• The hut or the palace. You tell me, mate.

    by  • February 19, 2011 • Everything Else • 7 Comments

    (written on the train to Berlin, which is an intimidating city for a person with my sense of history)

    The law of large numbers is our enemy. As the “water” of humanity settles to an even level in the vessel we call “life” we discover that the precise contour traced out by our individual semi-random walks, our collisions and interactions with those close to us and the boundary conditions of the world leave us at an unacceptable equilibrium: to keep pace with our peers, to participate in the society as a whole, we must take part in an economic system which is destroying the world we live in.

    The middle path of the gentleman environmentalist is fraught with semi-guilty over-consumption – how much beef and how much flying and how much red wine constitute the price of staying part of society, and how convenient when one’s personal ambitions conveniently align with the good of all.

    The problem is that to pick up Gandhi’s not-sword, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world” requires living a one planet or less lifestyle, and this is nearly impossible in the west. To not eat food which has travelled a thousand miles, to not burn more coal for electricity than one’s carbon ration allows, to bicycle or walk for nearly all travel – all of these things are possible. But the cost and complexity of doing each one, in the midst of a society which works very, very differently leaves the individual experimenter almost without time to enjoy the life so-lived.

    I made this decision myself about ten years ago: I started to eat meat because the rather-good environmental work I was doing required me to live at high altitude, and my body would not deal with the high altitude without a lot of high quality animal protein. Even on that diet I eventually got very ill and permanently damaged my body doing my nearly invisible part on “Winning the Oil Endgame.”


    What does it require to live at less than one planet? It’s a shockingly small amount of consumption. It more or less mandates being a vegetarian who bicycles to work, and working in an industry who’s raw materials are sustainably harvested and processed with renewable energy. If you work with words, the customers who read your words may, indeed, be sustainably powering their computers, or perhaps printing is done in green inks on recycled paper, but the embodied energy costs of the entire process push one’s moral absolutism hard. Gandhi, in endeavoring to have as much autarky as possible winds up spinning his own cloth, and to make the point that it is inefficient, wears only as much as absolutely necessary for decency – the dhoti and the shawl. If you cannot afford much homespun cloth, because it is more expensive as it requires much labor, you simply wear less.

    I chose to avoid this path. Rather, I optimized by a different criteria: as an individual, simply choosing to live close to one planet would consume the majority of my productive output for a reduction in only one person’s footprint. Rather, I reasoned, live at maximum efficiency, working as hard and as fast as possible to solve what part of the world’s problems I could hope to have input into, hoping that in the long run producing tools-and-thinking which helped many people reduce their footprints is much more efficient than simply investing that energy in solving my own problem. This was a decision that I made swiftly, and never revisited because I knew, at the time, it was indefensible at many levels. To live right by the macrocosm, the big story of earth’s evolution, required living wrong in the microcosm, my own life.

    I think we all feel this way at times, that the world has forced us to choose between our values and doing what must be done. I think that we should remember that the world does not have to be that way and, in fact, in the very longest run imaginable, there should be a world in which our own microcosmic morality, and the duty we owe each-other and the future, do not clash. Much of what makes capitalism unacceptable to people is that it forces this conflict into every area of our lives, as the money pushes and pulls us over our boundaries, a series of baited equations of gain-and-loss.

    So I made this swift, wrong decision, held my nose, and went for it. My work on long term sustainability gradually got diluted into a focus on short term, mega-death-toll emergencies, including poverty, the permanent disaster which claims so many lives every year. My political theology advanced no further than deciding to work on the village technology base because the villages are already ecologically sustainable, but the material quality of life in them is often very low. But a rural village in a poor country with adequate clean water supply, clear burning stoves, sanitary toilets and a few other basic systems could offer people a much higher material quality of life without necessarily asking them to change anything else in return or constraining their future choices. A simple, easy, lightweight technology package holds out all of these possibilities, and has been within our technological grasp for a few years. But this does not answer my personal question, which is “how to live?”


    It is not strange to me that we must accept what current data tells us is happening in the world as fact. I do not mean future projections based on available data, I mean the simple truths of poverty and malnutrition, of the differential between the environmental footprint of an average American and an African. The compelling, simple numerical evidence that we in the victorious countries of the west are living wrong in a way which is draining the world into our bank accounts and garbage dumps cannot be ignored in a strategic planning context, or we are planning for the world as we wish it existed, rather than as it is.

