Monday, 30 May 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2: BAU and The Religion of Progress

In my last post I talked about our growth and consumer based industrial society (Business as Usual, BAU), the people who are working to oppose it (Crunchies) and the woo (pseudoscience) involved in that sort of binary thinking, on both sides. Having brought up pseudoscience, I went on to discuss science as the only reliable way we have of knowing things about the material world (nature), and looked at the spectrum of ways that people do look at nature, noting that BAU and Crunchiness are at two extremes. I finished up by promising to look deeper into those two positions in future posts. Today I'll be talking about BAU.

On the surface, BAU is very practical and down to earth, interested only in what works—the farthest thing from woo. Its proponents would have us believe that they use exactly those reliable thinking tools I talked about in my last post, and proceed as indicated by science and reason. They have to a great extent co-opted science into their ideology, convincing us that their ideology is not just completely supported by science, but really is science, period. Of course, if you are allowed to pick and choose results, you can make science say anything you want.

They would also have us believe that everything is going fine with BAU and our industrial civilization is the best way to live, really the only way anyone would want to live. While they do acknowledge that there are some minor problems with the way BAU is working at the moment, they are sure that a little tinkering should fix them up in no time. And even if the big problems that I am always going on about are real, technology can no doubt be developed to solve them before it is too late.

Underneath that optimistic wallpaper, though, there are some pretty big cracks. Rather than being purely rational, BAU is based on the religion of progress. Supposedly, humanity is special—not strictly a part of nature like other species. Because of our intelligence, and our ability to evolve culturally as well as genetically, we have a clear destiny which places us on a path from the caves to the stars. Limits are something we are made to transcend via technology, not to live within. And however bad our current situation, we can always trust that things will improve, if not for us, at least for our children.

"What's so bad about that—what's wrong with progress?" you may ask. Or more pointedly, "what have you got against progress, Irv?"

I have nothing particular against things getting better, which must surely be what one means when talking about progress. What I am against is "progress as a religion", which involves several problematical ideas:

  • Progress is predestined.
  • Progress must continue, regardless of the consequences and despite any limits we may encounter.
  • Progress occurs in one direction, along a single path. If you don't like where progress is taking us, the only alternative is to move in the other direction, "backwards".
  • Cultures which are not part of BAU are "undeveloped", and that is a bad thing. Their only option is to start moving forward along the path of progress, to begin "developing" and eventually become "developed".

In the developed and developing world, all of us (even Crunchies) are immersed in a culture that worships progress, where those ideas are so obvious that we aren't even aware of them as such. It's like water to fish. I am no different, and I have to work hard to even consider the idea that progress may not be taking us to a good place. But I have done so and I would invite you to join me for a moment and have a closer look at those ideas and where they lead.

First, predestination.

The thing is that the belief in predestined progress is a religion. In North America, it seems to me that the majority of main stream Christian churches are little more than fronts for the religion of progress. For those folks, I guess that means progress is predestined by God. Health, happiness and success in business/work are the rewards of the faithful.

For those of us that aren't religious, though, the word "predestined" seems to mean that the nature of human beings, or perhaps more precisely, of human societies, is to progress. If you want to remain a true believer in progress, it's probably best not to look too closely at what "progress" means. But it's pretty clear that within BAU, it means that the human population grows and attains an ever higher level of material prosperity, comfort and convenience. Since health these days is maintained by the fruits of modern medical science and happiness consists (or so we are told) of ever increasing material prosperity (the fruit of success in business/work), this isn't very different from how the religious (Christian) folks see things. Not surprising, since we are talking about the religion of progress.

But let's take a more skeptical look at this. Is progress really part of human nature?

This idea is based on our ability to pass on advances via language—to evolve culturally as well as genetically. We've had this ability for two to three million years and during all but the last bit of that period, progress has been very, very slow. Cultural evolution during that period led to a wide variety of fairly stable small scale societies adapted to the many environments we encountered as we spread across the surface of the earth to every continent except Antarctica. About 10,000 years ago agriculture was invented in a handful of societies across the world, and the pace of progress in those societies "picked up" to just very slow (one less very).

