Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

Continue reading “Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…”

What is the Future of Pseudoscience?

Bad Science, Good Science

We live in an age of information, it is said again and again. But that doesn’t mean we live in an age of good information” ~ Rebecca Rosen

The above quote nicely sums up where we are right now. We need better ways of analyzing the veracity and integrity of the multitudes of information we meet with everyday in greater quantity. Skeptical readers perusing the Internet try, and often fail—not that it’s a bad thing, it only shows their human—to separate the good information from the bad information; the good science from the bad science; and the meaningful statistics from the meaningless statistics. This paradigm, of needing to verify and to fact-check everything, is going to change soon. Some time ago, I had the clever little thought—I don’t have many so I have to cherish them—that one day soon, someone will invent, or create, the Universal Fact Checker (UFC), most likely, as a browser plugin (an app for your browser that performs a task). Recently, something similar has been created, but I’ll get to explaining that shortly. First, I want to explain what I think the UFC will be. I envision it as an artificial intelligence (AI) that scours what you read informing you of dubious, false, or outdated claims, providing instant fact-checking on the spot—just as Fact Check does for US politicians; just like medicine does to snakes oilmen; and what science does to non-science. The key difference being is that it is with you at all times at the point of contact, as you absorb new information. You will not have to seek it out, or even to remember to seek it out, it will just be there karate-chopping bullshit in the face, like Penn & Teller, but, always there. Let’s face it, how many of us spot-check everything we learn? Not a single one of us. There simply isn’t enough time to do so even if you wanted to, and even if you had to. In such scenarios that we are in almost every day, the logical solution is not to accept it as fate, but to invent a technology that alleviates the problem—inability to check and retain every piece of information provided to us—and performs the necessary tasks orders of magnitude better than we could.

How Might It Work?

Picture this: imagine you’re reading some pseudoscientist’s take on autism, intelligent design, theistic evolution, quantum healing, or whatever other woo you can shake a scientific stick at, but never makes it goes away (as not everyone will read it, or even have the scientific training to understand it) but, as you browse and absorb, your trusty little UFC scours ahead, subjecting every word, statistic, number, sentence, and paragraph on the page against empirical, peer-reviewed science and academic works highlighting the paragraphs that profess false certainties or provide dubious claims. In other words, MMA’ing the hell out of pseudoscience (I had to put a bad pun in somewhere). Only the strongest claims—evidence-based claims—will survive; what we would otherwise call good science; which is, what we would otherwise call—for lack of a better word—the truth.

Consider an example: (1) A website details the increase in autism rates in the last several decades (true). (2) It then goes on to say vaccines contain thimerosal (partially true). (3) It, then, continues on to say that since thimerosal contains the neurotoxin mercury (true), comes to the conclusion: (4) vaccines cause autism (false). So, how might the UFC access such a claim?

(1) The first section, after having been UFC-assessed, remains untouched because there really has been an uptick in autism rates. Though, if you happen to hover your mouse over it, you will be informed that much of the uptick has been due to a redefinition of autism, and, doctors becoming more aware of autism, thereby, increasingly diagnosing it instead of the condition going unseen or misdiagnosed. So, it is quite likely that the uptick in autism rates is not really an uptick at all, but merely, properly accounting for it for the first time, though still comparing it to the previous underestimated counts. (Of course, it will also tell you that it is a hypothesis, the leading hypothesis, but still not decidedly proven, yet far in advance of any other leading hypothesis.)

(2) The second section being somewhat factually based, is highlighted in orange. As a curious observer you, again, hover your mouse over the highlighted paragraph and a side-bar appears informing you that thimerosal was removed from vaccines by the summer of 2001, excepting the flu and tetanus shots. So, the statement, being as it is a generalization, has tried to lull you into a false certainty—and in this case, failed. You become slightly more suspicious of everything else the article professes to know.

(3) You move on to the third section, and notice that, it too, is highlighted in orange, with a sidebar informing you that methyl-mercury is a neurotoxin, but it (methyl-mercury) is not found in those few vaccines that still contain thimerosal (or any vaccine that ever contained thimerosal), as mercury in thimerosal is bound as an organic ethyl-mercury; it thereby being rendered impotent and easily filtered out by your kidneys, and, therefore, cannot be a neurotoxin. Your suspicions continue to increase.

(4) The fourth section, you’ve now noticed, is highlighted in red as the conclusion does not follow the logic deductively, but rather, inductively, and even then, in a series of inductive leaps with no evidential threads to support the leap from one to the next, so it’s closer to say that they are purely imaginative leaps. The sidebar will inform you that studies looking for any causal thread, which have cumulatively looked at millions of children, have found not even a simple correlative example between thimerosal (or vaccines in general) and autism, or any other disorder. It will tell you that in studies that looked at vaccinated and non-vaccinated kids, they have the same rates of autism, but overall, vaccinated kids get less sick. You now close the webpage and never visit the website again.

Ramifications

Now, wouldn’t that be a sight. Every creationist, anti-vaxxer, homeopathic, quantum healing, feng-shui, talking-to-the-dead website would be littered in orange and red paragraphs. The websites of the Thinking Mom’s Revolution; of Joe Mercola; of Natural News; of Age of Autism; of Reasonable Faith; of Answers in Genesis would become virtual ghost-towns, almost overnight (well, so the theory goes). They will cry foul, they will bitch, they will whine, and complain about being censored, and that it is all a conspiracy to keep the truth from you, because of course, only they have it. Some will listen, I hope most don’t. It will be true, their future babble about censorship, that is. But it will be censorship by good science, and since good science is what nature has regarded as true, it will be censorship by nature, or as I prefer to call it, the universe. (When people refer to nature, they refer to the insignificant speck of dust that is the Earth, but the Universe is where the action is at.) Michael Specter said it best in his book Denialism: What can be understood and reliably repeated by experiment is what nature regarded as true.” Indeed, there will be a conspiracy, there will be censorship, but, it will be imposed by nature, and therein shall we find the truth.

I’ve meant to write this post for some months, but never got around to it. I finally did so after reading two interesting articles in close succession: one in The Atlantic by Rebecca Rosen, Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out, and the other on the open-source science journal PLOS ONE titled, Text Mining Effectively Scores and Ranks the Literature for Improving Chemical-Gene-Disease Curation at the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database. (I highly recommend you read both before continuing, but if you don’t have time to read the articles, I will summarize—inadequately I might add, so read them.)

The first is a tool, named Churnalism, and it has been created to identify plagiarism in the media. It will allow users to submit or post articles and have the language checked against press releases, Fortune 500 companies, and government sources. This will help the would-be reader separate the wheat from the chaff, the original from the copied, and the reportage from the self-congratulatory, and subjective, press release. You’ll have front-row seats as the reportage, reporters, blogs, and online media without integrity fall to the wayside. In short, it is a simple way to instantly check the integrity of those whom we trust with reporting the truth. This tool has the potential to cull those with false pretenses. (You can even install it as a browser plugin so it automatically identifies those articles that have plagiarized. Just as I hope the UFC will do one day—hopefully soon.)

The second is yet another tool created to serve a specific need performing a different, though equally important, task (at least for scientists, though if it helps them, it helps us all). There are thousands of scientific studies being published every day. (The open database, PubMed, alone publishes a new study every minute, and there is, perhaps, 50 million studies published somewhere.) No scientist can keep up with it, though it doesn’t stop them from trying. But, an inordinate amount of time is wasted weeding out non-relevant studies. If scientists could find a reliable way to accurately and quickly accomplish that task, it would, well, free up more time for them to do more science. So, a few scientists created a sophisticated algorithm that read through 15,000 papers going back to 1926 on metal toxicology and, using inputted indicators of article relevancy, novel data content, interaction yield rate, mean average precision, and biological and toxicological interpretability (you don’t need to know what these means) was able to, 85% of the time, rank the studies accurately in their relevance so that precious research time (and PHD students) could be focused towards those studies most conducive to their ends. Now, that is cool! (Also useful, but cool invariably comes first.)

What’s Next?

As I made the case earlier, this seems to be the beginnings of the left-hook out of left-field that pseudo-scientists will receive, and, hopefully, a lot sooner than many expect. These two programs, pieces of information technology, will not sit around unused and stagnant; others will take it, play with it, evolve it, and twist it to new purposes, and I hope one of those gifted folks turns it full-force towards the elimination of pseudoscience. Nothing is more relevant today than removing the influence of pseudoscientific jibber-jabber from the discourse we should be having on vaccines, nutrition, more importantly climate change and biotechnology, and perhaps even economics and politics. I can see no barriers to its implementation (aside from cost, which, as I’ll explain in a few paragraphs, is only a short-term problem).

I’m sure, by now, that most people know about IBM’s Watson beating two human opponents (the two best human opponents I might add) in Jeopardy; a game based on the nuance of human language. Watson, an AI, was able to deconstruct the language, understand grammar and syntax in the context of a question, and probabilistically match it to information it ascertained from Wikipedia. (That is, it wasn’t trained to play the game and had to figure out the answers all on its own in a similar manner to how our brains work.) Watch this video to see just how formidable Watson is (4-minutes long). You’ll even see most of the time that when Watson is beaten to the punch that he had the correct answer as well. Watson is now being trained as a medical assistant, and will be most instrumental in analyzing the totality of medical research and new studies coming out every day that a doctor could not hope to keep up with, and helping said doctor in correctly diagnosing patients reducing errors and cost, increasing health, and improving lives along the way. Watson, the fact checker, could be, in a few years, capable of the reasoning in our vaccine example above, if not already. And if IBM is this far, then other companies aren’t far behind. In fact, Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, is working to fully develop a personal, super-intelligent, and always online virtual assistant at Google that can read and understand the semantic content of the web at large. At that point, it will be possible that you’ll no longer have to search for stuff. You’ll just ask questions instead and empirically relevant, sound answers will be displayed. (Perhaps, this explains why Google is moving into hardware: Google Glass, self-driving cars, and the takeover of Motorola. No search results when you ask a question, but that is merely uninformed speculation.)

Benefits

Instead of searching for when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, where you may have several moon-landing-was-a-hoax results on the first page, you’ll only get the real, empirical answer: July 20th, 1969 alongside a photo of him, you know, actually standing on the moon.

Instead of spending long hours trying to research vaccine safety, where, as a non-medical professional, you can’t tell who’s giving you sound advice and who isn’t; and where, subsequently, a lot of good information is mixed, and lost in, a mountain of bad information, you’ll simply ask: “Is the DPT vaccine safe for my child?” The unambiguous answer will be yes, linking to the multitude of peer-reviewed studies (and only peer-reviewed) on the subject as well as, perhaps, explaining the pro’s and con’s of the quality of the studies, their methodology, any biases, statistical significance, and so forth. It will do this, perhaps, while also showing you the statistical advantage and risk-benefit analysis of not vaccinating your child, so that you may make your decision within the full context of available information bypassing your human heuristics that often ignores several important factors in valuing and acting on information.

Instead of having to filter through creationist babble about when and how the Universe was created, instead, you’ll ask “When and how did the Universe come into being?” The answer will be: “13.82 billion years ago. This data was ascertained with help from the Kepler and Hubble space telescopes, from WMAP, experiments in particle accelerators etc etc etc, and the best-supported hypothesis of creation at this time is a quantum energy fluctuation that instantiated itself into a system of net-energy zero that then forced negative space to expand to compensate for the positive energy instantiation, so that the system (Universe) remained at net zero energy.” (Of course, the super-intelligent machine will find a way to say this, or whatever the correct answer is, if it has changed or been refined, in a far more precise and succinct way than I have.)

But, where will these answers come from? From empirical, peer-reviewed research of course. From the hard and soft sciences, from academia, from open-source journals, and the avalanche of historic data just sitting around drawers waiting to be digitized, analyzed, and parsed through.

While the scenario I provided above—the autism example—is probably not going to happen for some years; for it takes an immense amount of computation and advanced algorithms. While these exist, they are supremely expensive, and considering that the UFC would be most useful as a free plugin—just as I have the churnalism plugin in my Chrome browser that automatically warns me if plagiarism is found—there is, as yet, no profit motive. (However, the profit motive is only necessary when the technologies are expensive. As they get cheaper, it will no longer be necessary.) But, because technology, particularly information technology (IT), is so awesome, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes cheap enough. (As IT’s price-performance per constant-dollar roughly doubles every year like clockwork. Therefore, in 10 years, the technology will be 1000 times more powerful while costing the same, adjusted for inflation, as now.) It’s only a matter of time before it is cheap enough.

