Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Big C

Climate Change. There are a great many things I could say about Climate Change, but today I want to make a pretty simple point about the likely health effects of Climate Change: They won't be good.

It's also common in discussions of Climate Change to talk about the effects on large systems, like cities or business sectors, or on large groups of people, sometimes even the entire population of entire countries. Such talk, I worry, can make your eyes glaze over, like trying to talk about whether the war cost one or three trillion dollars. Who can even know the difference? And yet, the difference most certainly matters.

So I'm not going to focus on large systems or groups. Most assuredly, they'll come up incidentally, but really I'm just going to talk about myself, what I fear will be the impact on me personally. But really you should know I'm not just talking about me, or meaning to say my situation is more important. I'm just using my situation because I know it best. There will be many like me. If you like, as you read along, substitute the name of someone near and dear to you, and substitute their situation. If you find a way to put a personal face to Climate Change, I'll have achieved my goal today.

Cancer is another aspect of it for me. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last year. I was fortunate to be covered by decent health care. Just lucky. There was a gap some years back where I could not afford health insurance and, had the cancer happened then, it might have ended differently. Fortunately, I was beyond that rough economic time and evaded what might have otherwise been a death sentence. Others have been less fortunate, which upsets me greatly. We should have universal health care.

I didn't write about my cancer at the time it was happening. Well, I did, but only indirectly. I wrote a post about roller coasters the night before I went into surgery as a metaphorical way of expressing how out of control I felt. Everything was on autopilot, and I was plenty scared. But at the time I didn't want to acknowledge the situation publicly. In fact, this article is my first time writing about it in a web-accessible location.

Frankly, I'd really rather have such matters remain private. It's a curious thing about politics. I've been a strong advocate of privacy rights for all of my adult life. My personal web page begins with an essay talking about the separation between my public and private persona, and how I don't like volunteering personal information to the public eye. There are too many ways to abuse it. There are a lot of things about me that are not the world's business and that ought not be fodder for people at search engines to browse or for marketeers to slice and dice for sale.

Citizen participation in a democracy sometimes requires otherwise, however. It's no one's business what my religious beliefs are, what I think of abortion or being gay, or how my family chooses to deal with end-of-life issues. Yet modern American politics is typified by invasive meddling in areas such as these, and so I find myself joining those who feel the urge to stand up and be counted on such important matters, even at the sometimes risk of having what should be our private lives out on display. I don't like it at all. But I see no way around it.

To speak of my medical position is scary because it's possible the information can be used against me. Of course, my medical situation comes as no surprise to insurance companies which can force me to disclose my medical history as a condition of coverage. At least, thanks to recent legislation, they can no longer exclude me for having a pre-existing condition. But they can still raise my rates, or those of an employer who has me in their “pool.” So an employer at some point in the future may quietly let me go or another may fail to hire me, never saying the reason. Who can know? What I do know is that insurance companies pay people to figure out clever ways to get around government restrictions and back to business as usual.

I guess that's why I read every day in the news that voters are ready to vote the Republicans back in. I guess voters think the protections we have now are too strong, and they'd rather go back to a time when the insurance companies weren't screaming in pain from the thumbscrews to which we consumers have put them.

Commerce is also a key component in my story. Adam Smith's much-touted “unseen hand” of capitalism has seen fit to decide that we should not make things locally any more, you see. We buy them from elsewhere. Who knows where? We assume the fuel will continue to flow, and flow cheaply, to get things from here to there. We assume there won't be floods intervening. We assume there won't be disease that causes us to restrict travel. We assume a great many things. And because of those assumptions, we're comfortable believing that commerce will just continue to function reliably no matter what.

And as long as it does, I'm probably fine. Or as fine as one gets having had a recent cancer. There are no guarantees. A highly competent surgeon removed my thyroid and with it the cancer. So I'm ahead of the game in that regard. I can't complain. I probably had more problems fighting the provider of my short term disability coverage than the cancer itself. At least with the cancer I had skilled professionals acting as my advocate. With the insurance company, it was the other way around. But I persevered in spite of administrative obstacles, and subsequent tests have so far shown me all clear. Odds are that I'll die of something else, not thyroid cancer. Of course, I still have to manage life without a thyroid, but that's mostly a routine matter in modern society. I just take some pills every day, which I can always get from the local pharmacy. Always. No matter what.

