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In One Year
Alex Steffen, 4 Jan 06

Kai Krause, in his answer to the dangerous ideas question delivered a rant (quoted in its entirety in the extended entry below), which not only felt more emotionally honest than any of the other responses, but also reached its crescendo with this challenge:

Next year, let's ask for good ideas. Really practical, serious, good ideas. "The most immediate positive global impact of any kind that can be achieved within one year?"

I haven't been able to get that out of my head, and so, I thought why wait for next year? Perhaps it's something worth all of us kicking around here.

What is the greatest positive global impact we could imagine achieving within one year? What could we actually do, in practical terms, by January 4th, 2007? What is possible, and what would make the greatest difference?

Let's dream big: what would we like to see happen in the next year? What would you like to see happen? How should we change the world this year?

Krause's rant:

Dangerous Ideas? It is dangerous ideas you want? From this group of people ? That in itself ought to be nominated as one of the more dangerous ideas...

Danger is ubiquitous. If recent years have shown us anything, it should be that "very simple small events can cause real havoc in our society". A few hooded youths play cat and mouse with the police: bang, thousands of burned cars put all of Paris into a complete state of paralysis, mandatory curfew and the entire system in shock and horror.

My first thought was: what if any really smart set of people really set their mind to it...how utterly and scarily trivial it would be, to disrupt the very fabric of life, to bring society to a dead stop?

The relative innocence and stable period of the last 50 years may spiral into a nearly inevitable exposure to real chaos. What if it isn't haphazard testosterone driven riots, where they cannibalize their own neighborhood, much like in L.A. in the 80s, but someone with real insight behind that criminal energy ? What if Slashdotters start musing aloud about "Gee, the L.A. water supply is rather simplistic, isn't it?" An Open Source crime web, a Wiki for real WTO opposition ? Hacking L.A. may be a lot easier than hacking IE.

That is basic banter over a beer in a bar, I don't even want to actually speculate what a serious set of brainiacs could conjure up. And I refuse to even give it any more print space here. However, the danger of such sad memes is what requires our attention!

In fact, I will broaden the specter still: its not violent crime and global terrorism I worry about, as much as the basic underpinning of our entire civilization coming apart, as such. No acts of malevolence, no horrible plans by evil dark forces, neither the singular "Bond Nemesis" kind, nor masses of religious fanatics. None of that needed... It is the glue that is coming apart to topple this tower. And no, I am not referring to "spiraling trillions of debt".

No, what I am referring to is a slow process I observed over the last 30 years, ever since in my teens I wondered "How would this world work, if everyone were like me ?" and realized: it wouldn't !

It was amazing to me that there were just enough people to make just enough shoes so that everyone can avoid walking barefoot. That there are people volunteering to spend day-in, day-out, being dentists, and lawyers and salesmen. Almost any "jobjob" I look at, I have the most sincere admiration for the tenacity of the people...how do they do it? It would drive me nuts after hours, let alone years...Who makes those shoes ?

That was the wondrous introspection in adolescent phases, searching for a place in the jigsaw puzzle.

But in recent years, the haunting question has come back to me: "How the hell does this world function at all? And does it, really ? I feel an alienation zapping through the channels, I can't find myself connecting with those groups of humanoids trouncing around MTV. Especially the glimpses of "real life": on daytime-courtroom-dramas or just looking at faces in the street. On every scale, the closer I observe it, the more the creeping realization haunts me: individuals, families, groups, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries... they all just barely hang in there, between debt and dysfunction. The whole planet looks like Any town with mini malls cutting up the landscape and just down the road it's all white trash with rusty car wrecks in the back yard. A huge Groucho Club I don't want to be a member of.

But it does go further: what is particularly disturbing to see is this desperate search for Individualism that has rampantly increased in the last decade or so.

Everyone suddenly needs to be so special, be utterly unique. So unique that they race off like lemmings to get 'even more individual' tattoos, branded cattle, with branded chains in every mall, converging on a blanded sameness world wide, but every rap singer with ever more gold chains in ever longer stretched limos is singing the tune: Don't be a loser! Don't be normal! The desperation with which millions of youngsters try to be that one-in-a-million professional ball player may have been just a "sad but silly factoid" for a long time.