Bye-Bye Pseudoscience

Mark the calendar friends, Churnalism and the Science Text-Miner are only the first step. When the UFC arrives, it will come out of the gate swinging. At first, it will be simple, but it will iterate quickly and quicker until it encroaches upon, enveloping and suffocating, all the fields of pseudoscience, and real science will win. How could good science not win? It offers unlimited expansion, untold benefits, improves our lives in a very real way, and—again, for lack of a better word—has the good manners of being true. Pseudoscience appeals only to our vanity and ego and little more, it can only win in an environment where it is not selected against, such as the current (and past) environment where only a small percentage of the population are scientifically trained, but as soon as the tools of skepticism become available to one and all, it will be relegated to the dustbin of history, a future bedtime story told to kids who understand that having bad, non, or no science is as scary as the bogey monster now is to many… (If you doubt the sincerity of that statement, as I’m sure many will, then I invite you to move back to the Rift Valley in Africa and live without the benefits that observation, replication, and innovation have bought us, and which have resulted in the tools of our survival and eventual ascendancy. Those tools, which have bought us prolonged healthy life, increased food production, clean water, reduced infant and maternal mortality, and this webpage did not come easy. Billions worked, and died, for them so that we may be where we are now. See how long you last without shelter, tools, binoculars, night-vision, vaccines, weaponry, clothes, wheels, and, most importantly, fire.)

Timeframe

Impossible to say, but, it is only a matter of time. There is nothing forbidding it, our AI’s today are quite powerful, and information technology is getting cheaper predictably, every single year, so, it follows that our AI will only become more powerful, exponentially so. It is only a matter of time. When it does come, either next year, in five years, or in ten, hilarity will ensue, but more importantly, good science will finally and fully claim its status in the game of thrones played for with truth-claims for millennia  Nothing will unseat it thereafter; well, nothing without a regress to the past. Lives will be improved and prosper; economies will grow and become more efficient; and, for good and all, better knowledge will have a selective advantage, and false knowledge will, for the first time in 200,000 long, agonizing, and painful years, have a selective disadvantage. Good riddance! The byproduct of our dear UFC will be, that, our minds will almost seem to perform as if on steroids. That is something I’d sign up for in an instant.

“Science is not a democratic process. Scientists don’t line up and say ‘gee,’ we really like this theory, let’s all vote for it. That’s not how it works. What we do in science is we find what explanations work.” ~ Eugenie C. Scott (Biologist)

 

GMOs are Unnatural? And Other Thoughts on Biotech

GMO

My last three posts have been about GMOs. I took a bit of flak for it—I even got some thank you’s and well done’s, mainly from scientists and farmers. In copping the negative flak however, the consensus seemed to be that genetically engineered foods and GMO technology are unnatural, therefore bad, and this is usually wrapped up in the guise of the naturalistic fallacy (anything natural is better than anything manmade). I find this naturalistic argument rather short-sighted, and a non-sequitur (conclusion does not follow from the logic). (I’m not saying that its wrong to eat organic foods, merely that the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the way it is presented. If you want to take what nature offers, then have at it without need of rationalizing it.) I also find that the stated goals of many an activist organization would, almost without question, lead to outcomes in-conducive to the stated environmentalism that those who hold the argument adhere to. Let me detail why I think so, as well as get into a dissection of biotechnology, nature, evolution, and a few others subjects (I got a bit carried away and before I knew it, this post was almost 5,000 words).

GM in Nature

Let’s take the basic premise: nature makes stuff better than we do—arguably the root of the organic movement. Starting at the beginning: some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, there existed a single-celled replicator that is the common ancestor of everything alive today. Harken back to the thought that recombinant rDNA technology is unnatural, which would mean that nature doesn’t do it. For, if genomic modification was unnatural, then we could confidently say that we wouldn’t be here. Since nothing could have evolved from that original replicator. It would just be replicators ad infinitum, one after the undifferentiated other. Nothing would change, because random changes and mutations would not occur. Even the original replicator would not have evolved so we wouldn’t have gotten that far. Nature is the original Engineer. (If you’re wondering why I capitalized engineer, then you haven’t watched Prometheus. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.) In order to go from that replicator to a 100-trillion celled human being, nature had to employ genomic engineering, albeit by accident. The only difference between nature’s style and our own is that nature’s is directionless and purposeless—there is no end goal in mind; whatever happens, happens. For every animal that exists, for every animal that was born, for every animal that lived out its short life, there were billions that met untimely, and quite likely, painful ends. Of all the species that ever existed, 99.9% are today extinct. Nature is not the benign process we think her to be, and though it is very easy to say that mother nature should be our guiding light (or spirit, or mother), but I submit to you that the 1.7 billion people who died of natural infectious diseases in the 20th century alone would not agree (if they could disagree, that is), or the 1.97 billion people who died of non-communicable diseases. If we were to compare our own body count: all the wars, crime, subjugation, and intolerance of mankind, to natures, we’d find that she more than trebled our own count, which stands at some 980 million people. Surely, nature does put us to shame with her 3.67 billion death tolls. Be that as it may: it follows that we are here because of the natural process of genomic modification and there is nothing inherently unnatural in the process. Mutations happen: either nature makes them happen with no thought to the outcome, or we control for them with genetic engineering.

Nature Does It Best

Let’s again take the basic premise that nature makes stuff best. From that first replicator, and then every step along the way, nature haphazardly selected for organisms preferentially selecting for those with beneficial mutations (allowing them better success in passing on their genes), selecting against those with detrimental mutations, and being ambivalent towards those with benign mutations until, eventually, in the Rift Valley some few million years ago, primates began evolving intelligence along with the spectacularly lucky coincidence of an opposable thumb. These two lucky outcomes allowed their descendants to manipulate their environment with an ever-increasing degree of control using said, gifted intelligence. (One theory is that intelligence evolved as a courtship device; watch this video by Jason Silva for a 90-second primer.) Therefore, our intelligence and the manipulation of our environment are thus given to us by Mother Nature…arguably to have it used. Every animal on this blue-green dot we call Earth uses to its advantage every trick and tool nature endowed it with. (After all, those that don’t often do not pass on their genes.) To categorically state that nature makes stuff better than we do so that we should bow down to her wisdom is to willingly ignore that nature made us the way we are to do what it is we do, which is the propagation our genes using our selective advantage (intelligence and environmental manipulation). It follows then, that, everything we do is, concordantly, natural. (Unless of course, you believe you have free will, which you don’t.) We are made by nature, therefore everything we do is natural and, therefore, everything we are doing now is the best possible solution because it is natural. As you can see, this line of reasoning (natural > human-made) is a slippery slope and is, plain and simply, ill defined. The distinction between nature, human culture and technology is an arbitrary distinction. We do the things that we do now because of our naturally endowed capacity. But, another way to put it is that after 3.8 billion years, an animal (Homo sapiens) evolved its own evolvability (technology) thus continuing the process of selection in the process superseding natural selection becoming the dominant selection process. We are the first species that does not live entirely within the constraints of natural selection, but that does not mean we don’t live in a selection process, just that we override natures and institute our own. In time, we rely less and less on natural selection and more on environments of our own choosing—but it is so because nature made it so. Ants make anthills, beavers make dams, birds make nests, and Homo sapiens make technology, and it’s all natural. (Note: I’m not saying we need to colonize the Earth and have everything submit to our mighty republic. Yes, I just finished watching Spartacus.) Only that within our domain, we have already done so to our own advantage, and there is nothing wrong with this—it is natural even.

Selection

Remember that evolution happens regardless of whether we rework it to our advantage—biotech crops—or leave nature be.

  • Evolution is natural selection by random mutation
  • Pre-Industrial (i.e., organic) agriculture is artificial selection by random mutation
  • Conventional agriculture is artificial selection by accelerated random mutation
  • GM agriculture is artificial selection by purposeful mutation

The changes are changes in degree, not in kind. To label one unnatural is to label them all unnatural. It is evolution, continued. Something has to fulfil both the selection process and the mutation process in evolution. It’s either nature, which has neither direction nor purpose, and evidenced by her 3.67 billion person death toll in the 20th century from just 2 categories, has neither your health or longevity in mind; or we fulfil the selection process, which nature gives us the ability to so.

While the result of recombinant rDNA technology may be labelled unnatural (merely because it doesn’t exist in nature, not because it can’t). The same cannot be said of the technology that produces such food. We are co-opting nature’s methods to make food, not playing God. (You may dispute the fact that I said that it could exist in nature by saying that a fish gene could never wind up in a tomato, but you’d be wrong. Your genome is the combined genome four times over of the amphioxus fish-like marine chordate. A 1cm little fish’s genome mistakenly copied twice over on itself has resulted in every land animal today, and you. If nature can turn a little fish into you, then why is it so distasteful that we put cross-species genes where we need them? Uncertainty may be the first thing that comes to your mind, but nature had no idea what she was doing either.)

The Point

There is a movement to demonize GM technology and even conventional agriculture, with the wish to return to the agricultural past. Organic agriculture is fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, but we can’t feed the world with it. Remember Paul R. Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb? It stated in 1968 that in the 70s and 80s, mass famines would ensue as we wouldn’t be able to make enough food, and any efforts to avert such a disaster are a waste of time and should be scrapped. (Thomas Malthus said much the same thing in 1798.) Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why didn’t the predictions of mass starvation and disaster come to pass? Well, they would have if we listened to him and did nothing. Instead we developed the technologies that allowed us to increase yield to a stupendous degree.

Context

Since 1961, we’ve increased yield by 300% using only 12% more land. How? We used technology to make drastically increase yield and avert the predicted disaster of Ehrlich and many others. Said differently, if we kept farming organically, mass famine would have ensued. Without such yield increases thanks to plant science, we would have had to use two Latin America’s of arable land to compensate, or, more likely, the predicted mass starvation would have occurred. If in the 1960s when the world population was less than 3 billion people, the propagation of organic farming as the sole agricultural method would have resulted in disaster, how it will help us now when we are 7 billion people and on the way to 9-10 billion people? The majority of that increase in yield has come from plain ol’ conventional agriculture, but now our yields are coming up against a glass wall for that type of plant science, and GE foods are the next process to take us forward to surmount the coming set of problems. And, while we still have a starving billion today, it is not because we can’t create the food, but we can’t get it to them. The solution to world hunger is for those most afflicted by it to be able to grow their own food, instead of relying on food aid and handouts as band aids applied to a broken bone. Organic farming will not suffice for Sub-Saharan Africa; they need heat-tolerant and drought-resistant strains. (They already don’t have any biotechnology or conventional agriculture, ergo, organic farming, which is what remains, has failed them.)

Future Problems

In the next 40 years, we need to double yield without an increase in land usage—in fact we’ll need to decrease land usage (agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change). We will not accomplish this by going back to low-input agriculture—though it won’t go anywhere for those who still want it. I make the case in my book that Vertical Farming (VF) will do the trick. VF certainly is capable, but what if the mass migration from horizontal farming to vertical farming never takes place? The technology was invented in the 50s by the US military and then nobody did anything with it for 60 years. What if that no-usage scenario repeats itself? We cannot afford to stand idly by and hope that everything will go according to plan. We need contingencies and redundancy. One of those is GM agriculture. We have been eating GM food for 20 years: in that time, we’ve spared the environment 438 million kilograms of pesticide use. (Don’t forget, organic farming uses pesticides too, and organic pesticides aren’t automatically better for the environment. Some are thousands of times more toxic.) In 2010, 19.4 billion kgs of CO2 was not released into the atmosphere because of GM technology (the equivalent of 8.6 million cars removed from the roads for a year). Over half of the economic benefits of GM seeds have gone directly to farmers in developing countries helping them rise up out of subsistence farming and poverty. In America, the country that eats the most GM food, cancers over the last 20 years have gone down 20% so the promised health apocalypse that many have warned about were coming have not materialized.

