How We Need to Shift from our Environmental Scarcity Mindset

Cory Doctorow excellent Locus column ‘Cory Doctorow: The Jubilee: Fill Your Boots‘ completed by his own post introduction ‘my column on how technology could let us work like artisans and live like kings‘ hints at interesting historical facts about our current vision of world ecology.

In particular he explains how since the 1970s and the book Limits to Growth “scientists, sf writers, economists and environmental activists have wrestled with the question of abundance — how the “green left” transformed left wing politics from the promise of every peasant living like a lord to the promise of every lord living like a peasant.”

The assumption of scarcity which stems from this approach (itself closely related to the limits of our Mother Earth so visible from photos of the space missions from 1960s) coupled with the assumption that well being was necessarily related to a significant usage of natural resources led to the development of a strong culpability feeling for all of us – and the feeling that we could only expect a decrease in our comfort level.

This scarcity assumption is still the premise of many comments on environmental issues. It is an issue in some instances but overall, we seem to have increasingly decorrelated energy consumption from growth. Would it not be possible that in the Collaborative Age we manage to have abundance within the capability of Mother Earth?

The point here is that some of the 1970s assumptions that govern the way we manage environmental politics might need to be revisited in the light of recent technological developments.


How our Origin Explains Why Actual Facts Don’t Change Our Mind

A number of older and newer experiments are described in the New Yorker article ‘WHY FACTS DON’T CHANGE OUR MINDS – New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason‘. They clearly show that even exposure to real facts may not change an opinion we would have developed beforehand.

The interesting part of the article is the reference to a study that would show that these limitations of our reason could be linked back to the context of the hunter-gatherer. The need for collaboration, fostered by evolution, may have blunted some aspects of our reasoning. That would be in particular the case for confirmation bias (the tendency to find confirmation that confirms our opinions).

There is hope still: “Humans aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.” The trick is to be able to get others look at our situations. And, maybe, try to get over those limitations we have inherited from our ancestors.


Forget Pristine Nature: How Even the Amazon Forest Was Deeply Transformed by Humans

To those that still believe that somewhere on Earth there is something called pristine nature, untouched by man: this article and the scientific studies it is based upon demonstrate without doubt that even the deepest, (apparently) wildest Amazon rain-forest has been deeply transformed by Humans in the last 8,000 years – since humans reached the Americas.

the human fingerprint can even be seen across one of the most biodiverse yet unexplored regions in the world, the Amazon rainforest.” Humans selected the most useful plants and made them reproduce with advantages, and slew some of the key animals. New tree types appeared through selection to produce larger useful fruits.

This is another proof that there is no place on Earth that has not been already shaped in one way or the other by humans. Pristine nature does not exist. We need to accept that our environment has already been engineered – for the best and for the worst. The issue is how to influence this complex environment in the direction we would need it to become.


How Industrial Revolution Comparisons Are Not Comforting

In a very interesting article ‘Industrial Revolution Comparisons Aren’t Comforting‘ economist Tyler Cowen analyses the consequences of the revolution on labor and wages. In particular it shows that real wages actually went down during the period of adjustment for the average worker.

power-loomsI am fond of historical comparisons and parallels and this recommended article is a very interesting analysis. One important and interesting quote: “By the estimates of Gregory Clark, economic historian at the University of California at Davis, it took 60 to 70 years of transition, after the onset of industrialization, for English workers to see sustained real wage gains at all.” And Tyler Cowen compares the situation to the actual stagnation of wages since the late 1990s in developed countries.

One element of worry is of course that the Industrial Revolution led to the development of certain ideologies which led to revolutions and political instability and volatility – and much suffering.

Are we watching the same evolution now? This might be an issue to watch closely. I am not as optimistic as Tyler Cowen that this time we should be less extreme and more reasonable: the inclusion of developed countries in the Fourth Revolution will create substantial new sources of instability.


How Value Shifted from Tangible to Intangible in 30 Years

One of the most visible effects of the Fourth Revolution is the shift of value from tangible to intangible. It can be measured, and it is tremendous. Organization’s value today is 80% intangible, while before 1970 it was the reverse.

shift tangible to intangibleIn the Industrial Age the value of organizations was machines, and other tangible assets. It is actually what is measured by traditional accounting in balance sheets. Nowadays, most of the value is intangible assets – people, knowledge, brands, ways of working. The shift has been measured and this revolution is quite impressive. It is a real indicator of the Fourth Revolution in action.

