The Vasectarmy: Securing Our Future Against Marauding Sperm

[Note: at the bottom of the post I discuss objections to my argument, so check there before writing to list all the places I can shove it.]

In following health care trends (which is what I do to relax – I also eat corn husks for dessert), I’ve been tracking a phenomenon: as medicine grows more specialized, jobs once done only by MDs are going to non-physicians, like nurses and physicians assistants – folks with limited training which is enough for what they do.

It’s like the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, if you wanted a job as a car-builder you had to know how to build a car, which requires heavy education (like an MD). After the industrial revolution, you could get a job in the auto industry pounding rivets on an assembly line (more nurse-like).

I think there’s an opportunity for the environment in this trend. The idea:

Make vasectomies more attractive, available, and cheap by training specialists who do nothing but perform vasectomies.

Why Vasectomies?

At root, all our environmental problems are the result of this:

This is Earth’s human population through time. It’s exponential, which means sooner or later the curve will level off (and probably come down), and there are only two ways it can happen: either we do it voluntarily or nature does it for us.

Note that more than 90% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are extinct, including most of the “dominant” ones. We can argue that we’re special because we can build jets and catheters, and there’s a chance we’re right, but do we want to bet the human race on that hunch, in light of strong evidence for species fragility? Aren’t some precautions in order? Michael Jordan is an exceptional specimen but I bet he has health insurance.

Our global environment is now changing fast because we’re forcing it to, and we’re entering a period of instability the likes of which have killed countless species before us. The damage done will depend on how much more change we force, and that depends on what we do with our population before nature starts doing it for us. The more we reduce our numbers, the less dramatic the eventual culling is likely to be.

If your Implausibility Alarm is going off it’s because you’ve lived in an atypical time, like an investor whose investing philosophy was shaped inside a stock bubble. If you‘ve never seen things go kablooey you’ll doubt that they can. A look back on Earth’s history shows a lot of kablooeys. Our one hope is that we have the capacity to anticipate the next one and act preemptively. Or so I believe despite our present behavior, which shows all the foresight of a nematode.

Back to Vasectomies

We need birthrates to plummet. How? A full answer is best left to loftier minds, but one thing that will help is to create a group of professionals whose only job is to perform vasectomies. This would have two effects:

  1. Reduce the price. Vasectomy technicians would have less training and lower pay than physicians, and this would reduce the price. Vasectomies typically cost between $500 and $1000. I’d like to see them below $100. I know this alone would make at least some difference because I don’t have a vasectomy and if it cost $100 I’d be inclined to walk out the door and get one. In the meantime I could go on an impregnation-rampage at any moment.
  2. By creating professionals whose livelihoods depend on convincing us that vasectomies are worth considering, we’ll create a new cultural messaging force. The messages that dominate in our culture do so because someone has a vested interest in them. We drink Pepsi because Pepsi spends millions telling us to. Our Vasectarmy would be in the same position. It’ll learn how to market and to tell stories convincing us that vasectomies are good, which will help change how we think about the choice to have children.

Note that we wouldn’t have to train huge numbers of people. One person can perform a lot of vasectomies, because they’re fast outpatient procedures.

Some physicians will object, but they probably don’t merit much credence, what with their vested interest.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. (Upton Sinclair)

I believe strongly in this idea. If this were a career option, I’d do it, no hesitation. Scrotums are gross but I’d do it anyway. I want to see a vasectomy booth at Wal-Mart squeezed between the liquor store and the barber. I’ll man that sucker for the rest of my days.

