Saturday, 13 January 2018

Books Inspiring Us - “Being the Change”: In his new book, NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus explores the daily practices that build healthy, happy, and resilient communities

by Peter Kalmus, YES! Magazine: 
It can be hard to find hope in climate change mitigation. But that’s exactly what NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus does in Being the Change. While he’s not your typical government scientist—he commutes by bicycle, meditates, grows and exchanges food—he does approach his life and global warming with the solution-driven focus of one. To Kalmus, individual actions matter: His family cut their climate impact to one-tenth the national average. He finds hope in the data—cutting out some things, like flying in airplanes, really does add up—but he also finds it outside the charts and graphs. Ultimately, cutting his personal carbon emissions makes him happier and more fulfilled.
-Shannan Stoll
Every animal has unique attributes for thriving in the wilderness. The deer has speed and agility. The bear has powerful limbs and a keen sense of smell. The hawk has mighty wings and sharp eyesight.
I used to think that humanity’s unique attribute was a big brain. We survive by our wits and our technology, after all. But this is only part of the picture. Our brain is merely a prerequisite for the actual attribute that allows us to thrive: community.
Imagine being deep in the jungle by yourself, naked, with no tools. Even with your big brain, you probably wouldn’t survive. To thrive and be happy would be even more difficult. Your big brain isn’t enough by itself.
With tools and gear, you’d fare better. But then, in a sense, you’d no longer be alone. Tools and gear represent community condensed into material form. They were designed and perfected by many humans exchanging information, learning from one another’s mistakes, building on one another’s innovations over time. And with skills you’d fare even better. Like your tools, the skills are a form of community, condensed into knowledge and neuromuscular technique. They were also developed by a community of humans, refined over time, and passed down.
Now imagine you’re part of a tribe. It’s night. You hear millions of insects chirping, the sounds of night birds, the lion’s roar. You feel safe among your close friends and relatives in the clearing. A child cries in a nearby dwelling and is comforted. Your survival depends on this community. In community, you learned how to find good food, how to make a snug dwelling, how to use plants to stay healthy. You don’t take your community for granted. Gifts are exchanged freely, smiles and laughter are the norm, and there are many celebrations. These things keep the community strong. They’re expressions of gratitude.
We are community animals. Without community we’re like blind hawks. I’m concerned that our communities have atrophied and been largely replaced by some corporate facsimile.

Simple, place-appropriate living

Henry Thoreau, writer and naturalist, was fascinated by the indigenous people who had inhabited his region before the white colonists. Inspired by them, he experimented with simple living, seeking to free himself from the economic fetters of contemporary society. Thoreau was impressed that Penobscot lodges were “constructed in a day or two at most” and were nonetheless “as warm as the best English houses.” By contrast, Thoreau noted, it took “from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life” to pay off the cost of an average house in his day.
Thoreau concluded that his contemporaries led a more difficult life than the indigenous people who preceded them. These original people had the advantage of a mature community intimately adapted to their specific bioregion. Like many—perhaps all—indigenous peoples, the Penobscot passed down their place-appropriate knowledge and skills from generation to generation. By contrast, our modern way of life literally steamrolls over bioregional differences: U.S. subdivisions are strikingly similar, from Houston to Anchorage. We’ve lost the bioregional knowledge of our elders. Instead, we depend on globalized commerce. And if anything, we’ve become still more economically fettered than Thoreau’s contemporaries: instead of 10 or 15 years, we typically need 30 years to pay off the cost of an average house in the US.
Fabricated suburbs are a luxury of the age of fossil fuels, in that fossil fuels provide the power to steamroll bioregional particulars. Instead of building place-appropriate dwellings, we crank up the AC or the heater as desired. Instead of building human-scaled, integrated communities, we drive heavy metal and plastic boxes called “cars” long distances on congested “freeways.” And, of course, we ship in food from afar, food with no connection to the local ecology.
As we transition away from fossil fuels, we’d do well to learn from the place-adapted communities that preceded us—at least to the extent possible, considering that we’ve so thoroughly erased them. Strong communities adapted to place help people live well and live efficiently, because living adapted to place simply takes less effort and energy. If you think about it, something’s out of whack when it takes 30 years to pay off a simple dwelling.
A biodiversity of cultures gives us the building blocks we need to imagine and create a new story. Unfortunately, as Donella Meadows wrote, “People appreciate the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the potential of every genetic variation in ground squirrels.”