If we want to solve the problem of population growth, we have to realize that living in poverty is what propels the world’s poor to have more children, and food insecurity is a major factor. As Peter Diamandis wrote in Abundance, poor families living in subsistence need at least 3 kids, and they aim for male children. Why three? Well, as distasteful as it sounds; one may die, one will tend to the farm and look after the parents as they age; and the other is sent to get an education to break the cycle and make money enough to hopefully lift them out of poverty. The best solution to breaking out of a life of subsistence is food security. People in Sub-Saharan Africa can’t use organic farming (which, as mentioned earlier, if defined only by lack of conventional tools and biotechnology, then they are already organic, and food insecure).

Potential Benefits

Recently, we passed peak farmland, which unlike peak oil or peak water actually has positive connotations for us, but especially, the environment.

See the blue section in the above graph? That is the actual farmland used since 1961 to get us the aforementioned 300% yield increase. See the upward sloping green section? That’s how much land we would have used if we didn’t use conventional agriculture to create todays food. It is the equivalent landmass of the USA, Canada, and China, and try to imagine the destruction of forestry that that would have entailed. To be an environmentalist is, by definition, to support the conservation of nature. To support the conservation of nature should be, by definition, to support conventional agriculture as it uses less land to grow that food—going forward, this will entail supporting, or at least supporting the possibility of using, GMOs.

If we continue on our current path of increasing yields using science and biotechnology, the authors of the Peak Farmland study conservatively estimate that we could return 146 million hectares to nature by 2060, with high estimates that 256 million hectares could be restored (roughly double the area of the USA, east of the Mississipi). None of this even takes into account the potential land and resource reduction benefits of IV meat (which I detail here), or the coming generation of biotech crops, many of which will have: significantly reduced pesticide use (some using no pesticides at all), reduced nitrogen use (reducing river pollution), increased nutrition along with many other benefits. But, many such seeds are locked away due to the intense furore to GMO use, allowing only those few that the seed giants can afford to push through the regulatory burden. PG Economics noted that if, in 2010, those biotech crops already available were removed from the market, farmers would have had to plant an additional 5.1 million ha of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn, 3 million ha of cotton, and 0.35 million ha of canola to keep production steady, equivalent to an additional 8.6% of arable land in the US. Yet, this is what activists would have us do, remove all GM crops, necessitating the further destruction of forestry and nature for human purposes.

So, if we move forward into the future, we’ll give back hundreds of millions of hectares of farmland to nature, and if we move forward with biotechnology, we’ll do likewise.

Big Ag

But, are there problems, real problems, with biotechnology that have been covered or up concealed? With the technology, we find no problems that aren’t present in other forms of agriculture. As the National Academy of Science, and many prestigious scientific organizations concluded, the process itself is no more inherently risky than any other method. Biotech crops usually have between 1 and 3 genes altered, but every new generation of organic and conventional crops will have a few different genes in there too. (They are inevitable: a DNA copying error, a passing cosmic ray etc., will, and do, induce genetic mutations. To say there is uncertainty in GMOs is likewise to admitting that there is uncertainty in any new generation of plant or animal. The average human offspring carries about 100-200 mutations, but they are still people. Food with 1-3 added genes is still food.)

On the business side is where we find many that many folks have a priori problems. But these problems are indicative, and suggest the need of, business reform, patent reform and competition, and not the outright banning of the technology (which is just not possible, anyway). This business problem ended up co-mutating into advocacy against GMOs in general instead of where it should actually be directed, lack of competition due to the overbearing regulatory burden on GM crops which was instituted due to the initial advocacy, and round and round the circle we go, as the increased advocacy only exacerbates the problems activists think they are trying to stop. The intense backlash against biotechnology has only cemented the power of those few who first began exploring the field. Even then, the scale of abuse, often levelled at Monsanto, rivals the misinformation that the Catholic Church spouts against condom use on the continent most ravaged by aids, likening condom use to be a greater danger than the ravages of aids. (A sensible approach to Monsanto was detailed by activist Ellen of One Hundred Meals.)

We need to stop pretending that only Big Ag and Monsanto lobbies, undercuts, and undermines democracy; the organic movement spends $2.5 billion a year on advocacy. We need to stop thinking that Monsanto is after world domination: the global GM seed market in 2012 was $14 billion ( that is world domination with 0.0002% of global purchasing power), while organic food sales are $60 billion worldwide. (The total value of those GM crops when harvested is around $65 billion.) We need to know that all farms strive to use the least amount of pesticides required, as it is their biggest expense, and that synthetic chemicals are not a priori worse than organic chemicals, in fact, quite the opposite. In other words, we need to get real, and deal with the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.

For whatever problems we have today, the solution is not to ban it, it is to weigh the risks vs. the rewards and act appropriately. It is to study and to research, and to have reasoned debates among experts on the pros and cons; but above all, keeping in mind the effects on people far and wide around the world. Food security and a heavy disease burden (usually going together) undermine society at every level of its functioning. To fix them is to advance significantly in all other matters of societal dysfunction. Who knows how many Newtons, Einsteins, and Curies we are losing to lack of food, clean water, and education every year while we bicker over functionally equivalent types of food. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t, but don’t stop others from making their own choice. The liberal movement in America and Europe is pro-choice when it comes to matters of female reproduction—and rightfully so! —Yet, move the topic to food, swiftly change to being anti-choice, even though the ramifications for billions of poor people around the world are far worse than for a women in a forced pro-life environment.

But instead of focusing on legitimate problems with the business, competitive, and legal environment, red herrings are thrown this way and that: that organic food is nutritionally superior; a meta-analysis covering 162 studies over a 50-year period says their not, and any nutritional differences are unlikely to have a significant outcome on health. Facts are thrown out stating that organic is environmentally superior to all other forms of farming, despite the fact the answer is far more nuanced. We are told that farmers are using GMOs to lather their fields in Roundup, yet the National Academy of Science wrote, “When adopting GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops, farmers mainly substituted the herbicide glyphosate for more toxic herbicides.” (A report from the National Research Council even gave an impressive list of GM benefits including: improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use, but everyone focused instead on the little nuggets of bad news instead of the load of good news.) In using GMOs we use less toxic pesticides, and the result is a net environmental benefit, as glyphosate usually replaces atrazine (a pesticide 200 times more toxic). Instead of learning about real yields on GMO, we get the Union of Concerned Scientists telling us that ‘intrinsic yields’ haven’t increased since the inception of GMO, even though intrinsic yield tells you nothing, but total yield really has increased. But the most destructive effect of this headline-grabbing debate fiasco is as Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California wrote, “as it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

Red herrings are red for a reason, they are meant to distract you, not inform you. We need some green herrings.

Choice

Those of us with the ability to read this post have the luxury of choice when it comes to choosing between organic, conventional, and GM agriculture. (‘Certified Organic’ also means GMO-free, so, we don’t need to go through the hoops of requiring even more labels.) But more than 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night (16 million people of whom will die of hunger this year) will not have that luxury. Half the planet’s population remains malnourished, then the one to two million people (670,000 are under five years of age) who will die from Vitamin A deficiency this year who, in point of fact, will not be thankful to Greenpeace for their 16-year blockade of GM Golden Rice that could save them—they’ll die slow, painful deaths instead, only to be replaced by more kids to replace them, many of whom will die too. To fix that problem—which is not only a moral necessity—reduces the burden of increased population growth. (The response to both of those claims—starvation and vitamin A deficiency deaths—is that we shouldn’t be feeding them unhealthy food instead. Those saying this have clearly never gone without food for longer than a few hours, let alone the few weeks it takes to die of starvation, or the years over which blindness sets in from vitamin A deficiency, which then goes on to kill half those afflicted. And, of course, it assumes that GM food really is less healthy or less nutritious, which it isn’t.) It’s time we got out of our First World bubble.

There is, despite the hysteria, a scientific consensus on the safety and risk profile of GM technology. Almost every scientific organization, from the National Academy of Sciences to the Royal Society thinks it so and 600 peer-reviewed studies back up the claim. Aside from a few deniers, we trust our scientists on climate change, don’t we? They are shouting from the rooftops about the dangers of climate change, and how little time we have left to reverse course. You’d think if there were a comparable danger from biotech, you’d have more than a handful of scientists speaking up. So, why don’t we trust them on biotech?

Norman Borlaug—father of the Green Revolution, who saved one billion lives using plant science—had this to say about the food fight we in the West are squabbling over: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.

While we endlessly bicker and sensationalize, people are dying of starvation. It does no good to deal in hypotheticals such as: if we wasted less food, there’d be enough for everyone (you wouldn’t be able to ship it to them); if more people were charitable, everyone would be ok; if we switched to organic agriculture, we could feed everyone (wrong), along with many others. Despite the fact that many of them are wrong or idealistic, they presume people being rational, informed, and having access to and accepting unadulterated and uncensored good, reliable information. Is that likely to happen anytime soon? The cries of the anti-vaxxers are still putting kids (and society at large) in danger; the chant of the climate-deniers only delays needed progress; but on issues of food security, arguably the most important of all, we’ll all see reason?

Changing People or Inventing Technology—Which is Easier?

Is it easier to change the hearts and minds of billions of people with all their complexities and interrelationships or is it easier to invent new technologies that solve the issues for those affected? The climate movement has struggled to change the hearts and minds of people and politicians for over twenty years and we’ve got very little to show for it. Let’s not continue making the same mistake with food. Changing the consumption habits of one billion westerners—if that is even possible—will take a long time with no certainty of success. Meanwhile, the people dying of starvation will keep dying. The technologies to feed them using less land and cheaper inputs are here and now, they are safe, they are capable, and they are predictable, regardless of how shrill the opposition to them is from well-fed oppositionists who’ve never felt the sensation of hunger. It’s time to deal with the facts, but above all, it is time to value human lives consistent with the evidence and facts we have. The intentions and hearts of the bored, guilted sensibilities of Western activists who grumble at a skipped lunch is in the right place; their proposed solutions and flawed reasoning are not.

They are plenty of problems we face in agriculture. The vehement backlash against biotechnology is distracting from those issues. Biotechnology won’t solve every problem, but they will help substantially. In fact, the co-use of biotech crops alongside organic crops—in what is called a refuge zone—significantly curtail pest resistance. It may be that the bright agricultural future within our grasp uses both systems side by side.

The next generation of GMOs could boost nutrition, reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, and boost yield, letting us feed the world without chopping down its remaining forest. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine ‘bio-organic’ farms that don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, but that do use these genetically enhanced seeds.” ~ Keith Kloor (Science Writer)

Whatever is the case, we need to realize that feeding 7 billion, let alone 9 to 10 billion people in the near future, isn’t going to be easy. If it fits on a Facebook photo as a caption, you can rest assured it will solve nothing. This post is 4,600 words long and is barely scratching the surface. Some silly shared photo on Facebook demonizing Monsanto or chemical use not only shows you things out of context, they detract from the conversations we should be having.

[Updated to remove superfluous text]

Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist

Gm Food good

Last year, as those who’ve read the first edition of my book will know, I was anti-GMO. Why? Well, I thought I had the evidence on my ‘side’. But I can now honestly say it was because I had no idea what I was talking about. (Need further proof I’m an idiot?) My knowledge of the subject was inadequate; much of that knowledge I got from biased sources; and I’m sure there was some social conformity bias somewhere in there. (I’m sure there were many more biases; but honestly, listing my own biases is depressing. I’d rather much do it to others. That’s where the fun is at!) I’ve just released a 2nd edition of my book, Random Rationality, and that stance has been rectified.

In the meantime, I’ve delved into some of the literature and involved myself in a debate with friends on the nature of GMO on the safety issue. In doing that, I also reached out to Dr. Kevin Folta last week (his profile and academic history here, and check out his highly informative blog here) to confirm what I had learned, and find out why GMO’s are so misunderstood. Dr. Folta is a plant geneticist who works at the University of Florida. He’s a scientist who specializes in plant molecular biology and he was kind enough to share his thoughts with me on his area of expertise. Our exchange is below, you’ll find it brief, but extremely informative. I’ve bolded some of his statements, those that I consider important.


The Lowdown on GMOs with a Scientist

Fourat (Me) – What is the main thing (or is it general) about GMO’s that the public routinely confuse, or get wrong, when discussing and debating their impact?