Then a few hundred years ago the pace of progress began to accelerate dramatically. Looking back on this, those who believe in the inevitability of progress conclude that we finally got our act together and began to realize our potential. Many would credit much of this to the Enlightenment and the technological advances that came with it. I would say they are confusing cause and effect.

Something changed, for sure, but what? In the period leading up to when the change started, European society had just about run out of empty land to expand into and had maximized its use of the energy available from biomass (mainly firewood). Then the "New World" was discovered with great expanses of "empty land" and vast as yet untapped resources. Not long after this, coal began to replace firewood and heat engines (burning coal) began to replace muscle power.

And yes, a great deal of progress came about as a result of these changes. It probably was in some sense "inevitable" that this would happen, that some culture would eventually undergo the changes that European culture did. But this was progress driven not by destiny or human nature, but by the consumption of finite and non-renewable resources. The Enlightenment (while no doubt a good thing) was an effect of this progress, not the cause.

Now we find ourselves in the position of having already filled up essentially all the empty land on this planet and reaching the point of diminishing returns for fossil fuels. It appears that this period of progress will be of limited duration and is already starting to falter.

This is what makes me say the religion of progress is just woo. And the worst kind of woo, since it holds out the hope of continued progress which distracts us from the reality of our situation and the challenges we need to face up to.

Next, the necessity of continuing progress, regardless of the consequences.

BAU defines progress as increasing material prosperity and equates this to economic growth. This is a wonderful thing since there is money to be made in that business. For the financial industry this is literally true, since this industry creates money as debt to allow rapid economic growth. And growth must continue in order for the loans to be paid back with interest and the businesses involved to continue operating profitably. In order for economic growth to continue natural resources are consumed and pollution and waste (the by-products of the process) are created, both in ever greater quantities.

Unfortunately, we live on a finite planet, with strictly limited natural resources and limited sinks to absorb pollution and waste. BAU propaganda would have us believe that this is not so, that technology will always give us a way to surmount the limits we face. But the fact is that, in BAU, progress must continue because anything else is bad for business in the short run, and what happens in the long run isn't a concern in the short run.

BAU propagandists hold up examples of technology enabling continued growth, such as the success we've had in refining ever more depleted ores to get the metals we need and in getting oil and natural gas from deposits that formerly weren't economically accessible. We are told that when one resource runs out we will always find another to substitute for it.

There is even a movement, "eco-modernism" dedicated to this kind of approach.

Ted Trainer, a de-growth advocate, has this to say in an article debunking eco-modernism:

"Central to this sort of thinking is the claim that the economy can be “decoupled” from nature, from resource demands and ecological impacts. That is, technical advance can enable output and consumption to go on growing, presumably forever, while resource demands and ecological impacts are reduced way down to tolerable levels."

Sometimes all you have to do is hear a program's goals so clearly stated to realize how bizarre they really are and how unlikely their success really is.

Clearly, eco-modernism is more BAU woo. It seems very likely that the consequences of continued economic growth will be more unpleasant than we are willing to accept. But accept them we must, since there is no way to change the direction the BAU is headed. Or so it seems.

Then, the idea that progress is one dimensional.

If we object to any of the negative consequences of progress we are told that we can accept progress and go forward to better things or turn away from progress and go back (presumable to worse things), but those are the only choices. That is why Crunchies are painted as "dirty hippies" who want to go off grid and forego the benefits of modern society. It is even true in many cases, since having grown up in BAU society, it is very hard even for Crunchies to imagine any other alternative. It's no wonder that it is difficult to imagine change in other directions, when we have no clear examples of such and are continually told it is not possible. But this does not mean that such change is truly impossible, just that BAU desperately wants us not to head in any such direction.

Again from the same article by Ted Trainer:

"This world-view fails to grasp several things.... There can be many paths towards many end points, and we might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to. In addition we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernisation takes us, and with respect to some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further. Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough...."
"... we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, furniture, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. Modernity is a whole package we move further towards or retreat from and you must take the bad with the good. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Why on earth can’t we design and build societies that embody the good ideas and ways humans have figured out over thousands of years, taking some from high tech arenas and some from hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., that we thrive best in small face-to-face communities)?"

