Monday, April 29, 2019

PEAK Assessment


Saturday, Ambassador Lazlo ordered Maura (and through her, me) to “stop questioning decisions that have already been made” and to “continue dedicating all resources to preparation for strategy execution” with the immediate focus on enabling the public to make useful environmental impact assessments. I felt a little less anxious knowing that Sally was almost certainly under the same orders.

“You know what we want you to do, right?” Maura asked me after the call ended in the Boulder field office’s main conference room. 

On the table was a box that had just arrived from the Q.A. base facility. “Try out the Personal Environmental Assessment Kit as if I’m a member of the public.”

She nodded. “You’re the closest thing to a real user that we’ve got on the team, except you know what we’re already getting from the test communities,” which she was kindly reminding me had been the motivation for Friday’s assignment.

“How will you know if I’m getting it right?” I asked.

“I’ll be there with you, recording everything.”

“Where should we go?” I expected some kind of detailed plan for a test, especially one as critical as this one.

Her answer was a total surprise: “Anywhere. It’s up to you.” She laughed at my reaction. “Don’t worry! The communities are testing the PEAK under more controlled conditions.”

I opened the box and set its contents on the table: a folded backpack, a hardbound book, and a set of smaller boxes marked Air, Land, Water, Built, and General. Beside me, Maura was now wearing a pair of thick glasses which I assumed had an embedded camera and microphone. “They turned this around pretty quick,” I said, suspecting the materials in the kit were made using the state-of-the-art 3D printer that occupies one room of our facility.

It took more than an hour to familiarize myself with the book and everything in the boxes, commenting on each so my reactions could be analyzed either later or in real time by Sally. The whole thing reminded me of a child’s toy science lab, with lenses for magnifying close-up or at a distance, rulers and a makeshift sextant, optical filters to check air quality, and porous filters to check water and soil quality. Masks, gloves, and cleaning gear were also included along with a special “biosafing” solution that was advertised as a means of neutralizing potentially dangerous compounds for safe storage in biologically sensitive areas (for the record, I openly doubted that it was anything more than high-tech snake oil).

I filled the backpack and we took a hike along a trail adjacent to the field office site. The book’s ecosystem guide seemed correct to me as I took a set of measurements described as a “basic assessment” and wrote the results on a foldout page formatted as a calendar. Several aspects of the process were problematic in my view, not least being the logging procedure. I duly marked our position on a makeshift map created using instructions in the book while Maura recorded the accurate position using the GPS in her phone. Later, we attracted a crowd of onlookers as I took a much more limited set of measurements on a bench in the middle of downtown.

We visited TC-013 yesterday and compared notes with Lei Kaleo, who noted several additional issues that were specific to her local environment, and then stopped at other random places to take more measurements. A trip around Denver today finished my tryout of the kit, focusing entirely on urban environments around the city.

“It’s going to require a major redesign,” Maura reported to Lazlo this afternoon. “Sally and the team have enough information from us and the test communities to have a new design ready for review by Wednesday, with trials starting Friday at the latest. Also, Will has a suggestion I think we should consider.”

“Not a change in anything else we’re doing, I hope,” Lazlo said.

Ignoring her acid tone, I said, “It looks to me like we’re ignoring the most important variable of all, and maybe the easiest to measure: the people-to-nature ratio.”

There was a pause. “That’s because it doesn’t fall in the category of environmental assessment. Besides, it can probably be derived from some of the other measurements.”

“Maybe, but you have a great opportunity to check it directly, and get direct feedback from people about how it affects them. Maybe the data can be used to calibrate the people to be test instruments themselves and help them get ideas of their own about what to do.”

“We can’t afford any change in scope at this point in the project,” Lazlo said after a longer pause.

“But…” I began.

“It’s not an option,” she said, and ended the call. I suspected my stint with WICO might be close to ending too.

Reality Check

As I helped my father develop new ways to teach math while in my teens and twenties, we reveled in searching for simple, low-tech solutions to complex problems. Our main goal was to enable anyone to find their own solutions; and applying the approach to math, one of humanity’s greatest tools, was an obvious means to that end. He invented quite a few tools in the process, often out of easily obtainable materials like cardboard, which are inspirations for my vision of the Personal Environmental Assessment Kit.

