Ordinarily I would wish everyone a happy new year. And I do hope every reader has as smooth a year in 2013 as possible. But happy is not a word that pops into my mind when I think about the turmoil the world is actually experiencing now and that I suspect will be much worse in the near future. In spite of the supposed good news about the US economy (see below), there are still many dark clouds on the horizon and they keep coming our way. I guess I think of my mission as wishing everyone a scary new year so as to prompt some action somewhere! Fear is a valid emotion to feel when there is something dangerous to be afraid of.
For myself working on my projects gets more labor intensive every day — or maybe I'm just feeling my age! I haven't been able to give much attention to Question Everything and I apologize for not being a better responder to comments. As it is I work seven days a week most weeks, taking little time off for holidays. As Matt Simmons used to say: “rust never sleeps,” which is another way of saying entropy is always gaining ground. Not that I can stop rust or entropy, but by pushing systems thinking and science, and trying my best to get people to consider the bigger picture, I at least feel like I'm helping to keep the rusting from running us down before we understand what our fates are likely to be — and prepare somehow.
So here are a few miscellaneous thoughts to share. Some news and some old themes reiterated.
Book Project Update
I have to confess it is getting harder and harder to keep up with the blogging. Mostly this is because the book project (Introduction to the Fundamentals of Systems Science) is reaching a crescendo. I'm in the flow, as it were. We now have all but the last three chapters (which are about systems methodologies) drafted and I am deep in the reorganization and completion phases. I have committed to teaching another graduate course on systems in the spring so I have to have the chapters that will be used in that course essentially done (that is in second draft).
The course I taught this last fall, Computational Cybernetics, seems to have been a success, judging by students' comments and ratings. So I am looking forward to the course in the spring. Meanwhile, this quarter I will be teaching a freshman core course called “Introduction to Science” in which I will cover a short version of systems science applied to sustainability through permaculture, similar to what I did last summer. Getting to teach all of these courses is giving me a great deal of experience with how students handle various topics in systems science. And that is starting to be reflected in the book writing.
In addition to teaching courses with some of the chapters I've started sending selected chapters out for review by practitioners/researchers. That will be a crucial test of the whole project. The field of systems science has, ironically, fragmented over the decades and there has been a tendency to reify certain sub-topics like complexity so that people working in those specific areas have relegated the ‘systems’ aspect to a subsidiary position (e.g. complex systems being more about complexity than about systemness, of which one attribute is complexity). So potential reviewers might be offended by our assertion that system is the core concept and complexity or cybernetics or information theory or dynamics, etc. are sub-topics. Our thoughts had always been that these fragments should be reintegrated under systems science. It remains to be seen as to whether we have done an adequate job of doing so in the eyes of the people who work in these fields.
I am expecting that if I can keep up this focus and energy then the book will be ready for total review and off to the publisher for their editing by the end of next summer. Wish me luck!
What If the People We Send to Congress ARE the Best We Can Find?
This scary thought occurred to me as I watched the fiscal cliff negotiations proceed. I have been lamenting the brokeness of the political system and the federal government for a while now. And I am hardly the only one. But if my thesis about the lack of sapience is correct then we are not looking at a merely broken system. Maybe the system is working perfectly given the constraints on the capabilities of the component parts (we humans). We can't assume that somehow or another we keep sending incompetent or dishonest people to Washington and that one day that will change. Some of the newly elected congress people seem intent on bringing sanity to Washington DC. My district just sent a new congressman up who had been doing a fabulous job in the state House and Senate over the past few years. I voted for him, sort of as an experiment. He will be a guinea pig of sorts to test my hypothesis about how good people get turned into foolish idiots by going to Washington. We saw it happen with a certain community organizer from Illinois not too long ago. Of course I would hope that my hypothesis turns out to be wrong, especially for this young man (he wanted to go so I supported him in his wishes). But we shall see in a few years.
This may be another version of the Peter Principle. Locally we send good, seemingly competent people to tackle the next bigger chunk of problems. But eventually they find their level of incompetence.
What is happening in the governing of the US, its states, its municipalities, etc. is simply a result of a lack of sufficient sapience (especially the strategic and systems thinking components and their contributions to good judgment) to deal with the size and complexities of the governed units. No one in our species has what is needed to deal with the situation we find ourselves in. Or, at least, no one who might has emerged as a political leader anywhere in the world so far. The problems we face now, mostly of our own creation precisely due to low average sapience, are not the kind that can be solved by cleverness alone, as in finding the “right” policies. They are far too complex and originate in nonlinear interactions between sometimes irrational agents (us).
In my view the hope for humanity is not in somehow magically finding (or inventing) solutions to these problems so we can get on with things, go on consuming stuff. Higher sapience isn't something that people can be taught, unfortunately. It originates in brain structures that need to develop further. The hope is in the evolutionary process that, one way or another, might lead to a more sapient species of the genus. That, of course, isn't something we can take advantage of. It won't do us, as individuals living in the here and now, any good. It's what you might call a long view.