Kevin Folta –  There are so many misconceptions. The first is a fundamental one, that being that there is a debate at all.  There is no debate among scientists in the discipline of plant molecular biology and crop science. Sure you can find someone here and there that disagrees, but there is no active debate in the literature driven by data. There are no hard reproducible data that indicate that transgenics are dangerous or more potentially dangerous than traditionally bred plant products.

If I had to nail down the most annoying misconceptions they would include that all scientists are just dupes of big multinational ag companies. Anyone that presents the consensus of scientific interpretation of the literature is immediately discounted as some corporate pawn. There’s nothing further from the truth. Most of us are hanging on by a thread in the days of dwinding federal, state and local support for research. The attacks on the credibility of good scientists hurts our chances to stay in academic labs and consider the cushy salaries and job security with the big ag corporate monstrosities we chose not to work for when we took jobs working for the public good. That’s pretty sad.

There is this allegation that we hide data or don’t publish work that is inconsistent with corporate desires. They need to get one thing straight. We’re not in the public sector because we are excited about listening to some corporate mandates. No thanks.  We’re here for scientific freedom and to discover the exceptions to the rules and define new paradigms.

If my lab had a slight hint that GMOs were dangerous, I’d do my best to repeat that study, get a collaborator to repeat it independently, and then publish the data on the covers of Science, Nature and every news outlet that would take it. It would rock the world. Showing that 70-some percent of our food was poisonous? That would be a HUGE story — we’re talking Nobel Prize and free Amy’s Organic Pot Pies for life! Finding the rule breakers is what we’re in it for, but to break rules takes massive, rigorous data. So far, we don’t even have a good thread of evidence to start with.

The other huge misconception is that you can “prove something is safe”. Nothing can be proven safe. We can only test a hypothesis and show no evidence of harm. You can’t test all variables — nobody could. We can ask if there is a plausible mechanism for harm. If there is, we can test it. If there isn’t, we can do broad survey studies. A scientist can search for evidence of harm — a scientist can never prove something is safe.

2 –  In what ways might GMO’s be most beneficial to our biosphere, and why might organic’s not be as good as to get us there?

Kevin Folta – There is no doubt that transgenic plants can be designed to limit pest damage with lower pesticide applications. That is well documented by the National Academies of Science, the best unbiased brains in our nation. Most data is for cotton and maize, and show substantial reductions (like 60%). Transgenic potatoes were amazingly successful in Romania until they joined the EU and had to go back to insecticide-intensive agriculture.  Even glyphosate resistance traits, for all of their drawbacks in creating new resistant weeds, replace toxic alternatives.

Conventional farming takes fuel, labor, fungicides, pesticides, nematicides and many other inputs. Water and fertilizer are in there too.  There are genes out there in the literature that address most of these issues. Scientists in academic labs discover these genes and define their function in lab-based GMOs that never are used outside the lab. The regulatory hoops are too difficult and expensive. Only the big companies can play in that space. Even little companies like Okanagan Specialty Fruits have to deal with the nonsense from those that hate the technology. Opposition to the science keeps the big guys in business, because nobody else can compete.

Who loses? The farmer, the consumer, the environment, the academic scientist and most of all the people around the world that don’t get enough food and nutrition. Who gains? Big ag.

3 – What do you consider the most important aspect of differentiating the good from the bad when it comes to considering science? i.e., what is the first thing you look for after reading a study

Kevin Folta – In the short-term I consider the system studied.  Was it an animal system or cells in a dish? Most of the anti-GMO work is done on cells, especially cell lines that sound scary (like ovary, testis or fetal cells) but have little relevance to the complexities of animal systems. If done in animals, was the experiment properly controlled? Do the researchers SHOW the controls (like they conveniently omitted from Seralini’s 2012 rat-cancer work in Figure 3). Many studies that look good compare a GMO to an unrelated plant type. It is just not a valid comparison. Plants produce toxins and allergens, so you need to test the same exact plant without the added gene. If they do the rest of this properly then they need to run sufficient numbers and use good, common statistics. If they do all of this the work is publishable after peer review and should go into a decent journal, not some low-impact journal that publishes incomplete work or work that oversteps the data.

A lot of junk escapes peer review. Reviewers and editors are overstressed and overburdened these days. We do the work as service for the field. Occasionally a paper slips by in a lower-impact journal. You’ll find most of the anti-GMO papers there.

Another important attribute of good work is demonstrating a mechanism. For instance, just don’t tell me that you found some evidence of GMO harming cells. Tell me how. How does it happen? If the phenomenon is real the mechanism should be dissected out in a year’s time.  Omics tools are incredibly sensitive and we can detect small differences in gene expression and metabolic profiles. If GMO harm was real, the authors would define that mechanism, then collect their Nobel Prize and Amy’s Pot Pies.

The ultimate test is reproducibility. You’ll see that the best “evidence” for harm from GMOs comes from obscure journals, aging references that were published and heavily refuted by the scientific community (Puztasi, Seralini, etc), and work that was never repeated by outside labs. These are flash-in-the-pan works that never are expanded beyond the seminal study. The best sign of real science, good science, in an edgy area is that it grows. You see more scientists pile on, more research, more funding and bigger ideas. Models expand, mechanisms grow.

That just does not happen in the anti-GMO literature. The same authors publish a paper and then it goes on the anti-GMO websites and gains attention — while it dies in the scientific literature with no follow-up.

4 – Is there any split in the scientific community as to the safety of GMOs? If so, where does the split lay?

Kevin Folta – There are splits in the scientific community like there are splits for climate change and evolution. You have scientists like NIH Director Francis Collins that support creationist leanings. You have a small set of meteorologists and atmosphere scientists that claim that climate change is not real. There’s always room for a dissenting opinion out there, but they usually don’t have good evidence, just belief.

The same is true in biology and plant science.  There are a few out there that let philosophy rule over evidence, but they are not at the edge of research. In the circles I work with there is consensus about the safety and efficacy of the technology. Even those that study organic and other low-input production systems support biotech as a way to do their jobs even better. That’s a strange relationship many don’t expect. You’ll not see anti-GMO writing from too many tenure-track scientists at leading universities.

There is confusion on this. The Union of Concerned Scientists is frequently used as evidence that scientists are against this technology. When you read who they are and what they do, they are activists. They don’t do research or publish in the area of biotech. There are also others that claim to be experts or exploit some tenuous university affiliation to gain credibility. They should be looked at as deceitful, but they are accepted and believed with great credibility. People like Mercola, Smith and others sure sound like they know what they are talking about but they are not experts. Even Benbrook, a guy with a great career and a wonderful CV, goes off the deep end on the topic.

Readers need to apply all of the filters we discussed here today.  What the data really say, who did the work, and if it was reproduced independently are the most important criteria in separating reality from fiction in the GMO topic.


If you stand for scientific integrity, and going where the facts take you, then please share this Q&A so it may reach a wider audience. Almost every factoid from the Anti-GMO crowd has been thoroughly refuted, debunked, and repudiated by the scientific community. Millions of lives depend on the future of our food production, that means they depend on scientific experimentation and information untainted by ideology. The science is settled, and has been for some time. And as Dr. Folta above, and others, have elucidated, the intense opposition to the GMO technology has only intensified Monsanto’s grip upon the market. Facebook it, tweet it, re-blog it, or Google Plus it. Give my blog credit, don’t give it credit; I don’t really care. Good science matters more than pageviews (though pageviews are still nice), and more scientists like Dr. Folta should have their voices heard instead of the fear-based, fake-facts groups out there shouting from the rooftops who don’t know the first thing about genomics, evolution, or reality. (If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my last one on science in general, read it here.)

Ready. Set. Share!

[UPDATE: Part 2 and 3 in this series; Lowdown on GMOs with a Family Farmer and Lowdown on GMOs with a Biotech Firm can be found here and here.]

The Future of Food

Future of Food

Almost at the end, then my readers can stop getting annoyed at my incessant posting as I go back to my bi-weekly or monthly schedule. (Even I’m looking forward to that.) This is sub-chapter #18, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


A FUTURE OF FOOD

Food security is a very big deal these days, with many countries, most publicly the UN, trying to fix it to ensure future food security. Even my dad and girlfriend are helping, working at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

According to projections by the UN, by 2050, there will be at least nine billion people on this planet. Water demand will increase by 70-90% with current crop technologies. Agriculture, as it stands today, accounts for thirty-percent of human green house gases (more than the transportation, electricity, and manufacturing sectors, making it the single-largest contributor, as well as accounting for 70% of sustainable water use).

Each of these statistics is scary in and of themselves, and taken together, paint a bleak picture of the future of food and by extension, humanity. As a result, many countries around the world are actively implementing more of the same policies to ensure they get their slice of the pie, instead of embracing smarter technologies so that everybody gets a slice of the pie. (Did we need more evidence government is ill-equipped to deal with the problems of the 21st century?)

The Chinese, the Saudi’s, the Egyptian’s, and the Emirati’s, among others are buying up farmland in different areas of the world to supply food to their own populations. It almost sounds like they are trying to placate their people for fear of social unrest—undoubtedly the biggest motivator in revolutions past, and those ongoing in 2012 and 2013.

So where is all this extra food going to come from to feed these two billion extra hungry mouths, let alone the billion hungry people we have today?

It’s not like you can just grow food anywhere; you need certain types of soil, climate, sun-exposure, fresh-water, fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, plows, farm hands, trucks, and last of all, seeds. And those are only the vegetables. Animal-meat requires far more in resources: 15 oz of meat on average requires 100 oz of vegetable protein. None of that is easy.

Running any farm is a lot of work. Then there is the added factor that food today travels an inordinate distance before reaching its destination. Every one of the above factors is linked to the price of oil; from the petrochemicals in the fertilizer to the diesel that runs the tractors and trucks, to the delivery of goods to factories, to the packaging of those foods and re-delivery to distributors and then to supermarkets. Food is going to get very expensive the further we move away from peak oil, unless things are drastically changed. Thankfully, this is beginning to happen.

It is not a reasonable course of action to simply rely on big corporations and governments to solve the problem of these essential services. Especially as they mismanage our remaining resources and politically misprioritize urgent national agendas—well, from our perspectives, at least (climate-change has been on the agenda since 1992 with little—some may say, if any—progress since then).

On governments, people who usually don’t have a clue how things work have a funny habit of running for office in the latter stages of democracy, and people who want to use that ignorance to further a private agenda tend to surround them like leeches. Governments are also wasteful and prone to unending expansion, as Mother History tells us. As such, conscripting government is usually a dead-end, at least until after results are demonstrable by the private sector, where they’ll swoop in and claim some of the credit. This makes it easier to justify spending. It’s very similar to a tragedy that cost lives spurring legislation to be voted on. Before the tragedy; no politician cared. After the tragedy, they had to show they cared.

On corporations, let us not believe the over-generalized meme that all corporations are evil. The truth is more likely that some might be evil, others are good, and most are benign. However, individual corporate philosophies tend to favor maximizing profits in an ever-competitive and increasingly economically troubled world, and this does not bode well from a qualitative perspective with what we will want to put into our bodies. You are what you eat, and this author doesn’t want to be cheap genetically modified anything (without the relevant long-term scientific studies attesting to its safety), unless superpowers come with it. However, I make that statement with a caveat. Most people don’t realize that most food, even organic, is genetically modified. To be more exact, the process of natural selection by random mutation (evolution), has been co-oped by humans for ten-thousands years. We’ve been effectively breeding what we want into the plants, and leaving out undesirable traits. Genetic Engineering is merely the same process done on a condensed timescale. With our selective breeding, some of the plants we routinely eat would not have survived in the natural world; such as corn, which without us, would have gone extinct, though I hear of no anti-GMO activist pushing to let natural selection run its course for corn. In the beginning of the 20th century, mutation-induced radiation was all the rage (and still is), beginning in 1920 by Dr. Lewis Stadler at the University of Missouri and continuing still to this day in dozens of countries around the world. And thanks to this process, we now get to enjoy new varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, cassava, and sorghum. In the words of William J. Broad of the NYTimes, “The mutations can improve yield, quality, taste, size and resistance to disease and can help plants adapt to diverse climates and conditions.” Radiation breeding co-opts natural selection and accelerates it (not adding or removing anything that nature wouldn’t add or remove herself), and has saved hundreds of crops around the world from disease, potential extinction, and thus people from famine. GMO however, involves silencing genes (nature often does no different), or inserting foreign genes, which is what scares everyone. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with the process, it is how it is used. Technology has always been a double-edged sword; it can be used for good or bad. But since it exists and is not going away, we must endeavor to push the corporations using it to focus it on the good side, not merely to ban it. This chapter may at times seem anti-GMO, though I have endeavored for it not to, but that is just selection bias—I talk more about the bad GMO’s than the good ones.