The biosafing solution does not exist (which Will suspects). If it did, a lot of our problems could be solved. Here, it is a placeholder for something – or multiple somethings – else.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Sampling Error


“To be successful in its search for objective truth, science must identify, combine, and explain all viewpoints.” That sentiment, inscribed on a large plaque in the lobby of WICO’s Boulder field office, guided yesterday’s study and evaluation of the protocols used by test communities to report local conditions and the results of applying parts of the global strategy for use in refining it. I was also admittedly biased by my belief that the strategy’s probability of success would be greatly increased by: (1) encouraging a mindset of creation instead of remediation; and (2) using people’s innate reactions to an environment as a means of assessing its health.

I started by applying a lesson learned the hard way as a journalist: context is everything. The context in this case was the selection and definition of the test communities themselves. Based on my earlier discussions with other members of the Quality Assurance team, the communities (or “test environments” as the team often called them) were established or enlisted because of their proximity to observation stations used in the biosphere assessment which had been located on the basis of ecosystem characteristics.

The “regions” used in the global strategy were defined much later as random samples that, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, would together provide a meaningful picture of how a set of global variables are distributed around the world. I was reminded of how strange they looked on a map, some being extremely large, others looked relatively small, and not all of them contiguous. Rico Sanguini the data analyst had explained when I first saw it that territorial connection wasn’t nearly as important as the relationships of the main global variables such as ecological resources.

With the help of Innes Johnson, one of the technicians at the field office, I constructed a map showing the locations of the test communities along with the region boundaries. It was immediately obvious to my untrained eye that the communities could not be representative of the regions. Johnson told me she had noticed the same thing, and been told that the apparent disparity didn’t matter because the environmental considerations were most important anyway and the biosphere assessment had proved that they were adequately represented.

I decided to ask Sally for clarification since she was likely the original source of the explanation. “I can’t help you with that, Will,” she responded.

“You can’t or you won’t?” I pressed, surprised by the refusal.

“Within the scope of assuring the best chance of success, your concern is not worth pursuing. I appreciate your diligence, though.”

It was the first time in our relationship that I felt genuinely irritated with her. “You’re too busy. I get it,” I said, and decided to find my own answer.

There are three test communities in the Rocky Mountain area, each in an ecosystem type or “biome.” WICO classifies the entire area as belonging to just one region, which encompasses five states. Worldwide there are 12 biomes for 300 regions, represented by 120 test communities. Two things stood out from these numbers: the original number of regions was based on the number of existing test communities, which averaged about ten per biome; and the Rocky Mountain area should have one test community at most. 

Following my original instructions, I studied the reporting protocols and a sample of recent reports with an eye for the types of information being collected and sent. While the protocols were nearly identical, I noticed a clear bias in the reports, both in terms of environmental observations and the health and welfare of the residents. Someone smarter than me would need to do the analysis, but it looked like the types of environments and access to cities were playing huge roles in determining what the residents were choosing to report and how they were framing it.

From yesterday through part of today I discussed my concerns with Maura, the field office personnel, and the rest of our team. By the end, we agreed that there is a significant problem with the whole process. Sally was no more forthcoming with them than she was with me, which suggested a potentially larger issue.

Reality Check

The quote about science on the plaque and Will’s biases are all mine. 

I am not a journalist. I first learned “context is everything” from history professors in college, who insisted that reports of events should first be interpreted based on the experience of the originators. At the time I was majoring in physics, which focuses on understanding the fundamentals of how everything in nature relates to everything else in deterministic and non-deterministic ways, which together define context for what all experience. My career as a test engineer reinforced the lesson as I was forced to identify characterize the influences of measurement equipment and environmental conditions on test results. Success in my next career as a technical writer (with similarities to journalism) depended on keeping goals, audiences, and biases of sources and audiences in mind when writing documentation, as well as understanding the real-world subjects and the many potential influences on them. Now as a freestyle researcher and writer who creates more than I report, context must be thoroughly internalized to ensure consistency and quality in what I share with the world.

References to the biosphere assessment are loosely based on my experience in systems integration and testing of environmental variables. The number of biomes is real, and my derivation of the numbers of regions is based on actual population estimates. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Friendly Interrogation


“You’re way too focused on downscalin’us, Miss Riddick,” Al Menzies said over dinner as part of a far-ranging discussion last night at his house in Boulder. Maura had just been informed that she wouldn’t have anything to review for another day, so we weren’t in a rush to leave. Al added defiantly, “There’re a lotta people who need to upscale!”