Asking and giving

Low-energy living requires me to ask for help from others. There’s a lot to get done, so on a more-or-less daily basis, I ask for favors (and also let a lot of things remain undone). For example:
  • A friend and I had planned to meet at our shared community garden plot, but it turned out that I didn’t have the time or the energy to bike up there. I asked him to bring me some grapefruit from the tree in the garden. He ended up staying for dinner, and we played some music afterwards.
  • We have a network of friends with kids with whom we swap babysitting duties.
  • I asked a friend who’s a mosaic artist if she’d teach the boys and me how to mosaic the perimeters of broken concrete raised beds in our front yard. She ended up staying for dinner, as well.
  • I found that I had no seeds to start zucchini when the time was ripe, so I asked my neighbor for some.
My friends also ask me for favors, and I’m eager to help when I can. I’m actually glad when they ask me for help. Interestingly, it feels like everyone comes out ahead. The total benefit that occurs within the community is greater than the sum of the parts. A practical explanation for this is that we tend to seek help when we are in need, and we tend to give help when we have plenty to spare. So when we receive help, we’re grateful, it’s of great value; and when we give help, it’s rather easy to do. I call this asymmetric economy. This is how the biosphere works: a bird eats a berry, poops out a seed, a new berry bush grows somewhere else. But there’s also a human reason why asymmetric economy works: when we help someone with an open spirit, we become at least as happy as the person we help.
Seeking help, giving freely, and saying no (when it’s necessary to say no) are three daily practices of community.
Excerpted and reprinted with permission from Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus, New Society Publishers, August 2017.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Why We Are Still Convinced Robots Will Take Our Jobs Despite the Evidence
by Jeff Borland, University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

The tale of new technologies causing the death of work is the prophecy that keeps on giving. Despite evidence to the contrary, we still view technological change today as being more rapid and dramatic in its consequences than ever before.

The mistaken view that robots will take our jobs may come from a human bias to believe that “we live in special times”. An absence of knowledge of history, the greater intensity of feeling about events which we experience first-hand, and perhaps a desire to attribute significance to the times in which we live, all contribute to this bias.

History repeating

In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes envisaged that innovations such as electricity would produce a world where people spent most of their time on leisure activities. In the United States in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson established a Presidential Commission to investigate fears that automation was permanently reducing the amount of work available.

Australia has not escaped the prophecy, with similar concerns about the future of work expressed in the 1970s.

In their history of Monash University, Graeme Davison and Kate Murphy report that:
In 1978, the historian Ian Turner, organised a symposium on the implications of the new technologies. The world, he predicted, was about to enter a period as significant as the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. By 1988, at least a quarter of the Australian workforce would be made redundant by technological change …
Some years later, Barry Jones continued the gloomy forecasts in his best-seller Sleepers Wake!:
In the 1980s, new technologies can decimate the labour force in the goods producing sectors of the economy …
Of course, none of this came to pass in Australia; just as work did not disappear in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, or the 1960s in the United States. Yet today, we are seeing the resurrection of the prophecy. Commentary on the Australian labour market abounds with claims that the world of work is undergoing radical and unprecedented change.

The increased application of computer-based technologies in the workplace is suggested to be causing a reduction in the total amount of work available; or to be bringing a more rapid pace of substitution of machines for humans than has been seen previously.

No evidence for the death of work

In recent research with Michael Coelli, we argue that the prophecy is no more likely to be realised in the 2010s in Australia than in the 1970s.

Certainly, there is no evidence that the death of work is at present underway. Since the mid-1960s the aggregate hours worked by the Australian population (on a per capita basis) has remained stable.

In particular, there has been no long-run decline in the aggregate amount of work that matches the timing of the progressive introduction of computers to the workplace since the early 1980s.

Source: Borland, J. and M. Coelli (2017), ‘Are robots taking our jobs?’, Australian Economic Review, forthcoming, Figure 3

Moreover, the pace at which workers are churning between jobs in the Australian labour market is not getting quicker. Not only is there no evidence that more workers are being forced to work in short duration jobs, but what is apparent is that the opposite has happened. The proportion of workers in very long duration jobs has increased over the past three decades.

Source: Borland, J. and M. Coelli (2017), ‘Are robots taking our jobs?’, Australian Economic Review, forthcoming, Figure 9

Why work is not disappearing

There are good reasons why we should not expect new technologies to cause the death of work. New technologies always cause job losses, but that is only part of the story. What also needs to be understood is how they increase the amount of work available.

One way this happens is through the increases in incomes that accompany the application of new technologies. With the introduction of these technologies, it may take less labour time to produce what used to be consumed, but higher real incomes, together with an apparently unlimited human desire to spend, bring extra demand (for existing products as well as for new types of goods and services), and hence for workers to provide those extra goods and services.

As well, new technologies are likely to substitute for some types of workers, but to be complementary to, and hence increase demand for, other types of workers. Computer-based technologies appear to be complementary to workers who perform non-routine cognitive jobs.

In a report on the digitally enabled workforce, Stefan Hajkowicz and co-authors suggest a range of examples for Australia – such as an increase in demand for photographers at the same time as demand for photographic developers and printers has decreased; an increase in demand for graphic designers versus a decrease in demand for printers and graphic press workers; and a decrease in demand for bank tellers simultaneously with an increase in demand for finance professionals.

The ConversationThe end of work is no closer in Australia today than at any time in the past. So, perhaps there is a need to keep disproving the prophecy, to change our mindset.

Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.