Cost-cutting of corporations is the biggest issue we have from a nutritional standpoint, with the plethora of unhealthy foods so prevalent in the western world and working their way into the developing world, causing obesity and diabetic health problems that ‘encourage’ economic expansion in the form of insurance and medical expenses—hardly frontier pushing. It is rather disturbing that eighty-percent of the 600,000 items in the US food supply are laced with added sugar. (I can’t help but feel that most anti-GMO activism is rooted in the false equivalence of cheap, unhealthy food with GM food. Indeed, you can engineer unhealthy garbage, loosely refer to it as food, and sell it, though that in no way, makes the case that all GM food will likewise fit under such an umbrella.)

In the end, a corporation’s goal is to reduce the cost of production, in the process undercutting competition. In food production, the methods used to achieve such aims (so far and in the majority) are deleterious on all save the short-term economic viewpoint our capitalism has seemingly devolved into.

On the production of meat: animals are kept rounded up in factory-farms their whole lives, never see the sun, are injected with antibiotics, often live in their own feces, and are pumped full of steroids and growth hormones. All while eating an unnatural diet that makes them fat and sick instead of strong and healthy. While these methods are detestable, it’s all part of cutting costs and providing to the consumer a cost-effective product. It’s up to the consumers to vote with their wallets. As far as the corporation can tell, their product is selling. And so far, it seems, people either don’t know yet,  are ok with it, or are unable to afford better-quality food. Not to mention that the practice of giving animals antibiotics (as well as human abuse of antibiotics) is causing normal bacteria to evolve into antibiotic resistant super-bacteria. In the next decade or so, if we are lucky, our current crop of antibiotics will cease being effective worldwide. (That is almost the only reason needed to overturn the meat industry: worldwide pandemic? No thank you!)

On the plant side, it’s much more cost-effective to plant a lot of one variety of plant than a multitude of different varieties as the industrial process can be streamlined to fit one crop type. As we produce more and more food, and as the farming business becomes ever more dominated by big agriculture (Big Ag), crop diversity is decreasing. And as we increase usage of arable land due to geographic reorganization, companies like Monsanto are genetically engineering plants to increase yield and resistance to insects to stave off naturally declining yields, which are only adding to the problem (think of the soil as a drug addict: petrochemical fertilizers are added to increase yields, but more has to be added every year as the soil becomes even more dependent on the fertilizer, as improper crop rotation is not allowing the soil to replenish itself naturally, and ever more amounts of fertilizer are needed). In India, 200,000 farmers have taken their own lives since 1997 because of the debt they have to take on to afford these seeds and fertilizers, and unable to pay back their debts, they end their own lives instead.

Decreasing crop diversity is dangerous in so many ways, as it is inherent in nature for a reason; everything in this world is susceptible to something else. The less variety there is within a particular species, the more likely its extinction is. There are billions of different types of fungus, bacteria, and insects that eat, affect, or infect different types of plants; some plants are resistant to some but not all. The danger in reducing our crop diversity is that it increases the chances that a singular cause can wipe out a huge proportion of our food supply, and mass famine would ensue.

Small farmers, such as the Indian farmers, contribute to this important crop diversity by virtue of being decentralized relative to each other and they are being driven out of business due to the economies of scale that work in favor of Big Ag. And Monsanto isn’t helping by not allowing farmers to re-use their seeds, eating into their already razor-thin profit margins, thereby increasing the dominance of the handful of companies that can afford them and the Roundup pesticide that only Monsanto sells, which only works with their seeds.

These few companies will—and basically pretty much already do—control our food supply with present processes and methodologies, and have little incentive to update their processes for as long as it is profitable.

A few examples of cost-cutting strategies used today:

  • Honey is cheap, ultra-filtered, and pollen-less to mask its origins. Pollen-less honey is not considered honey by the FDA (hint: shady companies in China)
  • Plumping chicken-meat with saltwater solution to increase the weight and therefore price (average weight increase is thirty-percent)
  • Meat scraps which would otherwise be thrown away are being glued together and sold as prime meat (yes, glued. Though the glue is not the problem, but the leftover scraps being misrepresented)
  • Farmed salmon are artificially dyed to make them pink, making it appear to be wild salmon that is considered healthier
  • Majority (75%) of the world’s olive oil is diluted with sunflower oil. Real olives only making up between 10-30% of the product

It’s all a bit depressing, but this chapter is titled, Future of Food, so let’s move on to the optimistic side for the positive news.

There are three new and exciting technologies and methodologies that will allow us to feed everyone with healthier, cheaper food while having a drastically smaller environmental footprint, perhaps even a surplus of food, which would alleviate the motherly induced guilt of having leftover food on the plate when there are starving kids somewhere else. In time, it might even lead to the demise of the multinational conglomerates of the food industry if implemented correctly, as food production would (or should) naturally move into the local arena. All of the following three solutions to be discussed are parts of what is called Vertical Farming (farming upwards in skyscrapers as opposed to outwards in land).

First up, the low-tech solution: aquaponics. It is, at its simplest, merely two pools of water, one with small fish in it and the other with floating pods in little pods, with plants growing out of them. The water circulates through the two pools in a circle-of-life manner. It can be in a spare bedroom, outside in a greenhouse, or on acres of space outside. It can be as small or as big as you like.

The fish poop in the water, and that water is routed to the plants, where the plants use the poop as fertilizer, cleaning the water to be circulated around back to the fish. In this manner, the fish aren’t poisoned by their own feces and have clean water to live in, and the plants receive free fertilizer, filtering the water, and grow.

Water is only added to compensate for what the plants themselves use, or the small amount of evaporation that happens. Aside from this, it is essentially self-maintaining and uses very few resources. It also becomes in time, an organic environment that supports itself, much as a lake does, creating a thriving ecosystem of bacteria and other life forms that support the healthy development of both plant and fish.

An aquaponics system uses about five-percent of the water that in-ground farming uses for the same output, has 90% less land requirements, uses electricity instead of diesel fuel (so it can be coupled with renewable energy if need be), eliminates waste, and even with the right kind of fish, can eradicate mosquitoes in a large surrounding area if its usage is widespread. All the while growing dozens of different types of fruit and vegetables from bananas to lettuce to tomatoes and many more.

Aquaponics is a cheap, economical, sustainable method of food production that anyone can learn and set up, either in a spare bedroom, backyard, skyscraper, or on a farm. No stage of production is utterly reliant on oil or fossil fuels unless that’s where your electricity comes from, and this can be just as easily converted to run using renewable energy sources. On top of aquaponics, there is also aeroponics (pioneered by NASA). Instead of plant pods floating on water and sucking up the nutrients expelled by the fish, a watery mist is used to deliver nutrients to the plants in an indoor environment that has the same benefits of aquaponics, using UV lights for the plants to perform photosynthesis. They are similar processes, though aeroponics requires more high-tech equipment than does aquaponics.

The second solution is a little on the high-tech side. In the Netherlands, a company called Plantlab has created an entire underground farm lit up by blue and red LED lights specifically tailored to each plant, such that it instigates the fastest growth possible.

It turns out that plant cells are more effective at converting certain wavelengths of light (in combination with carbon dioxide and water) to energy than others. The underground setup of this Dutch company is designed to maximize those wavelengths of light tailored specifically to each plant, providing the perfect conditions in every respect in order to get us the food we need faster, with less energy, no pesticides, reduced fertilizers, no tractors, no plows, or pollution, ninety-percent less water, and a fraction of the required labor. They also use plant science, mathematical models, and carbon dioxide models to regulate the fresh weight, dry matter, and developmental speed of their plants. They also use automation to control the climate so it stays perfect, and record thousands of data points for each growing cycle to distill and capture the most efficient patterns of growing. Pretty much a farm on steroids, using Big Data to create ever more efficient models of plant growth, nutrient feed, and food quality.

It looks like the effervescent fauna from Pandora in the movie Avatar, with fluorescent vegetables, herbs, and fruits abounding.

Above-ground farming is dependent on nature, and is surprisingly inefficient; from the water runoff, soil depletion, inability to grow at night, vast land requirements (forty-percent of the world’s land surface), geographical reorganization (contributing to desertification and droughts), and the oil-dependent machinery to plow, seed, and harvest the food. Then natural photosynthesis converts approximately nine-percent of the available light into energy, while Plantlab is able to currently convert approximately twelve to fifteen-percent, with a goal of eighteen-percent—doubling the yield, using a tenth of the land requirements and water, and no negative environmental impacts. Amazing!

Lastly (and luckily scientists didn’t forget about us meat-lovers), current research is pointing towards the inevitability of In-Vitro Meat (IVM) to accommodate those who will never, or can’t ever, give up their meat.

First, let’s look at the price we pay for meat today. The full price, not just the supermarket price, which doesn’t account for externalized costs such as CO2, environmental degradation, and so on:

  • Worldwide meat consumption was approximately 326,200,000,000kg of meat in 2011, and increasing every year, expected to double by 2050
  • Each kilogram of meat (2.2 pounds) requires 6.6 kilograms (14.5 pounds) of plant protein
  • Eighty-percent of the worlds antibiotics are used on livestock, and seventy-five percent of those antibiotics are not absorbed by the animals, leading to the evolution of super-bacteria, which will render conventional surgery obsolete in ten-years
  • Factory farms contribute negatively to surrounding environments by creating dead-zones in rivers and oceans (killing millions of fish), and are known to poison fresh-water supplies
  • Worldwide, livestock accounts for eighteen-percent of greenhouse-gases, 40% of methane gas emissions (twenty-five times more potent than CO2), and sixty-five percent of nitrous oxide emissions (three-hundred times more potent than CO2)

There is a growing organic movement in the West to move towards more sustainable practices. With meat, that entails switching to pasture-raised animals that have been fed real food (by real, food that they are evolutionarily programmed to eat, i.e., grass, not corn or grain) and have been given freedom to wander around in the sun. While this is a step-up for human health, it is not for environmental health. These animals generate more emissions (per animal) than those cooped up in the factory farm hell hole, and require even more land. We currently use forty-percent of the world’s arable land for farming and raising animals for meat consumption. If we switched to pasture-raised animals in the West (where we eat the most amount of meat), that forty-percent would most assuredly increase along with the environmental consequences that go with it.

So let’s start with IVM; first by detailing what it is. It involves growing meat using stem-cells that envelop and grow around a string of animal-tissue (this is what nature does if it sounds gross, using DNA instead of tissue). Scientists take a string of tissue from an animal painlessly (and without killing it), from an area such as the rump or breast or any such desirable area. Simultaneously, they’ll extract the animals own stem-cells, or reverse-engineer stem-cells from other cell-types (a Nobel prize was given out for demonstration of this process in 2012), and put the two together in a scaffolding that binds them. The stem-cells naturally take on the exact genetic properties of the meat, and begin to grow out onto a biodegradable or edible scaffolding, which feeds nutrients into the meat, and stretches and twists it, stimulating muscle development and increasing tissue-strength. The result? A steak, chicken breast, or pork sausage indistinguishable from a cut of meat that came from a living, breathing mammal. And this is where some get a bit confused, it will actually be indistinguishable at a genetic level; it won’t be imitation meat, or fake-meat, but real meat!

Once we get over the fact that IVM is oddly disembodied, we’ll be thankful that it doesn’t shit, burp, fart, eat, over graze, drink, bleed, or scream in pain.” ~ Humanity+

The only way that this process differs from nature, is it’s done without the biological machinery of two parent animals, using human-engineered machinery instead. Otherwise, it is the same process that nature uses. The mother and father animal pass on their DNA via egg and sperm, and nature employs stem cells and nutrients to grow a new animal that’s a genetic variant of the inputted DNA. We’ll take a tissue sample of an animal along with its stem-cells, and create more tissue just like that without artificial chemicals, antibiotics, possible transmission of disease (bye-bye mad cow disease and salmonella), and without the waste and pollution that current practices emit.

