Monday, November 19, 2018

Are We Doomed? Part 3: What We Must Do

A number of you commented on my previous posts in this series. Almost without exception, you said "you're not wrong, but this is really depressing."

Yes, it is depressing. That does not mean we are allowed to give up. In my conversations with all of you it has become clear to me that we are morally obligated to try, whether or not we think we can succeed. We must do something.

The current California wildfires are reminders of the unpredictable effects of climate change, and simultaneously a glimpse of an atmospherically compromised future. This is the road we are currently racing down, and it is up to us to change course.

"If you're not part of the solution, there is no solution" -- Jaron Lanier

We Must Change Culture

Our top priority is to change the global culture. This will enable governments to pass laws and implement programs required to slow the rate of climate change and mitigate its effects. It will also enable us to change the government, if and when it is required.

We must change culture so that everyone is thinking about carbon reduction and environmental conservation. We need to get people thinking about modifying their lifestyles to abandon gasoline, look for solutions to carbon problems, to contribute to solving problems, minimizing behaviors, technologies, and industries that create the problems, and take active steps to pass laws reinforcing the above.

It doesn't have to be 100%, everything all the time. It is sufficient to get people thinking about these issues the way they think about their weight, health, social media, or celebrities.

It will not be easy, but we can do this. It is possible to shift global culture and laws with concerted effort over time. As an example, in our lifetimes these same kinds of efforts have resulted in dramatic shifts in LGBTQ rights and acceptance. That progress may feel somewhat fragile at the current moment, but it is undeniable and significant. Culture and governments have shifted. It can be done.

There are other examples of rapid societal change you can think of: Smoking has drastically declined and is socially unacceptable in many places. Smartphones are barely 11 years old, and they have become ubiquitous and modified definitions of acceptable behavior. Seat belts. The switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline.

The same tools that have been used to cause problems or distract us -- social media, mob mindsets, technology, fads and fashions -- can be applied to this problem.

We do not have to get to 100% and perfect. Every little bit will help make the future less terrible and more bearable. We must keep our eyes on the most ambitious goals, but every positive change we can make, every half-degree of improvement will mean real benefits.

Change The Government

This is a part of changing the culture, and vice versa. The scale of the environmental problem requires long-term strategy and effort, in much the same way the GOP has worked to stack the deck in their favor in the USA. This cause is far more righteous.

We need to get elected officials at all levels of governments in all nations who will start this process. We must change the government to be able to pass and enforce the laws required to change the behavior of people and corporations. This is one of the reasons we have governments in the first place. It is possible for these types of changes to have real impact. Look at things like the removal of tetra-ethyl lead from the fuel ecosystem, the banning of smoking in public places, or phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons.

Changing the government is essential because it is the only way to get all of the people on board. We will need carrots and sticks to make behavioral changes: penalizing those who refuse to comply, and smoothing the way for positive change with expenditures and incentives.

Push for Legislative Solutions

At a minimum, we need governments to do things like:

  • Ban carbon-emitting vehicles and subsidize a transition to zero-emission vehicles
  • Shut down carbon-emitting power plants and massively invest in renewable power
  • Start multiple Manhattan Projects and Moonshots for carbon extraction and capture
  • Fund and encourage research into methane extraction and capture
  • Look for other programs that can mitigate climate increase (such as requiring all roofs to be painted white, subsidizing relocation out of lost areas, and otherwise encouraging responsible behavior)
  • Do more research to figure out what else can be done
  • Make foreign aid available for (if not contingent on) assisting other countries in similar transitions
  • Raise taxes and/or incur debt to fund the above

This will require constant lobbying of one form or another. These are controversial and huge programs, to say the least. They won't even be considered at first. It will take multiple concerted efforts over the next decade.

Get Money Out of Politics

For the USA, Citizens United has to be overturned, or laws passed which nullify it. Money corrupts, and we divert far too many of our resources into political races, which provide no real tangible benefits. It's like setting the money on fire, and the problem has become worse in recent years.

If money is speech (the argument which "won" Citizens United), it means that we do not all have equal speech, and corporations, plutocrats, and unaccountable SuperPACs have more speech than you or I. That's un-American and must stop.

We are wasting resources (time, money, and energy) to build bigger and bigger ads. All this investment hasn't produced better government. Arguably it has had the opposite effect, and forced politics and its coverage to become a horrific hybrid of entertainment and sports.

At least in the USA, this will be a difficult thing to accomplish. Many other countries are way ahead of us. This is one component required to get our elected representatives to stop focusing on raising millions of dollars and instead focus on saving millions of people.

Give Money to Candidates and Causes

As noted, we desperately need to get money out of politics (among other things, it means everyone's ability to speak isn't equal). But until we win and are able to enact those changes, money matters. Put your money where your mouth is and support candidates and causes, whether they are in your region or just swing districts.

The Koch brothers are doing it, and it has worked out great for them. What are you doing?

Unsurprisingly, it is extremely easy to make donations for political campaigns and causes. It is effortless and can have real impact.

