“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.

 

Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.

 

To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.

 

There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicaments we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?

 

The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.

 

Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”

 

 

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The harsh reality of cognitive limits.

 

Want to Build Great New Habits?
Interested in the Stunning Research that Changes Everything?
How about The Brain Hack that Makes You a Winner?

Clickbait like this is common, alongside more respectable Serious Yet Slightly Breathless News Items.

I spent several years researching behaviour change and running pilot projects on pro-environmental behaviour. My reading list was measured in feet and inches—I still have a two-foot stack of studies, and those are just my very favourites.

Out of all of this, I found one deeply important insight that explains, or frames, all of the work in the area—even the clickbait.

Our thinking has limits.

Just like we can only run so fast, or jump so high, we can only think so much.

I am going to show how this underpins everything from habits to heuristics—and how it helps us understand how to proceed. And yet this fact is very rarely discussed—and when it is discussed, we usually ignore it only to repeat the same old mistakes.

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So, our thinking has limits—which is not so surprising when you think about it. Our brain weighs only about three pounds. It sits inside a body that is fueled by food just a few times a day and still needs to sleep for eight hours.

Our senses take in an enormous amount of data that our brain must manage and select responses for. As Tor Norretranders says:

“The fact is that every single second, millions of bits of information flood in through our senses. But our consciousness processes only perhaps forty bits a second – at most. Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits…”

Estimates of how many million bits per second vary, but the average estimate is about 60 million.

60 million bits of data per second flood our senses, but we are conscious of only 40. Not 40 million, just 40. That means we are conscious of just 0.00007% of what we perceive.

And you wonder why it is hard to get people to read your recycling brochure.

We ruthlessly filter the data pouring in through our senses, sorting and discarding, seeking patterns that would elevate bits from data to information.

A cracking sound in the woods, maybe a silence of birdsong, an observation that the berry bush you are standing by is heavy with delicious fruit—these resolve themselves into “That bear is going to kill me.”

The data has survived the filters and become very useful information.

This is why we have a Novelty Bias. If you are just standing there with nothing happening, you can probably keep standing there and nothing will happen, and so your brain can nod off. It is when something new happens—like the crack of a stick in the silence—that we start to pay attention.

After you have filtered for what you hope is important, the biases and heuristics keep rolling.

“That bear is going to kill me, now what do I do? Do I freeze? Do I play dead? Do I run?”

“The last time I ran from a bear, I lived to tell the tale—so it will probably work this time…” That is the Similarity Heuristic.

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So we are absolutely swamped with data. Furthermore, we—and our brains—evolved in a context that required fast action to secure food and faster action to avoid predators. We simply would not have been able to cope if we had to evaluate and carefully consider every bit of data. So we evolved coping strategies.

filtering  =  coping strategy
cognitive biases  =
 coping strategy
habits  =
 coping strategy
rules of thumb (heuristics)  =
 coping strategy
tribalism  =
 coping strategy
not listening  =
 coping strategy
copying  =
 coping strategy
social choice  =
 coping strategy
doing nothing  =  coping strategy

 

That is what the clickbait and much of the popular science writing is about—it is research that unveils the coping mechanisms we use to deal with the flood of data flowing through a brain that has limits.

For example, Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Economics Award-winning psychologist and one of the founders of Behavioural Economics. In his wildly popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes how our brains use two systems: System One is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Kahneman is describing our coping mechanism for a brain that cannot deal with all of the data it receives, and so it manages most of it quickly, with broad strokes, in order to conserve the deliberative resources for fewer—hopefully more important—things.

Researchers such as Roy Baumeister or Jonathan Haidt have drawn from Kahneman and Tversky’s work, and popular books such as Blink, Nudge and Switch reference them heavily. Switch uses Haidt’s metaphor for the two systems—an elephant and it’s rider. One is big and powerful, the other is little, and spends a lot of time thinking. System one, the fast and intuitive process, is what Gladwell discusses in Blink.

The research, the pop science, the clickbait—they are all describing our coping strategies.

Many coping mechanisms work all right; for the most part they have helped humanity plod along to where we are today. But we are starting to see some spectacular failures. Sometimes we find ourselves unprepared to deal with modern problems using a stone age brain, and so we  try to hack or tweak our coping mechanisms.

I have lost count of how many pop science articles I have read that describe a cognitive bias and say, “Ah-HAH! A bias! Now all we need to do is hack that bias and we can get back to the par-tay!”