She tightly squeezed my hand under the table, surprising me as much as the calmness in her voice when she answered. “The crap, as you call it, is mostly ours. We created it and we live in it. We have the tools, and the responsibility, to clean it up.”

 “Good point.” He grinned, having just given her his greatest compliment. Beside him as he faced us was a hardcopy of the latest global strategy, sticky notes protruding from more than half its pages. I suspected that he could summarize every one of them from memory. “What do your test subjects in, oh, Indonesia have to say ‘bout all this?”

Maura closed her eyes, and I felt a warm peacefulness envelop me as her grip relaxed. “They know that in many ways they are in a microcosm of the world,” she said, “facing pollution and land degradation as a result of industrial growth and natural hazards that have already pushed two-thirds of them into a state of collapse.” She opened her eyes and released my hand. “Now that the strategy has been improved and better explained, they see it as generally helpful and are providing valuable feedback about how it can be specifically implemented.”

“I’m sorry, but that sounds like pure boilerplate talkin’ points. Are they usin’ the same measurement and reportin’ protocols as everyone else?” Before she could answer, he added, “And does ‘collapse’ mean the same thing there as it does here?”

“Yes, and yes,” she answered bluntly. “We built and calibrated most of the basic capabilities during the biosphere assessment, and then expanded them to cover the remaining variables with multiple checks for reliable acquisition and interpretation of data. Of course, we can supplement the suite as conditions and interest warrant. Our main project now is to create a subset that everyone can use to get useful information, share it, and quickly know what it means.”

Al sat back, a mix of confusion and admiration on his face. “Are you sure you’re a historian and not an engineer?”

“She’s more than both those things,” I said, recalling the training as an enforcement officer that goes into becoming a special agent for the Extinction Response Unit which I learned about yesterday. “You didn’t tell her that you’ve got colleagues doing environmental research all around there, Al.”

“What do they think about what we’re doing?” Maura asked him.

“Like me, they figger humans survivin’ past mid-century will be like hittin’ a blade of grass with a dart from the moon, even with your cybercritter Sally callin’ the shots.”

“It’s going to be a pretty big dart,” she said.

“We’ll see, we’ll see.”

Caleb Tosner called Maura early this morning with two candidates for what he insisted on calling a “personal environmental assessment kit” or PEAK. I offered to pick her up at her parents’ house, but she insisted on joining me at the WICO field office after she had reviewed the designs on her own and met with Felicity Jonas at USERU. In the meantime, I was to get fully acquainted with WICO’s reporting protocols as practiced in the Rocky Mountain area.

We both ended up taking most of the day to accomplish our objectives. When we finally met, Maura briefed me and the personnel in Boulder about her choice for the PEAK, and I described what I think is a critical flaw in the reporting protocols that I’m sure we’ll be discussing into the night.

Reality Check

Maura’s description of Indonesia is based on a simulation I did using publicly available statistics (below), along with some basic research about the nation.

The “flaw” that Will discovered is based on an insight I had while analyzing the results of the simulation.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Response Coordination


Maura officially remains a special agent of the U.S. Extinction Response Unit. Prior to being attached and operationally reporting directly to WICO she worked out of the USERU’s field office in Denver, developing local strategy options and helping identify their potential outcomes (the latter of which she was doing with the global strategy when I was summoned). Today we visited the field office, whose personnel have been tasked with coordinating the strategy’s execution in the Rocky Mountain states.

Regional Director Felicity Jonas greeted us warmly and then compared notes with Maura on the status of preparations for the roll-out. After the attack on WICO, USERU made educated guesses about that the final strategy would look like, with emphasis on the national strategy’s inputs, and yesterday finished a review comparing their guesses with the current version of the strategy. Sally had been particularly helpful in the review, which she was simultaneously doing with extinction response units in the other nations. 

“Our guesses were pretty close,” Jonas said as the briefing wrapped up. “Locally we have a couple dozen action items that we can address by the end of the month, no sweat. After that, and until the execution date, we’ll be enlisting public and local governments to refine the impact reduction criteria and translate them into activity plans on a granular level. Do you think you can help us with that, Maura?”

“That’s one of the reasons I’m here,” she replied, giving me a knowing look. “I’m expecting a full report on my team’s personal environmental assessment suggestions and related test plans by end-of-business today. I’ll review them tonight, and I’d like to get your take on them tomorrow morning.” She explained that individuals could use such approaches for high-level detection and assessment during the initial phase, while more technology intensive approaches would be applied to conditions expected to be too large or unsafe. “It will improve the overall efficiency, and give us critical feedback for developing the next version, which will eventually be dominant. For those reasons, we should test them as soon as possible. After you see what we’ve got, I’d like to brainstorm how we can leverage what you’re doing with the activity plans.”

