Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sustainability 201: Historical parallels, where they could head; Can we "produce" our way out of this? It's personal!


A particularly stark conclusion comes from all the recent news about the escalation of oil prices. The planet seems to have a finite amount of space and finite amount of easily extracted energy. Now, the peoples of several developing countries (most notably India and China) are competing to consume these quasi-finite resources. People in the West, especially the auto-driving North American west of the US and Canada, will have to make do with less to share this with others. They (that is, “we”) may have to adjust ways of life. This sounds like a profound moral problem. We’ve heard this before, from radical Islam, crying that Western consumers are exploiting their oil resources, but that rung hollow, as the sheiks got rich. Now it’s different.

Yesterday, I watched the DVD of “The End of Suburbia”, made four years ago, and noted that the film seemed more concerned with the changes in our social values that must accompany depleting oil and fossil fuel reserves than with getting serious about replacing the energy with more reliable and renewable sources, the prospects for which it is pessimistic. (For the review, navigate to the movies blog on my Profile.)

But, in fact, a change in the way we live – and the prospect that a lot of preachers and politicians will tell us how to live – is what we face unless we figure out, relatively quickly, how to produce more of our own energy. We’ve seen this before, with the oil shocks of the 70s. And we were able to respond by “threatening” to produce more, getting other producing countries to increase production and lower prices (Reagan’s strategy). This time the supply problem seems more fundamental, and, furthermore, we have to figure out how to produce the energy without adding more carbon dioxide emissions. Yes, global warming is serious, folks. And the “moral” problem is that warming will likely affect developing parts of the world first.

The need to improve production of oil (or preferably of other fuels) is what the runnup in oil prices is telling us. But there is a lesson in the way the markets have behaved, with the suddenness of the spike without any specific incident, yet now inviting complication from a terrorist attack or natural disaster. A lot of this has to do with speculators (yes!) buying futures on margin, with only a little money down, and much has to do with “securitization”, which tends to remove the sense of risk from the trader. This is the way that many of our markets in a lot of things work. But one result is to exaggerate trends that approach tipping points with wild swings in price, by factors related to the inadequate margin and “real world consequences” requirements.

We often hear a lot about Wall Street’s preoccupation with short term profits, and public companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize these for public companies. Pretty quickly, we see the problems. Short term gains and “securitization” had a lot to do with the subprime mess. From the consumer’s point of view, the subprime loans represented a chance to “get something for nothing.” We know what happened. And we now ponder the consequences: builders taking funny money, protected by Wall Street’s “vampire securitization” for overbuilding monster homes that families could not afford (and could not afford the power for), when the system should have been encouraging the same homeowners (and probably condo and apartment buildings, too) to invest in individual solar panels on smaller-scaled properties, thereby gaining some self-sufficiency and decentralizing our source of electric power while making it more renewable.

But what happens when we translate these concepts to norms of personal behavior, which the “Suburbia” film starts to do? Look at what happened with the subprime mess. Buyers thought they were acting in self-interest. But most of them did not have the “moral” foresight to imagine what would happen if too many people took out contracts with essentially five-year “expiration dates” – balloon requirements or interest rate hikes. That’s an example of the concept of “sustainability” (as a personal moral virtue) mentioned a few postings ago. That used to be built into our notions of “public morality”. But about four decades ago we started narrowing our concept of morality to “personal responsibility” for the visible consequences of one’s acts. That’s pretty much the notion that winds up on Court TV like Judge Judy. It’s a “Newtonian” concept that seems to work most of the time. It’s good for handling issues like teen pregnancy, drug abuse, DUI’s, while recognizing the concept that adults have personally sovereign rights to direct the courses of their own lives. But with something like subprime and energy, it gets murkier. People are used to expecting institutions (large companies like banks, and government regulation) to providing this oversight for them, and that’s where you run into contradictions over libertarian ideas about freedom when these institutions attempt to do so.

So, home prices stay in free fall for months on end, and the benchmark price for crude oil doubles in six months. Maybe every six months? What does that sound like? Remember back in the mid 1980s the number of cases of AIDS reported by the CDC doubled every six months for a while? Societies cannot tolerate perils that explode by geometric progressions. That’s just something that comes from any Algebra II test. Remember, the epidemic had exploded from a singularity within a circumscribed population experiencing some new found freedom based on ideas of liberty largely predicated on short term notions of harmlessness. Nobody in the mid 1970s could see the “sustainability” aspect, that a diabolical disease could get amplified by the chain letters that would result. Yet, the lesson continues. Medicine developed moderately effective treatments, but still has no vaccine; nevertheless, AIDS has become a chronic, manageable disease (no longer exploding in Western countries, though decimating areas of Africa), sometimes related to lifestyle habits but in a way that bears moral comparison, perhaps, to Type II Diabetes or lung cancer.

Another “sustainability” or “quickening” lesson comes from today’s demographics. In western middle and upper class families, there are fewer children, but the elderly are living much longer, but often in frail situation. In a world grown used to Dr. Phil’s approaches to “personal responsibility” in avoiding unwanted pregnancy, we have indeed an ironic moral problem. Suddenly, people who never “chose” to have children and take on the risk and responsibility have to take care of their parents. There is every likelihood that budget-strapped states will start enforcing their filial responsibility laws on adult children, who could become a new kind of “deadbeat” just like walkoff dads. Family responsibility is no longer a matter of choice or immediate consequences of behavior. Actually, lower income families have known that for years, as do families in developing worlds, like in Africa where teenagers, losing parents to AIDS, raise younger siblings. In fact, Hollywood has made several films on this theme, where unmarried adults without children suddenly “inherit” a deceased relative’s children.