Here is the thing—

The solution increases the problem.

The coping strategy is trying to deal with too much data—and the tweak often just increases the demands on our brain.

If you have a bias evolved to deal with your limited attention, trying to deal with that bias by asking for more attention is…Dumb? A waste of time? Probably going to fail?

But most recommendations for how to deal with our coping strategies still frequently demand attention, and sometimes sustained attention.

This would mean the tweak needs the right information to make it through the filters instead of getting stuck along with the other 60 million bits, if the data doesn’t make it through the filter, then the tweak won’t work. Furthermore, to sustain change using conscious tools would require that the data make it through  the filter over and over again.

And all of this is in competition with huge corporate advertising budgets, the demands of work and family life, and stress of all kinds.

All of this combined with thousands of environmental, social justice and economic issues that must be urgently addressed.

To put it mildly, that seems overly hopeful.

Yet that is what is being proposed whenever a politician says, “It is all about education”, or an environmental group says, “We need to raise awareness”, or a campaign asks you to spread the word, or watch a documentary film.

Every second they have your attention, you are filtering 59,999,960 bits of information, but they feel pretty confident you are going to listen to them.

The results speak the truth. We ignore the reality of human cognitive limits, and we design strategies that rely on cognitive capacity we simply do not have.

And so we fail.

What would a better strategy be? I think we must build Compassionate Systems that shape our behaviour or address problems without needing attention. A programmable thermostat eliminates 20% of our heating energy, without attention. A well-designed house can eliminate heating energy, without attention.

I also think we must redesign our democracy. As citizens we cannot keep up with the hundreds of important issues in our country—and if we think our politicians are reading the thousands of pages of reports they get each month we are deluding ourselves; they too are only human. We need electoral and consultation systems that are designed for the brains we have, not the brains we wish we had.

 

{ 4 comments }

We have enough Ideas (or, No pie for you.)

Why are we not winning the fight against climate chaos? Why was Trump just elected? Why has there been a slaughter of drug addicts this year?

Because we think about change wrong, and so our efforts are often wasted.

Three things are needed to make change;  we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:

If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.

If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.

And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.

If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.

Technical capacity

Ideas are technical capacity. A vision. A map. A programming language. A recipe. All of the necessary technics to realize the idea are also part of the technical capacity—a factory with all its fabricating machines and finishing systems, handling units, air or water cleaning systems.
Distribution systems might be thought of as part of technical capacity.

For some simple changes, the idea may be the only technical capacity you need, but for more complex change, you may need much, much more. Joseph Swan developed a light bulb that used a carbonized filament 30 years before Thomas Edison’s patent, but vacuum pumps had not been invented that could suck the air out of Swan’s bulb. He had an electrical supply, a bulb, a filament, but lacked a pump, so he did not have the technical capacity.

Microchip manufacturers are currently reaching the end of their ability to miniaturize, and so the much-vaunted Moore’s Law…is not a law. Chip designers have a lot of ideas, and are doing a lot of research, but can’t currently turn these possibiities into realities. They do not have the technical capacity.

Commercial power generation with nuclear fusion has been just ten years away…since the 1950s? The technical capacity does not exist.

Social Capacity

Social license, political capital. The ability to tax to raise funds. Volunteers. Educators. The willingness to go to jail in protest or the willingness to put up with inconvenience for a greater social good. Governance, obedience of laws. Unity, harmony, tolerance.

Open minds.

These things are not created or overcome with a good idea. I think of the social capacity as the fruit of relationships. Can a diverse group of people be brought together in common cause?

In the real world, away from the habit of worshipping ideas, we do spend a lot of attention on social capacity; coalition building, social capital, education, fundraising.

Material Capacity

Thanks to post-war exuberance and the silliness of feckless economists few of us think of there being limits to material resources. But of course, on our blue droplet, everything must be finite.  Without snow, you can’t go skiing. If you don’t have energy, you can’t do much of anything. No water or no soil or no seed…no crops.

If you don’t have apples, you can’t make pie. But if you do have apples, you can eat them fresh, dry them, sauce them, bake them, juice them for cider, distill them for brandy—as long as you have the necessary technical and social capacities for each of those operations.

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Sadly, our habit is to think and say that change is about ideas; new ideas cause change. TED Talks are Ideas Worth Spreading. Political parties have platforms and debate ideas. It is currently very important for cities to “consult” with residents and “hear their ideas”.
Pecha KuchaThinklandia. IdeaCity.