“Agreed,” Jonas said. “Meanwhile, I’ll pass this up the chain of command to see if any other regions can get involved.”

“Will’s next blog post should make that easier,” Maura suggested.

After we left, she suggested we do some sight-seeing and talk about the next steps, beginning with the radical idea I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

As she drove us into the mountains, I gave her an overview. “It’s related to a discussion I had with Sally back on February 7. I know because last night I looked up a post that I wrote then. Ambassador Lazlo even commented on it the next day. People are reacting to their environmental conditions in some ways like other animals do. We’re so used to looking at big picture statistics that we don’t see how it can scale to everyday experience.”

I waited for a reaction. “You mean, people are the detectors?” she asked.

“You got it,” I confirmed. “When people lived in nature all the time they were doing exactly what we want to do, with nothing more than what they could carry. We evolved to routinely make environmental assessments just to survive. Clearly some of it is still happening, affecting how happy we are, how many children we have, and how long we each live. If you believe Sally’s statistics, it even affects how much we trade with each other.”

“But life expectancy is tied to technology,” she argued, “and the economy depends on who is trading with who.”

I had thought a lot about those questions before falling asleep. “We still get sick, even fatally so, which is a direct effect of the toxins we breathe, drink, and eat. As for the economy, the quality and distribution of resources are averaged out in the stats, but they don’t have to be.”

“You sound more like a scientist than a journalist every day,” she observed.

“I like to read as much as I like to write. Also, I have a lot of smart friends.” She smiled, but I was specifically thinking of someone else. “You know what? I think it’s time for you to meet one of those other friends.”

Reality Check

Near the end, Will was of course referring to the correlations between remaining ecological resources and the global variables he cited. In my simulations, I have not used specific distributions of resources but rather inferred them from historical trends, essentially treating populations as resource distribution detectors. In the characters’ quest to test, I’m basically presenting a case for testing the assumptions and results of the simulations on small scales.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019



Maura and I spent several hours at test community TC-013 today.  Located on one of Colorado’s mountains, this former commune has thirty full-time residents who live off the land, perform scientific investigations, and maintain a suite of environmental monitoring instruments whose data are transmitted via satellite to Boulder for analysis. Officially we were there to brief the residents about the field test development effort and recruit them to help verify the resulting approaches. Unofficially we were hoping to get some ideas of our own.

One of the oldest residents, Dr. Lei Kaleo, gave us a guided tour of the local flora and fauna with a focus on their adaptation to local soil and climate and the changes that have occurred in the thirty-three years since she moved there from Hawaii. “We’ve been lucky not to have any bad fires here,” she told us, “but it is getting warm and dry enough now to significantly stress the trees and the animals that depend on them. It doesn’t take a lot of technology to see that we’re in the middle of a crisis.”

“Do you still keep your observer log, Lei?” Maura asked.

“I’m up to volume twenty now,” Kaleo answered. “I still have my records from when you visited your cousin as a little sprout.” She took us to her tiny cabin and found a leather-bound notebook in a chest under her bed. “There’s a copy of this in a museum somewhere,” she added. “Writing things down is still the best way to track what’s happening, along with good drawings.” To prove it, she showed us multiple sketches done in pen or pencil.

“What about memory?” I asked, thinking about the most basic way to keep information, and remembering stories about so-called primitive cultures that kept extensive oral histories.

“I wouldn’t expect it to be very useful after thirty or forty years. That’s from my own experience, mind you,” she admitted.

“What was that about?” Maura asked me later as we drove to Colorado Springs to have dinner with her family. “Things won’t get so bad that oral history will be necessary.”

“Just wondering,” I replied as a new and even more radical idea began to take form.

Reality Check

Written log books are still being used by engineers (I kept several of them during my career until I transitioned into full-time writing, documenting information others didn’t want to lose). Recording technology is beginning to take their place, however.

Kaleo’s observations haven’t been verified in the real world, though they do generally match with what I’ve learned about the area.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Blue Planet Day


Blue Planet Day was celebrated as a recommitment of the world to fighting death by imminent extinction. WICO personnel were enlisted to participate in briefings to the public and activities at their local facilities and field offices, with a focus on “the world of tomorrow”: what life will be like over the next fifty years as the global strategy is implemented.