Possible Objections

  1. Population growth is already slowing on its own. True, but we won’t peak till we reach 9 or 10 billion, and we may already be too high at 7 billion. Fertility rates may have to fall more quickly than they are to avert cataclysm. We don’t know for sure, but that’s no reason not to act. I don’t know for sure if Russian roulette will kill me (in fact there’s only a 17% chance that it will), but I’ll never play Russian roulette. We’re playing global Russian roulette by our inaction.
  2. The only people who will take advantage of the proposed service are those who wouldn’t have had kids anyway. This is wrong for two reasons: a) See the point about cultural messaging above; and more importantly, b) 40%-50% of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. We could fix that.
  3. Bigger populations create stronger economies. This was once true but it’s less so now, due to automation. In 1900, if you wanted to make 10,000 cars in a day, you’d need like 100,000 people to do it. How many would you need now? Orders of magnitude fewer, because our tireless robot friends do most of the work. It’s true that bigger populations create higher GDP, but that doesn’t matter. What matters for human security is GDP-per-person, and a larger population doesn’t ensure that. In fact, in times of resource scarcity, higher populations can mean reduced GDP-per-person. We’re entering such a time (see peak oil or peak phosphorus, for example).
  4. The real problem is the developing world, which is making all the babies. We can keep making them at about replacement rates. It’s true that developing nations are where all the excess baby-making is, but the objection overlooks something: Americans have mammoth carbon footprints. The carbon footprint of an average American is about 100 times bigger than that of a Bangladeshi for example. Ergo, $1 worth of American vasectomies buys as much environmental protection as $100 of Bangladeshi vasectomies. Similar math holds for a comparison between the U.S. and nearly all other developing nations. The best return on investment is in the U.S., by far. That won’t change until Americans start living much more frugally. Also there’s no reason that developing countries shouldn’t do the same thing, and in fact the cost reduction might have a bigger impact where people are poor.
  5. What if something goes wrong during the procedure? An M.D. will know what to do, but a vasectomy technician might not. True but easily fixable. Vasectomy technicians can work in or near hospitals, just like nurses and physician’s assistants and midwives. If something goes wrong, the big guns can come out.
  6. Vasectomies aren’t God’s will. No reply because faith makes discussion impossible. Agree to disagree. I’m looking at you, Quiverfull.

-From the Sea

Posted September 07, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 14 Comments on The Vasectarmy: Securing Our Future Against Marauding Sperm

Climate Change 101

This is a shortened version of an article originally published at Skeptical Science summarizing key findings in climate science.

The Earth is Warming

We know Earth is warming from surface temperature stations and satellites which measure the temperature of the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere. We also have tools which measure the warming of the Earth’s oceans. Satellites have measured an energy imbalance at the top of the Earth’s atmosphereGlacierssea ice, and ice sheets are all receding. Sea levels are risingSpring is arriving sooner each year. Measurements of the energy-content of the world’s ocean show an enormous increase over the last 50 years.

The warming is continuingThe 2000s were hotter than the 1990s, which were hotter than the 1980s, which were hotter than the 1970s. The warming remains, and in fact is easier to see, after we filter out the short-term effects of the sun, volcanoes, and El Niño cycles.

Humans are increasing greenhouse gases and greenhouse gases cause warming

We can verify that humans emit greenhouse gases in different ways:

  1. Accounting: We’re emitting about 30 billion tons of CO2 per year, and the amount in the atmosphere is increasing by about 15 billion tons per year.  Our emissions have to go somewhere – half goes into the atmosphere, while the other half is absorbed by the oceans (which is causing another major problem – ocean acidification).
  2. The carbon in fossil fuels has a different isotopic composition than carbon from other sources, which allows us to confirm that the extra carbon in our atmosphere comes from burned fossil fuels. Other supporting lines of evidence are shown in the picture below.

We can verify that greenhouse gases cause warming through various methods in thermodynamics and atmospheric chemistry. This is the hardest aspect of the subject for non-scientists to understand. We know how the chemical components of the atmosphere absorb and radiate energy, and satellite measurements demonstrate that the Earth is radiating less energy than it used to at the wavelengths absorbed by carbon dioxide, which means that carbon dioxide is responsible for holding in the extra heat. This view is supported by surface measurements showing that more radiation at those wavelengths is returning to Earth. There are other lines of evidence as well. See here for more.

The Consequences Are Likely to Be Bad

The likely consequences for human activities will be complex, but on balance, they will probably hurt more than help. The main difficulties will be heat waves, draught, floods, water management problems, agricultural problems, biodiversity loss, and consequent economic difficulties. There are also possibilities for even greater difficulties, such as the disruption of the world carbon cycle, so that carbon builds up more quickly than it’s building up now.  See here for a summary of some of the likely positives and negative outcomes of climate change.

Smart Risk Management Means Taking Action

Most of us are conservative when it comes to risk management. We buy insurance for our homes even though the risk of serious damage is low. We would rather be safe than sorry.

Arguably, there’s no more important object than the global climate. We rely on the climate for our basic requirements, like food and water. Prudent risk management in this case is clear. The scientific evidence discussed above demonstrates a risk of harmful climate change. There are uncertainties as to how harmful the consequences will be, but uncertainty is not a reason for inaction. There’s high uncertainty whether you’ll ever be in a car accident, but it would be foolish not to prepare for that possibility by purchasing car insurance. Moreover, uncertainty cuts both ways, and it’s as likely that the consequences will be worse than we expect as it is that the consequences won’t be very bad.