    Funding research which tells you that your nation must grow poorer, that it has lost the competitive edges afforded by gunboat diplomacy and colonialism, that other people’s children may well out-compete the children of your own nation now and in the future, is not in the interests of funding bodies. It is the truth necessary to navigate the future successfully, but we hire politicians to obscure these truths, not to face them. Each Prime Minister or President in training learns how to promise people what they will never have, based on myths like “we are always the good guys!” Those who stand under the bright lights at the microphone and accidentally let slip the truth, or betray in their emotions a flicker of realism will not make it to power when they face the polls. Politicians are elected on their ability to reassure us when, in fact, we are really in trouble and need to change radically, and the systems in government which must face the affairs of the day without sentimental optimism have the hardest time of all getting the ear of power and getting executive focus on the real problem. The Bush presidency suppressed climate science and the changes in energy policy which, by extension, had to come but Obama’s stance has not been more radical when measured against the transformation necessary to change, rather than against no action at all.

    So the price of realism, in my case, has been persistent failure in corporate, military and government circles. Being right about 20% cuts a year and a half before they happen endears one to nobody. Being right about biofuels-led food prices two or three years early does not alter what fundamentally happens, although it may have protected the company I did the model work for. Naming the “capitalist famine” which could cost hundreds of millions of lives if a reserve currency like the dollar or the euro collapses, freezing world trade, as early as 2006 simply does not get the purchase necessary to produce real change. People agree that the models are right, that the perspective is valuable, but nobody operating under the domain of the Elected Optimists really has the freedom to say “yes, this is a real risk and we’re willing to know how bad and what options we would be left with.” This may sound a little strange, but I found the same problems when I more-or-less accidentally proposed the most credible plan that the powers-that-be had ever seen for rehousing whole cities after nuclear terrorism or some other extremely serious incident. Plans that people did not really believe would work had been accepted on a smile-and-nod basis because nobody ever expects to have to implement them. The fragility of the State is that it is riddled with optimists, from the elected politicians right on down, and the few footholds of realism within the State are embattled bastions of truth, largely working as quietly as they can to keep the necessary resources to solve real problems in play. If things really break, either in some national or global crisis, you must pray that the football winds up in the hands of one of these cynical desks who have been biding their time and waiting for the sun to set.

    Failure is the father and mother of success. I’ve failed over and over again to build the necessary high level political context for my work. While I can reliably hold the attention of long term planners or strategists in more or less any context where people carry some share of the responsibility for the long term future of large assets, be they nation states, corporations or other, the radicalism of a vision which proceeds from assuming that every human being has an equal right to life has made it nearly impossible to firm those ties up into a career. I had hoped that a more realistic model, grounded in hard numbers and the no-bullshit we’ve-got-to-get-this-done style of thinking which is typical of engineers would enhance the ability of the powers that be to actually get things done. Instead, the same mechanisms, both bureaucratic and psychological which have brought the government’s ability to actually face reality in the world to down to the level where you hear politicians speak and wonder if they can read have effectively screened me out of the system: nobody is willing to pay for me to tell them the truths which our entire political process is built to help us avoid. I’ve met too many wise, sharp and rational disaster managers and risk planners who have been drummed out of the system to think that this is a situation peculiar to me: rather, the personality type which succeeds in getting elected in the good or ok-ish times is allergic to bad news because it muddies up the professional optimism of the elected politician, and as a result the entire organizations built around the State to help people govern are allergic to the truth. Just look at nuclear and environmental policy if you need more evidence of this.


    We are going to have to get really pretty serious about radically changing how our civilization works in some new ways or we are really, really going to get screwed. I want to highlight one mechanism of change, and show how we are failing to mitigate the real risks around it.

    Runaway technological change has been the norm for several centuries in the West. It has given us untold riches, victory in war, and global reach for our values. Governments do not treat technological change as a core focus. There are departments dedicated to understanding how other countries work, and scientific advisors who keep one eye on the future, but I very much doubt that there is a government on earth which seriously investigates phenomena like entire generations moving their social lives online over only a decade, and says “ok, is there anything we need to consider around this?” Technological change, although it is the primary influence on the day-to-day quality of life for most people, is governed in only two ways:

    * drop money on things which seem worth funding through university research and other grants, or

    * ban things which look dangerous or disintermediate protected incumbents.

    The notion that the future is another country, and that every research lab and basement workshop is an unregulated port-of-entry from the future is unknown to the State. It might be just as well for small scale tinkerers that this is the case, but the fundamental model that the research lab is a “future port” is absent from our core conceptualization of governance. We are not governing technological change from the perspective of preventing future problems or effectively building new public goods. There is no customs-and-excise at the Future Port, and Monsanto can import anything it damn well likes from bad futures and set it loose in our present. Similarly, the State has little role in selectively importing material artifacts from good futures, and making them available here and now.