We spend a lot of time concerned with messaging and with rhetoric, because our habit frames this battle as a clash of ideas, and when the best idea is proven out, it wins and change will follow as sure as day follows night…

—despite this not according with reality in almost any way; knowledge and awareness are frequently unrelated to behaviour.

—despite this not being the strategy of countless organizations that are getting things done; a soup kitchen is not about ideas, it is about feeding people. A traffic signal is not about ideas, it is about controlling the behaviour of traffic. Politics is rarely about ideas, it is about getting out the vote.

Of course even a traffic light has an organizing idea behind it. What if each signal was organized around a different idea? Disaster. But for traffic control, as with most of human existence, the ideas are quite old. New ideas are very seldom needed, in fact we are still struggling to execute ideas that are millennia old and so the fetishization of ideas is very often misplaced. What is needed is implementation.

Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. – Guy Kawasaki

Don’t freak out too much in trying to parse issues between social and material and technical. There is not much benefit to counting angels on a pin head. The big point is that ideas are not nearly enough. As someone trained in Industrial Design I like to joke I have a degree in brainstorming, and I still think ideas are only 0.1% of the solution.

What is needed is the social and material capacity.

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So how did Donald Trump become president?

It clearly was not a lack of ideas. I don’t think I heard a single new idea in the whole campaign, just the same old repetition about growth and jobs, with some excitement thrown in about health care, globalization and immigration. But I wonder if there was even a single idea that was less than 100 years old.

We have the technical capacity.

Regarding the American electorate, there is a clear lack of social capacity. Divergent social groups can not be brought together.

 

How about the horrifying increase in overdose deaths as elephant tranquillizers are mixed into street drugs?

We clearly do not have the social capacity to care for the wounded people that become and stay addicts, or the social connections to prevent their being so deeply wounded in the first place. Furthermore, once people are addicted, we have the knowledge of safe injection sites—the idea, or technical capacity—but we have NIMBY resistance and government obstruction to opening sites, so we don’t have the social capacity.

Please note I am not saying we can’t develop the social capacity to forgo bathroom remodels and granite countertops, and choose instead to assign that money to paying for the supports necessary to prevent or mitigate the harm caused by our culture. We could do that, but we currently do not have the social capacity.

 

Climate chaos is the poster child of our misallocation of expectations. Scientists did research, the UN made statements, Al Gore went on tour.

The technical capacity is all there—the information and data, even the bright green solutions of electric cars and solar panels and high-speed trains, and the deep green solutions of walkable communities and bioregionalism and simple living.

And we progressives and environmentalists have spent well over a decade being gobsmacked that the only significant changes have been to the increasing level of carbon in the atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t care about Kyoto, or Paris, or Rio the first time or the second time. The atmosphere doesn’t even know Copenhagen exists.

The atmosphere only cares about tonnes of carbon, and those keep increasing.

And the louder we talk at people who seem to not be hearing us, the more social capacity we lose as we harden people into opposition.

An excellent recent article by David Roberts fleshes this out.

Most of our knowledge is not acquired or held in ways that we would think of as “learning”—teacher-student, textbook, debate, et c. Knowledge is social, Roberts explains, and is largely passed or outsourced within social groups.

So, in a formal learning environment, let’s say math class, a conservative student will not care if the teacher is from the same group and shares their conservative politics. The student is there to learn and math is math.

In informal environments, like everyday life, the practise of outsourcing knowledge works great, most of the time. If we all had to know how to manufacture every part of every thing in the human realm we would be living a much more stone-age existence. So we are perfectly happy to let someone else be the expert in concrete reinforcing bar or antenna geometry while we are the experts in our field, and few of us care what social groups are involved.

But climate chaos is clearly different, maybe because it requires such broad changes to all aspects of our lives and cultures, maybe because it was carefully politicized. It is not something many of us go to school for, so we form opinions about it based on very few facts but a great deal of social “hum”. It is not much good for progressives to lecture conservatives on climate change because lecturing is not the mode of transmission for that subject and the social groups are not shared.

There is a huge gulf between social groups which simply arrests any attempts to build other social capacities, as would be needed to reallocate resources to carbon reduction, resettle away from flood zones, or make changes to urban form. So, we lack the social capacity to tackle climate change.