The above presents only a small taste of climate research. There is much more to it than we can present here. Many of us are unaware of how much work has been done on the subject and how much we know about it. We encourage those interested in the subject to study it further. Here are good places to start:

  1. Skeptical Science (website)
  2. Real Climate (website)
  3. The Rough Guide to Climate Change (book)
  4. The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide (book)


Posted July 26, 2011 in Uncategorizable | No Comments on Climate Change 101

The List of Heartbreaking Things

I have a list of “most heartbreaking things I don’t want to believe”.  At the top of the list is that making a baby is an increasingly dubious choice. The world I was born into is beautiful in so many ways, but in this one way, it crushes me.

“What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if population growth continues at its present rate?”

“…I will use what I call my bathroom metaphor. Two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have the freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, and stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. Everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in the freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, ‘Aren’t you through yet?’ and so on.

The same way democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies. The more people there are the less one individual matters.”

There must be some number past which the addition of more people only degrades life.  I suspect we’re past it but who knows.  In any case its discomfiting that so few seem to care or give thought to where we stand in relation to it.


Posted July 21, 2011 in Uncategorizable | No Comments on The List of Heartbreaking Things


Climate Change is big and confusing.  The Milwaukee airport can help.


Posted July 14, 2011 in Uncategorizable | 1 Comment on Discombobulated?

The Chain Fonda Project: A Social Business to Spread Bicycle Commuting

My ideas are like plane crashes: alarming and usually unexpected. Nonetheless today I offer an idea for a social business which could (I hope) save us money, help slow climate change and peak oil, and make us happier and healthier. Maybe it will also bring me fame so I can get the part I’m angling for in Pirates of the Caribbean 5: The Curse of the Black Eyeliner.

Since some readers may not know what a social business is, let’s start with that.

Short description: it’s a non-profit minus the begging, or a business minus the sociopathy.

Long description: it’s an organization that’s financed like a business to pursue a non-business mission, like reducing poverty. Investors recoup their investments but take no additional dividends. The business sells goods/services to cover costs, sustain itself, and profit, but profit goes back toward the mission, never to investors.

Social businesses are more durable and growable than non-profits, which are ever at the mercy of their benefactors’ whims. The best-known example is the Grameen Bank, which gives microloans to the poor to help them escape poverty. The bank finances itself through low interest rates on loans, and has served millions of people.

Back to my own social business idea, which has to do with bicycles.

Life will be better when we all take to bikes for our daily commutes. There are so many benefits to bike commuting that I can’t cover them all; here are a few I can be bothered to write down:

  1. Reduced fuel costs: saves money, deprives oil companies of funding, and cuts carbon emissions. I save about $400/year in fuel by biking, and will likely save more in the future thanks to rising gas prices.
  2. Reduced car maintenance. I’ve not needed anything beyond oil changes, a battery change, and tire rotations in 6 years, and my car’s 12 years old. I’ve saved thousands.
  3. Cheaper Insurance: if you tell your car insurance company that you bike to work, you can get your insurance cut in half.
  4. Better Health and Lower Health Care Costs: Studies show that cyclists are ill less often, and a study in Portland suggests that for every dollar the city spends on bicycle infrastructure, it saves 5 dollars on health care costs. 500% return on investment = not bad. If you held a stock with that kind of return you’d crap for joy. Your expected return may be better than that because you don’t have to build any bike infrastructure.
  5. More exercise with less discipline: When you commute by bike, exercise just happens without your thinking about it. I get about 200 hours of exercise per year on my bike despite congenital laziness.
  6. More enjoyable, less stressful commute (see here for study): Arrive at work with fresh air in your lungs, jacked heart rate, and no rush hour stress. It’s hard to convey how much nicer my days are since switching to bike. Try biking to work and then dumping coffee into your mouth hole, and you’ll know heaven.
  7. Your city opens up to you: You discover more and meet more people because you aren’t trapped in a metal shell on the freeway. No one can ogle your butt when you’re in a car, nor is it easy to ogle the butts of others.
  8. Quieter, less congested cities: Bikes are quieter and take up less space than cars. See this video of rush hour in Utrecht in the Netherlands to see what rush hour could and should be.
  9. Peace of mind in times of high gas prices: Many people are chewing on their fingers over gas prices. I’m hardly aware of the issue because I hardly buy gas.