But now the tables are turning: the anthill is relying on the behaviour of the ants to function properly. And that implies: the social behaviour, the role playing, taking defined tasks and follow them through.

What if each ant suddenly wants to be the queen? What if soldiering and nest building and cleaning chores is just not cool enough any more?

If AntTV shows them every day nothing but un-Ant behaviour...?

In my youth we were whining about what to do and how to do it, but in the end,all of my friends did become "normal" humans, orthopedics and lawyers, social workers, teachers... There were always a few that lived on the edges of normality, like ending up as television celebrities, but on the whole: they were perfectly reasonable ants. 1.8 children, 2.7 cars, 3.3 TVs...

Now: I am no longer confident that line will continue. If every honeymoon is now booked in Bali on a Visa card, and every kid in Borneo wants to play ball in NYC... can the network of society be pliable enough to accommodate total upheaval? And what if 2 billion Chinese and Indians raise a generation of kids staring 6+ hours a day into All American values they can never attain... being taunted with Hollywood movies of heroic acts and pathetic dysfunctionality, coupled with ever increasing violence and disdain for ethics or morals.

Seeing scenes of desperate youths in South American slums watching "Kill Bill" makes me think: this is just oxygen thrown into the fire... The ants will not play along much longer. The anthill will not survive if even a small fraction of the system is falling apart.

Couple that inane drive for "Super Individualism" (and the Quest for Coolness by an ever increasing group destined to fail miserably) with the scarily simple realization of how effective even a small set of desperate people can become, then add the obvious penchant for religious fanaticism and you have an ugly picture of the long term future.

So many curves that grow upwards towards limits, so many statistics that show increases and no way to turn around.

Many in this forum may speculate about infinite life spans, changing the speed of light, finding ways to decode consciousness, wormholes to other dimensions and finding grand unified theories.

To make it clear: I applaud that! "It does take all kinds".
Diversity is indeed one of the definitions of the meaning of life.
Edge IS Applied Diversity.

Those are viable and necessary questions for mankind as a whole, however: I believe we need to clean house, re-evaluate, redefine the priorities.

While we look at the horizon here in these pages, it is the very ground beneath us, that may be crumbling. The ant hill could really go to ant hell! Next year, let's ask for good ideas. Really practical, serious, good ideas. "The most immediate positive global impact of any kind that can be achieved within one year?". How to envision Internet3 and Web3 as a real platform for a global brainstorming with 6+ billion potential participants.

This was not meant to sound like doom and gloom naysaying. I see myself as a sincere optimist, but one who believes in realistic pessimism as a useful tool to initiate change.

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Comments

Ban incandescent lightbulbs in all industrialized nations. Allow people to purchase them with a 1000% tax, that money spent to subsidise CFLs for the poor. Something like a 10% reduction in electricity consumption across the board (no, I can't say that for sure, this is from memory) with essentially no lifestyle changes.

We do this all the time with toxic chemicals. Let's start doing it for gratuitously energy inefficient products!


Posted by: vinay on 4 Jan 06

Distopian scenarios are useful. So are other kinds of warnings. My dad was a district attorney for some years. I saw a number of fatal car accidents. They helped me avoid some serious stupidity as an adolescent driver. But that was different than not driving out of fear of crashing.

Kai has been wonderfully honest. I feel a lot of kinship to him. What thinking, sensitive person WOULDN't feel despair sometimes?

I was given some great advice once. Here it is: when you feel despair like this, don't fight it. Let it wash right over you. Agree. Tell yourself that things are hopeless; anarchy and violence abound; people are basically numb and greedy, ant-like automatons or rage-driven feral beasts; we can't possibly reverse our slide into oblivion; we'll only be cleansed by fire; everything sucks and is going to suck worse in the future - and there's not a god damned thing we can do.

I don't know about you, but if I truly give in to a feeling like that, I can't possibly sustain it for more than a day or two. Well, I mutter to myself, I can plant a tree, write a letter, visit a sick neighbor... and before long, I'm off and running again.

(That advice, by the way, is a dangerous idea - to certain institutions, anyway.)