It seems to me that the path a society follows is determined largely by what it does with its surpluses. BAU's path is one dimensional path because in BAU there is only ever one thing to be done with a surplus—invest in more "progress" and make sure the profit from that goes to the investors and those who are in charge of things. But in fact there are many choices, which one we choose is determined by what we think is important and this can lead us in many different directions.

And lastly, cultures outside of BAU are undeveloped and need to progress.

The picture we are given of the remaining non-BAU cultures is a very negative one, focusing on all the things we have that they don't. I can recommend Jared Diamond's book "The World Until Yesterday" for a more balanced treatment of life in traditional societies.

And to borrow some ideas from Daniel Quinn, as expressed in his book Ishmael it seems that during those 2 to 3 million years before the invention of agriculture people were evolving genetically while their societies evolved culturally and the result was something that worked. Of course I am not saying that these societies were perfect or even particularly "nice" from our modern viewpoint, but they did provide their members with just enough of what they needed, both materially and in the more "spiritual" sense of having a "place"—worthwhile work which contributed to the group they lived in, and lifelong security provided by the group they lived in.

Note that I am not talking about the sort of societies that arose with the invention of the state not long after the invention of agriculture. These societies mark the beginning of BAU, and I find there is little good to be said of them. Although the argument can be made that in some ways, even those societies were better that the way most of us live now. If you are a North American, compare the number of days you get off work in year with a serf in medieval Europe. You may be surprised to find yourself on the short end of the comparison, though admittedly, most of his days off were church holidays.

Still, it is very hard to get away from the idea that positive change must be in the direction that BAU defines as progress. Surely, the people in those "primitive" societies would be better off if we could help them to progress.

Well, maybe not. An honest look at BAU makes it clear that the fruits of progress aren't very evenly spread around and that the promise of things getting better is, for the majority of people (or even their children), an empty one. If you don't already have a secure position in the upper levels of BAU, your prospects here in the early twenty first century aren't very good.

But beyond BAU's failure to deliver the fruits of progress as promised, there is the plain fact the BAU's kind of progress may not be what is really needed for us to live happy and fulfilling lives. Yes, it is true that if you are struggling just to get by, some improvement in your material prosperity will make life better for you. But once you have just enough, further increases yield diminishing returns, until eventually we find ourselves officially part of the rat race and begin asking if it is all really worth the effort.

To sum up all this talk about the religion of progress, it is the third religion that I have embraced and then been forced to abandon when confronted with reality.

It turns outs that I have somewhat more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so my next post will cover that, and then I'll finally go on with a closer look at Crunchiness.

Thanks to my son Dan for ideas and inspiration.

This is the second post in a series of six:

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 1

I do mean something by that rather oddball title, something quite specific. Which I will explain, eventually. And be aware that the conclusion I reach at the end is not what it's going to seem like I am leading up to, so hang in there. This started out as a single post of over 6000 words, enough to try the patience of even my most loyal readers, so I've divided it into 6 parts, which will appear over the next few weeks.

Much of what I have been talking about on this blog for the last four years has been the damage being caused by our growth and consumer based industrial society (Business as Usual, BAU) and what can be done to cope with it and oppose it. The people who are working on that opposition are what I would call "Crunchy". I intend to cast a wide net when I speak of "Crunchies". Some people when asked to define "Crunchy" will say, "ah, they're just dirty hippies." While I do mean to include hippies (washed and unwashed) in my definition, I mean to include a whole lot of other people as well.

So it would seem that BAU and Crunchiness are two opposing ideologies. Of course, whenever you see binary thinking like this, framing a situation in terms of two opposing sides, you can bet that someone is benefitting from the conflict and is doing everything he can to keep it going. Examples from the industrial workplace, where I spent most of my life, would be management encouraging disputes among factions within the workforce to distract the workers from whatever management is up to, or during contract negotiations when both management negotiators and union negotiators emphasize differences between workers and management, making it more difficult to come to an agreement. In both bases, this is to the detriment of both workers and stock holders, but to benefit of management and the negotiators.

In the case of BAU versus Crunchiness, many of the leaders on both sides benefit from maintaining the conflict, in that it keeps our attention focused away from what might be done to actually change human society into something more sustainable and render that leadership redundant. And almost no one involved, at any level, really wants to make any of the major changes in lifestyle that would be necessary. We have been convinced that such changes would make life "no longer worth living".