The Idea

I hope you believe all that because here’s my idea: a social business, in this case a bicycle retailer, the mission of which is to boost the number of bicycle commuters in its city.

The financial side would be simple (as such things go): the business would sell bikes, biking gear, and services, like any other retailer. It’d be best not to start the business from scratch but to buy an existing bike store and turn it into a social business, to limit the risk of failure.

How would the organization pursue its mission? I don’t know but I’m confident that good methods would emerge once the effort was underway. Ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Discounts or wholesale prices for bicycle commuters.
  2. Give away bikes, gear, or maintenance to randomly chosen bicycle commuters.
  3. Media and PR engagements: spend time interacting with reporters and local officials to spread the mission. The uniqueness of the business will help here.
  4. Work with local government to develop bike infrastructure, bike paths, lanes, signs, parking, etc.
  5. Partner with local companies to cut their health insurance premiums through employee commuter biking programs.
  6. Throw parties for bicycle commuters.
  7. Convince local businesses to give discounts to bike riders.
  8. Give classes on bike commuting.

What’s great about the idea is that the business model is tried and true and the social mission is:

  1. Simple
  2. Measurable
  3. Incremental – it can be divided into parts and accomplished bit by bit. For example, the business could set a goal of “creating” 20 new bicycle commuters in year one, 30 new ones in year two, and 50 in year three.

The key to success will be in getting people excited and organizing that excitement into lasting change. If it works in can spread, perhaps be franchised, take over the world, save all humanity, and get me a lunch with Bruckheimer.

[Heads off for a snack in what can only be described as a sort of pickled sashay]

From the Sea

P.S. Jane Fonda has nothing to do with anything. 

Posted May 25, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 2 Comments on The Chain Fonda Project: A Social Business to Spread Bicycle Commuting

Front Yard Disobedience: How to Boost Food Security without Really Trying

Of the threats climate change and peak oil pose, we should be most worried about the threat to food.  I have young nephews, and there’s not much I wouldn’t do to keep their bellies full if you catch my drift and I think you do. God knows what I’d be willing to do for my own kids. It’s good I don’t have any.

Food prices are high and rising and driving unrest the world over. One cause is crop damage due to climate change. If one degree Celsius (the warming so far) is enough to cause problems, what will 2 or 3 more degrees do? It’s unlikely to be linear; the second degree will do more damage than the first. If so, hello food shortages and unhinged uncles.

If climate change and peak oil aren’t threatening enough for you, there’s also peak phosphorus. If only one of the three threats hits hard we’ll have trouble. If two or all three hit…I’m not going to finish this sentence (sad pun).

Americans aren’t yet feeling it – our food prices haven’t jumped much, we’re rich, and we spend only a sliver of our income on food. But the blessing’s also a curse, since while other countries see the threat and prep for hardship, we sit and whistle. It’s time to get resilient. That means you, individual reader who’s busy and pretty sure there’s no time for it. I’m too busy deal with cancer but if I get cancer I’ll find the time. That’s our situation, even if you don’t believe it yet.

One of our weaknesses is that few of us know how to grow food. Among the factors keeping it that way are laws against food-production on our properties. Many cities bar residents from keeping chicken coops or beehives, or growing front-lawn vegetable gardens.

These laws are wrong. The right to grow food is as fundamental as the right to speech.  We’ve allowed ourselves to become helpless on the assumption that truly hard times are over. The assumption would be shaky even without the looming threats of climate change and peak oil – history’s riddled with societies who thought they had it made just before pooping out.

We shouldn’t honor any law against safely and responsibly growing food. We should disobey.

What makes such laws good targets for civil disobedience is that breaking them isn’t a big deal. Our chickens won’t land us in the clink. Instead we’ll face whiny neighbors and maybe fines, both of which we can use as a platform from which to educate others. We’ll bring attention to our cause without heavy sacrifice. It’s got to be one the easiest kinds of civil disobedience we can do.