Maura and I stayed in Colorado to assist at the Boulder field office, which coordinates research with universities and government agencies throughout the state, including collection of data at one of WICO’s test sites in the mountains southwest of Denver. We were joined by Maura’s parents and a distant cousin who live in Colorado Springs and, to my surprise, helped found the test site.

Sally was present at all of the events, using her enormous bandwidth to give lectures and answer questions for all of the visitors. She shared details of the global strategy, whose completed parts have already been disseminated to national governments for review. A multimedia presentation produced by the Education group was made available for download and played in theater spaces at each of the facilities.

Most people I talked to were interested in progress made toward limiting self-sustained ecological impacts, especially those in polar regions and the oceans that threaten to further destabilize the climate. A scale model of the WDP group’s pad technology for removing carbon dioxide from oceans was a big hit, along with a hall of dioramas showing how a suburban neighborhood might look after each decade of transformation into an end-state community dependent more on natural systems than artificial ones.

Mark Luke and Ronald Wingate hosted a panel discussion about how the expected changes to the world economy would affect private industry. Most questions centered on the progress of their Evolution over Devolution (ED) collaboration and its plans for the immediate future. Still committed to creating an artificial supply chain that can replace natural systems, Luke said that use of biotechnology is now ED’s top priority, aimed at adapting human life to a radically different resource base within five years to avoid the worst-case extinction scenario. Wingate argued that substantial economic reward is still possible with a mix of renewable energy and community-scale pollution cleanup technologies that can augment the WDP group’s efforts.

A three-hour meeting at WICO headquarters in London was beamed live to meeting rooms all over the world and recorded for later playback. It began with a keynote address by Secretary General Decatur, and included speeches introduced by Ambassador Lazlo, who herself presented an overview of STRIDE’s organization, operation, and progress, as well as a fifteen-minute description of our Quality Assurance team’s work. Maura wasn’t bothered by not being asked to represent us, telling me that she had been given explicit instructions to focus on the work, a new phase of which she and I will be starting tomorrow, right here in our home state.

Reality Check

“Blue Planet Day” is, of course, the simulated world’s version of our Earth Day.

People, technologies and organizations mentioned here have been mentioned in earlier posts, and some elements of the story are related to other fiction I have written.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Brain Storm


Yesterday’s sense of relief was short-lived. The new information about how our ecological impact affects the self-sustained impacts revealed a huge downside of not pursuing the global strategy. Essentially, we would go extinct a decade earlier than if the self-sustained impacts immediately stopped.

I spent half of today participating in a brainstorming session about how to field test environmental conditions. Many of the ideas predictably included the modification and use of off-the-shelf measurement instruments, along with design requirements for new technologies. Leveraging of equipment and techniques already in use by the Widely Dispersed Pollutants group was a hot topic, especially since precedent had been set by a joint effort during the biosphere assessment which half the test engineers were part of before joining STRIDE.

My mind started to wander about two hours into the session, trying to imagine how someone with no technical experience or interest could be motivated or able to put the ideas into practice. I found myself focusing on one wall of the common area where someone had hung a pair of the latest Hope Charts, one showing business-as-usual and the other showing the expected effect of just reducing impact. Next to the wall was a table with some of the instruments being discussed, which looked totally out-of-place with the charts; and after a few minutes I understood why.

“How are people going to get the equipment?” I interjected during a pause. One of the engineers offered that they could be ordered easily online, but I cut her off. “What if no one can get the materials to make it?”

“Don’t be rude, Will!” Caleb Tosner warned me. He was acting as leader of the session, yet I sensed he had another motivation. 

“Ten years from now will that technology even be possible?” I pressed. The room went silent, which I read as an invitation to continue. “Also, can we count on the infrastructure needed to run it and get the most use out of it, like power plants and computers?”

“We’ll still have some of that,” Tosner said.

“We might, but what about the majority of other people, in a whole new - and more primitive - set of conditions?”

Like a wave, looks of awareness and agreement spread through the room. Then Sally joined the conversation, her voice coming from an array of speakers near the ceiling. “Will’s right. The economy will be like the 1960s in the most likely scenario. That’s what you should be planning for.”

Tosner looked up. “If that’s the case, then we’ve already failed.”

“Try again,” Sally said, and then told me that Maura wanted me in her office.

