Long Now Foundation


All right. I’ve been pitching the Long Now Foundation and their Seminars on Long Term Thinking for a while now, and no one is taking the bait. That is, some-number-less-than-three of you have clicked through the links I’ve put up. (WordPress only shows me links that hit three clicks in my stats.) You guys are missing out! These lectures are so good. Imagine, super-smart people giving entertaining, informative talks on their area of expertise and how it relates to long-term thinking. What’s better than that?

I just found out that LNF has video of the seminars up on FORA.tv, in full, for free. I prefer the audio versions, so I can simultaneously clean my kitchen, but if you’ve been holding off because you don’t like podcasts, check them out, in color, along with their slides and footage. Here is a list of all of the videos they have up.

And here are a couple of my current favorites:

Saul Griffith’s “Climate Change Recalculated,” in part about how he very rigorously figured out how much power (in Watts) his lifestyle uses, and then scaled back to his share of global energy production. Really, really good.

Steven Johnson’s “The Long Zoom,” about levels of complexity, cholera, television and video games, the evolution of the detective novel, and why bad ideas stick around, among many other things.

Michael Pollan’s “Deep Agriculture,” about the future of food production.

Tomorrow, March 27, 2010, hundreds of millions of people on all seven continents will use no electricity between 8:30 and 9:30 pm, their time. “Earth Hour,”  is an annual “action against global warming” event that started in Australia, four years ago.

At first I thought it was silly–a drop in the bucket–but I’ve decided I’m going to do it. This is why:

1) I think it will be nice to turn everything off for an hour. I always love it when the power goes out. It’s relaxing.

2) I like that it is a global event. I like things that encourage people to think globally. Yes, this event could be a bit of an ego-stoker or guilt-assuager, but overall I imagine it stands to reduce ego-centrism in participants, a little less focused on ourselves, a little more focused on everything else.

3) There is good evidence in social psychology that token acts like this can be a gateway to real political action. People who participate may come to think of themselves as someone who takes action about global warming, like voting or spending money differently.

4) I think that global climate change may well be the biggest challenge humans face in the next several generations. The people I know who think the most about it are divided into two camps. One group prioritizes amelioration: If we act quickly and dramatically, we can keep things from getting out of control. The second prioritizes adaptation. These folks say that we’re just now experiencing the effects of the beginning of the industrial revolution, over a hundred years ago, and anything we do now may help our ancestors, should they come to exist, but not us. They say it’s time to start figuring out how at least some of us can survive the coming incredibly harsh conditions. There is a third group, of course, who are ideologically immune to the idea of catastrophic climate change. If they are right, hooray! I’ve yet to come across one who seemed knowledgeable about complex-system behavior, though. (Can anyone point me to one?)

While I’m on the topic of climate change, my favorite lectures on the subject are two of the Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking: John Baez’ “Zooming Out In Time” and Saul Griffith’s “Climate Change Recalculated.” They are worth checking out.

I have spent my entire adult life worried about overpopulation. What is the carrying capacity of Earth? At what point will we have a massive die-off? Will there be anything like wilderness left by the time that happens? Enough biodiversity left to adapt to climate change in a way that will be tolerable for humans? Etc etc. Just look at a chart of human population growth and it’s clear that we are in the upswing of a human version of the algae bloom/die-off.

And maybe we are, but I just listened to two Seminars for Long-Term Thinking focused on population, Stewart Brand’s “Cities and Time” and Philip Longman’s “The Depopulation Problem” and I’m thinking differently about it now. It’s looking very likely that our population has doubled for the last time, and most of the rest of our population growth is going to be in old people, not babies. People are living longer and having way fewer kids.

There are a few reasons for the radical shift in population-growth rate. First is urbanization. People are flocking to cities in massive numbers, and in the city, kids are no longer an economic asset like they are on the farm. In economic terms, if you are in the city, you are probably better off without them. Second is feminism, or at least it is a phenomenon feminists are in favor of. Women are getting educated, working, and more in control of their reproduction, so they are having fewer babies. (This is arguably another result of urbanization–if you’re on the farm, women are most economically valuable for making babies. If you are in the city and kids don’t matter so much, why not have that second income?) Third is television. Philip Longman called this phenomenon “TV taking the bandwidth out of the bedroom.” Birth rates are inversely proportional to hours of TV watched. This may be because it is urban, small families that are idealized in TV shows.

Stewart Brand’s version of the story is the more optimistic: Perhaps this means we humans have a shot at long-term survival after all. City living is greener than country living–way smaller ecological footprint per person. We still have to weather the population peak without ruining the planet as a habitat for ourselves, which will be no small feat, but at least there might be light at the end of the tunnel!

Philip Longman’s version is pretty depressing: The only population group able to withstand this small family trend are those who are highly principled, anti-materialistic, and dogmatically in favor of big families: religious fundamentalists. Liberals are a dying breed. Fundamentalist populations are burgeoning. The future looks very conservative and patriarchal. And, since we can now tell the sex of our kids before they are born, it means we will have fewer and fewer women–that is to say, more and more females will be aborted. This is already happening in China, where the sex ratio has reached 6 men for every 5 women. With women a scarce resource plus a highly patriarchal society, and the outlook for women’s freedom does not look good. On top of that are the economic problems that come along with an aging population with fewer and fewer workers to sustain it. We are about to get a small taste of that with the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Over the next 100 years that situation will be global and on a much bigger scale. The poverty and desperation that will produce will put ecological concerns on the sidelines, making Stewart’s version of the story unlikely. He advocates governments giving incentives to have kids, but says that it hasn’t worked at all in countries that have tried it.

I listened to the new seminar from The Long Now Foundation today, by Beth Noveck. (You should listen to the Long Now Seminars, too, by the way. They are a series of great lectures by really smart people applying long-term thinking to their area of expertise. Find them here.) She is Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government. Her lecture is called “Transparent Government.” It’s not nearly the best of the series, but I was interested in what she was saying about what some private companies are doing with the data that is now available about the operations of the government. She talked about Sunlight Foundation‘s coverage of the health care summit, how as each politician spoke, you could see who donated how much to their campaigns. I imagined video of the speakers, with subtitles laying out the relevant campaign contributions floating in front of their faces. I checked it out and it wasn’t like that. It was more like a chat that happened at the same time as the summit. Pretty cool, but probably too much work to catch on with the public.

But why can’t we have what I imagined? It seems like it could be automated. The data is available. We have face-recognition programs and voice-recognition programs. I wonder how it would change things if there was a cheap app that effortlessly outed any politician in real time like that, if a senator speaking about health care reform could be seen as a mouthpiece for insurance companies, based on the actual amount of money they’ve received. It would make politics more entertaining to watch, at the least. And probably creepier, too, but I am willing to make that trade-off.

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