May 19, 2009

Cities and Sustainability

Human history is dialectical -- good and bad at play. There are progressions that look like we are improving and regressions that look like no improvement will endure. I have been working on ideas of technological salvation from such adversities as pollution, starvation and pandemic disease. The past 2 weeks has been ( let's be nice) a festival of confusion, exaggeration and misinformation about influenza viruses. Influenza was invented as a distraction from the US economic castrophe, and destruction and killing in many countries, far away. Let a us take a little holiday and imagine how cities of the future might become healthy, sane environments.

William Rees, an economist at the University of British Columbia took an ecological approach to economics. He is concerned that cities are growing too large to be sustainable. Cities are centers of consumption and depend on the surrounding environment to supply energy, food and to accept and disperse waste. Rees has measured the ecological footprint of cities and his results are not encouraging.

City states are depleting these resources at an alarming rate – fish stocks are depleted; soils are depleted, washed or blown away; fresh water supplies are marginal, depleted or contaminated; the air is polluted and ozone depletion combined with global warming from increased greenhouse gases threatens progressive and erratic climate changes. Climate changes threaten agriculture, as we know it.

At the end of the 20th century, 1.1 billion people live in large cities with populations in the millions; their carbon dioxide emissions are greater than the capacity of all the world’s forests to process the gas. One city person requires at least five square hectares of high quality land to support him or her. The 500,000 people living in the city of Vancouver on 11,400 hectares of land actually require the output of 2.3 million hectares of land. The real capital is not money but air, water, food and other resources.

Many scientists have imagined major disruptions of city-states with civil disobedience and armed conflicts arising from the competition for scarce resources. Solutions are available but are improbable, given our basic tendencies.

A sane, rational city-state would limit its growth; limit its pollution and progress toward food, water and air sustainability. If all long-distance supplies were blocked could the citizens of a city continue to live comfortable, healthy lives? One criterion of a sane city would be self-sufficiency. To make cities more livable and less polluted, car use would be reduced to less than half of current levels and car-free zones would restore healthier living conditions for many citizens.

For many urban dwellers, advanced electronic networking would reduce the need for commuting and long-distance travel would be considered a luxury and rationed. The need to transport food and goods would be reduced by increased local production. The transportation of goods would be streamlined into centrally controlled supply lines that achieve maximal efficiency. We could advance toward intelligent distribution systems such as large pneumatic or electromagnetic tubes that send containers between city centers at high speed with minimal pollution. It is absurd to have goods distributed in trucks, in traffic, chaotically with no cost effective distribution plan. Food can be grown and processed within a city by returning some of the land area to market gardens and intensive greenhouse technology.

Each city would have to renew and support a surrounding agricultural zone. Cities would essentially backtrack about 100 years when food supply lines were shorter and farmers living adjacent to the cities could supply most of the food. Cities, like cancers have grown unchecked, metastasized and destroyed much of the support system they used to enjoy. The humanity of a city can be restored by creating living arrangements that promote a return to groups of individuals that know each other and can relate to each other – small communities.

Local groups can relate to their natural environment and can return to an understanding of how to supply their own needs. If a group does not have a natural environment that they relate to, then the group will be dysfunctional and members of the group will be sick animals. If a group grows too large for individuals to know and relate to each, then the group will be dysfunctional – sick humans.

In poor countries, images of attractive, well-dressed people whose main job appears to be enjoyment and adventure create immediate dissatisfaction with local life. The happy and adapted poor become the dissatisfied and disenfranchised who abandon traditional ways of life for jobs that are often transient, demeaning and fail to deliver the wealth necessary to achieve the glamorous movie-magazine lifestyle.

Humans continue to have basic needs – shelter, food, safety and sexual privileges. Getting connected to affluent media in a poor village in Africa is counterproductive without opportunities to apply new desires, knowledge and ideas.

We would do better to encourage restoration of local economies and expand efforts to reduce overpopulation in areas that cannot support the population. New methods of resolving conflicts are required. Funds to rebuilt decaying agricultural and community infrastructures are needed. Before communication networks look attractive, their information content must be relevant and supportive of the recipients’ needs.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

May 13, 2009

Is Free Will Free?

In an essay published today in Nature, Heisenberg examined the issue of “free will”, a popular idea, good for endless arguments, but having little substance. My premise is that all life is creative, adaptive and emergent. Some of the endless arguments depend on misunderstanding the role of consciousness when decisions are made. Consciousness has little or no role to play. When a person claims ”I decided to do that”, the claim implies a conscious process that occurred in real time as events occurred, as if no innate features of the mind, no learning, preparation or rehearsal were required. It should be self evident that decisions are products of innate features of the brain, inflected by learned modifications. Consciousness is a collection of monitor images that lag behind decisions and provide limited insight about how and why decisions were formulated.

Heisenberg appreciates the emergent properties of living creatures which humans share but did not invent. He described: ”Our influence on the future is something we take for granted as much as breathing. We accept that what will be is not yet determined, and that we can steer the course of events in one direction or another. This idea of freedom, and the sense of responsibility it bestows, seems essential to day-to-day existence… Life is an interplay between the deterministic and the random. Evidence of randomly generated action — action that is distinct from reaction because it does not depend upon external stimuli — can be found in unicellular organisms. What of more complex behaviour? With the emergence of multicellularity, individual cells lost their behavioural autonomy and organisms had to reinvent locomotion. Behaviours in complex organisms typically come in modules such as the heartbeat... Some can take place in parallel, like walking and singing; others are mutually exclusive, such as sleeping and playing the piano. Some necessarily follow one another, like flight and landing. From beginning to end, the lives of animals and humans are an ongoing interweaving of these behavioural modules…based on the interplay between chance and lawfulness in the brain. Insufficiently equipped, insufficiently informed and short of time, animals have to find a module that is adaptive. Their brains, in a kind of random walk, continuously pre-activate, discard and reconfigure their options, and evaluate their possible short-term and long-term consequences.”

Martin Heisenberg. Is free will an illusion? Nature 459, 164-165 (14 May 2009) doi:10.1038/459164a; Accessed online 13 May 2009.

See philosophy, psychology books Stephen Gislason