I was prepared for either a reprimand or a compliment when I joined Maura a few minutes later. She instead surprised me with an offer to help plan my permanent relocation, beginning with a trip to my home over the weekend.

Reality Check

My latest simulations show the consequences of inaction with and without self-sustaining ecological impacts mostly related to global warming. In the following graph, business-as usual without those impacts is shown as total consumption “R(NoW)” and population “P(NoW)” which indicate human extinction by 2041. If instead of reducing total consumption, humanity increases total consumption linearly in the presence of sustained impacts as indicated by “Rused(W)” as an approximation of business-as-usual, then the population will crash in all three cases of sustained impact (Low, Mid, High) by 2030.

This analysis supports the urgency of reducing humanity’s impact to buy time to limit the external impacts (shown below).

Discussions here and in elsewhere regarding testing are informed and inspired by my own experience as a test engineer, particularly in the test and verification of environmental measurement systems and their components.

Thursday, April 18, 2019



Yesterday, results from a year-long test at thirty sites around the world were received and are being integrated into the global strategy. The sites are essentially very large greenhouses that simulate the effects of reducing ecological impact on self-sustained warming and polluting mechanisms like those currently threatening our planet. Details of the observations are also being used to identify methods that can decelerate and potentially “disconnect” the underlying feedback loops.

Sally generated several new versions of the Hope Chart. None of them showed full success, as defined by the leveling off of total resources and corresponding constant population that was a fixture of the previous versions. At best, our demise was delayed by several decades when following the original approach of reducing our ecological impact over the next twenty years.

“The lowering of direct impact was always about buying time to fill in those TBDs,” Maura said at a mid-morning team briefing. “Now we have a better idea how big the gap is. While Sally and the development team work on updating the strategy, our focus will be on designing tests and observation protocols that can be performed by virtually anybody to both supplement global awareness and inform local supporting activity. Feel free to use all the test sites, and provide any and all feedback to Sally for assessment and distribution to the other teams as she deems appropriate.”

Later, as we sat in her office developing an action plan for me to follow, she gave me some positive feedback. “Your creativity ideas are going to be particularly relevant now. Everyone has to be engaged, a lot of them as naturalists identifying what’s important to concentrate on and how actions will impact their local environments, both artificial and natural. That takes a level of dedication that comes from having a personal stake in the process as well as the outcome. I’ve seen you do that every day, and I’d like you to think more about how to share it.”

Reality Check

I created a new simulation of interactions between a global population and three contributors to a decrease in total resources available for consumption. The contributors are represented in the Hope Chart as low, medium, and high warming based on extrapolation of the non-linear component of historical data. Curve fits to graphs of cumulative total consumption vs. projected warming were used to approximate the effect of lowering total consumption.

Following is one of the Hope Charts I created with the new simulation:

Maura’s pep talk reflects what I’ve been telling myself lately, and its content mirrors a similar approach I practiced when I was active in the community of amateur astronomers.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019



My suggestion to reframe the strategy as the creation of a new world fell flat with my team and the top leadership of STRIDE, much as it did with Sally. Maura has been privately supportive, but her position as head of the new Quality Assurance team doesn’t give her any latitude to oppose official policy.

Since the presentation about the end-state, I have been developing a list of issues and questions that I think should be addressed either in the strategy or with the public during its rollout. At the top of the list is the need for a straightforward explanation of why the population and consumption projections have changed radically since the reference strategy was released in January.

Sally offered to help me with that explanation after reassuring me that it wouldn’t slow her other work, and then began with what sounded like one of her rules. “The main thing to remember is that wants and needs are always in competition for resources. That applies to systems where resources are limited, and to systems where they appear unlimited; because speed of access will always be limited, and what is valued most can always change.”

“By ‘needs’ do you mean population?” I asked.

“In terms of resources, they are the same,” she confirmed. “If needs can’t be met then death will result; therefore, the amount of resources used for needs is proportional to the population.”

“So, there’s basically a tradeoff between people and what they consume beyond their basic needs, what protects them, makes them happy, and helps them have more kids who can survive long enough to take care of themselves.”

“Correct,” she said, “subject to individual preferences and capabilities, as well as constraints imposed by the environment such as availability of resources and competition by others.”

I thought I saw where she was leading. “You’re implying that one or all of those things has significantly changed over the past three months.”

“What can be inferred about them, yes.”

