Tag Archives: predictions

There Really Is Good News Out There

One of my New Year’s resolutions (okay, my only New Year’s resolution–I’m old and I’ve learned from past failures…) is to scan the media-verse for positive news, for evidence that not everything in the world is swirling the porcelain bowl.

And guess what? If you look closely, it’s out there, hiding among the predictions of doom, gloom and civil war.

For example, I found “The World in Cheer: 192 Ways the World Got Better in 2021.”

Obviously, I’m not going to list all 192, but I do want to highlight some items from the list, many of them focused on ameliorating climate change. For example, a 5,000 mile line of trees is being planted across the African continent to prevent the spread of the Sahara desert. A California law giving cash to non-car commuters helped increase transit ridership by 50%. The French have enacted a ban on single use plastics for many fruits and vegetables that is projected to reduce plastic packaging by one billion units each year. 

And a company in Vancouver has “upcycled” 33 million chopsticks into everything from cutting boards and shelves to dominos and furniture. 

There are all sorts of other “good news” items that had escaped my notice (and probably the notice of most others in a year dominated by coverage of things like the pandemic and Manchin’s intransigence on the filibuster…). A smattering:

The total number of incarcerated people in the U.S. fell by 13% between 2010 and 2020.

Up to 400 Spanish companies will reduce their employees’ working week to 32 hours while keeping salaries the same. 

El Paso Community College used its pandemic relief aid to forgive $3 million in student debt.

Forty-one women topped the new Fortune 500 list, more than at any other time in the six decades that the list has been published.

A town in Arizona converted a juvenile detention center into a youth hangout, and juvenile arrests in the county dropped by 55%.

In the past eight years, the number of worker-owned co-ops in the U.S. has increased 36%. The business model offers employees, on average, more than $7 more per hour than standard businesses.

There are valuable policy lessons to be learned from most of the items on the list–and there are many more such items. I encourage you to visit the site and review the list when the daily headlines make you want to hide under the bed.

The encouraging economic news isn’t confined to such lists. One of the thorniest problems of the American economy has been the substitution of “gig work” for the steady jobs that offered past generations of workers predictability and benefits. Start-ups like Uber and Lyft seemed likely to accelerate the trend. 

But maybe not. Axios reports that

Startups like Alto, Revel and Kaptyn are positioning themselves as Rideshare 2.0. — alternatives to Uber and Lyft that use employees rather than gig workers as drivers and put fleets of company-owned cars on the road.

Why it matters: These companies’ vertically integrated business models mean they can roll out electric fleets more quickly than the current market leaders, whose pledges to go electric depend on persuading gig drivers to upgrade their personal cars to EVs.

These services will be good for the environment and fair to the drivers.

By employing their own drivers and maintaining their own fleets, these companies aim to provide more consistent, reliable, safe transportation, while ensuring that drivers can earn a decent living — and the companies can make a profit…

Drivers can earn from $15.50 to $18.75 per hour, depending on demand, plus company-paid health insurance.

That we are in an era of massive social and technological change is probably the one thing everyone agrees on. So much of the anger and nastiness we are seeing is a knee-jerk reaction from frightened people rejecting the reality and implications of those changes.

Humanity has been here before. 

My search for “good news” isn’t just an effort to keep me from experiencing suicidal episodes. It is a search for evidence supporting an alternative explanation of our tumultuous times–an explanation that history suggests is as likely as the social disintegration that too many members of the Chattering Classes are predicting. 

Yes, it’s possible that the sheer strength of denial–refusal to see “others” as fully human, rejection of science that calls into question some supposedly “eternal” verities, insistence on the superiority of one’s tribal identity–will plunge the world into another dark age. But  it is equally possible that we are experiencing “birth pangs”–that the millions of people doggedly pursuing social progress and environmental health will ultimately emerge triumphant. 

Our job is to facilitate the trip down the birth canal and help midwife that brave new world….

 

 

COVID Is Just The Beginning

Lest yesterday’s semi-optimism distract us…

The Biden Administration will undoubtedly ramp up production and distribution of the COVID vaccines, and most of us are desperate for a return to something approximating “normal.” It is highly unlikely, however, that we will recognize the next decade  or two as even approximating our version of “normal.”

The Brookings Institution has put the most positive possible spin on that reality, advocating for adoption of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. The report notes that the pandemic has put a spotlight on global problems like “food insecurity, gender inequity, racism, and biodiversity loss, alongside longstanding gaps in access to education, jobs, and life-saving technologies,” and points out that these are all problems that the Sustainable Development Goals address.

That’s clearly good advice, but it’s probably coming too late.

Pandemics are connected to climate change, and they aren’t even the worst of those consequences. The science deniers, fossil fuel interests and others who have retarded efforts to avoid the worst results of climate change may have doomed humanity, or a substantial portion thereof, to a future somewhere between dismal and dystopian.