The Eye of the Hurricane
By some MSM accounts, as well as the typical political hype, the US economy is recovering, even if a bit more slowly than people would like. By recovery, of course, they mean growth or year-over-year percentage increase in the GDP. In other words the vast majority of politicians, economists, capitalists, and the general public cheer for exponential growth and give not a hoot that we live in a finite world. The financial markets have been maintaining over the past four years. The housing market is starting to show a pulse, even if weak. The jobs situation is slowly looking better according to the official statistics, even if the jobs being “created” are mostly low paying. These are signs that we are getting back toward a 3 to 5 percent growth scenario. Yea!
Unfortunately as soon as everyone starts being a bit optimistic the price of fossil fuels starts going up. Oil (WTI) has been keeping above $85 and has started to climb into the $90s range again. Remember our economy was built and runs on $35-40 oil! Coal is getting more expensive; there is more competition internationally for it. And what can you say about natural gas, the miracle fuel whose price plummeted with fracking? The realities of reduced production volumes over time, higher drilling and production costs, and weak markets has resulted in gas drillers cutting back. Couple that with some disappointing results in realized extraction of what promised to be 100 years of fuel and you can see where that wagon train is headed. All energy costs are high and climbing inexorably. Energy is the base cost of everything. Increase the cost of supplying energy to the economy and the cost of everything goes up. This is inflation due to the realities of physics not from printing more money. Do the latter and you just make matters worse. And if you think you can borrow your way out of this kind of inflation, which seems to be the current belief, recognize that you are borrowing against some future presumed time when economic growth does come roaring back allowing you to pay back the debt and still have wealth to consume left over. Fat chance. That just isn't going to happen without a literal miracle in energy production.
Energy is just going to continue to cost more. It is physically harder to get fossil fuels out of the ground and the alternative sources, like solar and wind, are just not scaling up fast enough to supplant those conventional sources. There is growing concern that the alternatives will never supply sufficient high powered energy to drive an economy like that of the US, or even Europe. Help a bit, yes. Solve the problem, no. I know many readers feel that if we were just to scale back, conserve, stop wasting energy we could run a comfortable economy on alternative sources. If comfortable means high tech, I seriously doubt it. But more than that, how are the vast majority of American consumers going to react to being told they have to massively downsize their expectations and lifestyles, especially after being told they shouldn't have to by our politicians? The potential for civil unrest is palpable. Just look at Southern Europe for examples of how people feel about being told they are no longer entitled. And note that their attitudes were nowhere near those of Americans who feel superior and exceptional to start with. I have great difficulty seeing any dot connecting involving running a peaceful, comfortable society on just alternative sources until after a massive upheaval reduces the population while somehow miraculously preserving the tech infrastructure. To me that scenario seems highly unlikely.
Various authors have suggested that once past the bumpy plateau of oil production (which we appear to have been on since about 2005) the initial real decline will result in an economic bumpy ride down with some drops and some appearances of recovery, sort of like a roller coaster. I have maintained that while peak oil is significant it is not really the most insidious part of the energy problem. Net usable energy per capita is the critical parameter (that few folks outside of the EROI crowd really pay much attention to). I strongly suspect that has peaked as early as twenty-some years ago and we are actually witnessing the bumpy ride already (i.e. the Great Recession being the first really big drop). Energy prices are more strongly impacted by net per capita availability than raw energy production numbers. So all the hoopla over the increases in production of oil due to extraction from non-conventional sources (fracking or tar sands) is completely missing the EROI factor that actually drives the cost of usable energy.
The roller coaster analogy is a good one, but so is a hurricane. I'm betting we are in the eye of the storm right now. The wind has stopped blowing for a time. It almost seems normal (the old normal). But the eye is passing and we are in for much more bad weather. Just have patience and you will see the winds pick up again. There are more economic bubbles rising again and when one of those bursts it is likely to result in the “GREATER” Recession (higher education and student debt being one I am particularly sensitive to). People go outside in the eye of a hurricane to assess the damage during the calm. If they get too engrossed in examining things, especially if they see that maybe the damage doesn't seem that bad, they can get caught off guard when the eye passes and the storm comes in full swing again.
It turns out I may have a second book deal cooking. I've been approached by a publisher (not the same one as my systems book) to convert my sapience and sapient governance working papers into a book form. I'm tempted. I have some new material for both subjects and have been trying to find time to incorporate it and upgrade those works. This might be an added incentive.
On the down side that would add to my workload considerably. However, I am looking at a possible break next academic year. My teaching may be devoted to systems-related courses and introduction to programing in C for engineers (something close to my heart on the CS side). That would free up some time in my day job. Regardless, I feel compelled to fight the rust as much as I can!