If you want only a little attention, put up a chicken coop/ beehive/garden where it’s not allowed and just wait for a kerfuffle. But there’s also an opportunity for the bold among us to get big attention. Here’s how:

  1. Put your coop/hive/garden in the most public spot on your property. If you live on a busy street, perfect.
  2. Put a big lawn sign up next to your transgression explaining why it’s there. Emphasize that you don’t break the law lightly.
  3. Don’t yield. If you’re fined, don’t pay, and be clear and open about why.
  4. Find kindred souls among your neighbors and break the law together. It’s easier to dismiss one person as a lunatic than it is to dismiss a group. You might even launch a city-wide effort through or your local transition group.
  5. Offer to help neighbors grow their own food and advertise that offer in the sign in your yard.
  6. When a kerfuffle happens, don’t tamp it down. Let it evolve. Then alert local reporters about it, arrange for interviews, etc. Good activists invite publicity.
  7. Protip: send baskets filled with food you grew to those who most object to your project. Deliver the baskets in person. Don’t be ironic or snide. Be kind and respect their views. This was one of Gandhi’s go-to moves. He’d go hang out with enemies until they liked him in spite of themselves.


Two words of caution:

First, before committing civil disobedience, try to have the laws removed by legal means first. Otherwise you lose credibility.

Second, safety and aesthetics matter. The laws you’ll break have reasons for existing, be they lame (all front lawns must have grass so the neighborhood looks “nice”) or not-lame (public health risks).

So if you decide to break food-production laws, avoid accidentally justifying them. Make sure that what you do is a) pretty; and b) safe. It’s not hard, but you should do research, especially about safety. Example: before raising bees, make sure no one in your neighborhood is badly allergic to bee stings. We must look after our neighbors.

Double finally, civil disobedience only works if you’re both respectful and respectable. Be dignified and patient, never angry, never petty.

Triple finally, some inspiration: a load of mulch dumped in a kind of ballsy location

From the Sea

Posted May 18, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 10 Comments on Front Yard Disobedience: How to Boost Food Security without Really Trying

Death Ray Gardening: Tell Cold Weather To Piss Off, Grow More Food

Through history, it’s become easier to get food. Time was, if I wanted to eat I had to jump onto a bear and bite its jugular off before it tore out my kidneys*. Then for a while it was all about spreading seeds and diverting water, which was laborious but safe for the kidneys. Now I press a button and out pops a diabetes stick, which will destroy my kidneys.

Organs aside, I’m nervous that so many of us don’t know how to grow food. A few generations ago, everyone knew. We’ve forgotten just as climate change is cutting into our food supply (already causing trouble even though climate change has hardly begun), while peak oil may deprive us of the cheap energy on which agriculture now depends.

You don’t want the future that this portends.  If I run out of food, I will eat you.

Anyway, I’ve re-acquainted myself with the agronomic arts. Not only do I feel more equipped for one unsavory future, it’s changed the way I think. Gardening quiets the mind, which is good because this is my mind:

I’ve been growing food long enough that now I’m having ideas about how to do it better. Today I offer one of them: a remedy for nature’s rude habit of making it too cold to grow food.

To be sure, there are already methods for this: greenhouses, hoop houses, and black plastic ground cover to absorb heat. But they have drawbacks: greenhouses are costly to build and heat, and the other methods aren’t effective.

So there may be room for another idea. Mine was inspired by the following boondoggle:

You’re looking at the Vdara hotel in Vegas, better known as the Death Ray Hotel. You’ll notice that it’s reflective and concave. There’s also a swimming pool at its base. As soon as it opened for business, pool-goers were met with extensive 3rd degree burns. Turns out the hotel concentrates sunlight on the pool.

What’s bad for bethonged coeds may be good for plants in cold weather. Here’s my proposition:

  1. Collect old mirrors at Goodwill, Salvation Army, garage sales, on Craigslist, etc. Mirrors are among the world’s most unwanted objects. I’m sure this reveals something profound about the human condition.
  2. Place the mirrors around your garden to direct extra heat and light toward it. It’ll work best if you have a hoop house and direct heat and light into it.
  3. Don’t concentrate all the light in one spot. Make sure it’s distributed evenly over the garden.
  4. Position mirrors so that different mirrors reflect maximal light into the garden at different times through the day, instead of all at once. We’re not looking to recreate Dante’s Inferno.
  5. If you’re ambitious, reposition your mirrors once or more during the day to collect more light. There are systems for doing so automatically, like the kind used in concentrating solar power plants, but here we’re leaving the realm of sustainability and affordability.

There you have it: Death Ray Gardening™. You’re welcome.

From the Sea

*inaccurate characterization of pre-agricultural food.