Have you noticed the lack of insects the past several years? The absence of bugs that used to smash into our windshields? Fewer mosquitos and fireflies? That’s just the more obvious evidence of a collapse in the global insect population.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

If that isn’t worrisome enough, recent studies suggest that previous warnings of planetary warming may have been understated. Media outlets are reporting that warming is likely to be more severe than previously expected. World temperatures could rise 15 percent more than expected this century. Ice sheets are melting more rapidly than anticipated as well, increasing sea level rise. 

We have already seen a dramatic rise in hurricane strength, wildfires and other results of our environmental heedlessness. Recent studies suggest a far more dangerous future.

Past models have suggested a 2 degree rise in global temperature. That’s bad enough-with a 2 degree rise, sea levels would rise by 1.6 feet, global heatwaves would become common, and subtropical areas would lose a third of their fresh water. Nearly all coral reefs could die. 

Now, studies are suggesting the planet might become 5.3 degrees hotter. That’s 33% higher than most previous estimates–and it would probably mean extinction of the human race on Earth.

According to a recent scientific paper published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne (an independent think tank),

Climate change poses a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization,” and there’s a good chance society could collapse as soon as 2050 if serious mitigation actions aren’t taken in the next decade…

What might an accurate worst-case picture of the planet’s climate-addled future actually look like, then? The authors provide one particularly grim scenario that begins with world governments “politely ignoring” the advice of scientists and the will of the public to decarbonize the economy (finding alternative energy sources), resulting in a global temperature increase 5.4 F (3 C) by the year 2050. At this point, the world’s ice sheets vanish; brutal droughts kill many of the trees in the Amazon rainforest (removing one of the world’s largest carbon offsets); and the planet plunges into a feedback loop of ever-hotter, ever-deadlier conditions.

 “Thirty-five percent of the global land area, and 55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability,” the authors hypothesized.

Meanwhile, droughts, floods and wildfires regularly ravage the land. Nearly one-third of the world’s land surface turns to desert. Entire ecosystems collapse, beginning with the planet’s coral reefs, the rainforest and the Arctic ice sheets. The world’s tropics are hit hardest by these new climate extremes, destroying the region’s agriculture and turning more than 1 billion people into refugees.

Meanwhile, last year, 150 members of Congress—all Republicans—rejected the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change.

Apparently, humans will continue to fiddle while the Earth burns….

 

 

Predicting Outcomes? Or Producing Them?

A reader of this blog recently sent me a link to an article about prognostications, noting that its central message had application to the discussions that take place on this blog–especially in the comments.

She was correct.

The article began with a story about the author’s brother, who had been born with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other conditions that made the doctors believe he’d be unlikely to live past his first birthday; they informed the parents that there was a 95% probability that the baby wouldn’t make that birthday.

Nevertheless, year after year, the brother outlived the doctors’ predictions.

Jason’s ‘95 per cent’ wasn’t just an indifferent number. My brother’s life is evidence of the politics of probability: the life-defining feedback loop that exists between our values and the information that shapes them. What we know about the future depends, in part, on what we think is worth knowing – and what we think is worth knowing depends, in turn, on what we believe the future already holds.

Researchers who measure various physical phenomena frequently worry that the act of measuring  may affect the behavior of what is being measured, leading to inaccurate results. The author of this article has a similar concern about the act of prediction:

In other words, if a condition is thought to result in a low chance of survival, it translates into less care for the person with it. Invoking probabilities can create a fatal cycle that shapes how people understand the range of options at their disposal, and even the value of their children’s lives. Disability communities know this all too well. The idea that disability implies disadvantage is regrettably widespread, as loose talk about ‘tragedy’ and ‘struggle’ suggests. A wealth of research suggests that doctors routinely misjudge the quality of life that people with disabilities enjoy. If one judges such a life not worth living – as even Socrates ignominiously suggested – there’s no point fighting for treatment or questioning the conditions that generate the chances of success. Probability, far from being neutral, can directly contribute to injustice.

The political application of this observation is obvious: if we believe that the district in which we live and vote is “safe” for the other party, we are much more likely to skip voting; if enough of our neighbors do likewise, we have created the predicted result.

If the public response to yet another mass shooting is limited to bemoaning the “fact” that the NRA’s influence is too strong to overcome, Americans will fail to do the organizing and agitating that can counter that influence.

There has been a wake-up call prompted by the election of Donald Trump; many, many  people who previously didn’t follow political news have become aware of the “brokenness” of America’s government. If they respond with angry acceptance–if majorities of Americans believe that the country is so far down the road to corporatism and corruption that a return to more democratic, ethical governance is unlikely–then we will fail to organize, agitate and vote in numbers sufficient to effect that change.

Being human, we will always engage in prediction. But we need to be careful that we don’t act in ways that reinforce–or even bring about– our gloomiest prognostications.