The fact that traditional accounting has not adapted to this shift (people are still a cost and not an asset..) is a major issue that will necessarily lead to problems of valuation very soon. Accounting maintains an illusion that can’t reflect the actual value of an organization. The market does somehow, but does not account for intangible benefits either (such as, allowing connections between people in the world).

The shift from tangible to intangible is a tremendous change and its aftershocks will still be felt for the decades to come in many areas.


How Luxuries Tend to Become Necessities and Span Obligations

In the excellent book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind‘, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

Contents of an American Home
Typical Contents of an American Home

In the book he applies this law from the very start of the Agricultural Age to all sorts of new belongings and constraints imposed by the sedentary lifestyle linked to having fields to care for. But of course it is also widely applicable today to all sorts of modern life items, from cars to mobile phones. They were initially luxuries and have become things we can’t live without.

Today we can’t live without a number of contraptions that impose on us a tremendous burden in terms of maintenance and replacement. We can’t live without them because society also takes them for granted. For example, not having a mobile phone nowadays for professionals is something of an heresy!

It is at the same time the result of progress, and it comes also with obligations and constraints. The thing is to keep some balance so as to not become hostages to all those luxuries. How do you fare?



How Individualism Returns after a Short Industrial Age Parenthesis

Paul Graham in his (controversial but thought provoking) post ‘Refragmentation‘ gives an interesting overall view of how the Industrial Age may have just been a short parenthesis in the history of humankind when it comes to lesser individualism and more even spread of wealth.

How Rockefeller was wrong. Individualism only collapsed for the Industrial Age.
How Rockefeller was wrong. Individualism only collapsed for the Industrial Age.

He states: “The late 19th and early 20th centuries had been a time of consolidation, led especially by J. P. Morgan. Thousands of companies run by their founders were merged into a couple hundred giant ones run by professional managers. Economies of scale ruled the day. It seemed to people at the time that this was the final state of things. John D. Rockefeller said in 1880: “The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return“. He turned out to be mistaken, but he seemed right for the next hundred years.”

With the Fourth Revolution, large companies are not any more the most effective way of creating value. Individualism is enhanced by our capability to broadcast to the world, and the contribution of everyone is enhanced.

In many ways the Industrial Age was an exception to the way the world had been moving along, and it may have been a short exception in many ways regarding individual life, employment and our social contract.


How the Rate of Violence Worldwide Is As Its Historical Lowest

During the summer I read a great book by Steven Pinker, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes‘. Basically it demonstrates how the rates of violence in all categories have dramatically decreased over time.

decrease of violenceThe emotionally-laden coverage of today’s news hides the fact that homicides and wars have reached an historical low point. Steven Pinker shows that this observation that violence has decreased dramatically has happened simultaneously in many dimensions:

  • wars (civil wars and wars between entities)
  • homicide and other day-to-day violence
  • punishment by the power in place
  • family-related violence
  • violence against minorities, gays, racial etc.

In our societies, it is 50 to 100 times less probable to be the victim of a homicide than a few centuries ago. In many primitive societies, 50% of people die violently.

I think we need to put in perspective the continuous flow of atrocious information that is fed on us. Of course, what is happening in Syria or elsewhere is terrible, but it is bloated out of proportion by manipulations from all sides.

The world is becoming a better place, Europe has never had 70 years without war for ages, and this will continue to be the trend in the Collaborative Age, with increasing networking and trade between us.

The book is quite long and detailed, alternatively, a video presentation by Steven Pinker is available on Youtube.


How We Are Becoming Much More Intelligent With Each Generation

I discovered recently the Flynn Effect, the fact that our average intelligence (as measured by the IQ test) has increased dramatically in the last decades in developed countries.

flynn effectThe IQ test is periodically calibrated to have an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 points. In many developed countries, the average IQ has increased by 20-30 points over the 20th century: measured as of today, our ancestors one century ago would have been considered mentally retarded (and so possibly also our grandparents).