And that brings me back to Climate Change. It threatens us all in so many ways. The water level might rise. There might be more and stronger storms. The food supply is certainly in danger. If that falters, there could be famines, even wars. Any of those things could affect me, but I don't dwell on them a lot, at least not in the obvious way. But all of these problems have something in common, and that's where my mind often goes: Even in mild form, they can disrupt the normal flow of society.

Carrying capacity of the planet figures in here, too. It's defined by Wikipedia as “the population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” I've had many debates with people about what that number is. I agree with those who think we're already there. I've heard others suggest that carrying capacity is not a number but a function of technology—that as technology improves, so will carrying capacity. I don't agree. Hanging our hopes on technology is dangerous because if technology ever fails us, we will suddenly and “unexpectedly” find ourselves with far less ability to sustain ourselves than we thought we had. It's not written in stone that technology will get ever better and more accessible.

Ask someone who's been through a hurricane or a flood and has had to back up and start over. The march of increasing technology is more variable than we sometimes allow for. The temptation may be to dismiss such things as “local effects,” but there can be global disruptions. Peak oil and the looming shortage of rare earth elements will have profound effects on the sustainability of present technology. And Climate Change is affecting food supplies in the ocean and even on land, as Russian droughts have caused a global wheat shortage. We've also built a society that relies on global assembly of goods; things are not made in one place any more. If transportation becomes suddenly expensive or inaccessible, that's a problem that can be highly disruptive.

When the stock market crashed, we found suddenly that we had been overleveraged. People who thought they were making enough money or spending it in the right places came to realize that they had based these thoughts on assumptions that the world would always be precisely as it was, only always better. Suddenly they realized how fragile this assumption was and how little prepared they were for deviation. Climate Change is going to be a rude awakening that we have spent our technology enabling spectacles rather than increasing basic robustness. I think we'll find that this is what carrying capacity is really about—not how are we living in normal times, but how capable are we of surviving exceptional times, of dodging the global extinction events that have taken down the dominant species of past eras. Do we have good plans for emergencies? I look at events like the Katrina hurricane and shudder.

Calamity, you see, has this very personal aspect in my mind. If the complex engine of our society's continues on track, if commerce continues without interruption, I'll probably continue to have access to the pills that compensate for my missing thyroid. My most personal fear isn't all those big things—the sea level rise, the storms, the fires, the pests, the diseases, the famines, the wars. If those problems happen, we all have to fight them. I won't be alone.

It may seem silly, but I just worry the drug companies won't make my pills any more. Or they'll make them, but the free market won't find enough value in getting them to my town, especially in an emergency. I'm dependent on what feels like a Rube Goldberg mechanism to get them from wherever they come from into my hands. If that breaks down—if the stores close, or can't get stock—I worry no one will notice. It's such a small thing that I fear it will be overlooked. I'd love to stock an emergency supply, but my doctor has to prescribe only what I need, and the insurance companies work to prevent my buying pills ahead of when I need them. Talk about death panels. They try to placate me by noting the pills don't have a long shelf life. Or they mention I can buy a 90-day supply instead of a 30-day supply. But, 30-day or 90-day, they still make me burn that supply down to almost zero before I can get more.

So I obsess about what may seem to others as a comparatively mild risk of Climate Change—about the mere interruption of business as usual. It's not the biggest effect one could imagine. But it's how I personalize it. Your circumstances being different, you'll probably personalize it differently. That's okay. Just please do try, once in a while, to think of Climate Change not just as a global phenomenon, but as something more local, tangible, and personal. After all, Climate Change won't just affect the future of our species and perhaps of all life on Earth, but it will also, as part of that, affect you and me personally.


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Originally published September 14, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, climate change, cancer, citizen participation, convergence, carrying capacity, calamity, catastrophe, personal, personalize, supply chain, leverage, over-leveraged, stock market, crash, medication, drugs, supplies, hurricane, drought, war, disruption, society, capitalism, planning, population, overpopulation, zpg, health insurance, health care, health, bad for your health

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hawking God

Stephen Hawking (and co-author Leonard Mlodinow) made a lot of news this week with the new book, The Grand Design, in which there are apparently provocative statements made about the proving there is no need for God. I've downloaded it on unabridged audio from audible.com but haven't yet listened to it. I'll get to it in due time, but presently listening to the very important book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Still, I've wanted to make some remarks on religion anyway, and the fuss over this new book gives me an occasion to make them.

I often refer to myself as “not religious” at this point in my life, although as you'll see later in this article, that's not quite a proper description. I use the phrase because it works for other people, not because it works for me. It answers a complex question in very few words, adequate to many casual social situations, which is often good in such contexts. But it leaves me feeling that I have papered over some underlying issues that are more complex. So I hope you'll indulge me a longer answer here.

A Brief History of Religion

Religion is probably as old as man, probably long-predating written word. And so your guess is probably as good as mine about how it arose. Even if you showed me a document that told me what day it arose, I wouldn't believe the document. So I'm going to offer a theory that is simply my personal theory. You can subscribe to it or not, it doesn't matter. I don't offer it to get you to agree, only to allow you to understand where I'm coing from.

I think religion was invented by businesspeople. No, not modern businesspeople. I don't mean it's part of some modern corporate conspiracy, although there are probably people who think that. Not even some two thousand year old conspiracy, even though I'm sure some people believe that. I mean something much older, dating back to a time before any civilization we now recognize, when mankind was probably already organized into communities and had been communicating non-verbally, and was finally starting to share ideas using this amazing new technology: spoken language.

I imagine this to have been long, long before eras like ancient Greece, where people had gotten so organized that there could perhaps be a legitimate leisure class. I don't know if there were people in charge of others or if people were just collaborating as equal. Probably the former, but who knows? What I imagine is that there was a lot of opportunity to use language when people needed to be working, and that this could have been dangerous. It was probably important to focus on food and protection. And yet, the questions of life are staggering and must surely have occupied much of early man's thoughts.

Certainly the surviving records of later times show religion as central to nearly everything. How could a species new to linguistic thought and the exchange of ideas not feel overwhelmed by concerns about “why”? I think it could legitimately have occupied a lot of time. And yet surely most of the time of early man needed to be focused on work—feeding and protecting communities. Some clever person surely figured out early on that people had a lot of questions and, like Farmville today, it was sapping everyone's time to spend hours a day fussing. So they just offered answers. The actual answers don't matter, in my view. They didn't have to be the best answers. What mattered was that there were answers. And so, having answers, people were able to get back to work at feeding and protecting their families.

That's the odd thing about antique writings. We can no longer question them and so we must either take them at face value or dismiss them. But the quality of being dead is that you can no longer engage in conversation, you cannot be persuaded or asked to compromise. Somehow here I'm reminded of a remark by Rene Belloq in the movie Raiders of the lost Ark, where, while trying to bury Indiana Jones alive, he says to Indiana: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.” So, if you believe my hypothetical history of religion, someone once a long time ago “just made something up.” Just like if you or I did. But his words being buried a couple thousand years make them something people have to either embrace or ignore, with very little middle ground.

So, I allege, and you can believe it or not, that the function of religion is to stop people from going around and around in an infinite loop, asking questions for which no answer was likely to be forthcoming. “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Is there life after death?” We all have must face these questions. Our answers differ, but really the questions do not. Fussing over such questions overly is and always has been a drain to productivity. And so we set aside time to think about these things, and that leaves the rest of our time free to do other things.

What Counts as Religion

I have often said, “there are no political answers, only political questions.” That is, it can't be the case that you can ask a question to which one answer is a “political answer” and another answer is “not political.” Politicians often try to disguise political outcomes by claiming they are “just” the status quo, for example, as if the status quo were not a political result. People often try to persuade, or even coerce, others into a different choice by suggesting their response is political, and somehow could be otherwise. In my view, if a question is political, all possible answers to that question are by definition political; they do not subdivide into political answers and non-political answers. If you find someone suggesting otherwise, it's time to stop the conversation and point at the question and identify that as political.

I feel the same about religion and so hereby announce a corrolary: “There are no religious answers, only religious questions.” That is, having asked a question, you can't point to one answer as religious and another as not. If the question provokes a religious answer in some, it provokes a religious answer in all.

Using this newly coined rule of reasoning, I can observe that if the question “Is there a God?” results in a religious answer by saying “yes,” it must by my definition result in a religious answer if you say “no.” Likewise, if you ask the question “How do you characterize God?” then if the answers by some people go on to describe religious thought, the answer even by atheists of “I characterize God as non-existent.” must, by definition, describe religious thought.

And so, by this reasoning, my remark “I am not religious.” is not really true, and probably not even meaningful, being itself paradoxical. One cannot usefully say “I answer religious questions with non-religious answers.” I am also not atheist or agnostic, however. Those terms each have implications that don't describe me. Coming up with a good descriptive term is hard!

And yet, though the terminology is hard, expanding the notion of what a religion is to cover even things like atheism and agnosticism creates a useful simplification that ought to be seen as important even by atheists and agnostics, since it suggests a philosophical and legal foundation for claiming atheism must be offered First Amendment religious protection. I don't see any reason that atheists should be threatened by that classification.

Hawking his Book

According to some media reports, Hawking has said there is no need for God, although other reports say this summary is somewhat sensationalizing. It probably won't hurt his book sales any. The Telegraph quotes him as saying specifically, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. ... It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.” It seems to me he's just saying that his personal theory does not require any entity that he would call God.

That seems a reasonable claim to me, though still a religious one. It answers the questions that religions answer. And it's okay with me to have a religion that has no God. Certainly there are religions that have more than one God. Once you're into the realm of “other than one,” the number zero presents itself as an obvious “non-one” option. I think that's a place is where people get confused.

Even if Hawking's theory doesn't need a God to explain Creation, that says nothing about other theories of Creation. So people who are worried that he's proven there is no God can rest easy. All he's done is provide one more way to conceive The Great Unknowable, one more choice among religions.

And I've heard no claim that Hawking's theory explains how any initial set of conditions came into existence—if “initial” is a good word for a system with no beginning and no end. Even if the Universe was here for all time, that dodges the question since there has to be a context in which time exists, especially if you believe Einstein that it's just another dimension like the three dimensions of space. It begs the alternative question “Where did that context come from?”

René Descartes offered us the useful observation “Cogito ergo sum.” It follows from our very existence and ability to ask religious questions that we do exist. In my personal philosophical belief, our Universe's origin is the only observable that cannot be explained by physics. It seems to me a simple matter of fact that the Universe did not create itself. And yet it is here. We must accept as fact that Creation happened, but any sense of why or how is outside of our own frame of reference and cannot be known.

The Universal Question

I sometimes refer to the circumstance or situation that put our Universe into play or that offers it a context in which to exist as “God.” God, in my view, is that which is outside, that which explains Creation. It's impossible to say whether that's active process or entity, or whether perhaps it just is or was an enabling circumstance. So I don't try. Hawking's apparent goal was to find a minimal set of initial conditions. I'll look forward to reading about how he worked through it. it sounds like an approach that would be emotionally satisfying to me.

I most certainly don't believe in any God who created the Universe while muttering “let there be light” under his breath. I don't believe in any God who keeps tabs on the world, like a baby-sitter, or who answer requests or prayers, like Santa Claus. It makes no sense to me to conceive of God in so complex a way. It really doesn't match the data, and it's far from being a simple hypothesis, so it runs afoul of Occam's razor.

For God to watch over us would be like me having an ant farm where I meddled in the lives of the ants—except that we here on Earth are much smaller to any such God than ants are to people. And already ants are so inconsquentially small even to me that I can't imagine following their lives closely enough to be opining on questions of whether they kill each other for moral reasons, whether they use my name in vain, or whether they violate any of the other Commandments. If there were a thinking God, I'm sure we'd be too small to be of interest. He'd probably be thinking about much bigger problems instead—like “Is there a God?”

No matter what the power of any extant entity in whatever frame of reference, the question would still recursively present itself: “In what frame of context do I exist?” The question is, if you'll pardon the pun, truly universal. And whether God were religious or an atheist, that would be a matter of his personal faith, not a proof he was right.

Maybe Hawking's contribution will be to have found God not in some omniscient superbeing but in something small, like a set of physical laws. Reducing the size of the initial conditions needed to kickstart the Universe might be a step in the right direction, like trying to find how life began. Can one reduce and reduce the necessary conditions of creating the universe until they simply vanish? Or will there always be a question remaining, however trivial? It feels a bit like Zeno's Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles and it's hard to say for sure.

I may have more to say when I've listened to Hawking's book.


Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published September 12, 2010 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, God, religion, philosophy, creation, hawking, book, stephen hawking