    It’s not about competing with free enterprise. Rather it’s about the deep core understanding that most of the big changes in human life right now are technologically mediated rather than being the results of progressive shifts in policy or human relations. Facebook is what changes how young people spend their time, not what’s happening in France, and the State is still tied up doing diplomacy “horizontally” with different States, rather than “forwards and backwards” importing selectively from the future, denying entry to what is toxic, and preserving what must not be allowed to fade away. Diplomacy with the future and the past, not just with the horizontal powers of the present, is the key missing function required to negotiate with climate change, bio/nanotechnology, and every area where our relationship with the present is being changed as the present flows away into the future under our feet.


    So back to my personal conundrum. Should I take the radical step of moving to a 1.0 or less planet lifestyle, living in my own damn invention, using the technologies that I suggest for the poor of the world myself, and accept the hit in effectiveness which will likely result? If I stop pushing to get the entryways open at the State level, stop pushing useful ideas over the table to my allies on the inside of the system, stop trying to frame useful inventions in a form which can be adopted quickly in a crisis, I’ll have the resource base I need to deal with the overheads of living at 1.0 planets. I can pass the torch to a younger, more enthusiastic generation of intelligent pessimists to handle digging through the ignored worst possible cases, fighting the good fight to get government to do the right thing with what power it retains.

    Or should I continue as a pilot fish for Leviathan, attempting to draw focus to the navigable routes, occasionally getting a little nibble off the table, but basically more court jester than insider? How do I bridge these impossible gaps in my own model of what needs to be done in the world, and in my own integrity as a human being?

    I have succeeded in assembling and surviving an almost Lovecraftian model of what is wrong in the world, what is ignored, and who is slain by it. I have ploughed through the bottom of every Mariannas Trench of the collective mind attempting to identify what is important, and what is irrelevant, and where the opportunities for action lie. And I’m willing to sell, to any reasonable bidder, that modeling capability, for where the risks are, and what the options we have, as individuals, as cultures, and as a species to do something about it. Some of the work is even easy.

    But to exist in the psychological blind spots of the State, in an age where the State is meant to hold primary if not unitary responsibility for risk management for our culture and, by extension, for the world is not comfortable. I can’t hold this position any more, I’m frying in my orbit, and I need to come back down unless somebody has tangible support and levers for me.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    7 Responses to The hut or the palace. You tell me, mate.

    1. J Riveros
      February 19, 2011 at 7:04 am

      have you thought about reaching out to Michael Ruppert on collapsnet? you could probably help shape the “lifeboat” movement into something really effective…

    2. Brian C
      February 19, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      IMHO – whatever your long term goals, if you’re at risk of burn-out you need to take a break.

      A change of pace doesn’t have to be permanent.

    3. Alice Y.
      February 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      Yeah that is seconded. You need a broad supportive platform from which to launch anything. Make it sustainable, give yourself the support you need then you can step up your intervention at more well-chosen times. Might even lead into the next level of effectiveness.
      Think politicians can only follow: leaders have to show the way first.

    4. February 22, 2011 at 11:48 am

      My advice: write a book.

      Seriously. You have formulated a theory about how the world works and doesn’t work, based on deep immersion, and you have ideas spilling from you about radical ways to change. What happens if you try and put all that down in one place?

      I don’t mean the future we deserve, though doubtless that will be good. I mean your programme, your philosophy, your approach – in one place, in one narrative, easily picked up and digested by those who need to digest it.

      It might not be your skill set or desire, but it works for me. Force yourself to distil your thinking down, put it on paper coherently. Then you can move on. I move on after every book I write because it turns out to be the end of a long process of research, experience, cogitation and sometimes despair at changing anything.

      Failing that – take a holiday somewhere without the fucking internet! ;-)

    5. February 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm

      I’m not ready to write my Plan B. There’s two reasons.

      1> I haven’t integrated the “Social Thermometer” stuff
      I just don’t know how to do anything related to moving where people are on that scale yet, and

      2> as noted in “The Big Deal” I’ve got a notion about approaches to governance, but nothing tested yet

      Can I write a book and not deal with those issues head on… leave that for volume two?

      That’s a distinct possibility. How does one do this? Talk to agents? Publishers? I have no idea how this book game works…

    6. February 22, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      I more or less followed the advice in http://www.amazon.co.uk/Insiders-Guide-Getting-Your-Published/dp/0954821955 I went down the traditional publisher route (no agent) but wouldn’t have started that way if I knew then what I know now. Your approach should probably be different from mine, but happy to discuss if useful…

      Oh, and thanks for all these posts! They’re a nice kind of proxy for thinking about these issues for myself ;-)

    7. Derek G
      April 6, 2011 at 3:48 am

      Maybe it can be boiled down to the utilitarian question of “do I care more about the first or second derivative of the curve?”

      Either way, consider this a visit from ~17 years ago saying “Take care of yourself, and if your effectiveness requires time out to recharge the batteries, take the time out. The world will still be here when you get back.”

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