as long as we have been a species and in all probability will be with us as long as we remain one. Our warlike impulses cannot be stopped with enhanced airport imaging, extrajudicial treatment of terrorism suspects or any attempt at a literal “war on terror.”

From biology, medicine, history, literature, political theory, sociology and evolutionary psychology, a clear picture emerges: War is a biological behavior. As robust science demonstrates — and common sense and the experience of warriors around the world and throughout history attest — war is part of the human condition. But does this mean that war is inevitable and peace an unattainable dream?

...So how did war first evolve? As Jane Goodall, Richard Wrangham and others have shown, we share with chimps, our closest living biological relatives, the bizarre propensity to attack and kill others of our own species. Chimpanzees live, as humans did for the vast majority of evolutionary time, in male-dominated social groups in which the males are all blood relatives and only females move between troops. The dominant males largely monopolize mating opportunities and take the best food and other resources. Younger males are left either to work their way up the in-group hierarchy or attempt surreptitious matings with females of their own troop or others — high-stakes strategies that often end in a beating or worse. But, in a unique evolutionary innovation, these young males can also band together and launch attacks on isolated members of neighboring out-groups, ultimately eliminating these “enemies” and securing the territory, resources and females they require to survive and pass on their genes.

Today, we see remarkably similar patterns of territorial raiding, brutal attacks and, ultimately, campaigns of extermination in both humans and chimpanzees. Just as the most successfully violent alpha male chimpanzees have more mates and more offspring than the losers, genetic surveys show that the great human warriors of history have left outsized impacts on the human gene pool. One study published in 2003 estimated that Genghis Khan has 16 million living descendants worldwide. It takes little imagination to see the evolutionary benefit of warfare to Khan and his cohorts, and it leads to the uncomfortable realization that we are all, by definition, the descendants of the victors in conflicts over resources, territory and the right to mate.

...We are all descended, in other words, from particularly successful rapists, murderers and brigands. Human males today bear the marks of this legacy in the behaviors and impulses that still spur us on to lethal conflict — including the widespread and devastating association between war and rape — even when other solutions are both available and preferable.

Briefly, the factors that seem most likely to increase the probability of open war or armed conflict include:

  • Environmental stress and/or resource limitation.
  • Extreme economic disparity within or between groups and lack of opportunities, especially for young men.
  • Subjugation of women and a culture of male dominance.
  • A high proportion of young males relative to older males.

All of these factors interact in one way or another with the warlike biology of the human male, and each is influenced quite directly by population growth rate, and as a result, population age structure or the relative ratios of young to old in a society.

We argue in Sex and War that our warring behaviors are essentially a hangover from our evolutionary past. It also seems clear that these behaviors have been rendered wildly maladaptive in the dual modern contexts of stable societies with social norms that condemn wild warring on the one hand and allow weapons of mass destruction on the other. (With simple technology, the impulses of war can kill hundreds or thousands; with nuclear and biological weapons, they can potentially kill us all.)...
(12 April 2010)
Find out more about the book here

Resilience and Ruggedness: Why Faster, Bigger and More Complex May Be Better

Alex Steffens, Worldchanging
This started as a few notes, became a rant, then tripped over some ideas which will be more fully articulated in coming work. Rough writing: read at your own risk. There are some obvious problems with this as a piece I don't have time to fix. Intelligent, engaged, constructive feedback welcome.

There's a really cool event happening in Berkeley today, Design 4 Resilience: Thriving in an Uncertain World. It's an open space, unconferency sort of show, not unlike the miniconference we held last weekend on how to rebuild Seattle as a carbon neutral. All sorts of interesting folks are participating, including ally Jerry Michalski, Jean Russell, Sarah Kennon of Method, Stephanie Smith, Neal Gorenflo and a bunch of others. If I were in the Bay Area today, I'd be there.

I am really glad there are people revving up the conversation about resilience: it's an essential debate to have. That said, some things about the way resilience is being defined, framed and envisioned in some of discussions strike me as veering from the helpful. While I don't have time to offer a full-blown set of alternative solution-approaches, I thought a few ideas might be useful:

1. Defining the scope of resilience is critical.

One of the defining characteristics of post-industrial capitalism is that it hides its backstories. Because branding is so important, and consumer choices are made often on completely intangible perceptions, most of messy destruction and systemic oppression that support our lives happens in places obscured from our view. This is why it's so critical we work on making visible the invisible, doing supply chain transparency and backstory activism. Sunlight does wonders for sustainability.

...2) Sustainability needs to be a systemic effort.

