Challenges and Rabbit Holes

I set out to create an eclectic newsletter – and to challenge myself to find some common thread between the bits. This week it almost didn’t work.

I’ve been watching: Leonardo di Caprio in Before The Flood

It’s really good, covers all the bases, has great visuals, talks to the right people. And yet I think it’s the last 20 minutes that really engaged me the most. So if time is tight, go to 1:15:38 and listen to Dr Piers Sellers of NASA. You see earth in all its glory, great visual science, and get to hear the life wisdom of a dedicated scientist with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Oh then there’s the Pope and Hieronymous Bosch and Leonardo at the UN.

I’ve also been watching: Game 6 & 7 of the World Series – Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians.

I was unwell OK – and it was great. After spending half my life as a rabid sports fan I lost interest completely about 10 years ago. Sport stopped making me feel good – maybe it was something to do with the adrenalin? Or menopause. Or boredom. Whatever the case, I found I liked the time I saved far better than the sport I didn’t see.

The Cubs won for the first time in 108 years – one of the longest, certainly the most legendary dry spell in sport. And the guy credited with engineering the turnaround is Theo Epstein – whom someone on Twitter characterised as one of the top 3 Jews – between Moses and Jesus. Someone also tweeted: ‘I guess Theo Epstein can be President now.’ He’s a baseball executive who’d auditioned for this huge reversal by helping to break the 86 year drought of the Boston Red Sox in 2004. There will be a movie about him and it will be even better than Moneyball. In fact there will probably be six movies.

It was great to watch a sporting event that mattered so much to so many, which twisted and turned its way between certain defeat and narrow victory and owed so much to the spirit of a tight team of highly skilled people. It wasn’t just about the moments of virtuosity, it was about their ability to withstand pressure and recover from mistakes. I truly think baseball is life.

I’ve been thinking about: Culture Change

Contrast the passion and immediacy of that sporting victory with the slow trainwreck that is climate change.

Watching di Caprio’s documentary I was struck at several points by his assertion that culture – especially US culture – can’t be changed, even to save us all from an out of control climate system.

As I witnessed first hand when the GFC struck in 2008, human beings can turn on a dime when they feel they have to. Theo Epstein spent two years helping to turn the Red Sox around and five years reinventing the Cubs. We leap aboard new bandwagons when we see the advantages. But we are simple creatures. Surround us with 150 like-minded people and we’re effectively insulated from having to change our minds.

Is Di Caprio right? Surround yourself with 361 million carbon-emitting North Americans and the cultural inertia is immense. But why does it only take a few confusing talking points and some Bayesian statistics to complete the mental gridlock?

I’ve also been thinking about: my failed thought experiment about Culture Change

I was thinking about mass culture and how, from the inside, it seems so permanent that damaging behaviour will persist even in the face of an existential threat like climate change; or social inequality for that matter.

We may have an average of 150 Facebook friends, but we don’t live in independent communities. Mostly we’re part of a socio-economic system which fuses social values and economic imperatives into a vaguely functional whole, keeping most of us safe and happy enough to let it continue.

Except when change is needed. The change that might happen easily in a small group as a result of inequality or evidence of one part of the group doing something that hurts the others [e.g. destroying the environment] gets lost in the inertia of the larger system. And our free will to do the right thing is undermined by our participation in the system.

It’s the same reason that small firms are more agile than large ones.

That analogy led me to consider a thought experiment where, by changing the scale and proximity of the world population from planet scale down to something village scale, I could show how easy it would be to change our behaviour in the face of threat. So I began to think about an island with, not 7.4 billion but 740 people. . .

If I got my maths right, this island would only be about 1500 hectares – which [and I checked this] is the same size as Ruapuke Island near Invercargill or Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Not large.

That’s when the rabbit hole emerged and down I went.

I thought about what Leonardo di Caprio had said about how American culture was not about to change just because it was a threat to the world as we know it, and I wondered how many North Americans would make it on to my island.

Turns out there would be around 36 – just over 5% of the whole group. Most of the 100 ‘Americans’ on the island would be from Central and South America.

I wrote: “I can imagine that the 36 North Americans might find themselves a little under pressure from the rest to explain why they and only they should be entitled to have a wasteful, individualistic, island-endangering lifestyle.”

So who would the rest have been? There would be 521 Eurasians – around 75 of them from Europe. There would be 123 Africans and 4 from our neck of the woods – including a couple of Aussies, but never mind.

Two interesting things [rabbit hole splits into two tunnels]

First, if there weren’t so many of us we wouldn’t have changed the climate.

The website I got these figures from reveals the astounding growth of the world population – it’s a hockey stick. In our lifetime it has ballooned from a fairly stable slow growth rate to exponential growth. The island that fits us all now won’t for much longer.

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

The focus on climate change actually shields us from the key issue – population growth. There are so many more of us, not just because we’ve created conditions that favour breeding, but also because we hang about. I mean we don’t die as early as we used to. Today – and I mean this very day – there’s about 2.3 births for every death [the population clock wouldn’t slow down enough to let me measure the direct comparison but you can see for yourself here]

Second – when you group us all together our inequalities become galling – and frightening.

For instance, though they are 74% of the population, Eurasians only have 36% of the land area of the island/planet. The Americans make up 14% of the population but will get more than twice as much land – half of that goes to the 36 North Americans. The Africans are roughly proportionate – 20% of the population and 17% of the land. We – all 4 representatives of Oceania have the rest – though that includes Antarctica.

Genocide is the normal anglo-European response to such situations, and Genghis Khan was no pushover either, so we must hope that everyone who want to stay on the planet [or island] has the ability to defend themselves in subtle but effective ways. No wonder Survivor is popular. And migration.

As Dr. Piers Sellars points out in the climate change documentary, recent wars in the Sudan and Middle East may already be reflecting the effects of drought and water shortages caused by climate change.

So my analogy of island and planet eventually did produce insight about culture change, but more about the way we kid ourselves about underlying change. Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari would argue that how we kid ourselves IS  culture. It’s what keeps the socio-economic system humming along. I wonder how Theo would turn that around?

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