Thursday, December 1, 2016

Imagining Utopia

Imagine, if you will, a typical day. You roll out of bed at 5:00 in the morning, groggy. As you wake up, a feeling of existential dread settles in, same as always. You shower and get dressed, then hop in your car, driving 45 minutes in stop and go traffic on the freeway. Finally, you arrive at your office, clock in, and wander through the maze of grey cubicles to find your own grey space. You log into your computer and begin your daily task of making someone else fabulous amounts of money, most of which you will never see in your meager paycheck. During your day, you listen to one neighbor clipping fingernails, while another listens to hate speech on talk radio. Yet another neighbor has one personal conversation after another and someone else giggles intermittently as they presumably surf social media. At lunch you eat a burger that was probably microwaved and holds no real nutritional value while talking about how automation is going to take everyone's jobs in the next ten years and we will all be unemployed.

You head back to your life of grey and work out the rest of the afternoon, watching the minutes slog by like hours until the magical time of 5:00 rolls around and, elated, you get to hop back in your car and spend another 45 minutes driving home. As you walk in your front door, you see your neighbor. His house is only 20 feet from yours, but you have no idea what his name is. You've never talked. You head in, throw together a quickie dinner from pre-made ingredients made in a factory, grab a beer, and sit down to drone it all out in front of your 52" television. You know, the one you worked so hard to earn the money to buy so you could forget for a few measly hours how hard you work and how little difference you actually make.

Did that one hit a little close to home? For millions of people, that is life. Yesterday looked largely the same, and tomorrow will look the same as well. Yet here we are, fretting that someone is going to take that job that we hate. Will it be an immigrant? Will my job be shipped to India? Are they going to invent a machine that can do my job? Certainly the job is mindless. It wouldn't be hard to program a machine to do it. But then I'll be out of work. I won't be able to afford all the little things that make this miserable life bearable.

So here we all are, fighting against the inevitable to protect something we hate. But what if there was a better way? What if we could use this period of change to break those chains and envision a better way of living, a way with meaning? Allow me to paint for you a picture of a very different day.

You wake up with the sun and take a refreshing shower. Then you go up on your roof and see what is ready to pick today. You grab some eggs from the chickens, pick some spinach, chard, peppers, and garlic chives. While you are doing that, you wave to Jim, your neighbor, who is doing the same thing on his roof. Then you go downstairs and whip yourself up a breakfast burrito while you catch up on social media. Around 9:00 you head into your home office and log into work. Periodically you look out your window and enjoy the southern Arizona mountains in distance framed by the waist high green grass between.

By noon, you are done for the day. You head back up on the roof and pick some greens and edible flowers for a salad that you mix with your home made pickled beets and onions. After lunch, you head out into your community. There are only 20 homes here and you know every neighbor by first, middle, and last name. You say hi to a couple of passersby and swing into catch up with a close friend. Then you head on out to check on the cattle. You have to hike through a quarter mile of waist tall grass to get to where they are currently stationed, but it isn't bad. There are no fences and you only had to hop one running stream and it was only 3 feet wide. When you get there, you check that their water supply is functioning and observe that they have another three days of grazing until they need to be moved to the next paddock. Then you pull out your tablet and check their harnesses. The use of drone technology has allowed you to track and herd the cows to better manage where they forage. Then you hike back home, in time to see that your groceries were delivered by drone. You head out to the pond and catch a couple of tilapia to pair with fresh veggies for dinner. After dinner, you walk down the Public House (in some places they shorten it to Pub) to visit with neighbors and maybe see if you can finally beat Hank at chess.

It sounds like a very different life, doesn't it? But the technology to make it happen is already here. Let's break this down piece by piece and paint a picture about how to make this reality.

Technological Unemployment

Machines long ago took the manual labor jobs, leaving people to do the knowledge work, the white collar jobs. With the rapid improvements in AI that are currently happening, it won't be long that machines will also be able to do our knowledge work and those jobs will be lost as well. There is a lot of anxiety about this prospect and more than a few books on the subject are available. Yet answers are few and far between. The thing is, I know relatively few people who absolutely love their knowledge work jobs and gain a deep sense of fulfillment from them. I say let them take those jobs. There is more important work to be done. Let's kick start the restoration economy and employ people in the more important task of restoring our beleaguered ecosystems. At least for now, that isn't a task that machines are going to be very good at.

Rural Living

Why did people flock to the cities in the first place? Mostly it is because, with the advent of the industrial revolution, that is where the jobs were, the opportunities. But those manufacturing jobs dried up. Now the white collar jobs that replaced them are also poised to dry up. So why stay in the cities? Entertainment? Convenience? These things can be available in rural communities as well. In a decade or so, you won't even need to own a car. Self-driving cars and drones will be able to deliver goods as needed and come take you to town when you need it. The internet provides all the connectivity needed to work at a distance. And new technologies will make the labor of growing food crops a whole lot less labor intensive.

But what's that you say? Won't we hasten ecosystem damage by spreading 7 billion bodies back out across the rural landscape? Isn't it the mere presence of humans that causes the damage to the ecosystem? Not necessarily. A human presence with the right set of tools can help repair the ecosystem. It depends on the environment.

Brittle Environments

Each environment falls somewhere on what is known as the Brittleness Scale. Where it falls depends on the availability of moisture throughout the year. As I mentioned before, the success of an ecosystem is dependent almost entirely on its ability to cycle nutrients through from one organism to the next. Non-brittle environments have consistent moisture and the humidity needed to break down organic matter. This assists greatly in the breakdown of the organic matter and the cycling of the nutrients through the system.

Brittle environments, in contrast, don't have the moisture available to bacteria to break down the plant matter and return nutrients to the ecosystem. In nature, a very different system has evolved to make this work, and it is incredibly effective. The problem is that it requires thousands of square miles of undisturbed land, and the mere presence of humans disrupts the delicate balance. This system is quite complex and I will be covering how it works in future blog posts.

So if our mere presence disturbs it, why would we want to move there? Well, it turns out that there is a method developed by Allan Savory that replicates those processes. The only problem? It requires a lot of work. With enough people and a whole lot of attention to detail, we can turn most of the deserts of the world back into incredibly productive grasslands that pump carbon into the soil and provide an incredibly productive bounty.

It could just be that this is an opportunity in disguise. We are about to be in a position where a whole lot of people are going to be looking for a new way to make a living, and finding a way that brings meaning to their life in the process is a win-win for everyone.