The competition is rough here -- there are a lot of wealthy Republicans anxious to stay wealthy at any cost. They have more money (and thus more time, and more of everything) to reinforce the status quo. They will continue to try to outspend us. Regardless, we can make a difference.

Run for Office

Seriously. If you're reading this, you're smart and educated. We might joke those things are disadvantages, but this is part of the culture we must change. Who better than you? And absent people like you running, well, you see who we get.

You understand what the stakes are, and you are already less concerned about a long, celebrated career as a politician than getting important things done, which already means you are more qualified than many of the people who run.

Consider it. Do it.

I Need Your Help

I have never been a superlative member of our cohort. I am smart, but not the smartest. I am disciplined, but not the most disciplined. I am creative, but not the most creative. I have accomplished things, but I am far from the most accomplished. That is where you come in.

If you are reading this, you are already in a position to do something. You are intelligent, connected, and of some means. Spend some time thinking about how you can help save the world by changing the culture.

I have already reached out to some of you directly and will be doing more over the coming weeks. You all have unique expertise and skills, and we need a multi-disciplinary approach. This is not a question of one solution or approach. Our survival depends on relentless implementation of multiple solutions, large and small. There is no one right answer. Rather, it is all of us coming up with and implementing small pieces.

See What You Can Do In Your Organizations

Does your university have a Manhattan Project or research team devoted to some of the major problems, such as carbon extraction and capture, geoengineering, economics, or social change? Why not? Ask them. Whether you are on faculty or an alumnus, make it clear to the people you talk to how important this is. Schools do not have to devote all of their resources to this, but they must be devoting some of them. There is no point in educating people if there is no future.

Similarly, it is almost certainly today's high school and college students who will both bear the brunt of the effects and who can have the most impact in terms of developing solutions, working on breakthrough technologies. If you are one of those young people, it is up to you. You will have to live in the world through times of great change. If you are a parent or friend of these young people, talk with them. Encourage them to think of themselves as a critical and active part of the solution, rather than a passive part of the problem.

They don't all have to become scientists or engineers working on climate technology. But we need many more young people focused on how their work, whatever it is, helps to solve this problem.

How about your company? Many of you reading this are working for titans like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Tencent. These companies have all-but-infinite amounts of money and have all embarked on non-core-business projects. Talk to people internally and see if it is possible to get something going, or if something is already going. It almost does not matter what problem you are taking on, but take on something. Delivery. Conservation. Electric vehicles. The power grid. Education. Anything.

Environmental catastrophe is bad for shareholder value, and many of these solutions can be good business.

Talk to your community. Whatever social groups you are in, religious or otherwise, talk to people. Get the word out. Talk to your friends and family. Not just once. This needs to become a part of our regular conversations with everyone.

It is easy to want to look away. We can no longer afford the luxury of doing that 24/7. We have to get everyone thinking about these things.

Individual Actions

Individual actions and sacrifices are not enough to save the planet. We need culture and government to compel everyone to get on board. But individual actions have other benefits: They help spread the cultural message, turning each of us into messengers and influencers. They will also serve as reminders and help you feel like you are doing something.

Here are some examples of things you can do, or at least talk about. Many of them will be controversial, and I doubt any of us will be able to or want to do them all. I am sure you can come up with better ones.

Move someplace where your vote matters, or where you can effect change in the mindset of those around you. Don't preach to the choir. We need to change minds.

Take a look at projections of sea-level rise. Are you going to be OK? Do you want to live in areas that are disrupted over a few years? (Probably not...) Beyond that, there's desertification and other impacts of climate change.

Try to live in places that are walkable, or easily accommodated by the current range of electric vehicles. Avoid going off the grid unless you are committed to being totally self-sufficient...and then be prepared for anything that can happen.

Move as soon as you can, if you must. It will only get harder. The real estate market for your place may not be great, but it will be worse when it's sitting in a foot of water.

Have as few children as possible.
Preferably zero, but one is OK. Aside from general overpopulation, the modern Western lifestyle contributes extensively to our problems. Plus, consider what type of world these children will inherit. Pets are better than children in terms of environmental impact, but only just.

Drive your car as little as possible. When you need a new car, buy an electric vehicle.
Personal vehicle emissions are a major contributor to carbon emissions, and due to the distributed nature of the problem, it is hard to solve. The best thing you can do is just not drive, especially if your car has low fuel efficiency and high emissions.

If you know you need a new vehicle, go electric. If you don't absolutely need a new car right now, the benefits of buying a brand-new electric vehicle are somewhat muted -- 12%-15% of a car's total environmental impact comes from its production. The longer you wait, the better these vehicles will get, in every sense. Consider used EVs as well.

I recognize that our whole society in most of the USA is built around personal automobiles, and that simply stopping driving is not feasible for many of us (myself included) in the near term. That is OK. Do your own audit and think about what you can do. Can you work from home one day a week? Carpool? Have things delivered instead of driving to pick them up? (It's far easier for stores and companies to buy a fleet of electric vans and service many people).

Be mindful of air travel.
Like curtailing personal travel, I recognize this is difficult for all of us. There are not many good alternatives to air travel, and whether it is business or visiting relatives, sometimes you simply must do it.

