Thursday, March 27, 2014

Loaves and Fishes for All

The Bible story of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes says Jesus fed four or five thousand people on five or seven barley loaves and a few fishes with leftovers to spare;  the details differ in different versions.  Some interpret this story as an uncomplicated miracle, that is, Jesus, being God, made something out of nothing, a feat He would be most capable of.
Unitarian Universalists, who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, might say those people in the crowd who had a lot were led to share with those who had little and that’s why there was enough.  Both of the above interpretations rest on the premise that it took something special to make sure there was enough.
At GA 2010, Ralph Ellison suggested another interpretation of the story: the disciples just thought there wasn’t enough.  In other words, maybe the story means although it may not seem like it, there can be enough for all.
Our job as beings with brains is to use our ingenuity to provide enough for all rather than limit how many are at the table.  Ten thousand years ago, everyone in the world was a hunter-gatherer.  I can imagine some old cave sage saying, “We’ve driven the large mammals to extinction! Our lifestyle is not sustainable! We’re overpopulated!” (The hunter-gatherer world population was around five million, less than a tenth of a percent of today’s population of seven billion.**)
I hear a soft but determined voice reply, “Not so fast, old man! My sisters and I saved seed from last fall and planted it by the river.  Now we can gather more grain in days than we used to be able to gather in weeks!”   The invention of agriculture wasn’t the last time human ingenuity overcame perceived unsustainability.
Things continue to improve. During the 20th century alone, we captured the nitrogen for fertilizer from the air [Haber-Bosch process] and bred high yielding grain [Green Revolution].  In 1981, 52.2% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 a day;  by 2008 only 22.4% did.*** From more than half poor to less than a quarter poor in twenty-seven years!  Billionaire tech mogul Bill Gates predicts there will be no more poor countries by 2035.****
As the Loaves and Fishes parable says, our job as humans is to work with and trust the processes that will bring us all enough.

*     Rep Keith Ellison on radical abundance at GA 2010.



Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Clicker Training and Climate Change

Bozeman, my new fifty pound mixed breed rescue, is devouring the food in his bowl.  I approach.  He gobbles faster.  I take another step closer.  Instead of his usual soft adoring look, I get a hard stare.   Being prudent, I step back.  Despite the thirty-four pounds of kibble stored in the kitchen, Bozeman believes there’s not enough dog food in his universe.  Hence, he’d best keep anyone else from getting any of his food. In Bozeman’s mind, resources are limited.
My challenge is to convince Bozeman that there is enough, resources are not limited, and that people approaching when he’s eating means more food for him, not less.
Bozeman being a dog, I’ll have to act out my explanation.  After he finishes, I go to his bowl, click (the signal a treat’s coming) and drop in a delicious spoonful of wet dog food.   After a week of training, I can pick up his bowl while he’s still eating, add the canned food and return the bowl.  His tail wags.
Some humans such as Paul Ehrlich, and David Suzuki follow the 19th century Reverend Thomas Malthus, who claimed population increases exponentially while food resources only increase arithmetically.  These pundits believe that food will run out because people will multiply without end.  Like Bozeman with his limited vision, they don’t see the big picture.  They extrapolate from such simple situations as bacteria in a petri dish or fruit flies in a milk bottle that do overshoot the carrying capacity of their environments.  Humans, on the other hand, figure out solutions, for example the Green Revolution’s advances in agricultural technology.  Since Malthus, and in the forty years since Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, humans have simultaneously increased both their numbers and their overall wealth.
Nevertheless, the Malthusians are still catastrophizing.  They claim humans and their activities are destroying the planet via climate change caused by fossil fuel use.  Hence, to maintain the climate, the use of fossil fuels should be restricted.   Poor countries should not be allowed to use fossil fuels to develop, which will keep them poor.  Coincidentally, the resources of those that already have them will be conserved.  
However, when countries develop and become richer, women get educated and have fewer babies, not more.  We saw this phenomenon in Europe during the 19th century and in the United States during the 20th century.  The population growth curve levels off.   This change from high death rates and birth rates to low death rates and birth rates is called the Demographic Transition.
The Demographic Transition is the click or signal to tell the Malthusians not to worry. Populations will level off.  There will be enough.  We big-brained humans can figure it out.
After a month of training, Bozeman figured it out.  I can pick up his half-eaten bowl of food and return it without incident.   Bozeman has been persuaded that humans approaching him during meals is a good thing. Would that the Malthusians likewise see human beings as a good thing!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Good or Bad? Indifferent (morally) is Best!

We can all identify with the guy who goes to McDonald’s, orders a bacon and cheese quarter pounder with a large fries on the side, then to be “good” tops his meal off with a diet coke.  As the example shows, making food choices “good” or “bad” doesn’t work very well to improve people’s diets because people want to feel like they’re good and will reward themselves for a tiny bit of “good” behavior with a lot of “bad” behavior. *
Take the woman who drives her gas guzzling SUV to stock up on organic veggies.  Or me who used to keep a sixty-watt lamp on during the daytime during our gray Oregon winters, but now with the curly bulbs using only thirteen watts each, I feel justified in burning four of them at a time.  I save eight watts per hour.  Am I good or what?   No, moralization of green behavior doesn’t work any better than it does for eating behavior.  
When behavior becomes moralized, it’s no longer a matter of personal preference.  For instance, I don’t like Brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them. Brussels sprouts are a matter of personal preference, not morality.  Once a behavior becomes moralized, nobody should do it and people who do are bad.
Moreover, moralization is worse than ineffective;  it’s dangerous. The infinite good of the  perfect future world justifies whatever means needed to achieve that infinite good.  Think of the millions of deaths under fascism and communism that were supposed to bring about a better world.  
Moralization of a cause gets people worked up over the cause and benefits the leaders of the cause.  Once people are worked up, they stop questioning and do what the leaders tell them.
Some feel the infinite good of the planet justifies immoral behavior toward those in the way.  We see ad hominem attacks.  Those who have a non human generated CO2 driven explanation for the 1980-1998 warming are called Deniers.   Trains carrying coal are named death trains.  The references to the Holocaust, arguably one of the most evil acts ever, are obvious.  
Some believe it’s wrong to associate oneself with fossil fuel by owning stock in fossils fuel companies.  This belief leads to moves like divestment (selling off the stocks of fossil fuel companies) for an attempt at moral purity.   It’s a time wasting attempt because stockholders don’t give the evil fossil fuel corporations any money;  they just reap some of their profits.   Besides, stockholders can vote and therefore influence the corporation.
Although physicians take an oath to do no harm, all medical procedures and pharmaceuticals have risks.   We undertake treatments when their benefits outweigh their risks.  But when an issue becomes moralized, we think in all or nothing terms.  It’s Good or Bad. Hence moralization stops the discussion of risk vs benefits of a policy.
Getting beyond moralization about climate change allows us to focus on the risks and benefits of policies. Should we focus on adaptations such as dikes and relocations to escape rising sea levels?  Or should we focus on mitigation (reducing the amount of carbon dioxide) by  making energy more expensive via a carbon tax or inefficient (so far) alternate sources?  Unfortunately, expensive energy creates and maintains poverty.
I can’t agree with the progressive clergy who claim climate change is a moral issue** because creating and maintaining poverty cannot be a moral mandate.
  I’d rather emulate the woman in the McDonald’s restroom who wiped out the sink.  Now that’s leaving the world a better place.

** J Hansen