“Could you have been misled by the loss of data when the servers crashed?” If so, then the initial projections were more trustworthy than what came later.

“The loss of data is a problem, but the difference has been confirmed in analysis of observations and test results acquired after the crash.”

I suddenly thought of Maura and the work she did to predict initial conditions when the strategy is executed. She must have seen this coming, which explained her lack of surprise.

There was one other possibility I felt compelled to explore. “Did the new analysis uncover a flaw in the original analysis?”

Sally’s reply was delayed by several seconds, a sign of embarrassment that must have felt like an eternity to her. “There is a significant probability that the original analysis underestimated the effect of declining resources on both population and the distribution of quality of life.”

I imagined the Hope Chart with the supply of resources being maintained by the effects of our reduction in population and consumption over the next twenty years. When we stop and level off, then the supply will drop to some level that other species can maintain above what we’re using. During that drop there should be no effect on us; but if I understood Sally correctly, there will be an effect that depends both on the remaining resources and how much people value needs and wants. The new data must have indicated that wants will be valued more than needs, resulting in fewer people at the end.

Sally agreed with this assessment when I shared it with her. “The alternative would be for a majority of people to live in perpetual collapse and high wealth inequality, similar to the present situation but with the average person barely meeting the basic needs of survival. They would much rather risk dying so they can be part of a smaller population living much better than that.”

Reality Check

Sally’s explanation for the population difference is fictional cover for an actual flaw I found in January’s simulation prior to writing this post. The description of the relationships and behaviors of the underlying variables is consistent with the current simulation and my interpretation of what it means.

Simulation with low population, high consumption:

High population, low consumption:

Monday, April 15, 2019

End State


Sally’s version of a successful strategy at the end of this century has the population and ecological footprint that humanity had in the early 1950s, in a world with half the resources that existed then. The destruction of life due to our myriad assaults and the physical feedback loops they created has been stopped with the aid of the species we spared and helped grow to sustainable levels. People’s experience with each other and the rest of nature is similar to what it was in the early 1990s, spread between the growth and peak stages with nowhere safe to go next.

Despite these superficial similarities with our past, the world looks much different from anything most people then or today would recognize. Technological progress has shifted from taking and transforming more resources to increasing and nurturing what remains. People live in what Sally calls “cached habitats,” prefabricated homes and infrastructure that supports their needs and are available for anyone’s use as long as they commit to maintenance, sharing with others, and avoiding negative impacts on all surrounding life. Everything built is designed to be reusable and biodegradable within no more than two decades, which allows for changes in local conditions and requirements for ecosystem health to influence both its decommissioning and reconstruction as needed.

Even more important than the sharing and design of places and things in service of healthy and diverse life supporting systems is the sharing and joint development of knowledge, understanding, and values that enables it. Common acceptance of basic facts, concepts, and values is absolutely critical to long-term survival, and is never allowed to be compromised; although new opinions and approaches are welcome as potential modifications and subject to rigorous test by those affected as a condition of adoption. In addition, forms and content of communication will be different, having adapted to changing survival requirements resulting from variable environmental conditions, forced mobility, and intensity of interaction between people.

What happens between now and then will determine the details of this scenario at the scale of people’s daily lives. The means and success of stopping and then reversing the degradation of planetary life support are expected to have the greatest impact, especially in setting the ratio of people to ecological resources, which affects the size and behavior distribution of the population.

“That last part is particularly problematic,” Maura said as we shared our reactions to Sally’s presentation. “She’s got some good reasons for holding onto that lower population figure, and I’ve got some of my own.”

“I was actually surprised that the number was so high, after she listed all the climate feedbacks already in progress, not to mention the accelerating extinction rates at the bottom of the food chain.” I had been reading a lot. “What are your reasons for believing it’s so high?”

“I’ve seen some ‘projections’ that indicate up to three billion of us could cease to be people, but they won’t cease to exist.”

“What the heck does that mean?” I asked, but she refused to answer.

Reality Check

Sally’s description is my own, based my latest simulations and some educated guesswork.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Repair vs. Creation


As soon as I asked Sally about the end state yesterday, she anticipated part of what I was driving at. “You’re wondering how it will be experienced by most people.” Before I could ask how she knew, she added, “I’ve studied your work during my unplanned absence, and it’s obvious that your greatest concern is how the strategy can be understood and implemented on an intuitive basis for maximum success. Comparing what people’s lives will be with what they are is a reasonable step toward doing so.”

