We Can Be Certain of This   (February 15, 2014)

Just as the addict feels "I can't live any other way," so we continue clinging to a way of living that is equally self-destructive because we too see no other way to live.

Yesterday I discussed the intrinsic uncertainties in complex systems. (Certainty, Complex Systems, and Unintended Consequences). Amidst this sea of uncertainty we can be certain of this: humans will continue down an unsustainable path that inevitably leads to a tragic end until they succeed in destroying themselves or they reach a point of no return and abruptly change course.

That process of clinging to the present arrangement "because I can't live any other way" until that arrangement collapses is the primary narrative of our era. It is truly remarkable how humans will cling to a visibly self-destructive, no-exit arrangement because they see no alternative, and then after the present arrangement crumbles and the wreckage is cleared, we somehow manage to find some other arrangement.

Sadly, we only rouse ourselves to change when there is no other choice, that is, after we've destroyed the previous arrangement. Take the seas, for example: we're losing the oceans. The scale of our destruction of this resource is unprecedented and easily visible to all. The Consequences of Oceanic Destruction (Foreign Affairs) Over the last several decades, human activities have so altered the basic chemistry of the seas that they are now experiencing evolution in reverse: a return to the barren primeval waters of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Every trawler that goes to sea (often subsidized by governments anxious to maintain the employment and protein offered by wild fisheries) stripmines another percentage of a fast-dwindling resource, and as a result fisheries are collapsing around the globe.

This propensity to exploit a resource made a certain kind of sense when humans numbered a few tens of thousands. Find a tree with ripe fruit? Pick every one, and then move on.

Unfortunately there are no other blue-water planets teeming with edible fish within our reach. Once we stripmine and despoil our planet's oceans, there is no "move on to the next one." The same is true of fresh-water aquifers, soil, and so on.

We can print IOUs, credit and paper money, but we can't print fresh water once the aquifers are drained. Yes, we can spend billions of dollars and build desalination plants, but this option is limited to small wealthy populations. It is not a solution, it is simply a work-around that consumes extraordinary quantities of energy and capital.

Those of us who are not addicted to heroin wonder how addicts can continue down such a visibly self-destructive path. But how different are we? Just as the addict feels "I can't live any other way," so we continue clinging to a way of living that is equally self-destructive because we too see no other way to live.

Just as the addict feels that the alternative is too frightening and painful to contemplate and shooting smack is by far the easier, more comforting routine than risking the pain and trauma of going clean, so we cling to the present arrangement, as doomed and self-destructive as it is, because we too are afraid of change and want to avoid the pain of adapting to new arrangements.

And so the addict continues to the inevitable fork in the road; he either succeeds in destroying himself, and the arrangement ends that way, or he reaches a point so close to the inevitable end that the recognition awakens his instinct not just for survival but for a better life.

And then a small miracle occurs. An alternative way of living becomes visible in the addict's mind. His fear and desire to avoid pain (not just the pain of withdrawal but the pain of self-awareness and personal responsibility) are still present, but he finds the pain is bearable and the benefits of pursuing this alternative way of living outweigh his fear of change.

His certainty that there is no other way to live but addiction was false. It was always false, but in the mindset of fear and fierce devotion to the present arrangement, no matter how self-destructive, there was no alternative.

And so we continue clinging to the present arrangement, certain there is no other way and that we are powerless to change our circumstances, until the current arrangement collapses beneath us, and we have no other choice but to make another arrangement.

This is the second great narrative of our era. Our job is to describe and discuss another arrangement, a sustainable, non-addictive one that isn't doomed to collapse from the start, so all those currently clinging to the path of self-destruction will have an alternative when the Status Quo comes apart and the smack they "need" to continue living is no longer available, or no longer available in sufficient quantity or quality.

There is no point in trying to take the needle from the addict when he is certain there is no other way to live; for him, there is no other way to live. The only point of change lies ahead, when he reaches the cliff edge and must decide to plunge to his death, clinging to the present arrangement to the end, or he stumbles away from the edge and musters the courage to seek some alternative arrangement that doesn't lead to the abyss.

The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy:
The Revolution in Higher Education

Reconnecting higher education, livelihoods and the economy

With the soaring cost of higher education, has the value a college degree been turned upside down? College tuition and fees are up 1000% since 1980. Half of all recent college graduates are jobless or underemployed, revealing a deep disconnect between higher education and the job market.

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Read Chapter 1/Table of Contents

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Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

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We are not powerless. Once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Read the Introduction/Table of Contents

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