In-Vitro Meat Facts:

  • Reduce energy use by 7-45%
  • Reduce greenhouse emissions by 96% (the emissions that remain can be used to generate electricity potentially allowing 100% reduction)
  • Reduce land-use by 99%
  • Reduce freshwater use by 96%
  • Genetic manipulation to speed up life-cycle or ratio of edible meat to weight would be unnecessary
  • No more outbreaks of swine flu, mad cow disease, avid flu, tuberculosis, brucellosis, or any other animal-to-human plagues
  • No more unnecessary suffering for animals and people like. There’ll be no need to kill animals, and the transmission of diseases to humans will essentially cease

Coupled with agricultural vertical-farming, forty-percent of the Earth’s arable land currently utilized for agricultural and livestock purposes, could be returned to nature increasing biodiversity, pollution sequestration, and perhaps put a damper on the sixth great extinction, occurring overwhelmingly due to habitat-loss (a Belgium-sized chunk of the Amazon rainforest is cut down every year to be used as grazing grounds for cows to name one example among many). All that is being done with IVM is the same process and outlook humanity used to invent and propagate agriculture some twelve-thousand years ago. That is, appropriating nature’s laws in such a way as to be conducive to humanity, and which will, unlike with agriculture, reduce our ecological and environmental footprint. Healthier humans. Better off animals (and less disease). Happier planet! Who could object to that?  More pointedly, who’d want object? There will come a time soon when IVM becomes economically competitive with slaughterhouse-steaks, and I’ve a feeling people in the future will look upon us as barbarians for killing our food. Even Winston Churchill saw it coming six-decades ago.

“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” ~ Winston Churchill (Former Prime Minister)

Very soon, we will be able to economically grow any type of food locally using climate-controlled, 24/7 underground/indoor farms and save all that energy we currently use shipping exotic foods from one side of the planet to the other, on more productive pursuits.

This food revolution is long overdue. Above-ground farming has a cost, from increasing desertification, to agricultural runoff creating dead zones in our oceans, plus the inordinate amount of energy required from start to finish that drives up the base product that our economies run on: oil.

In late 2012, Singapore unveiled its first Vertical Farm (VF), growing half a ton of vegetables per day, at just 10-20 cents higher than conventionally farmed produce shipped in from overseas, with a goal of two-tonnes of fresh, local chemical-free produce by mid-2013. The VF uses 120 twenty-feet tall rotating cylinders, and is rated at between five to ten times more productive than agricultural farmland per square foot. With just a small-scale implementation, the price differential is astoundingly small. Imagine how cheap it would be on a larger scale, when economies-of-scale takes over?

The traditional farm may very well become a distant memory, as it moves into skyscrapers, people’s homes and into underground basements in various locales around the world in cities providing fresh, chemical-free, cheap, and local organic food all year round without the waste or the environmental degradation that accompanies traditional agriculture. This will simultaneously alleviate the concerns, often unfounded, of anti-GMO activists, of our bodies, of our dear planet Earth, and our wallets.


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress, and I can’t be bothered inserting them in one at a time. The final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

Fixing Politics

fixing politics

This is sub-chapter #12, of Chapter #3, Politics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


FIXING POLITICS

Since we are stuck with the obsolescence of politics for the foreseeable future, here are some solutions, though I’m sure they are many more, that aim to make gaming the system more difficult if implemented, and allow a freer society for a longer period of time.

Granted, this will not stop the political subterfuge that seemingly always, undermines the democratic system. (Politicians are a creative bunch.) It merely serves to make the process much more difficult, and thereby allow a greater functioning of democracy on a longer time-scale, which will allow the making and creation of the science and technology that will eventually rid us of this insidious process that is retarding our progress (I’ll elaborate more in the last chapter). Please forgive me any generalizations in this chapter, though it is hard to find an honest politician these days, I’m sure a few exist somewhere.

“Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” ~ Winston Churchill (Former Prime Minister of GB)

Career Politicians

The career politician (CP) is a virus in the democratic system, and his or her major concern is re-election. Thus, their every decision, policy, and recommendation is acted upon in context to their re-election chances and not necessarily to the people’s or nation’s benefit. They may have started out with the best of intentions, and with a big heart, but people are mortal, and the leviathan (the government as named by Thomas Hobbes) is all-powerful in the bewildering eyes of a mere mortal.

The CP rarely, if ever, leaves his or her bubble distorting their view of reality, much as a goldfish living in a curved fishbowl believes that everything travels in an arc instead of a straight line. Politicians are human goldfish, observing things that seem real and committing words to paper that rarely fix them, when often times, the best solution is to let the super-organism that is society self-correct. (This is usually the best course of action for recessions.)

As a result of being in the game for the long term, they are beholden to the people (and to the political game itself), for the choices they make. But the people, like most people everywhere whom are not well versed in all matters of running a society—hence the need for democracy in the first place—end up looking to their own short-term interests. (An evolutionary mechanism where for 99.9% of our hominid history, our only concerns were food, water, shelter, and sex. If only modern society were so simple.) Likewise, since a politician cannot develop, write, read, or legislate on their own, they are dependent on their fellow politician and staff, in a system that favors ideology, and breeds resentment, distrust, subterfuge: which are ideal conditions for short-term decisions that generate political capitol, even, if not especially, to the detriment of long-term planning. All this does is handicap the CP’s toolkit.

As with most things, we earthly beings have a tough time of grasping the bigger picture, and the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis are usually personal in nature. Politics, politicians, and elections generally get thrown into this mix, when they eventually roll around, inconveniencing our day-to-day lives.

Since idle brainpower is usually spent entertaining one’s self outside of work, we often make the quick, easy, and emotional decision when it comes to electing a person for office. Politicians are elected based on how likable they are, how catchy their sound bites are, or how opposed to their opponent’s policies they are and various other trivial, non-important factors that excite us and make us like that person. Politicking is an emotional event, not the logical and rational event the Athenians intended it to be.

This personal decision to elect a politician is usually based on how the politician personally benefits the voter, or how emotionally pleasing they are, instead of to the nation, for it is easy to forget there are others who are also in trouble. How quickly do you forget about starving children in Africa after you watch one of those commercials? How much easier do you think it is when you live in a relatively advanced democratic nation where you don’t see those people starving and entertainment only shows you the high life? It’s so very easy to lose focus today.

It’s hard to blame any one person, as we spend most of our adult lives providing for ourselves. It’s second nature and a paradigm in itself. But therein lays the major problem with politics: we should not look for the person who excites our emotional self, but to someone who strains the limit of our rational self, and who requires us to think and come to a logical rational conclusion of his or her own abilities, as their ability to govern will affect our future wellbeing. The media doesn’t help but they just give us what we want; negative, short-term, often irrelevant, and anecdotal news.

Due to this self-serving, short-sighted nature, CPs, even when genuine, end up having a tough time doing their jobs because they do not have the leeway to make the tough decisions that need to be made to move society forward, neither to say the things that need be said, as an ignorant populace can and will remove them from office if the ramifications of their decision affects them negatively; even if it might be beneficial to the nation in the long-term. The majority of voters rarely take the latter into account. Again, it’s emotional instead of rational. It’s always, me and mine, instead of ours and yours, or here and now, instead of there and then. In most nations, most people are for universal healthcare and looking out for each other, but in order to do that, a government and nation must be fiscally responsible and prudent in order to provide that economic foundation which allows them to spend the money to look after everyone. To not allow politicians to fix broken entitlement systems, or raise or lower taxes (whichever is necessary), then they cannot provide proper services and benefits for those few issues where everyone does agree. It’s akin to driving to another city…without gas. Your car will run on fumes for a while, but it will conk out far too short of your destination. Or Wile Coyote running out over a cliff, unawares he’s running on air, looking down, giving us the viewer, a sad face, and falling to his temporary doom. Wile Coyote is the government hoodwinked by the public, and the Road Runner is where society wants him, but won’t allow him to be. This is the story of todays economic; a debt , governance, and austerity cacophony.

This often has the consequence of politicians catering to the lowest common denominator of the varying social groups, doing the minimum necessary, staying away from controversial issues even if they need to be overhauled or addressed, and rarely, if ever, straying outside of this niche for fear of the ramifications. (Farm subsidies, War on Drugs, the Military Budget and so forth. Though occasionally, ideology or flat-out bribery, I.e., lobbying, will inculcate the public-fearing goldfish against any protests such as the bailouts, the republican war on women, and batting on behalf of the rich and un-needy, though notice none of them ever benefit society at large. How rather pathetic.)

But here’s what people seem to forget. Politicians are there to manage the big picture and they are supposed to be smarter than us, and routinely, when they have to make those hard decisions that require short-term pain but will result in long-term gains, we punish them. Effectively saying we demand the best of now and the best of then—which in all but theory, and probably even in theory, is impossible. So the politicians give you exactly what you want, except by giving you the now that you want, they ignore your future, and you still have to live it.

With this conundrum gaining strength as time progresses in every democracy since the Athenians invented it to the present day, the caliber of politician, in time, is reduced as people who talk a lofty game and who pander to the now crowd are voted in, and the future slips ever further away.

Life isn’t that simple. Politicians are but an extension of society, and they reflect the society from which they came—the needs, wants, and the aspirations of that society. It’s a very sobering thought when put into perspective. We are responsible for our politicians, as thieving, conniving, lying, ignorant, and arrogant as a lot of them may be; they are there because we created the right conditions for their prospering.

“That which starts sweet, ends bitter; and that which starts bitter, ends sweet.” ~ Unknown

The Fix:

Politicians should be limited to one term of five years. (Differing term limits may be justifiable based on continuity purposes and requirements, but I’m an idiot and prefer simple answers like five.) This is enough time to settle into a very difficult job; access, analyze, and study the socio-economic picture; implement programs that benefit the nation or eliminate programs that are a detriment; and then get the hell out of office without need of pandering, lobbyists’ money, or playing Mr. Nice Guy with the media and populace. An individual can only run for office once in his or her life, and upon running, their immediate family is precluded from running. Politics should not be about pandering, but doing what needs to be done, they should absolutely have their feet to the fire, but in overdoing such reactiveness as it is done today, they will merely shy away from fixing issues that do need fixing.

Much like jury duty is a requirement of a just republic, so power cannot be consolidated into too few hands; the political process should almost be mandatory, and taught in schools as our children grow up so they can understand its significance and importance, much as we teach them now of jury duty. and if not mandatory, which would be a tough sell, limited as I have just outlined.

A one-term politician can lend itself to abuse and this will be addressed soon with ‘Social Science.

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” ~ Plato (Philosopher)

Revolving Door

The revolving door between big business, or businesses of any kind to be fair, and government has to be stopped, as it creates biases and prejudices that influence the equal rule of law that should be, though often isn’t, the law of the land.

When I worked in Saudi Arabia, my contract had a government-mandated stipulation, a clause that stated that should the company and I part ways, I could not work for any other company inside Saudi Arabia for a minimum of two years. While in the private sector this is a silly rule and should be left individually between each company and employee (and even then it’s harmful, but hey, free-market), in the revolving door between public and private sector, this is extremely necessary and long overdue.

All too often, you see officials from big companies with huge influence in the halls of power, moving into regulatory positions overseeing the industry, which the corporation they just came from resides in. This puts them in a position of power to provide favorable circumstances for their recently departed company. Oftentimes, they will re-join that company after their stint in the government, provided their time in office proved fruitful for said company. Examples here are too numerous to list, though it is especially prevalent in the biotech and military industrial sectors.

This is unacceptable and creates a clear conflict of interest. Another strategy that lobbying firms apply is to offer government employees high-paying jobs once they finish their time in the government. This effectively puts the government employee in the pocket of the firm, as they will rarely do anything to risk a multi-million-dollar job that is waiting for them on the outside.

This practice simply must stop. A two-year gap between any private sector switches to a government position that oversees regulations of the recently departed corporation will help reduce such circumstances. Obviously, there would need to be qualifying conditions for this, and not an outright ban, and it should be handled by the Justice branch, not by another government office.

The Fix:

Both of the following conditions must be met for a two-year gap to be enforced:

From Private Sector to Government

i) The corporation lobbies the government, or has spent money doing so in the past two years
ii) The government position in question will have some part in regulating or overseeing the industry from the corporation the individual recently departed from

It should still be illegal to provide the government official any type of gift to sway him or her, in any capacity, present or future, and the loopholes that allow some gifts should be removed.