 

In these times, when we have more than enough ideas to enable us to live better than any royal family ever has and before the shortage of material capacity becomes impossible to ignore, most of our struggle comes down to a shortage of social capacity, as those three examples highlighted.

And as I said, it is not that we can’t reallocate our social resources of time and money to elevate important issues. We have, and we will continue to do so.

But social capacity is finite. It is based on the limited time in each day, on the limited capacity for communication and analysis, on the limited willingness to be taxed.

So, we can reallocate social resources to some issues, but certainly not all issues. As is the main point of my writing on Compassionate Systems, we need to replace social capacity with system design whenever we possibly can.

And, since we have too many issues that demand more capacity than we can possibly provide, each issue ends up in competition with the others—which is a horrible situation to be in. So, we need to shift to systems, but we also need to just give up on some issues, and lay them down. We need to lay them down so they don’t weaken others for lack of resources.

 

Technical capacity is our habit and gets all the glamour, social capacity is where the real work is happening, and material capacity still tends to be ignored, except around the hairier fringes of the internet.

I think we lack the material capacity to tackle climate change, and perhaps the fact we don’t notice this is another bad habit (which is a lack of social capacity). The material transformation after WWII has given us the habit of acting like we will always have more energy and more material. How else could we explain coffee pods and the fact the automotive fleet gets no better mileage than the Model T Ford?

The sheer volume of energy and minerals that would be required to shift our consumption to either lower energy infrastructure or “green” energy may not be available.

And, of course, fossil fuels and mineral resources are all finite, so they are depleting and will at some point be unaffordable. Things we can do today we will not always be able to do as our material resources deplete.

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One of John Michael Greer’s very best posts on The Archdruid Report, to my mind, was his eulogy for William Catton. Tucked into the warm reflection was this amazing paragraph, which offers more background for the primacy of the idea and blindness to the material capacity:

Over the three centuries of industrialization…the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity… The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

 

There is no limit to number of ideas you can have about pie. But if you do not have apples, and a baker, you will never get to taste it.

 

.

 

 

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Our cultural veneration of free will traps us in dead-end expectations that are unsupported by reality. If we want to make effective change, the idea of free will is one of the first things we should jettison, or at least put in its proper place.

John Michael Greer is one of my favourite thinkers and writers. I frequently recommend his book The Long Descent to people who are curious about my thinking, especially regarding sustainability. He has an incredible memory for historical detail, and has also read the work of all the great Western historical sensemakers. He writes weekly at The Archdruid Report and I never miss a single one.

Last week Greer touched on Free Will, and this week he expanded on his thinking. With perhaps less than his usual élan, he dismissed opponents of Free Will as Victorian Determinists. Now, I am no friend of Victorian Determinists so I won’t try to defend them, but I think there is another way to look at free will—we have it, but we only use it on the rarest of occasions.

If I could try to put our North American, Caucasian, dominant culture narrative into words, I think the story would go something like this:

Humans have Free Will. That means we are free to make choices. Choice is a decision to control our future behaviour; choice is conscious, and rational choices are the best choices. In order to make rational choices, you need information, and information comes from education.

Or:

We should thoroughly educate ourselves, and, with our Free Will, use the information to make conscious, rational choices about our behaviour.

Now, I disagree or have heavy caveats for almost every word in this narrative, but I tried to state a fair articulation. In my work, I am interested in the impact our idea of free will has on our ability to create change.

I think our culture also has a tautology for behaviour—we choose our behaviour, therefore behaviour is a choice. The definition of behaviour I find useful is considerably broader:

Behaviour is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli or inputs, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Or as I like to say, as long as you are not a rock, everything is behaviour.

Once you take a broader view of behaviour, it is immediately obvious that we are constantly behaving without having made conscious, rational choices. We make thousands of behavioral choices each day, and almost none of them are conscious.

The cultural narrative for this fact is that we are bad, lazy, no-good, uncaring people, too distracted by reality television to bother with important thinking and choosing—we are by nature, flawed.

In fact there are two more important reasons we don’t consider every choice: there are only so many hours in the day, and we have only so much fuel for our brain. If we truly sought information and deliberated on every behaviour, we would never get our socks on before it was bedtime again.

So most of our behaviour is not consciously chosen. Estimates vary between 95% and 99.999% of our behaviour consists of automatic responses to our context.