See, I'm more and more convinced that the idea we as individuals, or little pocket communities, or small towns can lead the way to sustainability on our own is sort of delusional and unworthy of ourselves. Certainly the idea that some people can disconnect and live happy transition lives while society crashes around them betrays a profound misreading of history: all those other un-transitioned people aren't going to just go away and leave us to our straw-bale buildings and arugula patches.

If we want to live sustainable lives, we need to make sustainable places, and in the modern world, where metropolises drive the economy and culture, that means making sustainable cities. We may not be able to do that everywhere in the time we have; but the idea that we can thrive without doing it many places is delusional. Fail to make cities resilient at a broad scale, and we're talking the breakdown of social order, which means all other plans are pointless.

...3) Ruggedness is something we don't talk enough about.

Because sustainability thinking has largely grown out the environmental movement, there's still a mental dichotomy between natural and fallen; that is, we often think the point is to save the green places, save virgin nature, and that anything that has been incorporated into the human world is lost, and of secondary importance at best.

One problem with this thinking is the entire planet and every corner and crevice within it has now been incorporated into the human world. Wild, "virgin" nature doesn't exist anymore. We'll be needing to manage the consequences of our interventions in nature to extents few of us are prepared to think about, for centuries to come.

...4) The future demands new thinking.

We need to have the capacity to change quickly, to reinvent, to distribute innovation and explore new realities: and we're going to have to do all that while the world gets weirder and many places crumble into chaos from time to time. We have to be built rugged enough to fight our way through the future's troubles, strong enough to serve as bulwarks that can help and protect the more vulnerable.

...That said, there's a lot of teaching to be done in every direction. Because while the frame of much resilience thinking is off, the thinking itself is critical. It would be an enormous service if people who really understand what's good in the ideas behind permaculture, transition, voluntary simplicity and the like were able to reframe the insights they have to the scale and urban character of future we face....
(10 April 2010)
Sharon Astyk responds to this piece with an even longer response of her own.

Alex revisits some of his arguments from his earlier exchange with Rob Hopkins on Transition Culture. -KS

Building a Green Economy

Paul Krugman, New York Times
If you listen to climate scientists — and despite the relentless campaign to discredit their work, you should — it is long past time to do something about emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If we continue with business as usual, they say, we are facing a rise in global temperatures that will be little short of apocalyptic. And to avoid that apocalypse, we have to wean our economy from the use of fossil fuels, coal above all.

But is it possible to make drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions without destroying our economy?

Like the debate over climate change itself, the debate over climate economics looks very different from the inside than it often does in popular media. The casual reader might have the impression that there are real doubts about whether emissions can be reduced without inflicting severe damage on the economy. In fact, once you filter out the noise generated by special-interest groups, you discover that there is widespread agreement among environmental economists that a market-based program to deal with the threat of climate change — one that limits carbon emissions by putting a price on them — can achieve large results at modest, though not trivial, cost. There is, however, much less agreement on how fast we should move, whether major conservation efforts should start almost immediately or be gradually increased over the course of many decades.

In what follows, I will offer a brief survey of the economics of climate change or, more precisely, the economics of lessening climate change. I’ll try to lay out the areas of broad agreement as well as those that remain in major dispute. First, though, a primer in the basic economics of environmental protection.

Environmental Econ 101
If there’s a single central insight in economics, it’s this: There are mutual gains from transactions between consenting adults. If the going price of widgets is $10 and I buy a widget, it must be because that widget is worth more than $10 to me. If you sell a widget at that price, it must be because it costs you less than $10 to make it. So buying and selling in the widget market works to the benefit of both buyers and sellers. More than that, some careful analysis shows that if there is effective competition in the widget market, so that the price ends up matching the number of widgets people want to buy to the number of widgets other people want to sell, the outcome is to maximize the total gains to producers and consumers. Free markets are “efficient” — which, in economics-speak as opposed to plain English, means that nobody can be made better off without making someone else worse off.

...Climate of Doubt?
This is an article on climate economics, not climate science. But before we get to the economics, it’s worth establishing three things about the state of the scientific debate.

The first is that the planet is indeed warming. Weather fluctuates, and as a consequence it’s easy enough to point to an unusually warm year in the recent past, note that it’s cooler now and claim, “See, the planet is getting cooler, not warmer!” But if you look at the evidence the right way — taking averages over periods long enough to smooth out the fluctuations — the upward trend is unmistakable: each successive decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the one before.

Second, climate models predicted this well in advance, even getting the magnitude of the temperature rise roughly right. While it’s relatively easy to cook up an analysis that matches known data, it is much harder to create a model that accurately forecasts the future. So the fact that climate modelers more than 20 years ago successfully predicted the subsequent global warming gives them enormous credibility.