Social Science

Politicians by their very nature are disconnected and cut off from the rest of us. They get free travel, free healthcare and many other perks, and invariably, they are lawyers and business majors instead of scientists and technologists. As a result, they never really feel the effects of recessions and other pains that we normally feel, some of those pains because of their policies. This develops in them, a certain laissez-faire attitude to introducing new regulations and laws to fix perceived ills in an economy, the national budget, or the business world instead of just letting the economic dislocation play out and reset. As they say; to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, even apparently, people.

They always have a need to fix things, even though it may have resulted from their policies to begin with, and by doing more, may only exacerbate the situation further. But they do it anyway for fear of being labeled ‘idle,’ or maybe because they do not understand the notion of ‘cause and effect,’ but I put my money on the former, and that’s usually the fault of the public.

Counter to this, the people they are exposed to tend to be the rich, politically connected folks who lobby for their time. This means that they are really only exposed to new and different ideas by the folks with the means, money, and power to get audiences with them, and who, like us, are self-serving in nature, caring or thinking little of others.

So it is no wonder that most regulations and laws are created at the behest of this politically connected class of people. We tend to act like and become like those who we surround ourselves with, a basic human function that evolved because of social interaction.

A nasty byproduct of this human condition is that a lot of the laws and regulations that are passed are influenced by those who stand to gain from them and who don’t have the greater good at heart. Whether or not they are intended to be destructive to the rest of us, most of the time, is unknown, but a majority of regulations end up doing just that, especially when an industry or country is overloaded with regulations. Eventually, it stifles and suffocates that which it touches. For example, it costs twice as much to install solar power in the US than in Germany, and this price differential is solely government red-tape. Think about how much more solar power would be prevalent if that red tape was reduced, and how much more competitive solar would be against other forms of energy by now?

Politicians have carte blanche to introduce any kind of bill they want, and with political maneuvering it’s possible to get many kinds of bills passed in the ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine next time’ manner that seems to work so well in politics, and coincidentally, in groups of chimpanzees.

This is arcane, scarcely different from kings and queens of old enacting anything that they wanted. It is only more difficult to do so now, but all too possible and getting increasingly easier as more and more funding comes from big business, and politicians become ever more isolated from us, and the people clamor for more government intervention.

The Fix:

In almost all countries, there are dozens of universities that do hundreds of studies each year on all matter of subjects far and wide to educate their students and make the world a better place, not mentioning the scientific institutions that could use more funding and science at the same time, but I’ll continue using only universities to make my point.

For each program that a politician wants to implement, three randomly assigned universities must carry out the relevant social, economical, engineering, and statistical studies on the impact of the program/s in question to the general population, national budget, and attempt to assign a statistical risk to eventual outcomes so that contingency plans can be drawn up.

At least two of the three conclusions should be in agreement for the bill to be presented to Parliament or Congress, and perhaps even a follow-up study to find out why the outlier did not conform. The universities’ bills should be paid with tax money, and this would have the added bonus of creating a sense of accomplishment and achievement in aspiring young adults to learn more about the functions of their countries in an unbiased way, protecting them for decades to come from unsubstantiated political propaganda (as well as perhaps going some way to reduce tuition costs, though this may be wishful thinking).

For example: if a politician wants to implement a program that at face value wants to impose a tariff on a foreign product to support a local industry that creates a similar product and save jobs in that industry, then three different economic teams from three different universities selected at random will study the proposed plan and all possible outcomes. None of these three teams will be aware of the other two teams, so collusion cannot be possible and will be illegal, much as it is for a jury to discuss a trial outside of the courtroom.

The teams, in this case from what little I know of economics, would more than likely come to the conclusion that the imposition of such a tariff would simply drain consumers’ wallets as a cheaper, equally well-made product is taken off the market and an uncompetitive industry is propped up at the expense of people’s savings, essentially taxing some consumers, and keeping the employees of said industry from being let go and put to greater use in a competitive industry that would need their labor to compete for those extra savings that the consumers would have, without the tariff. Death begets life, in nature and in the free market.

“Death is very likely to be the single best invention of life because death is life’s change agent.” ~ Steve Jobs (Businessman)

Yet bills like these pass all the time, as the members of the senate/parliament/house are economically illiterate (well, at least at this late-stage cycle of democracy, the founding fathers knew all too well the dangers of government involvement in an economy, which is why they went to so much trouble to limit the powers of the federal government in such matters—not that it worked; politicians are a crafty bunch).

We don’t all have the time to study economics in university, but we can easily have universities help us, which they would be happy to do (because they’d get more funding: it’s in their best interest too). This applies to all cross-sections of a nation. No one person is an expert on everything, but everyone is an expert on at least one thing. We can recruit the smartest people from the best colleges to give us the best, most relevant, most up-to-date and need-to-know information so that the nation can move forward.

The names of the universities, and the research teams would be kept secret from all until the conclusion of the study, and the outcomes of all three studies should be published to the public domain, warts and all, to remove doubts of bias and allow rational discourse and further peer-review from others.

Lobbying

With the inclusion of the social sciences into politics, lobbying has no place and would probably disappear all by itself. If a donor was to donate millions to a politician in exchange for, let’s say, deregulation in a certain industry, the politician would not be allowed to simply push it onto the floor for voting; a study would have to be done that actually verifies the potential outcome and whether that outcome is positive or negative. All of a sudden, you would find that nefarious bills pushed by the corporate world would all but disappear. Donations should stay legal, capped to a certain number per individual, and since corporations are ‘people,’ they shouldn’t be able to exceed that limit, though of course they do, because some ‘people’ are more equal than other people.
Artificial Intelligence

We are entering the boom-time of artificial technology (AI). Before I begin to discuss the role that AI may take, let us see in reality just how difficult it is to know everything at one time, especially with the gargantuan set of laws that the US government has implemented. The current code-of-laws of the United States of America, clocks in at two-hundred-thousand pages. The US tax code alone clocks in at 3.8 million words (four-times the length of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and sonnets). How could any one politician, or even 435 representatives, or one-hundred senators with all their support staff ever manage to unwind, let alone understand, such complexity?

So while I routinely disparage politicians in this book, by way of their corruption, shortsightedness, and idiocy. It’s really a byproduct of the real cause; an unyielding and unending complexity of words and actions that no human being could ever fully know. It is all but impossible to not take shortcuts through the endless complexity and nuance of language, and in relation to events. This doesn’t forgive politicians, due to the reason for their existence being to overcome as best as possible this shortcoming, but they, like us, are creatures of habit, and being such creatures, always look for the most bang for their buck (shortcuts) on how to do more with less, and this is what sets them astray. Considering we cannot change human nature, we should do what we’ve always done when faced with a human limitation. That is inventing technology that alters the environment in the process alleviating said limitation. A cavemen once co-opted a stick to reach an unreachable branch. Early civilizations invented the wheel to take heavier or more numerous objects further in less time and effort. We invented agriculture which used less energy than hunting and gathering food every day—which led to the creation of cities and civil society. Today, we are creating AI’s that can remember everything and understand the meaning and nuance of language at the speed of light, but most importantly, objectively.

In 1978, CBS, embroiled in a case with the Justice Department, had to examine six-million documents at a cost of $2.2 million (almost all for the cost for lawyers and paralegals). In January of 2011, Blackstone Discovery, helped analyze 1.5 million documents for $100,000 in a fraction of the time. The latter was done with software parsing through the documents and extracting relevant keywords inserted by a much smaller team of lawyers, perhaps only a handful, in a process known as E-discovery. In 2011, an AI, Watson, beat the best two human players in the world on the game-show Jeopardy, a game based on the nuance of human language, using as his brain, wikipedia and a few encyclopedias. He wasn’t taught what any of the information meant and had to figure it out on his own, which he did by assigning probabilities to outcomes based on his inputs—which is what we do by the way though we are not aware of it. The AI techniques are capable of both linguistic (keyword and phrase analysis) and sociological (deductive) reasoning. Another company, Clearwell, has developed software to search for concepts rather than keywords, so searching for ‘dog’ will also yield results such as ‘man’s best friend’ and ‘walk’. It’s estimated that one lawyer with these powerful softwares can do the work of five-hundred lawyers from decades prior. (Not to mention that the work of hundreds of lawyers barely result in an above-average accuracy of just sixty-percent. All that money for slightly better than a coin toss in the words of Mike Lynch, founder of Autonomy.) Together, with these powers combined, Captain Planet is born! Actually, the field is called ‘legal informatics.

Clearly, the same problems that impacts the world of law, impacts even more so the world of government, where even more considerations have to be taken into account: foreign policy, citizen responses and other nations (what actions they took as a result of this and that), and so forth. I imagine E-discovery, coupled with general AI, like that of Watson, will be used in the political sphere in the coming years (perhaps decade or two). This is not too say that an AI will make decisions, but will provide objective analysis and statistical possibilities infinitely better than even an army of experts could do. And the politician, who, now able to see the myriad possibilities a law, regulation, or action may take, or how similar laws effected change in the past, will be better informed to make the right choice.

Think of the significance of this. All too often, our economic forecasts take into account only first and second order events, which are highly visible and which favor shortsighted policies so that politicians can point to it as proof of their success. But third, fourth, and fifth order effects such as reduced quality-of-living, rising prices, under or unemployment, and dozens of other factors wallow in the background along with all the noise of society, and which usually outweigh the first and second orders, are ignored, though work tirelessly to demoralize and upend society on longer timescales. Let’s use an economic example, namely, the deterioration of per-capita wealth: In 1791 (using the price of gold as a barometer as it’s less susceptible to inflation), per-capita GDP was 2.6 oz. per person per year (PPPY). It doubled by 1811, reached 12 oz. by 1892, climbing to 23.6 in 1916, sailed past 41.1 in 1929, and hit a peak of 139.5 oz. in 1970. Then a disastrous economy policy of fantasy started with Nixon who uncoupled the dollar from gold, then hitting its doltish stride with Reagonomics, culminating in the simple-minded policies of Dubya (George W. Bush), America is now at 28.4 oz. PPPY.

Watson trained as an economist, having total recall, with the deductive powers of a Milton Friedman on steroids (and since it is an Information Technology, doubling in capability every year), and trillions upon trillions of bytes of data points could immediately inform the politician of all the destructive benefits of any such law (or in this case, economic fantasy dressed up as nonsense), perhaps offering up alternatives backed up by empirical research, instead of wishful thinking.

We already use AI’s in airports, planes, finance, fraud detection, security, warfare, and many other areas in which a human being could not adequately manage the multitudes of information and these areas have boomed as a result. I see the same happening for politics, though just as in warfare, the trigger man will always be human. But unlike in warfare, everything a politician does is a matter of record. As more and more of the world is going digital—a trend otherwise known as Big Data—we will gain unprecedented insight into the human condition, and gain the ability to track causes and their effects, backwards with ever-increasing accuracy, and forwards with statistical probabilities. Think of a politician who is warned by their Watson that passing a certain legislation will increase the likelihood of a recession, that will put millions out of work, but ignores his artificial assistants warning and proceeds with his gut instinct. Then the forecasted outcome does indeed happen, and now Mr. Goldfish is on the record for the world to see, and for his citizens to demand his resignation off (or to turn the election to his opponents favor). What will happen on that day? That will be an interesting day…
In conclusion, I’m sure that even if all these were adopted, there would still be some way to game the system. There always is. That’s why after two-thousand years of democracy, it always ends in failure and dictatorship. However, the above conditions are intended to make it more difficult to engage in the necessary connections, power plays, and the scheming that negatively affects a country over all.

Democracy is still the best governmental model we’ve come up with so far, but that is much like saying that riding a three-legged horse is preferable to riding a two-legged horse. Either way, you’re falling over. If we were falling forward, that would be fine, but we’re not, and a recently released study by Cornell University psychologist David Dunning in 2012 has shown just that, that we are too dumb for democracy; namely, because we are inherently inept at assessing other people’s competence and expertise. This results in most political leaders, in terms of competence and intelligence, registering barely above-average from a cross-section of the public. The one redeeming factor of democracy is that it usually limits less-than-average candidates from being elected, though occasionally they slip through the cracks.