When so much of our behaviour is reactive, how can we say we have Free Will? At best we can say we might have free will a small fraction of the time. One researcher suggests we actually have Free Won’t—the capacity for the conscious brain to overrule behaviour signals that have already been sent by subconscious areas of the brain.

This is all getting very geeky. I am not going argue whether we occasionally make a free will choice. But I am saying our ability to deal with reality is damaged by our cultural narrative that behaviour is a product of conscious, free will choices.

As I have written elsewhere, since most of our behaviour is reactive to our physical and social contexts, the most effective way to change people’s behaviour is to change the context. Regardless of the speed limit, if the road is wide and straight, people drive fast. If the road is narrow and twisty, people drive slow. The most effective way to change behaviour is NOT to educate and inform people about the dangers of speeding, then post a speed limit and expect them to make a good choice with their free will—especially when everyone around them, their social context, is responding appropriately to the physical context of the wide road by driving faster than the posted speed limit.

Imagine how we might respond to issues if we stopped telling a story that behaviour is a product of choice, and instead compassionately acknowledged it is mostly a product of context. Think of the lives lost and families destroyed by lung cancer, drunk drivers, malnutrition, poverty, and lack of exercise. Think of arguments with loved ones and lost friendships. Think of the billions wasted on ineffective infrastructure. Think of the school system and the justice system.

Free will has very little to do with our lives, context is King.

 

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Global News

Two days ago I awoke to an eerie, silent hellsky. It was dusky dark, even first thing in the morning. The colour and brightness of the sky was all wrong, not just overcast but unnatural. Throughout the day, people described it as apocalyptic, discomfiting and especially, unsettling. Even the birds kept quiet.

Of course, as people in southwest British Columbia will know, it was the smoke of dozens of forest fires. But the knowledge did not calm the hairs standing on the back of my neck; only late the next day did they lay down.

The atmospheric weirdness wound social media to high tension and a petition was soon circulating to shame the provincial government into renewing their contract with a fleet of venerable and large waterbombers, The Martin Mars.

Clickety-click, petition signed, democracy in action. Three cheers for Western Civilization!

Then somehow a Factsheet from the B.C. Government surfaced, which essentially said:

  • The Martin Mars is too big and too slow to safely maneuver close to B.C.’s rugged terrain, whereas the currently contracted Fire Boss airplane is faster and more nimble.
  • Again because of its size, the Mars can only land on 113 lakes in B.C., whereas the Fire Boss can resupply on over 1,700 bodies of water.
  • The Fire Boss is more capable of delivering foam fire suppressants.
  • On the 2014 West Kelowna fire, the average cost of dumping a litre of water was 19¢ for the Fire Boss and 63¢ for the Mars.

Boom.
Detail. Facts. The petition was clearly the reactions of the uninformed; mob rule instead of reason and deliberation. The petition was probably started by opponents of our current “Liberal” government, simply looking to score political points. Mob rule is exactly why democracy is so important as a check and balance.

Then somehow a rebuttal to the factsheet surfaced. Sentence by sentence, the factsheet was dismantled—or at least the proper judgement of the situation was made much more complex.

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So, I am a pretty smart guy. I am quite literate, and consume an enormous amount of information which I contemplate and analyze and fit into the pattern of the emerging worldview I write about here.

I spent about an hour, and read two factsheets. I think it is safe to say that I spent greater attention learning about this issue than I do—or anybody does— for 99% of the issues we face. I did the right thing.

And I remain utterly confused about which waterbomber is a better choice to spend my tax dollars on.

Our cultural narrative—repeated endlessly on the nightly news—is “It is all about education.” When people are informed, they will make rational choices and will—obviously—vote for the best choice. Or at least write a letter to their local representative about the best choice.

And therefore, if people are not making the right choice, it is because they are uninformed or poorly informed and need education. The problem is cast as being a failure with us instead of a problem with the system.

Cue the campaigns: more pamphlets, forlorn photographs, sticky cognitive frames, and celebrity endorsements. If what you are doing doesn’t work, do the same thing more! Bigger! Faster!

My research on behaviour change offers a different perspective. If what you are doing doesn’t work, that may be because it just doesn’t work. No amount of bigger or faster will make it work, because it doesn’t work. In fact, it can’t work.

But a very few campaigns do work, and that adds to the corrosive danger of our narrative of democracy.