Externally induced economic hardships do tend to lead to political and social oppression, especially against those who are “different” and who make convenient scapegoats. History certainly has taught us this. So, is it an invitation for gay bashing? It could be. But there is a twist. One problem at issue is emotional receptivity. We have created a culture that encourages teens and young adults to build their own worlds before attempting to start families, and we’ve simultaneously entertained the idea that “new kinds of families” could be started by those wired differently. So far, so good perhaps. But what we see in all the talk about energy crisis, tap-outs, global warming, pandemics and other disasters is the idea that people will have to learn to accept interdependence in new ways and accept goals other than those they would have crafted for themselves. At the heart of this is the emotional importance given to the nuclear and extended family, and the question of “loyalty to blood.” Moralists will make an old but novel-sounding argument: if one short-circuits the "normal" requirements of socialization through the family with short-term "freedoms", unsustainable conditions develop.

Some visitors know about my early 1960s debacle at William and Mary and then my “hospitalization” at NIH in 1962 (elsewhere on by blogs and sites). At one point, I saw a diagnosis sheet that mentioned “schizoid personality.” Look it up on Wikipedia and you’ll see mention of “symptoms” like “emotional coldness” and, curiously, “introverted narcissistic self-sufficiency.” Many of the traits discussed sound benign, and within the limits of legitimate human personality diversity (introversion, or perhaps the "unbalanced" personality discussed elsewhere on these sites in conjunction with psychological polarities). The problem is what society believes it needs to expect of everyone, and in a world with the kinds of problems we have now, traits like these get elevated to being viewed as pathological and needing treatment. In the past, the pathology was associated with a view of public morality that was designed to socialize people to share the burdens and risks of family like and of sustaining civilization equitably. The old prohibitionistic view of homosexuality was really a device to get “waverers” to share family responsibility, especially in the emotional areas, and to reproduce and procreate themselves. It was a moral concept based on a religious notion of sustainability, that goes way beyond the shorter-term notions of “personal responsibility” accepted today. It’s an evasive, “non-rational” “moral trick” that the mainstream West doesn’t want anymore, yet it has to somehow come to terms with what to expect of everyone to reduce the polarization of the cultural wars.

Today, Parade Magazine has a counterpoint from Barack Obama and John McCain on the question “What is Patriotism?”: The two pieces are called “Sacrifice for the Common Good” v. “A Cause Greater than Self-Interest.” It’s transparent where this is headed. People have to get out of themselves and become interested in the real needs of others. People have to expect and even embrace interpersonal challenges that in the recent past would have been viewed as disruptions or burdens. That is part of “sustainability.” You can be sure to hear a lot more discussion about national service and even sporadic calls to resume the draft. (But maybe that will ax “don’t ask don’t tell,” which we cannot afford.)

The Internet also falls into discussions about sustainability, particularly in the way it has embraced user-generated content, with all the potential perhaps unanticipated legal complications and business model issues discussed in previous postings. But one of the surprise developments is the public reaction to the tendency towards irony and self-parody by many Internet speakers, especially on social networking sites. It seems that, as a moral matter, this sort of behavior is becoming unacceptable in view of community problems that don’t appreciate resources being spent on self-deprecation. This point was made intrusively in the “Suburbia” film, which says we can no longer “afford” this kind of “irony”. In some right-wing or religious subcultural areas, open homosexuality (especially with men) is seen as an admission of “unworthiness” to reproduce, a statement that takes one out of competition for “deserving” scarce resources.

What then is to be expected of the “new” morally sustainable individual? Some of the concepts, which do overlap, might include accountability, reputation, sustainability, sacrifice, burden and risk sharing, and proper restraint in self-expression. One might postulate that everyone should prove that he or she can support someone else (emotionally as well as financially) besides the self. It sounds “logical” that if everyone lived up to this, some of the polarized tensions in the cultural war could be reduced. Another way to put this might be that self-expression should always be matched by concrete value in meeting the real needs of other people.

These ideas for moral standards turn the tables a bit from the “playing in the sandbox” situations that come up on Judge Judy or Dr. Phil, and it least gives the usual moral span a "reverse side". “Personal responsibility” incorporates a community sustainability that can look decades ahead. These standards imagine the evolution of law in a direction where the individual has less granularity than she does today, and where the family as an active unit has more say. This would not be a welcome development for those who are different (me) and might get religious notions and the state mixed together in ways seen as unacceptable in the mainstream now. It could even change the constitutional notion of "state interest."

Back in 1998, I wrote my second book, "Our Fundamental Rights," a short argument that enumerated our basic rights and who we could support and reclaim them in view of social pressures that I even then thought would inevitably grow. What will be hard is to maintain a focus on individual rights as we see them given the ambiguous nature of the long term combined consequences of peoples' motives.

But if we want to keep our freedoms as they as we have grown accustomed to them, without other people (maybe from the other side of the globe) telling us how to live, we need to get to work, quickly. We need to produce!

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