Kai seems to be saying that the whole jig - this whole world we've made for ourselves - survives only through our agreement with it. If enough people begin to disagree, they'll have incredible power to upend it. Institutions and habits that we see as nearly omnipotent would crumble to dust if enough people stopped cooperating with them.

I don't know about you, but I really like that thought. That's a darned optimistic view. But I think people are more likely to stop cooperating when they believe in a viable alternative. I honestly believe that vastly more people want to be builders than smashers. Once basic security is assured, most people long for meaning in their lives. There's immense untapped power in that.

We're taught to ignore that longing, distracted from it by chimeras and boogeymen. Here's another dangerous idea: refuse to partake of manufactured insecurity. Don't let anyone else tell you what to be afraid of.


Posted by: David Foley on 4 Jan 06

I'd like to see the public's "moral imagination" grow just a bit. We should see the public begin to acknowledge that wealthier nations' endless drive for economic growth and luxury "has profoundly adverse effects on access to basic necessities of life for millions of others" [1]. Maybe an innovative filmmaker or writer could help drive the point home. Wouldn't it be great if in one year, the average American were simply more aware, even if just a little bit?


Posted by: Jonathan Pfeiffer on 4 Jan 06

"No, what I am referring to is a slow process I observed over the last 30 years, ever since in my teens I wondered "How would this world work, if everyone were like me ?" and realized: it wouldn't !"

so we need to be individualists?

"But it does go further: what is particularly disturbing to see is this desperate search for Individualism that has rampantly increased in the last decade or so.

Everyone suddenly needs to be so special, be utterly unique. So unique that they race off like lemmings to get 'even more individual' tattoos, branded cattle, with branded chains in every mall, converging on a blanded sameness world wide, but every rap singer with ever more gold chains in ever longer stretched limos is singing the tune: Don't be a loser! Don't be normal!"

So we need to not be individualists?

"How to envision Internet3 and Web3 as a real platform for a global brainstorming with 6+ billion potential participants."
internet1 is already getting there.

Anyway, while I agree with his idea that we need to ask more practical questions right now, the problem is we don't have instutions that are open to this type of collaboration... however some countries do. Let's take for instance Indonesia where economists are blogging their ideas about how to improve Indonesia's economoy and the finance minister has a blog where they all comment on his ideas. The result: the government is getting a much larger debate of it's issues. If more governemtns could open up this idea of letting people particpate in the discussion of their government, then we'd probably have better government. For instance what if your local environmental agency let you comment on their ideas etc. Anyway, it seems like we're already doing what Kai Krause offers, isn't this blog after all geared towards finding solutions to everyday problems? Maybe bloggers need to get together to find solutions to various problems. Make it a chain of different blogs all trying to solve simple pratical issues.

peace,
A


Posted by: andrew on 4 Jan 06

The greatest global impact would undoubtedly come from an initiative which allows a diversity of opinions to be heard about issues, and not merely the Anglosaxon protestant discourse. I think this would be the most radical thing to do.

Such an initiative would:

1. expose the Anglosaxon discourse on development (e.g. expose Blair's Africa Commission which was a marketing stunt, nothing more - anyone who has actually read the reports of that Commission knows this)
2. expose Anglosaxon megalomaniacal initiatives like Live8, which continue to push for charity-like attitudes, instead of dealing with structures; expose Anglosaxon and protestant ideals of charity in general
3. expose Anglosaxons' obsession with top-down approaches disguised as bottom-up approaches
4. do an effort to be inclusive in your work (e.g. Ethan Zuckerman's Africa quiz and blogroll, mentioned on Worldchagning, only refers to Anglosaxon blogs - this is sad, and gives the impression that 80% of Africa's citizens do not exist.)

My suggestion is for Worldchanging and other similar blogs to only use non-Anglosaxon stories in 2006. This would of course require a lot of work.