...And this brings me to my third point: models based on this research indicate that if we continue adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as we have, we will eventually face drastic changes in the climate. Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about a few more hot days in the summer and a bit less snow in the winter; we’re talking about massively disruptive events, like the transformation of the Southwestern United States into a permanent dust bowl over the next few decades.

...The Cost of Action
Just as there is a rough consensus among climate modelers about the likely trajectory of temperatures if we do not act to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases, there is a rough consensus among economic modelers about the costs of action. That general opinion may be summed up as follows: Restricting emissions would slow economic growth — but not by much. The Congressional Budget Office, relying on a survey of models, has concluded that Waxman-Markey “would reduce the projected average annual rate of growth of gross domestic product between 2010 and 2050 by 0.03 to 0.09 percentage points.” That is, it would trim average annual growth to 2.31 percent, at worst, from 2.4 percent. Over all, the Budget Office concludes, strong climate-change policy would leave the American economy between 1.1 percent and 3.4 percent smaller in 2050 than it would be otherwise.

...The China Syndrome
The United States is still the world’s largest economy, which makes the country one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gases. But it’s not the largest. China, which burns much more coal per dollar of gross domestic product than the United States does, overtook us by that measure around three years ago. Over all, the advanced countries — the rich man’s club comprising Europe, North America and Japan — account for only about half of greenhouse emissions, and that’s a fraction that will fall over time. In short, there can’t be a solution to climate change unless the rest of the world, emerging economies in particular, participates in a major way.

...The Costs of Inaction
In public discussion, the climate-change skeptics have clearly been gaining ground over the past couple of years, even though the odds have been looking good lately that 2010 could be the warmest year on record. But climate modelers themselves have grown increasingly pessimistic. What were previously worst-case scenarios have become base-line projections, with a number of organizations doubling their predictions for temperature rise over the course of the 21st century. Underlying this new pessimism is increased concern about feedback effects — for example, the release of methane, a significant greenhouse gas, from seabeds and tundra as the planet warms.

...The Ramp Versus the Big Bang
Economists who analyze climate policies agree on some key issues. There is a broad consensus that we need to put a price on carbon emissions, that this price must eventually be very high but that the negative economic effects from this policy will be of manageable size. In other words, we can and should act to limit climate change. But there is a ferocious debate among knowledgeable analysts about timing, about how fast carbon prices should rise to significant levels.

...The Political Atmosphere
As I’ve mentioned, the House has already passed Waxman-Markey, a fairly strong bill aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s not as strong as what the big-bang advocates propose, but it appears to move faster than the policy-ramp proposals. But the vote on Waxman-Markey, which was taken last June, revealed a starkly divided Congress. Only 8 Republicans voted in favor of it, while 44 Democrats voted against. And the odds are that it would not pass if it were brought up for a vote today...
Practically everyone has responded to this post in one way or another, it seems, including Stuart Staniford, and Sharon Astyk responding to his response. -KS

Ill Fares the Land

Tony Judt, New York Review of Books
Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of “capitalism” and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of “socialism.” By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the “left–right” distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.

...I wrote my book Ill Fares the Land for young people on both sides of the Atlantic. American readers may be struck by the frequent references to social democracy. Here in the United States, such references are uncommon. When journalists and commentators advocate public expenditure on social objectives, they are more likely to describe themselves—and be described by their critics—as “liberals.” But this is confusing. “Liberal” is a venerable and respectable label and we should all be proud to wear it. But like a well-designed outer coat, it conceals more than it displays.

A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behavior. Liberals have historically favored keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose. In their extreme form, such attitudes are associated today with self-styled “libertarians,” but the term is largely redundant. Most genuine liberals remain disposed to leave other people alone.

Social democrats, on the other hand, are something of a hybrid. They share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy social democrats believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.

Understandably, social democracy is a hard sell in the United States. One of my goals is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties—and to argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want. In any case, much that was best in American legislation and social policy over the course of the twentieth century—and that we are now urged to dismantle in the name of efficiency and “less government”—corresponds in practice to what Europeans have called “social democracy.” Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it.

The European dilemma is somewhat different. Many European countries have long practiced something resembling social democracy: but they have forgotten how to preach it. Social democrats today are defensive and apologetic. Critics who claim that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education, or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services.

I want to challenge conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic. To be sure, the target has softened considerably. In the early years of this century, the “Washington consensus” held the field. Everywhere you went there was an economist or “expert” expounding the virtues of deregulation, the minimal state, and low taxation. Anything, it seemed, that the public sector could do, private individuals could do better...
(April 2010)
More info about the book here.

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