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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Conversation With Mr. Peterson

[This is in response to his reply to my post on Memetics and Evolution (and permaculture).]
I quite agree, sir; we can indeed transfer our best and most sustainable practices accross the world to help other countries to develop in a healthy way. The problem is in making it "marketable," as you say. It's often easier to ignore all the externalities involved in daily life; for instance its cheap and easy to heat your house with soft coal (the really dirty kind; I understand that this is the predominant source of in-home heat in much of China presently).
So the question is: how do we overcome all the politcal, linguistic, and cultural barriers that do indeed exist and convince enormous groups of people to follow the more difficult, better path?This applies to practical things like burning coal, but also to more personal-value-oriented questions like "do I really need X luxury item?" "do I really need to seek more than I have?" "Do I really need to try to live a longer life?"
All sorts of normitive answers to such questions could be and frequently are offered, but ultimately each person must decide for themselves (unless there's an instrument of force deciding otherwise; IE the state). My question is: can you surpass all the afforementioned barriers and convince all these disparate peoples to be content with a simple existence? And can you do it within the next fifty years?
I mention the time constraint because, quite frankly, I assume thats about how much time we have. The developing world is increasing their level of consumption quickly, and there's nothing to pevent them from reaching and exceeding the US's. Its not hard to imagine serious resource constraints emerging, and some rather negative consequences as a result. Depressions, economic collapses, and wars come to mind.
I can imagine a few ways such a future might be avoided. First is that everyone decides to be content and live peacfully. Being as there has been major cultural pressure in this direction for millenia (in the form of various sucessful religions) yet humanity's hunger remains unabated, I think this is an unlikely course of events.
Another possibility is that some instrument of force decides to enforce a sustainable level of consumption and lifestyle. Ethical questions on this approach aside (it's pretty effing wrong), given that same human hunger and our sense of injustice, this course is not a balanced equilibrium. It would lead to revolution or more collapse.
Lastly, and my preference: humanity can develop technology that enables it to live comfortably and pursue whatever various and unconstrained goals. without consuming resources unsustainably. The dream of nanotech fulfils this fantasy; and there's not much credible evidence that it cannot become a reality. Then consider all the transhuman possibilities; private/public virtual worlds... and so on. Its a bright future, if we can make it there.
And finally addressing your curveball: what you say is probably true; it is more fun and intellectually stimulating to discover things personally and for yourself than to just passively receive the benefit of others' hard work. And while thats true, its also true that as one's own personal knowledge expands, so does the sphere of things that they can be personally interested in and make new discoveries in. I'd say this is true in both art and science. The more concepts one holds in one's head, the more creative analogies one can make between concepts. The potential for seeing beauty in the world thus grows and grows as your internal model of it becomes richer and more sophisticated.

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