Posted May 11, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 9 Comments on Death Ray Gardening: Tell Cold Weather To Piss Off, Grow More Food

How to Buy Climate Change and Peak Oil Insurance

Everyone knows that if you want to hedge risk, you buy insurance.

Sadly, Geico doesn’t offer policies for climate change and peak oil yet. But that’s ok – there’s still a way to insure yourself. It’s not complicated. The policy consists of 6 straightforward parts:

  1. Learn how to grow some of your own food.
  2. Learn how to live a low-energy life.
  3. If you live on a coast within a couple of feet of sea level, move to someplace higher up.
  4. If you live in an area which is likely to turn to desert, like the US southwest, move.
  5. Move to a small town surrounded by farmland.
  6. Move to an area where you can purchase non-fossil fuel energy.

I don’t claim the policy will completely cover you, but it will insulate you significantly.

I suggest you apply pronto.

From the Sea

Posted May 06, 2011 in Random Thoughts | No Comments on How to Buy Climate Change and Peak Oil Insurance

A Spineless Cur’s Approach to Climate Activism

I’ve been banging my head on walls to understand what would make for winning climate change activism. The actions I see in the news don’t do it for me, nor do my own ideas. I’m cool on civil disobedience because it’s not designed for the kind of problem climate change is, and I doubt the value of protests because they lack oomph and I worry that they come off as a sort of self-aggrandizing hobby. Plus we’re so used to them that they’ve become wallpaper. Every time I’m in DC there’s some throng or other chanting on the mall, and I don’t even bother to find out what they’re chanting about anymore. There’s altogether too much thronging.

What to do instead?

I think activism works best when the activist publicly shows a willingness to sacrifice/risk/suffer. Think Gandhi’s hunger strikes, or civil rights activists braving fire hoses. Or this guy:

Or this guy:

…who, armed with nothing but 10-pound cojones, burned himself quietly to death in the street to protest an unjust Vietnamese government. It worked – his sacrifice appears to have been a turning point in the conflict. On the other hand, among climate change activists, we’ve got this guy:

…who lives in this house:

…and whose cojones aren’t as impressive:

So I ponder: what kind of public sacrifice/risk could I make to demonstrate my commitment, in a way that might affect people on a gut/heart level?

My options are limited by the fact that I’m a coward. I won’t burn myself to death (not that it’s appropriate in this case), but I can do better than I’ve done so far. All I’ve done to date is quit my carbon-intensive job. Though unimpressive, it’s been valuable as a preparatory step. One can’t go straight from Professional Quiverer to Spartan Warrior. There are intermediate stages, like the Slightly-Less-Cowardly-Than-the-Gutless-Pleasure-Monkey-I’ve-Spent-My-Life-Being-Up-Until-Now stage.

Here’s an idea for my next step. I don’t know whether I’ll do it but it’s on my list of possibilities. Forrest Gump inspired it. Here it is in 4 easy steps:

  1. Walk out front door
  2. Get on bike
  3. Ride back from coast to coast, over and over again, giving talks on fossil fuel dependency along the way, until…
  4. All federal subsidies to big oil are rescinded

You’ll recall that Gump did something similar: he jogged between coasts for a few years.

If I’m lucky and charming (so if I’m lucky) others might ride with me, like they ran with Gump (I know, he’s fictional. These are my straws – I can grasp at them if I wish).

I’ve chosen oil subsidies because ending them is a simple, concrete, measurable, realistic short-term goal, plus GOP leaders have endorsed it, and Obama is targeting it:

So perhaps it needs only a nudge to happen. Also, ending these subsidies would not only be a bulwark against climate change, but also peak oil, which may be upon us. If all the subsidies now given to oil were given to solar, solar would be cheaper in 100% of the country, as this infographic attests

The key difficulty is that oil subsidies may not end in my lifetime, and I could spend the balance of my days as a hobo bicyclist. There might be a certain poetry to that, but it would also mean separation from my friends and loved ones for the rest of my life, save for the occasional pedal-by.

If it weren’t for that, I’d hop on my bike right now. On the other hand, isn’t that the risk which makes the idea interesting, which demonstrates commitment? If not for that it would just be a long bike ride. What do you think? If you like my idea, please egg me on. I want to be egged. Hard. Or maybe someone who reads this will do it so I can continue nursing my cowardice.

