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"Garbage In, Garbage Out". Rick Dubrow's “On The Level” Column; Cascadia Weekly; Submitted to the Weekly 11-28-08

A computer can only do what it’s programmed to do and is only as good as the instructions it’s given, right? You’ve seen this truth time and again. If there’s a logical error in software the result will probably be either a wrong answer or a system crash.

What about you and me? Do we function like a computer? Given that culture is the dominant software downloaded into our incredible cerebrum, how aligned are the programmed, cultural instructions with the health of our natural system?

Again, if the instructions are out of alignment (garbage in) then might we expect a system crash (garbage out)?

First let’s understand the system. The Earth is quite simple, really. We can’t harvest trees, the planet’s lungs, quicker than they grow back, without expecting the Earth to suffer from symptoms analogous to emphysema. We can’t spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it can process without expecting the Earth to suffer from symptoms analogous to hyperthermia.

We might describe this simplicity with a formula fed to us back in elementary school: your expenses cannot exceed your income without expecting, eventually, to go into debt. You can’t eat more calories than you burn without gaining weight.

This formula describes a natural limit: too much is not a good thing. Too much….. and we slam into a wall or fall off a cliff.

Since limits help the natural world remain healthy, it’s fair to say that human law needs to be aligned with natural law so that our culture supports, and doesn’t destroy, the natural systems upon which advanced life depends.

So let’s look at our track record; let’s look at our operating system.

Our cultural software downloads ‘more is better’; ’ borrow as much as you can’; ‘externalize costs onto others’; ‘extract as much as possible’; ‘the sky’s the limit’; ‘there are no limits’.

Can a cultural algorithm that doesn’t embrace limits operate sustainably within a natural system that is all about limits?

Enter overshoot, the consequence of exceeding limits. Exhale more carbon dioxide that can be processed and you have global warming; borrow more money than you can afford and you have foreclosure; use up your oil prior to developing a renewable substitute and you have energy scarcity; eat more than you burn and you have obesity.

Nature, after all, is quite simple. Live within acknowledged limits and sustainability flourishes. Exceed them and uncomfortable consequences flourish.

The combined consequences of peak oil and global warming are the ‘garbage out’ of a system trying to live a life misaligned with natural law. One says there are no limits; the other says there are. And since the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, there can be only one winner.

This is the globalization I believe in: the globe sets the rules.

Industrial civilization’s algorithm, gobblization, is the garbage in.

Hence, your homework: replace your operating system so that the laws you run with are aligned with natural law. Embrace limits and live within them. Replace the operating system your culture ‘manufactured’ you with. It’s garbage!

Natural law in, sustainability out.

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Comment by Daimon Sweeney on July 31, 2009 at 2:13pm
I think you're exactly right: the operating system of our culture is out of alignment with sustainable life on this planet. One or the other has to go. The planet is bigger and more resilient than our consumer culture, so it will prevail, though with damage.

The viable option as I see it is to we find a way to hack the cultural algorithm and displace the dominant status quo behavior of turning natural capital (forests, topsoil, etc.) to cash and trash with another that primarily values universal human well-being (which is only partially material) and the vitality of nature.

I think material greed is optional, learned (or not unlearned from infancy), dependent on social constructs of scarcity and not sharing, plus attribution of status and value. Greed (the assumption that more stuff is always better, at virtually any price) is destructive to our collective well-being.

What's an alternative that allows for satisfying lives and the well-being of nature? Not self-sacrifice, for that doesn't work for long. Any alternative has to be more satisfying personally than a lifestyle of material acquisition. Actually, that's not too hard to imagine. What would it take to make that the norm?

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