In the internet and information age, the role of politics in a society must evolve, there is no way around that. With our global problems today being unmet by our politicians: climate-change, pollution of the air, water, and land, and resource management, the political system has to evolve, and Big Data in an increasingly digital world is making all the difference, illuminating once dark corners of the governmental (though it may be more prudent to label it the human) sphere. We do not live in a static society, but a dynamic knowledge-building society, and our government must reflect this.

The Communist Ideal

I recently completed reading The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Max. At only thirty-two pages long, it was a long and grudgingly boring read. I thought I was reading a book ten times the length, but I do believe I have imparted the general idea of what he espoused. While communism in its many forms that were tried in the 20th century, have failed, often disastrously, with the exception of China (which by opening up ever more aspects of its economy to free-market principles, essentially forestalled the political ramifications a central-command government eventually faces). I don’t believe that communism, as attempted so far, is the communism that Karl Marx proposed. In this post, I am not defending those 20th century communist regimes. In fact, after reading the Communist Manifesto, I do not think they were very communist, and if they were, they may have started out with the best of intentions, but the results, at least in the short-term, were anything but.

The end-result, or logical progression, of Karl Marx’s communism, in essence, was the abolition of government, and by extension, money, and equal status to all people in terms of opportunity (not possessions). What he saw, and wrote, must be understood in context of his time, and realized that the future he envisioned, would not come within his lifetime (though maybe he didn’t know this, I can’t tell). He lived at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and saw the rapid industrialization that occurred, and was right to say that capital would flow upwards in the antagonistic struggle between capital and labour, as those lower on the totem pole would eventually be replaced and relegated to a smaller subsection of the populace in an anarchic free-market system, and correctly extrapolated that this trend cannot continue indefinitely. But, he was unable to extrapolate that new jobs would be created to replace old jobs, but the jobs engines that has been continually creating new jobs is finally showing signs of its mortality, and it probably won’t last forever.

In those nations that tried on communism, the age-old dilemma of mistranslation and misappropriation of ideas, coupled with the rarely changing mindsets of people, led to poverty, and sometimes tragedy, where ever communism was exported, as well as in the free-market also (working workers to death, slavery, and unequal pay between the sexes etc.).

But I think that Karl was ahead of his time (perhaps a little too far). Consider where we are now with our current trends racing relentlessly into the future. We are moving towards an increasingly automated future where jobs will become more and more scarce as the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head (new technologies now are creating fewer jobs than they replace), which will grind away at social stability. Soon, machines and artificial intelligence (AI) will do human jobs better than humans; without lunch breaks, smoke breaks (or any breaks for that matter), insurance, distractions, sick leave, and so many other factors that retard human output as well as increase the cost of labour, and thus goods and services.

We are moving into a future where potentially everyone will have a 3D (additive) printer in their homes, replacing the need for factories and factory workers. You need a new mug, you’ll print it. If you need a new phone, you’ll print it, and if you’ll need a new printer, you’ll print it, and so on. Materials will be assembled into the feed for these printers most likely; inside the countries themselves by automated processes, reducing international shipping and all the jobs it provides. Indoor farms combining aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics will be capable of growing any food from any climate anywhere and everywhere, further reducing trans-city-country-continental transportation. Portable medical devices are on the horizon that will replace your general practitioner (GP) in identifying what type of illness you have, as well as articulate in detail the remedies for the proper healing taken in consideration of your genetic makeup, all analysed in the blink of an eye with 99.99% accuracy (predicted), and the drugs will be printed on an additive printer no lessNanotechnology is on the up and up, and in the coming decades, may release the awesome potential of building everything, anywhere, anytime using any input, at the atomic level with zero-waste. You will literally be able to turn anything into anything else!

How could something as medieval as money survive in a future like this? Money is a physical manifestation of scarcity. Replacing the ancient tradition of trading goods directly and acting as a medium of exchange between all goods, and evolving along with society. In the beginning, predominantly taking the form of gold and silver, as well as dozens of other forms (cheese in some parts of ancient Italy, and tea in Siberia way back when). Then constantly oscillating back and forth between gold standards, silver standards, paper standards, and combinations thereof. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a global paper standard. But because money evolves lineally, and our technology has in the last hundred years, begun evolving exponentially, money will, by necessity, eventually shed the characteristics that necessitated its original conditions because everything else in its environment will evolve beyond a need of it. This is a core concept of evolution, and since technological evolution is an extension of biological evolution: we can think of money in a resource-scarce environment as random mutation in a naturally selecting environment (society). But technological evolution continues, and now, exponentially increases in capacity and capability. Thus the conditions that selected the monetary-mutation are beginning to move beyond scarcity, i.e. money is losing its value (and hopefully will die), and into abundance, soon afterwards, perhaps infinite abundance (nanotechnology, anything becomes everything and trade essentially ceases).

To side-track to biological evolution to try to further the point. We humans evolved with enzymes that could process and digest raw meat, yet we no longer have them because we invented fire and the frying pan; an external stomach that replaced raw-food enzymes (and which by the way, allowed the necessary conditions to grow our brains far in excess to other primates and become the dominant ape by out-eating them). Within just a few tens-of-thousands of years (an evolutionary second), we could no longer eat raw meat (if you ate only raw meat for 90 days, you’d die). Money evolved, i.e., was bought into being as an improvement to the previous paradigm of direct trading, facilitating a division of labour, which amplified co-operation, increased specialization, resulting in technological progression, and societal advancement. Yet in evolution, it is very rare for a trait to outlast for long the conditions that necessitated its creation and subsequent survival, and such will (hopefully) be the case for money soon. Money is subject to the same laws of diminishing returns as everything else. Much as the faltering, or sputtering of the jobs engine of our current economies as they are replaced by technologies that far out-do people in terms of cost, speed, and reliability, in the process, creating fewer jobs than they replace. Yet due to the stigma of 20th century communism, I fear the necessary discourse will never occur, or perhaps occur too late in updating capitalism to keep pace with the continually evolving and accelerating change of this technological century.

Only a simple understanding of ‘Supply and Demand‘ is required to understand this point. If the demand and supply of a product stay constant, then the price remains stable. If demand increases without a comparable increase in supply: that is, demand outstrips supply, then the price rises and vice-versa. If a product has a large unrefined supply, but requires expensive tools of production to bring it to market: then the price is high and vice-versa. So in this future we find ourselves barrelling towards, where both supply is bountiful, or its use so exceedingly efficient as to nullify it, or where any resource can be used to create any other resource as is done with additive manufacturing and nanotechnology, then what possible use will money have? This is not to say it will disappear overnight, more than likely, it will deflate and continue deflating as our technological progress accelerates until we come upon a day where we find it is no longer necessary. Whether that takes 20, 40, or 100 years remains to be seen. That process will create economic pain, even if exponential in nature, because if people still need money to buy food, water, and shelter, and if the majority of the population is out of work; how does taxation, government, redistribution, and public benefits work so as not to antagonize class differences? (The end result of this exponential technological progress is that there are no more class differences or haves / have-nots, but the ramp-up is where the concern lies as the system which will eventually benefit everyone might be dismantled by shortsighted doom-and-gloom thinking)

Providing we can circumnavigate such problems, and arrive to the other side in one piece. In such an economy, where supply and demand become irrelevant, and individual needs and wants take precedence, where government is no longer required as an ‘impartial‘ arbiter, and where people are simply given everything they need to survive and thrive since it costs nothing to produce in terms of human labour, does not the ideal of communism ring true? I don’t mean the central bank that it demands (we still use them anyway), or the agricultural army it stipulated, or any other requirements that served more as a transitory approach, but the overall meaning. That everyone is equal, and we all deserve opportunities, all men and women are given the ability to shine, if they so choose.

I do believe that the essence of the message rings true, despite what other subjects he waxed on about, or didn’t, which seem obvious to us now in hindsight, but which wouldn’t have in his time. A lot of meaning is lost in the translation between German to English, and I imagine even more so, between the 18th century and the 21st. He did live two-hundred-years ago, so the allure of projecting todays moral and ethical framework on to his thinking is tempting, but which, at the end of the day, is only a shortcut to ignorant thinking. To truly understand it, we must flip the polarity of time and study it in that sense, which is what I have attempted to do in this post and distil what he may have meant (of course, I may still wrong).

Looking to history and projecting into the future, we find that most of our descendants views on several issues as immoral. Slavery, segregation, extreme classism, rules of war, as well as acts of war among many others. I see no such difference in today’s morality looking forward and fully expect those in the future to look back upon our own morality as incrementally better than the generations before us. Perhaps they will be as quick to judge us, as we to those that came before us. From our Keynesian fantasies which prolong, expand, and exacerbate the misery of billions (via a central bank and extraction of wealth), along with its isolation, consolidation and subsequent corruption of a few elite bankers who hold monetary power over billions, to those down the lower end of the monetary totem-pole being unable to afford certain necessities; healthy food, healthcare, and shelter, which would otherwise increase quality of life by removing the negative influences that affect mental and physical wellbeing (often diet-related), and which, when removed result in increased cooperation, knowledge-creation, which in our modern society makes it healthier for all involved, rich and poor alike and those who fit snugly in-between.

To use a real example of the potential problems down the road. Studies have shown that it cost society far less money to house chronic homeless people; that is, give them a free home, income benefits, and health insurance, than it is to leave them on the street, or even put them in a shelter. A Boston Health Care study tracked one-hundred-nineteen chronic homeless folk, and found that over five-years, they were admitted to emergency care 18,834 times, and that’s with thirty-three of them dying, and seven placed in a nursing home. A study in San Diego found that putting homeless people in an actual home resulted in a 61% reduction in emergency room benefits, and a 62% reduction in inpatient days over two years, with each visit costing at least $1,000. Putting chronic homeless people in a shelter costs $24,000 per year per person. And during the day, they are roaming the streets and increasingly likely to end up in jail, so that $24,000 does not include the cost of jailing, guarding, and feeding them when they are put in jail, which often occurs as a result of depression, and substance abuse that often accompanies their wandering street-life. What will we do in the future when joblessness is increasingly common, and the tools to create high-quality automated homesautomated medical care, and food are a tiny fraction of todays cost? Will we turn our back on them, because of out-dated free-market-principles? Besides, you can’t have a society that neglects a majority of its citizens without decay and eventually revolution (or in the case of an advanced force against those with nothing, mass-jailing or genocide).

People are created equal, not genetically, nor in their physical or mental ability, but morally in the context of our societies. If we allow any (unfair) inequality to creep in (which for now is inevitable), it slowly but surely grinds away at the fabric of society, only for the potential of violence to rear its ugly head.  In this regard, one of the great moral achievements of humanity is the slowly increasing minimally acceptable status one can have by providing help to those unfortunate enough to be at the lowest of the low (both by free-market economics driving the prices down and public assistance in the form of welfare, which was inspired by communistic thinking). Of course, as many will rightly point out, the latter is easily abused, mostly by political pandering and selfish voting, and we’ve seen the indulgences and problems inherent in an overburdened welfare state, but that in no way undermines its validity in the correct doses.

Nothing is perfect, much as we live today in a bastardized version of the free market, the communism of the USSR in the 20th century turned into a bastardized version of communism (though I’m glad I live in the former). With that being said, what many people overlook, or completely neglect to take into account is both socioeconomic systems are context-specific. In environments of scarcity, the free-market reigns supreme (though without a moral framework, it goes horribly wrong, i.e. slavery). In environments of limitless abundance, money, government, and classes have no place. And in the transition period between the two, ideological and emotionally based, shortsighted thinking tends to outweigh reasoned and objective analysis, potentially turning otherwise fixable periods into disaster due to the nature of democracy and political pandering. In the future when we have the technological marvels that will arise out of today’s inventions, bought into being by the capitalist workings of scarcity, will not the ideal of communism ring true in an age of abundance? (Not its 20th century misappropriations).

The rigidity of our political and economic institutions is what is at issue here; it must evolve and adapt in response to the self-changing environment we created, instead of boxing us into the past. In human history, we have example after example of people and societies holding onto tradition and frameworks for far too long after their usefulness has evaporated, and being unable to let go of the past, they often paid the price, some the ultimate price. Capitalism will be in a similar position soon.