If we all did this same thing, the world might change far more than by any other practical initiative. It's the Anglosaxon cosmology and perspective on things which perpetuates humanity's misery. It's the greatest problem of our times. If the ideas behind initiatives don't change, they're not worth it being undertaken at all.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 5 Jan 06

Lorenzo--I think you have some excellent points here but your critique also contains some reactionary discourses as well. "Anglo-Saxon"? If you look at French and Portuguese colonialism and postcolonial 'development' discourses you find very similar issues. It is less Anglo-Saxon than modernist discourses of planning.. Furthermore while I agree with the general thrust of the critique, a critique based on so much ressentiment is likely to replicate too many aspects of what it critiques. Wendy Brown, a political scientist at Berkeley, has a beautiful article critiquing leftist melancholy that bloggers should read and those of us concerned with the issues that you seem passionate about should pay attention to in order to push thinking in new directions. If we have diversity of opinions we still need critical thinking skills to unpack ideas and find constructive ways forward. To only have "non-Anglo-Saxon" opinions would be as flawed and ridiculous as many of those top-down approaches you critique. Having said that, thanks for your suggestions here.


Posted by: Jody on 5 Jan 06

I personally don't think our society is so fragile. I think about this alot, especially while driving and thinking about really how few accidents there are compared to how many people drive everyday. The most spectacular breakdowns of humanity this century from Nazis, Stalinist and Maoist purges, to Rwanda were NOT the result of chaos, but of order. Chaos is not a steady state for humans I don't think, the underpinnings of our societies is millions of years of biology, and our own ability to adapt to change. Yes, someone could easily hack LA, but for how long? Humans are pretty good at patching. The bigger problem -- as with the examples above -- is where people adapt en masse to the wrong things: like buying big BIG BIGGER.

But I applaud the question nonetheless. How do create a situation where people adapt to the right things (and how do we decide what the "right" things are)?

As for suggestions for the concrete. I would take some good progress on renewables. Take SF for instance which passed a bond measure for solar panels several years ago, and they have yet to materialize. Having cities that join the Kyoto protocols taking concrete efforts in their cities like using/promoting solar power, and using hybrid electric cars or car sharing for gov't purposes. Get measures on ballots, legislation in front of supervisors and mayors.


Posted by: adrian on 5 Jan 06

There are two ideas which I have been thinking about for at least the last year which could change the ground beneath us.

The first is to create an open source, all media free literacy and numeracy program in local languages so that anyone who wants to learn to read and figure can have access to that possibility.

The second is to build solar rechargeable LED reading lights as affordable and available as disposable lighters, the disposable lighters I saw Chinese men refurbishing and reselling in the doorways of Gaungzhou, China in 1988. I want every child in the world to have the opportunity to read in bed.

I believe that both of these ideas are achievable within a year through the expeditious use of the Web - if there are neough people interested in them.


Posted by: gmoke on 5 Jan 06

Excuse me but this has ALWAYS been the case.

The oldest writting is some old guy about your age likely relatively speaking complaining about the young exactly as you do.

Its HOW the system works. If the young do find something better the system changes to account for it. All of civilization is mans attempt to get out of doing work. Its engine is every generations attempt to get out of as much work as possible.

The POWER of lazyness is mighty indeed.


Posted by: wintermane on 5 Jan 06

Wintermane:

Yes, it has ALWAYS been the case... but on what scale? When in human history have so many people been linked together so thoroughly? That's what I believe is important.

Social dynamics are inherently nonlinear and tend to follow complex patterns--some cyclical, some not. The old saying that history repeats itself is true, though it never does so exactly. By the time we spin around a full 360 our feet have carried us to another location entirely--we may be looking in the same direction as before, but it's from a different vantage point. This is reflected in the author's rant about how everyone is trying to be unique and how this has changed from when he was younger. It's part of a larger social cycle, largely dictated by generational character (independent, conformist, etc.). Go back 80 years (in the US) and you will find the same complaints about the lack of social cohesion and character in the youth of that era.

The problem is not that these travelling cycles exist but that by hooking up more and more of the world to an approximately modern/Western mode of thought and living we will amplify their peaks and troughs. This is not to say that these cycles didn't exist before the advent of modern/Western civ, just that they were much less pronounced (slower?) in most other societies. A major shock in one place, whether it be famine, disease, war, or other, would be relatively self-contained or take a period of many years to play out on a continental or global scale. The same goes for the results of these cycles.