From the Sea

Posted May 03, 2011 in Smashing Ideas | 10 Comments on A Spineless Cur’s Approach to Climate Activism

Government Chicken, Government Egg

I spend my days wringing my soft, manicured hands about climate change and peak oil, and I wish someone would hurry up and act already before we all take to mixed martial arts to decide who gets dinner (a scenario in which I wouldn’t eat much). Traditionally, federal government fixes such Big Problems (as if we’ve faced problems this big before), but it’s not doing anything in this instance – in fact our government seems increasingly hamstrung generally. Why?

Explanations abound: A growing left-right ideological split, the recession, habitually neglected campaign promises, undue influence of the rich, etc. I read an article (no link because I lost it) in which a Chinese government official suggested that the US suffers from too much democracy, the idea being that our government is a squawking cacophony of conflicting voices who collectively check-and-balance each other into legislative oblivion.

To this list I shall add another explanation.

Faith in government is historically low (one reason why many now favor small government and low taxes). We think of this as a consequence of crap government, and it is. But it might also be the other way around.

That is, our outlook might be a self-fulfilling prophesy – government may suck because we believe it sucks.

Here’s what I mean: because we don’t believe in government, we elect officials who also don’t believe in it either, and they don’t try to improve it. So the government gets shittier, we trust government even less, and downward goes the spiral.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – the dynamic is common. Businesses and armies, for example, fail often when their people stop believing in their mission or each other. We might even argue that lost faith is the root of most organizational failure (save for where everyone’s on a plane and they crash into a mountain and eat each other or whatever). Why should government be an exception? In fact it’s probably at greater risk for “confidence death spiral” than other organizations, because it involves huge numbers of people with diverse interests and there’s no clear mission to ensure everyone rows in the same direction.

If I’m right, how could we arrest the downward spiral? It’s a daunting problem because it would seem to require that we restore our faith government *before* there’s any reason to. How?

A crisis might do it. There’s precedent in World War II, which dragged our country out of a doldrums. But there the medicine was as bad as the disease.  How to break the confidence spiral without, you know, the deaths of millions?

We might look to how other organizations, like businesses, break out of the spiral. When I do, it seems to me that most turnarounds require new leadership with the mandate to make big changes.

But here we regrettably return to the idea that maybe we suffer from too much democracy. Our government is built for gradualism, which is wise: it prevents despots for example. But it also means that nobody can make big changes, which may mean that a key to organizational turnaround (after things have gotten dire) may be off limits to us.

It’s also worth remembering that our democracy was in fact designed for a smaller and less diverse population. Under those circumstances, perhaps it was easier to make big changes. Maybe our population has outgrown our government.

If so, then one way out of the downward spiral might be to transfer power from federal to state governments, who have smaller constituencies and for whom therefore democracy might work better (much of the action on climate change and energy reform is now at the state level, which might not be an accident).

Another benefit of more state power: If a bunch of small governments take the place of one big one, they can try more “experiments” in governance. I think the idea comes from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, but I read it long ago so I’m not sure. If a bunch of groups are free to try out a bunch of different things, one or a few of them are likely to hit on something that works. When the other groups see that it works, they’ll adopt it too. It’s natural selection for policy.

We can see this mechanism at work in Europe. Example: a few years ago, London, which at the time had some of the worst gridlock on Earth, installed cameras downtown and used them to impose fees on drivers coming through at certain times of day (AKA congestion pricing). It worked: it killed gridlock, filled city coffers, brought foot traffic to key retail areas, etc. Since then the practice has spread.

This also happens in the States, but perhaps to a lesser degree because states are constrained by our powerful federal government. Perhaps we could supercharge the process by shifting power further toward the states.

But who has the power to make that happen? Again, probably nobody (remember: too much democracy). On the other hand, if the Smallistas bent on shrinking federal government are successful, maybe states will end up with more power. On the other other hand, the Smallistas want to shrink state governments too.

And so I circle back to the point I always make and my reason for writing this blog: It’s up to individuals. It’s up to each of us to throw off the yoke of our habits of acting and living and make change happen around us no matter how hard or insufficient it may seem. If enough of us do, the effects will add up and spread. If we fail then we fail trying, and that’s good enough.

Anyway it’s better than status quoing ourselves to death.

“Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.”

-Gandhi, the dead dude who I most wish weren’t dead.

From the Sea

Posted April 25, 2011 in Random Thoughts | 4 Comments on Government Chicken, Government Egg

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