Saturday, March 28, 2009

Self-Control

Last Friday was a beautiful day. We shoveled the snow off our back deck in an attempt to give the final heave-ho to winter. Sunday morning we woke up to about five inches of snow. I took that as mother nature's way of reminding me that we're not in control.

When humanity developed agriculture it took control of its destiny. No longer did it have to make do with what it could hunt or gather. With more food comes more people. We suddenly had an abundance of food so we flourished. Our population grew and grew.

Now we are the alpha species on this planet. We eat most of the food. This has worked well for us so far, but let's take a wider view. On Spaceship Earth, nature is our life support system. Everything else has to live off of what we leave behind. This includes the ecological services we rely on for things like clean air and water. Our life support systems are being destroyed piecemeal for the short term benefit of a few.

This incremental destruction and voracious consumption have set current reality way out of balance with what nature can provide. We're heading for an ecological crash far worse than the economic 'crisis', and for this there can be no bailout. We can't just borrow an established ecosystem. There aren't any to lend.

We can't blame any individual entity. Our collected actions are responsible. There's nobody to sue, but that doesn't matter. Unrestrained, we'll consume the planet's built-in life support system. If that happens, those who survive will become full-time planetary life-support technicians, with the whole world in their hands.

The sooner we exercise self-control, in the form of drastic action that restores the environment and the ecological services it provides, the better our chances of avoiding the worst case scenarios.

You matter. It's like voting. We either vote to endure, or we vote for the comfortable status quo and the devastation that comes with it. Nature counts the votes every day.

To endure, we don't need to control nature. We need to control ourselves.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Power Out

You don't realize how much you depend on things until they aren't there, especially things outside your control. We depend heavily on electricity and we don't really have any control over it. If the power goes out you're stuck waiting for it to come back on.

I was in Ontario for the great power outage of 2003, and it was an interesting social experiment. I was playing a basketball game on the Xbox (NBA Live 2003) by myself when the power went out. My roommates were both home, in their rooms doing their own thing. Once we realized the power wasn't coming back on right away a curious thing happened. We actually went and played real basketball, with a ball and a net and everything. The power outage shook us out of our self-absorbed rut and made us interact with each other.

I like it when the power goes out. It borrows your electronic distractions and gives you authentic human interaction as collateral. No lights, no electric communications, no distractions, just you and your tribe. Outages pop into our lives unbidden, make us slow down, take a breath, and listen to the mental breath of fresh air that emerges when the constant noise we've become accustomed to disappears.



Earth Hour (www.earthhour.org) is coming up March 28. Round up some people you care about, light some candles, then kill the power for an hour, at 8:30 p.m local time. It's billed as a way to raise awareness around climate change, but like most people, I'm already aware. I prefer to think of it as a fire drill for when the power goes out.

Turning off the power will teach you some valuable things about your preparedness, in a safe and controlled environment. It's better to discover, for example, that the fan for your gas furnace needs electricity during a controlled experiment than in a genuine emergency. As a bonus, you also get to spend quality time with people you like.

Don't be fooled though, I also like it when the power comes back on again.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Be Better Automatically

Consciousness is biologically expensive. It takes a lot of energy for our brains to think about doing something. It's much easier for your brain to bypass the middle man and automate it.

I don't think much about my heartbeat. It's controlled by the brain on a level below having to think about it. Breathing is automatic as well, but we can override it if we want to, and if we think about it. Touch typing, stick shift, jump shot, and hockey stop, all become automatic with practice.

The same thing goes for our daily routines. They don't require thought energy, they just happen every day, because they are rehearsed every day. This assimilation of routines into our lives happens unconsciously. The brain figures out the routine and takes the high level consciousness out of it. Wake. Shower. Shave. Get dressed. Eat breakfast. Go to work. Every day is exactly the same. It's easier mentally.

Like breathing, you can override it if you want to, and if you think about it. But it's easier not to. Your routines determine what you spend most of your time doing.

This isn't a call to be conscious of everything. Don't concentrate on left foot, right foot as you walk around. Just walk. You've automated the walking, and that makes it easy. What else can you automate?

Automatic routines have an impact on the world every time they happen. If you throw recyclables in the garbage, the will to switch can make recycling the automatic activity.

Noticing where the routines could be better is tricky. Their routine nature makes them almost invisible to you. Pay attention. You can change your life by changing what's on automatic.

What things in your life would you like to improve? Healthier diet? More active lifestyle? Study habits? Lowering your impact on the environment? Automatically saving your money?

Take a mental sweep of your routines. They are automatic and they define you. With a little nudge, your routines could be something else. They would be just as easy, just as automatic. You would be that much better.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Delayed Feedback

Procrastinators around the world know how much work can get done at the last minute. The pressure mounts and finally they have to act because the alternative is worse. If they don't do something right now there will be consequences.

It doesn't really matter how it's bad, as long as the repercussions are both swift and unpleasant. The instinct to avoid pain is extremely powerful, even when compared to seeking pleasure. The immediacy of the feedback enhances its effectiveness.

Animal trainers know that the timing of a correction or a reward is extremely important in teaching the animal what to do. If your dog sits on command, but does something else before you can reward him, he won't connect the reward with the sit.

Humans respond to immediate feedback too. If we do something immediately painful, like burning our hand on a hot stove, we're going to stop it immediately, and try our best not to do it again.

If the negative feedback is delayed, however, we won't connect it very closely with the activity that caused it, especially if we enjoy it. Smokers understand this and continue smoking despite the damage they are doing to their life support system. It's certainly easier not to quit and accept the consequences.

With something like smoking though, you won't know which cigarette gave you the cancer. It's not a case of going just up to the line but not over. Every smoke makes it worse, and the only way to stay healthy is to quit the habit as soon as possible. Quitting is tough, and getting healthy will take a long time, but it's better than the alternative.

With situations like smoking, like sub-prime mortgages, crack cocaine and climate change, the enjoyment comes now but the pain comes later on down the road. Delayed feedback. The time lag between cause and effect means we're committed to more pain than we feel right now. To avoid future pain, the only responsible course of action is to stay as far from the line as possible.

How advanced are we really?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Small Town Feel

People who move to smaller communities often cite the small town feel as one of the things that attracted them, but without a lively network of citizens and activity the character they hoped for is hollow.

Downtowns of the past were a tapestry of owner-operated shops you could walk to. The owners often lived upstairs. They got to know you and were invested in your community. Now, thanks to land use plans that have us hiding behind our double attached garages, we'd rather haul a ton of steel across town than walk to the corner store.

The big box stores with their sprawling parking lots have figured this out. With their help you transform from a citizen into a consumer. We've sold out our communities for low, low prices.

Municipalities whine about their downtowns dying, while at the same time approving sprawling residential developments that sequester people in housing a long way from the community center. As citizens, we continue to allow this to our detriment.

It will take time to fix, but the other options are worse. For example, paving over agricultural land to make room for hungry people doesn't make big picture sense.

Higher density mixed use walkable communities reduce traffic because people who live there don't need to drive much. They save people money on gas and give them back the time they don't spend commuting. They lay the foundation for a functional transit system and breathe life into a community.

Help your municipal government demand more from its developers. Let them know that more of the same isn't the right choice for your community. Encourage mixed use, walkable communities which put amenities and jobs where the people are.

By the way, planning decisions like this get made really early. Once you see the dump trucks and graders, it's already too late. Make your opinions known early. It's easier for the government to approve more of the same suburban development but that doesn't make it the right thing to do. Small town feel isn't about houses, it's about community.