“You’re right,” I admitted, reminding myself that she was designed to be an expert at extrapolating data, and I had provided plenty of data for her to use. “But I’ve got another insight that I believe is a big deal. We’ve been framing the strategy as a means to fix the world, to avoid catastrophe.”

“It is,” Sally interjected.

I took a deep breath and decided to begin with a caveat she would appreciate. “That sets an expectation that the result will resemble what people consider not broken. I don’t think that’s an expectation anybody can justify, because we’re all limited by our life experience.”

“Even shared knowledge has that flaw,” she said, “as with your guess on January 28, about people becoming hunter-gatherers. By the way, regarding your original question, the rest of that discussion is still applicable to the end state, though there has been progress toward addressing disassembly and reusability.”

I was tempted to follow up on what she said, but wanted to finish making my point first. “The focus needs to be on creation instead of repair.”

“Will, you know that the focus is determined by the highest probability of success. Restoring and enhancing relevant functionality of existing systems, what you call fixing or repair, is more likely to significantly delay humanity’s extinction than any known or anticipated alternatives.”

“Agreed, but with a creation mindset we might find other, better alternatives - or at least motivate more people to take some action to address the threat.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Taking people off task, to pursue an unknown gain that could become a loss, is a net increase in risk that - given our constraints - is unacceptable by every standard I have access to.”

I decided to make one more attempt to persuade her. “As I understand the strategy, we’re forcing everyone back to the growth stage where creativity dominated, so it’s going to happen by the end state anyway. If you put a limit on people then, they’ll act just like the people in that stage today, and use their creativity to break through the limit. They need something they can aspire to that won’t kill everyone later, and letting them create that seems to me like an efficient and necessary thing to do now. Let me put it another way: people won’t settle for an ‘end state’ - it needs to be a gateway to a life they can make better.”

Sally agreed to consider my suggestions and to brief me with the rest of our team this weekend on what she called “the parameters of the end state.” Today I flew back to the facility and am joining Maura for a private discussion that will hopefully not end with my dismissal.

Reality Check

I have lived consequences related to the debate presented here. Questioning basic assumptions comes with risks to any project: both in pulling resources from the current tasks, and identifying problems that slow or end the project with embarrassment - or worse. 

Revision of the underlying simulation continues. One change relevant to this post is the inclusion of a variable value of total resources - essentially accounting for the reduction due to global warming so that the population can drop in accordance with initial projections of the global strategy instead of staying near its present level.

Thursday, April 11, 2019



I spent another day in Region 35 and tried to imagine how a typical person would be able to apply the global strategy without access to information or guidance like I had with Sally and WICO’s experts. The rules came to mind, but even I wasn’t convinced I could remember enough to use them in real life.

Having spent time in a variety of places, I have a fairly reliable base of knowledge and rules of thumb that work in most situations. I’m usually not even aware I’m using them unless a new situation forces improvisation that involves mixing what I know with what can be learned on the fly (asking questions and testing the answers), coupled with good old-fashioned trial and error in the application. It occurred to me that with we would be asking most people to become like children again, questioning or outright discarding previous knowledge and viewing every experience as if it was a totally new one, because that’s what we are all going to be literally creating. Creation of a new world, I thought. We’ve been looking at the goal all wrong.

As I walked the streets of the city, that insight translated into a dynamic mental vision of an alternate world that occupied the same space. In the place of tall buildings made of concrete and steel, my mind’s eye saw a mix of forest and open areas that functioned as connections between habitats and were interspersed with simple yet secure dwellings made of natural materials. Homeless people I found camped out around buildings and under bridges would occupy dwellings like those, along with everyone else who could count on safe spaces and access to basic needs within walking distance of wherever they were. 

That was my view, but it was just a start. The vision triggered thoughts about how to make it a reality that began with what was present in its place and what could be learned from the others who would share the space. 

At one point after realizing this, I took out my phone and called Sally. This time, I didn’t ask for guidance. “We need to have a conversation about the end state,” I said.

Reality Check

My father was my ideal of a teacher because he was always learning, and learning how to learn. When I was in my teens and twenties, in an effort to find a better way to teach, he tried learning math purely by observation, imagining himself on a deserted island and using just what was around him to discover all the math he would ever need to know. In many ways he succeeded. Decades later, he is gone but I continue to follow his example and share it where I can. This post is a direct testament to that experience as I seek a different goal aligned with the same basic desire to help make the world a better place.