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I invite you start listing all the issues that request your attention. Think of every time someone has said, “It is all about education,” and then keep adding all the other things: climate chaos, racism, temporary foreign workers, clearcuts, sexism, globalization, real estate, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty. And then how about girls going to school in Afghanistan, and whether Omar Khadr was a child soldier or an enemy combatant? Foreign food aid. Donating money to Doctors Without Borders or to your local Humane Society.

It is pretty clear we could keep listing for hours, or maybe days. Making a proper, informed judgement about anything in that list should take weeks of dedicated research.

Urban density. Legalized prostitution. Legalized cannabis. Legalized hard drugs. Voting for youth. Gay marriage. Which bathroom Trans people should use. Should Sikh RCMP officers be allowed to wear a turban? Should Sikh motorcyclists be allowed to not wear a helmet? Who pays their medical bill if they get a brain injury while not wearing a helmet? NIMBYs. Gentrification. Displacement.

These issues are complex; people get doctorates in Philosophy and Ethics and every other topic touched on. But me dedicating even one hour to a new topic is highly unusual. We just don’t have time. Even if we dedicated one hour to a new topic every single day we would never get through our list, and would be only slightly less uninformed.

My personal interest is on the limits to our cognitive capacity, so that is how I tend to think about the problem of democracy, but the limited hours in the day works just as well. You sleep for eight, work for eight, commute, cook, wash, shop for food, play with your kids, clean the house, visit friends, maybe care for an aging parent—almost nobody spends even one hour a day researching these important issues.

And there is nobody who has researched and developed an informed opinion on all the issues.

Which is why we elect politicians to represent us, right?

Are you kidding me? Politicians are worried about being elected; do you think they actually read the 3,963 pages they are given on every single vote? I bet they spend less time than the average citizen; they have a lot of other obligations.

I might sum up Western Democracy as the process by which we use one vote, cast sporadically, to elect someone who is largely as uninformed as we are, in the hopes they will represent our complex and often self-contradictory views. If they do not, we have no recourse except the laughable “holding them to account” in the next election cycle—at which time we may find we make exactly the same choice we did last time because our concern for abortion rights still outweighs our desire for intact ecosystems. Get Out the Vote campaigns change nothing more than the number of people casting that sporadic, lonely, unenforceable vote.

So. We are obviously not making rational informed decisions. Almost nothing is “about education”.

Civil society groups use campaigns to fight for balance, to maintain some pressure between elections. Most of these campaigns utterly fail—as they must; we simply do not have enough time in the day to give them the attention they need.

Some of these campaigns do succeed—and as I said earlier, I think this is corrosive to democracy. If you “succeed” because of your acute framing, or because of the emotional heartstrings you pull, we are still not having the informed and rational debate we say we are supposed to be having. If a bandage staunches the flow of blood from a sucking chest wound, it gives the appearance the problem has been solved, but leaves the underlying condition untreated. A little success maintains the intravenous drip that keeps us hooked, without actually creating comprehensive change.

Right-wing populists propose referenda; the left-wing collectivists like Direct Democracy—both of which face us directly back at the immutable fact there is simply not enough time in the day to make informed choices about all the issues we face. Given the choice between Elected Unrepresentative or the Rule of Ignorant, I would prefer a benevolent dictator.

Being assured of benevolence is always the rub, though many people feel their elected government is not benevolent, though typically less inclined to summary execution.

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So what then, to do?

I think we must discard the idea of rational choice. We must trash it with the ferocity and power of an NBA Slam Dunk Competition. It is corrosive, and it keeps us from trying different approaches.

We must explicitly separate moral questions from factual questions. The moral position of the people in our country is more reasonably polled.

We must acknowledge we will never have the capacity to make informed decisions on all the factual problems we face. I think we should assign the resolution of these problems to the binding decision of a Citizen’s Assembly.

As in the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, a group of regular folks will be selected by lottery and balanced for sex, race and other demographics. The Assembly will spend a year, or two, or five, diving deep into an issue, and then they will make a decision.

And I think we should all just do what they say—they are people just like us, who have actually devoted the time to an issue in way we are all supposed to do. And they should do what we say, coming out of the Assemblies we sit on. Do we even need an elected government, or would simply having a Scheduler of Assemblies be enough? I don’t know.

For better or worse, we have arrived at a time and place where we have just enough information to make asses of ourselves. With good reason, we don’t trust politicians, bureaucrats, corporations or special interest groups. We aren’t going to move forward by doing the same thing bigger or faster. We need to do it different.

 

 

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