That's nonsense, of course, but it is typical of the kind of nonsense that supports such binary thinking. Along with it comes quite a bit of "woo" (magical thinking and pseudoscience), as well as considerable doubt and confusion and some outright lies, all necessary to paper over the holes in the two positions, to avoid admitting there might be some common ground between the two, or a third approach that might work even better.

There is usually a lot to be gained by abandoning the binary thinking and looking past the woo to see what's really behind it all and that is what I hope to do in this series of posts. Originally, I was going to call this post "Save us from the flakes" and talk mainly about the unfortunate flakiness of Crunchy people. But then I was reminded that Business as Usual people are pretty flaky too, just sneakier about it. And of course, as always when one strays into binary thinking, it is important to remember there are many different types of BAU people and many different types of Crunchies. And all of these people are a mixture of various quantities of sound thinking and flakiness. Sorry if this seems complex, but that's the world I live in—nothing here is simple.

I'm using the word "flake" here in the sense of someone who is so fixated on his ideology (his side of the argument) that he will embrace any sort of magical thinking or pseudoscience that seems to support it, regardless of how irrational that may be. Such people end up believing in some very strange stuff. Of course, we are living in a very strange world where much of this stuff is widely accepted.

The Urban Dictionary defines "flake" as someone who is an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through. That is not the sense that I am using here, but it has been my experience that many who are flakey in the ideological sense are so far out of touch with reality that they are pretty unreliable as well.

I like to think of myself as "Crunchy without the Woo." Many of you will ask, "Is there anything left when you take out the woo?" Others will be concerned that I not come down too hard on their favourite brand of woo. Some (the honest ones) will do both. Anyway, I do think it is not just possible, but necessary, to be Crunchy but without the woo.

Fence sitting is part of my nature—I seem to be pretty good at seeing the pros and cons of both sides of a thing, and I always suspect that there are only two sides to a thing because someone wants it to be seen that way. If anyone who worked for me at Hydro One is reading this they will be chuckling at the moment. I got this way by spending time on both sides of a number of situations, becoming unsatisfied with first one side and then the other, and finally looking for other ways of seeing the situation. There are usually many other ways, and some of them are more accurate and more useful.

I've been lied to on occasion and frequently led astray by genuinely deluded people. As a result of this, I began to question how anyone knows anything for sure. Accepting what the supposed authorities tell you certainly doesn't work. I finally concluded that the scientific method is the best tool we have at present for finding out the facts about the material world.

Here are some links to several good introductions to the scientific method:

What makes this method unique is that it calls for actually testing the ideas we have about the material world, to see if they are supported by the evidence or not, and changing those ideas if the evidence doesn't support them Then it calls for sharing your ideas and the evidence for them with others who will criticize your reasoning, the tests you did and your interpretation of the results and then try to duplicate your tests and see if they can get the same results. Over time this eliminates the sort of bias and fallacies that seem to be built into human thinking, and leads to a body of knowledge that might be called scientific facts, and a set of theories explaining those facts.

I am not suggesting that we should all become scientists, but rather that when a question is raised, we should make ourselves aware of what science sees as the facts in that field of endeavour and base our opinions on this scientific consensus. Here is some links on what the scientific consensus is and why we can trust it:

Of course, scientific knowledge is always provisional in nature, subject to revision as more evidence, and better understandings of it, become available. And we may find that science, especially out at the edges, doesn't have definite answers for us as yet. But the bottom line about science is that it works and you can rely on it. There is a lot of controversy going around these days on subjects where the science is already quite clear. Don't be fooled by this, by people who push pseudoscience to support their ideologies. Have a look at these links and see what I mean:

Many people say they are looking for absolute truth and can't believe in something like science that may change or be proven wrong. For me that is the great advantage of science—being able to adapt as we learn more, which we always do. Anyway, it's not about "belief". For me belief is a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't yet answer your questions. And the best thing to do in those situations is not to pick a position and just believe in it, but simply to admit that you don't know, and then keep looking for real answers.