But keep in mind that air travel is quite damaging to the atmosphere, as the emissions occur at high altitude. Consider alternatives, and consider purchasing offsets (even though they are not directly or actually solving any problems). Yes, it will make your trip more expensive. It should.

Eat less meat.
Particularly beef. But in general, eat less meat. It requires more fuel to make. Even consciously dropping meat one day a week will have positive impact.

Consume and use less of everything, particularly brand-new stuff.
Making stuff is part of the problem, and relentlessly needing new stuff has incredible impact, between manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and distribution.

Get off social media...

...or at least use it sparingly and carefully. You can read Jaron Lanier's book for a bunch of arguments (the book is OK but the arguments are compelling), but you already know the problems: It's full of hate and lies, and those base emotions are monetized by companies that have every incentive to keep it awful. It is designed to (and will successfully) manipulate you.

Social media played a critical role in electing Donald Trump, and continues to provide fodder for the worst elements of our current society. Social media contributed to the horrible violence of recent weeks.

More importantly, social media is fake, but it makes you feel like you did something. When you change your picture frame or re-post an article or type an angry response to someone else's angry comment, the energy you could have applied to real change in the real world dissipates.

Social media can have real effect on culture, but that effect comes from big movements of information driven by corporations and governments. It's 21st-century television, in the worst way. 

We will figure out a way to harness it eventually, but for now, just stop. Don't engage with the trolls. Don't use it to get your news. Cull your friends list ruthlessly. Stop reading anything except what your friends post. Don't engage with the horrible "friends" of your friends. Limit your exposure.

Do something

Stop whining. Stop complaining. You are right, it is not fair. But that's life. The other team doesn't care how you feel. In fact, if anything, they want you to whine and complain rather than doing anything meaningful.

There is nobody else. We cannot wait for some deus ex machina to appear and suck all the carbon out of the atmosphere. It is up to us. I am not saying we all have to go live in the woods somewhere. But one way or another, life is going to look very different in 10 and 20 years. Are you OK with sitting back and letting the worst things happen? Or will you try to do something?

Think it over. Talk to me. Talk to each other. We have just enough time. The clock is ticking.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Charles Bobuck / Hardy Fox (1945 - 2018)

Charles Bobuck, a.k.a. Hardy Fox died recently.

He was a co-founder of The Residents and their primary composer for most of their existence. Amazon Prime is currently offering streaming of the documentary "The Theory of Obscurity", about The Residents. While The Residents intentionally keep nearly every aspect of their creative process secret, including who does what, Hardy Fox was clearly a significant contributor to every aspect of The Residents. He will be missed.

The Residents were deeply influential on my ideas about creativity, art, and music. Another in a series of "if they can do it, maybe I can, too" people. The Residents made music that was strange, outsider-y, and completely unique. They said "do what you want, how you want, do it now, and make it work. Audience is irrelevant. What matters is being interesting and following your Muse."

They could make things that were spectacularly ugly and things that were surprisingly beautiful. Their albums were charged with ideas and concepts, always driven by overarching themes and ambition, without regard for whether or not the results would be "catchy" or "cool", which of course makes them instantly cool and interesting.

The Residents also quickly realized that you needed some kind of business sense in order to keep making the art they wanted the way they wanted, and they managed to do it, arguably creating the template for nearly every subsequent indie label and act.

The Residents were making music videos before there were music videos. They made their own records, their own label. They made fascinating CD-ROMs, back when that was going to be a thing. They were always pushing the boundaries of musical art.

My brother and I "discovered" The Residents together in the 80s as part of our musical self-education and interests in the unusual. We picked up every album we could, and managed to catch them on the "Cube-E" tour. I marveled at how unique every one of their records was, and how rapidly they changed and evolved.

I used to play "Third Reich N' Roll" when I needed to drive my college roommate out. It never failed. I still think The Residents' version of "Satisfaction" is better than Devo's.

Even now, I am not sure I can say I love their music -- much of it is still "wrong", and jarring, and just shy of pretty. But that only makes me respect them more. I have no doubt after all this time, they could absolutely make whatever kind of music they want. The longer you work, the harder it is to stay unique and different.

They don't make them like Hardy Fox anymore. Thank you for the music, sir.

For those who haven't heard them before, here's a small selection:

"Perfect Love" from The Commercial Album. Arguably The Residents' best overall work, "The Commercial Album" was a layered and beautiful response to criticism of their work as "uncommercial". They made 40 1-minute long songs -- the length of a commercial. On the CD release, they told people that since pop songs were 3 minutes and usually consisted of the same stuff repeated, you could just repeat these songs 3 times each. And that the disc was great in "shuffle" play.

The Residents also made fantastic little movies for several of these songs.

"Hello Skinny" from Duck Stab. Perhaps the definitive "Residents" track from their best collection of songs, this creepy song was coupled to an even creepier video.

"It's A Man's Man's Man's World" is from an abbreviated series of releases The Residents did pairing American composers -- this was "James & George" -- James Brown and George Gershwin. A fine example of The Residents taking someone else's familiar music and rendering it strange and almost unrecognizable.