Today, the cycles are faster and a major shock in one location can effect the rest of the world almost instantly thanks to our fantastic communications. The economic, social, and political linkages we are creating allow us to do some potentially wonderful things, but the downside is that the natural swings of these social cycles are coming a bit faster and harder than we have previously dealt with.

The system won't fly apart because of the natural cycles inherent in it. There is nothing dangerous about "some old guy about your age likely relatively speaking complaining about the young." But what happens if it's not just a handful of disconnected old guys scattered around the globe but a huge concentration of them in every society on the planet all complaining in unison? And what about all the disaffected youth they're complaining about? What was a relatively controlled perturbation on a local scale has become a global phenomenon. Can we handle it?

I think we will self-destruct if we let those cycles get amplified too much. Something has to change.


Posted by: Bolo on 6 Jan 06

@Andrew: Neat ideas about collaboration, and I love the idea of having politicians blog what they are doing!


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 6 Jan 06

I really like gmoke's suggestions.

Some other tangible suggestions for the coming year:

• See to the planting and care of at least 5 trees.

• Try to cut your energy use by 5 to 10%.

• Think about your diet: its impact on you, your community and the planet. Make whatever changes you think are appropriate.

• Take the "Ecological Footprint" quiz; decide what you want to do about the results. Then do it.

• Join with others in your neighborhood or community to tackle a problem - for example, increasing its recycling rate. After you figure that out, tackle another problem.

• For widespread collaboration - a long-term dream of mine:

Let's create an open-source, collaborative "Pattern Language" of sustainability. You can find the original "Pattern Language" at:

http://www.patternlanguage.com/leveltwo/patternsframegreen.htm?/leveltwo/../apl/twopanelnlb.htm

You can find a first attempt at a "Sustainable Pattern Language" at:

http://www.conservationeconomy.net/

You can download a paper explain the idea of Pattern Languages as "DNA for the Conservation Economy" here:

http://www.conservationeconomy.net/pdfs/DNA_for_the_Conservation_Economy.pdf

This first attempt is admirable, but needs work. We have plenty of descriptions but not enough instructions. Those instructions need to be open-source, collaborative and widely dispersed. We need serious involvement across cultures, disciplines and scales. Information that helps us know is fine, but now more than ever, we need information that helps us do - and we need some way for all our "doings" to coordinate. I think a collaborative "Sustainability Pattern Language" could help.


Posted by: David Foley on 6 Jan 06

One idea that could be done in a year and have a real effect? Start making a lot of noise, and I mean a lot, everywhere, to the effect that we have to put the true cost on everything we do. The true cost is the cost of putting the world back to as good or better condition than it was before the thing was done.

That means, for example, that nuclear power pays for its insurance, its R&D, its decommissioning, its risk factors, and so on, and coal power pays for putting the mountains back together, and patches up the roads, and all the health problems, dirty laundry, rotted house paint and so on.

Yes, I know this is technically difficult, and politically "impossible", but if we just made a big noise about how essential true costing is to allow us to make right decisions, we could at least get people to start thinking about it, instead of just ignoring all the wonderfully stupid things we do now because they are "cheap".

If we can get that process going we have a hope, anyhow. If we keep living in a dream world, no hope- we run off the cilff.


Posted by: wimbi on 6 Jan 06

Allow people to purchase them with a 1000% tax, that money spent to subsidise CFLs for the poor.

Don't forget to subsidize prozac while you're at it; there's a reason people hate office lighting.


Posted by: Mars Saxman on 6 Jan 06

Write to your local MP/Senator, etc, in fact anyone linked to the building industry who has some leverage, and ask that all new houses come with fully-functional solar panels plus electricy storage as standard, that can feed into your main electricity supply. The developer can recoup the cost of installation from the final cost of the house. If the developer buys these systems in bulk, they'll get a good deal and help push the solar power industry forward.


Posted by: Dave on 7 Jan 06

I find the following diagram useful in understanding the imbalances in recent decades of human development as described in this article (it assumes a familiarity with AQAL):

The combination of all three pathologies - Evolutionism, Individualism, and Exteriorism


Posted by: Stephen Lark on 14 Jan 06



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