Some people object that science only applies to the material world and can only decide upon testable or falsifiable points. What about things outside the material world? Or that are not testable? Well, I've tried religion (more than once) and my eventual conclusion was that the material world is all there is, propositions that aren't testable are just nonsense and anyone making absolute, final statements about anything is not to be trusted. My statements here are not intended to be absolute— they are subject to modification should evidence to the contrary be found.

Here's a quote from the notable skeptic Michael Shermer that nicely sums up my thinking on the natural versus supernatural worlds: "If one were to argue that God exists outside of our world (or outside of the universe, or outside of nature), and that God’s forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?"

"Thus, it seems to me that once we have carefully defined our terms, it is clear that there really is only the material world, methodological naturalism is the only means to understand it, and science is the only form of reliable knowledge that we have."

Along with the scientific method, a few additional tools are helpful. Although the argument could be made that they are really integral parts of the scientific method....

Literacy is probably the first to consider. There is all kinds of good information out there in books and on the internet, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. But of course there is also a great deal of nonsense, "woo" if you will, out there as well and you have to learn to sort it out from the good stuff. Because science has a well deserved reputation as a reliable source of knowledge, those who are pushing woo try to make their case sound as scientific as possible. Thus the term "pseudoscience".

Fortunately, there is also a good deal of information, written at a level suitable for the layman, which will help you sort out the science from the woo.

Numeracy is the next tool I would recommend. Math education is so bad in North American schools that people end up asking why they even bother to learn something they will never use. If you learn it badly (or not at all), then of course you won't use it. But a good grasp of high school level math (and even a bit of calculus), along with a good solid gut feeling for how numbers work in the real world is, in my experience, an important life skill—something you will use on a daily basis and which will give you a leg up on those around you, to whom numbers are probably a bit of a mystery. Numeracy is a great help in detecting woo, because the purveyors of woo tend to have a very weak grasp of numbers. This becomes obvious when they try to use numbers to pull the wool over the eyes of the defenseless public, and end up spouting numerical nonsense. It helps, of course, to be able to recognize numerical nonsense when you see it.

One of the reasons that science has done so well in the last few centuries is its use of numbers and the invention of tools which enable us to measure the world around us and express our knowledge about it in numerical terms.

Critical thinking is the next logical step after numeracy. Basically this means becoming familiar with the many biases and logical fallacies that human beings fall prey to, so that you can you can recognize when others are doing so and, perhaps more importantly, prevent yourself from doing so.

Which brings us to skepticism, which is characterized by a questioning attitude towards opinions or beliefs that others state as facts. Simply put, it is based on the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Being familiar with the scientific consensus will help you recognize when someone is making an extraordinary claim. Of course a good skeptic has the scientific method, literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills in his tool box. For more information check out these links:

I strive to be a good skeptic, but occasionally I stumble and I'm always questioning myself, concerned that I have been taken in by some sort of woo.

This may all seem rather academic. But what I think we should be aiming for here is a good practical understanding of how the natural world works, and where we fit into it. So many of us today live in cities and have very little exposure to anything but a human built environment. This leads to some inaccurate impressions about man's place in the world, and also about the workings of real world (nature) itself.

These ideas run along a spectrum. At one end are those who feel that nature is something to be mastered, conquered and risen above. Part of this is a fear of nature and a conceit that we can render ourselves independent of it. At the other end are those who personify nature, seeing "her" as a benevolent mother, and equating her with all that is good, trusting that by doing things the "natural way", we can live in harmony and prosperity.

Neither of these extremes is a very realistic. We are definitely part of the natural world and completely dependent on it for our survival. We are no different than any other species in that we are not exempt from the rules of ecology and population dynamics (or any other natural law). Nature can be as harsh or gentle as the realities of the situation dictates, but to personify nature, to say that it is either hostile or loving to mankind is to have missed the whole point—which is that nature is not an entity with feelings. As far as the "natural way" of doing things, for humans there hasn't been such a thing since we started taming fire and using tools, 2 to 3 million years ago.

As it happens, those two extreme ways of looking at nature line up rather well with BAU and Crunchiness in its more flakey incarnations. In my next two posts I'll be taking a closer look at both those positions, and using the thinking tools I've been talking about, I'll try to sort the good sense out from the woo.

This the first post in a series of six: