Pat Logan's Web Log
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Jan. 29, 2013
"The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion...draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises...in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate."
Francis Bacon. 1620. Novum Organum. In Drew Westen. 2007. The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Public Affairs. 457 p. Page 89.
There is a significant void in postings to this blog, caused by the need to work mostly full time during last summer and during the fall semester to write and produce (html and page-layout versions) about 250 pages of rigorous text to be used as lecture notes for my course, COM455, Science and Communication in a Century of Limits. This is the substance of an open (free, because the tax payers have already paid to make it public) online course, which anyone can be part of. (A friend observed that the only difference between the huge MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) offered at MIT or Stanford (regularly, 20-35,000 students signed up for a single course...with only about a 7% completion, typically)) is that no one knows my courses (my web development courses and writing are also online) exist.)
From time to time, I'll attempt to post brief selections from these notes, or from spontaneously generated text associated with COM455, to share on this blog.
The following is a problem statement outlining the reason for teaching my course. Click here for the full lecture, "To Be Aware and To Act."
How Do We Trust in What We Know?
The name of this course comes from the book The Limits to Growth (Donella Meadows, Jorgan Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2005. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green. 364 p.). Since the first edition (1971), it has influenced my thinking strongly. Limits to Growth is an exercise in using a computer simulation (now called the World3 model) to organize what we understand about human society and its future. It is not a predictive model, as its critics sometimes claim, but rather a vehicle for construction of the relations between a set of fairly complex (mathematically and structurally) things that are important to us. These include things like the size of the human population, longevity (as an indication of the quality of life), industrial and agricultural production, pollution (an indication of environmental health), etc. The model can be "tweaked" to respond to various assumptions about the future (e.g., industrial output will get more efficient in its use of resources; technology will reduce pollution from agriculture) allowing model users to reason about the responses of "the system" to "inputs." Computer simulation is a standard approach employed by systems scientists to gain insight into the quantitative behavior of complex systems.
We will look more specifically at the Limits to Growth models and scenarios in a later section, but for now let me summarize by saying that the exercise (i.e., the set of scenarios portrayed in the book) suggests strongly that the future could turn out to be dire unless we manage the system well. That is, late in this century, limits imposed by finite supplies of natural resources (fossil fuels, strategic minerals and ores, water and land, etc.) will clash with the demands of a steadily growing (in numbers and consumption per individual) human population such that the environment, the economy, and the human population will all deteriorate, perhaps dramatically.
This course is built on a single theme, which is that if the central premises of The Limits to Growth are believable, then a rational society should be doing many things that human beings today are, in fact, not doing. That is, if the scenarios portrayed by Meadows et al.—and countless scientists, modelers, and thinkers like them— reasonably approximate our current trajectory into our future, then we are aware of things that require action. Yet, we are not acting as though we believe there is anything substantative requiring change. Not acting in the face of a threatening future is not rational, and I want to know why we are collectively behaving this way.
We will need a far greater understanding of the trajectories we are currently on. For example, we will look at the best current science behind the generally accepted (concensus) understanding of climate change. We will also look at what the scientists are telling us about the future path of global production curves for the fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal, in their various forms). And we shall see that we cannot continue in the directions we are currently headed. That is, we must stop releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere because we are altering global climate in ways that are truly alarming. We must prepare for the consequences of steadily dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, as we experience peaks followed by declines in global production rates. And we need to understand the limited capacity of the earth to provide the land and water needed to grow the food that the huge human population wants to consume. All of these understandings will suggest strong reasons why we must change many of the ways we currently live. Disturbingly, we shall also see that we are not, in fact, changing as we must, as crazy as this may seem to us.
My premise is that we are not in fact collectively insane. True, we seem to be acting as though some other set of truths exist, when rational minds know they do not; we behave as though there is an infinite supply of fossil fuels, and as if there will always be enough land and water to support an ever growing human population, etc. But rather than believe that this irrational behavior is a form of mass insanity, it is also plausible (and much nicer to believe) that we are merely inadequately aware of the truth of our situation, such that we are not (out of ignorance) able yet to form the social will to act. The problem, in other words, may not be one of science or technology—knowing and being able to do—but one of communications—sharing broadly what we know and must do, as a necessary part of getting our collective (public) act together. That is, scientists know things about future threats if we continue to act the way we do today, but the rest of us are not aware of what is wrong with what we are doing to an extent that creates social movements, and communications from scientists to the public may be to primarily to blame. By social movements, I mean changes in the behavior of most people—usually brought about through national or state government using normal political, economic, educational, or other social means (e.g., the influence of television or the web).