There are many reasons proposed for this change, the most convincing being better formal education. Also, we now know that IQ only measures one kind of intelligence, and there are other forms which are as important for predicting success and social abilities.

Some recent observations would tend to show rather a stagnation of even a diminution of the average IQ in the last decade, still to be confirmed, and still to be linked with the kind of questions that are asked in the IQ test which only measure a partial side of intelligence. Still, 20th century schooling has shown a dramatic ability to improve the capability it intended to improve!

Anyway, what I find very interesting here is that it appears that our modern habits of mind and education seem to have made us much more adapted to dealing with certain kind of problems that require abstract thinking. What is amazing is the magnitude of the change over 2 generations!

For more information, watch the TED talk by James Flynn on YouTube


How the Fourth Revolution Definitely Made Reductionism Obsolete

Antireductionism “advocates that not all properties of a system can be explained in terms of its constituent parts and their interactions” [Wikipedia]. It stands opposed to reductionism, the approach typical of the Industrial Age, which considered that the behavior of entire systems can be explained completely by a description of their individual constituent parts and their interactions.

In the 18th century people thought animals could be described as a mechanical apparatus
In the 18th century people thought animals could be described as a mechanical apparatus

Already the philosophers of Enlightment struggled a bit with reductionism that was contradicting our free will. Still, the mechanistic view of reality dominated science and our understanding of the world until far into the 20th century.

Today in many areas such as chaos, systems biology, evolutionary economics, and network theory, we know that complex, unpredictable behavior arises from large collections of simple components.

By the mid-twentieth century, many scientists realized that such phenomena cannot be pigeonholed into any single discipline but require an interdisciplinary understanding based on scientific foundations that have not yet been invented. Several attempts at building those foundations include (among others) the fields of cybernetics, synergetics, systems science, and, more recently, the science of complex systems.” writes Melanie Mitchell in ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour‘.

The study of complex systems is an emerging and still very incomplete science. It is the hallmark of the Collaborative Age.


Are We at the Edge of Another Spiritual Awakening?

Kevin Kelly notes about the birth of the religions we know today that they have all appeared around the same time, when agriculture was sufficiently developed to generate abundance.

SpiritualAbout 2,500 years ago most of humanity’s major religions were set in motion in a relatively compact period. Confucius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Zoroaster, the authors of the Upanishads, and the Jewish patriarchs all lived within a span of 20 generations. Only a few major religions have been born since then. Historians call that planetary fluttering the Axial Age. It was as if everyone alive awoke simultaneously and, in one breath, set out in search of their mysterious origins. Some anthropologists believe the Axial Age awakening was induced by the surplus abundance that agriculture created, enabled by massive irrigation and waterworks around the world

When the Industrial Revolution came with printing, these religions branched somewhat with for example, Protestantism for the Christians.

He continues: “It would not surprise me if we saw another axial awakening someday, powered by another flood of technology“. The conclusion of that observation should shake us.  Is the spiritual awakening we can observe around us just a trend or is it a deeper movement linked to the Fourth Revolution? I tend to believe in the latter, and I am excited to see how that will materialize in the years to come as we move into the Collaborative Age.


We Can’t Find Anybody Else In Space (and Why It Matters)

Although loosely related to the Fourth Revolution, I want to share the link to this very interesting summary of the issues around the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, also called the Fermi Paradox – ‘Where is Everybody?’.

Where is everybody?
Where is everybody?

The issue is the following: we know there are zillions of other planets that should be able to support life out there (the low estimate in the article is 1 billion in our galaxy alone); that our own Earth is quite old by space standards, hence our technology probably not so advanced, so… why do we not see any sign of other life?

There comes the concept of the “Great Filter” – i.e. there would be some stage of technological advancement where civilizations get wiped out; a filter that almost no planet and species manages to overcome. Would we be the chosen ones (we would have overcome the filter in the past), or is that Great Filter somewhere in the future? Would there be a stage of civilization development where it inevitably destroys itself?

The question is not so innocuous as it seems. As we create highly connected technology, the chances of unexpected disruptions that could quickly spread to the entire system do increase. Would there be any chances we’d create such a situation in the Collaborative Age?