"Huntsville Rocket Scientists"

The introduction of Timeblind - Global problems in terms of human thought processes describes that a parent who puts up his arm to hold his child back in an auto crash increases his injuries by a factor of 10. Rocket scientists and fruit pickers both put up their arms, even though rocket scientists could easily calculate why keeping one's arm down produces one tenth the injury.

April 10, 2005, in the heart of rocket science country, I had the pleasure of the company of eight of these bright people at a SKIL Dinner. And while I expected them to think like fruit pickers about the world's problems and human condition, this was not the case.

Like all other SKIL dinners, we discussed the not pretty destinations resulting from the cumulative personal behaviors of 6 billion people.

Much to my surprise, no one provided the sound bite views of the human condition and sound bite cures. No one offered detailed inventories of humans harming the environment and the lists of institutional and personal actions to prevent these harms.

Instead they saw today's problems and unwanted destinations as the result of imbedded trends. They believed that existing policies and individual behaviors would fail to reverse these trends. (1)

Yes, recycling, driving smaller fuel efficient cars, taking mass transit, living closer to work, and insulating homes reduces some aspects of an individuals consumption. However, increased longevity, more (and more extensive) leisure activities, higher end-of-life medical costs and fulfilling each generation's rising expectations, results in an expanded personal footprint despite these acts of conservation.

They gave no resistance to my suggestion that a constant world population, would not stop the increase in either the total human footprint or the resulting problems.

They were only slightly surprised when I suggested that (in addition to capping population) capping individual consumption still would not reverse the trends. When five billion people (now below the cap) rise to it, the total human footprint would expand to four times its present size and fisheries, and forests would be depleted four times faster.

This group had great faith in the powers of technology. Didn't technology create the green revolution and expand the world's carrying capacity? It did not take much to pop this optimistic balloon. A few quick calculations showed this expansion was dependent on exhaustible fossil fuels and water aquifers.

They all knew that within our lifetime, the costs of fuel and water extraction, or transition to new fuels or water sources might raise the price of food, transportation, and housing out of reach of many.

If this happened, the carrying capacity would effectively drop. The social disruption could exceed any humankind has ever experienced.

The newly disenfranchised individuals, those with less than they were used to, would be pervasive, technically powerful, economically viable, and very unhappy.

The newly disenfranchised, not those already living at subsistence, will blame the social system for their loses. They will demand change. When it does not come, or comes but does not produce a reversal of their bad fortune, they will attack the remaining winners, the takers of their wellbeing.

The takers, would have to incur great expense to protect their vulnerable infrastructure. They would experience a reduction in personal freedom needed to confront rising terrorism. And these extra costs would cause a drop in wellbeing. The Roman Empire collapsed under these pressures.

The Huntsville Eight, did not need convincing that to avoid Rome's route to extinction, to reverse the present human course, stopping the growth of humankind's footprint would not be a strong enough action. This could be accomplished only by its reduction.

No one choose to believe that individuals would discontinue trying to improve their lives. So the only way to allow this improvement and still create a decreasing total footprint is to have a rapidly decreasing global population.

They asked, "How are we to cajole or coerce these behaviors? How are we going to change everyone's view of family? How are we going to overcome genetic drives, existing culture, and western views of individual freedom?"

The strange answer I proposed was to get a whole future global generation to read the morning newspaper with the same skills that the Huntsville Eight used to read the government's request to complete a new rocket project.

It was strange because the Huntsville Eight did not read the morning paper as if it was a request to do a job. They read it instead as if they had two brains; one for work and serious play, and another for reading the paper.

I was proposing the difficult task of universally developing cognitive processes in six billion people to levels not yet attained by the Huntsville Eight (or anyone else.)

Nothing less would work. Otherwise, why would my envisioned future generation choose the one child per family behavior when current rocket scientists still reject it.

For this group of program managers and engineers, used to doing the previously impossible, what I was proposing was just one more very tough task that needed a causal model to get from here to there.

Needed, was a learning environment that could create one such person. Needed, was a plan to expand production to create six billion such individuals.

Pragmatists all, they quickly focused on the question, "How is anyone going to get this generation to fund this 'cognition based solutions to global problems' project?"

A plan of action appeared out of the discussion. First the problem of our future condition had to be laid out in first principles. You know, the physical laws that determine which rocket flies and which one crashes.

To accomplish this we have to force ourselves to read the morning paper, and listen to the national news with the same discipline we used to read government requests for quotations to do hard projects, fly rockets, sail to win, and fly airplanes to stay alive.

We have to access that part of our brains that identifies variables and connects them together into causal simulations. We have to run the simulation forward in time and identify the future states of those variables.

Sure these predictions will contain uncertainty. Technology may be able to ship most of the global population into a, hopefully empty of people, parallel dimension.

However, barring something like that, some unpleasant accommodations will have to be made by individuals as others consolidate their new grip on resources they once had.

It is only an image of such immense unpleasantness that will get anyone to consider the one child per family pathway to solution.

Given our level cognitive process, this solution is so abhorrent it might be considered a pursuable alternative, if and only of all the other solutions appear impotent.

Bingo, a new idea for SKIL Dinners.

The reasons to pursue an effort to universally expand cognitive process would have to depend on an investigation of the potential effectiveness of behaviors that many are now taking in hopes of achieving graceful balances between humans and the rest of the environment and between groups of humans.

SKIL dinner investigations might try to conclusively show:

1) that reductions in the consumption of existing life styles (holding everything else constant) could never reach a level where humankind does not degrade the environment.

2) better sharing processes (if successfully implemented) could not ensure (in the long term) a minimum of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and economic opportunity to the least advantaged members of the global community.

3) That behaviors like switching from SUV's to mass transit, from meat to a grain diet, from single family dwelling to efficient apartment blocks would not prevent an ever growing number of people, generation to generation, from experiencing:
  a) less well-being than their parents;
  b) ever growing competition with their peers;
  c) ever growing discontent with their political and
      economic institutions; and
  d) ever growing violent behaviors from those trying to
      stop their slides to subsistence.

I would love to hear such dinner conclusions. They by themselves might erode confidence in peoples' belief in their current and inadequate behaviors to improve the human condition.

I believe these conclusions are the first step in getting people to see work on "cognition based solutions to global problems" as important. It's the first step in understanding what it means to set humankind on a course toward abundance, peace, and environmental quality.

SKIL's goal is very simple. Our task is to discover a process to create an individual who would choose "one child per family" (because of its long term meaning) with the same reliability as we today create individuals, who while wanting to cross the street immediately, will wait for the oncoming bus to pass. ----

(1) Nature (vol. 434/March 31/ p. 561) "Confronting the human dilemma."


Jack Alpert (Bio)     mail to: Alpert@skil.org     www.skil.org      Other position papers

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