Friday, August 15, 2008

Decision Making, Part One

First things first. The stock market has rallied the past few days and oil has declined sharply, so everything is back to normal and life is good again right? Um, not quite. But you wouldn’t know that from the cheerleading in the press. I’m beginning to think that all of the media and the financial sector are on massive amounts of Prozac and are sipping Vodka in their coffee mugs, to boot. Things are –well, not good. When I look around and see what’s happening I can’t help but come to the conclusion that life as we know is rapidly going into its inevitable collapse. By rapid I do not mean overnight –the collapse of societies is measured in generations, but there are always sharp downward inflection points. I have conflicting emotions over this: part of me grieves for what will be lost, including those people who will not be able to adapt, are dependent on the system, or just get caught in the confusion. And part of me wants to cheer, because I feel that it’s about time things change and I long ago came to the conclusion that changes were never going to occur until the system as we know it comes down.

I promised this post because I have been thinking about the subject a lot, as I’m sure many of you have. After I promised to write I realized I had no idea how to do so. So this post will be an attempt to sort out my own thinking on the subject as well as a general discussion. It will probably get pretty long, so bear with me.

First, I want to discuss the process of decision making in general. There are several different ways for anyone to make a decision. I’ll use the list from Wikipedia ( since it is as good as any other: listing the pros and cons, random methods (such as a coin toss), accept the first option that appears decent, divination (prayer, tarot), ask an expert, or by calculating the expected value of each option. All of us use one of these methods for most of our decisions, but we may not be conscious of it. Most decisions are made rapidly without any conscious deliberation. Do I want the popsicles or should I save the money? If you don’t slow down and force yourself to think your unconscious or your gut will make the decision.

All the formal methods of decision making, however, have inherent in them two assumptions which I find to be highly flawed: first, that humans are rational, and second, that the situation in which the decision is made is known and stable. Despite what economists might pretend we humans are NOT rational. Not most of the time, at any rate. Our decisions and actions tend to be biased and based primarily on our emotions. A book on this subject just came out called Predictably Irrational. Any attempt at rational decision making must be prepared to overcome one’s own desires, emotions, and internal biases. All of these are going to attempt to lean you towards the decision you want to make, not necessarily the one you should make. This fact makes the very foundation of all our economic theory start to crumble, or at least get a little shaky. Most people don’t realize they are not behaving rationally and therefore will make no attempt to do so, and even those who do see the problems will be clouded by their own biases.

The second assumption inherent in systems of decision making is even more dangerous in a situation like ours: it assumes the situation is known and stable. I think even a casual glance at what is happening in our world today will tell you that our situation is in no way stable. Everything has become more volatile –from food and energy to the geopolitical arena. If our relationship with Russia keeps devolving there’s even a chance we could find ourselves in the midst of nuclear war. (At which point I will be running for the hills with my bug out bag and my dogs –I live in a high target area.)

Our situation also is not fully known. How bad will things get? And how fast? Has oil all ready peaked as the data seems to indicate or do we have a few more years? How fast will depletion occur? Are we going into the second Great Depression? (On this question I am heeding the advice of my elders: everyone I know who is 85+ believes we are on the cusp of Depression the Sequel and that things now are just like they were when that started.) When will the effects of global warming really be felt and how bad will they be?

In times like ours all the normal modes of decision making fly out the window. They are almost totally inadequate. It can be tempting to just throw up your hands and let luck and the diving sort it out. Many will do so. A church down the road from me has a sign up that says PUSH –Pray Until Something Happens. Now, I have nothing against prayer; I am very spiritual and somewhat religious person and pray on a regular basis. But if prayer is all you do in a situation like this, to use Southern vernacular, you just might find yerself in a heap o’ trouble. One of my neighbors lost her job and just prayed for God to send her a new one. What ended up happening was that the repo man came to foreclose on her house.

So are there things you can do if you’re not comfortable with just hoping for the best? Of course. I grew up in a very bad situation. My family was homeless on and off throughout my childhood and we always lived in very bad areas. One of the things I still carry with me is this –make decisions that leave you with lots of options. Try not to back yourself into a corner where you’ve limited your options and don’t have any backups. This can be as simple as stocking up now so if there is a panic you’re taken care of.

Given the situation as it is we need to focus on the basics. What do you need to survive?
Shelter, food, water, community, and security. I’m going to go through these one by one. First, we’re trained to immediately assume we’ll buy all these things with money earned from a job. But will that be true in twenty years? Eventually the global economy is going to go away as cheap fossil fuels do so. Oh, we’ll still have some trade. Coffee, chocolate, and other high-value items will still be shipped around. But you won’t get grapes from Chile in January anymore. Like it or not, economies are going to relocalize. Food –and everything else –will be produced much more locally. Do you think you’re job will still be around? If not, what will you do? How will you do it? Start thinking about this NOW.

Shelter –where do you live now? Apartment, house, farm? Do you own it outright, have a mortgage, or rent? Is this place sustainable? If you own it, can you imagine yourself staying there and adapting? If you have a mortgage or rent ask yourself what will happen if you lose all or a significant portion of your income. Can you still make the payments? Is there anything you can do in that situation? Take in boarders or relatives? If you think you will lose your home, start thinking of alternatives NOW. Don’t wait until the eviction notices start arriving. What can you do and where can you go? Relatives, friends, a lower-cost place? Maybe you rent and would like to own but can’t afford it on your own. Okay, so what are the options here? Perhaps you could go in with several friends and buy a large house outright. I know several people who have done this and with careful planning it can work out. There are also other considerations –those high-rise apartments are great, but you can’t grow food in them. And what happens when your job goes down the drain with the rest of the economy?

Food and water –how do you get your food now, and can you see that continuing? If you see a short-term interruption coming, stock up now so you won’t go hungry. But what about the longer term? Do you think you’ll still be able to get your staples and treats at your local big box store in another twenty years? If not, what will you do? Most people don’t like to hear this, but in traditional societies most people have some kind of connection to agriculture and food growing. Maybe it’s just a kitchen garden, but they have it. So you need to look either at sourcing your own food locally or producing your own food. If you try to buy locally remember that it can cost more now and eventually a lot more people are going to try and get local food (or need to get local food) and this will drive the price up. Will you still be able to afford it then? If you decide to learn to grow food, start now. It takes ten years to master a new skill. If you wait until you need to learn you might starve to death before you get your first good harvest. Don’t have a yard? Start with pots or apply for an allotment. Also consider relocating to someplace where you will have access to land, at least a small yard. In traditional societies wealth is often defined by its connection to the land –if you had land you could more easily take care of yourself and your own needs. Water is also key. How do you get your water now? Can that continue indefinitely? If the city supply gets shut off, what do you do? Can you harvest rainwater?

Community –this one is big as well. You can’t live on your own without cheap fossil fuels (or even with them, unless you are fairly well off). Every person is going to need to learn to give and receive help. You might not be able to fix the driveway but can sew clothing (or vice versa). Systems of mutual dependence, trust, and barter will need to be built back up. These take time. Look at where you are now. Do you have any sort of community? Is there the possibility of building one? Are these the sort of people you want to spend the rest of your life with? If not you need to make arrangements. Also, look at your childcare situation if you have children. Is this sustainable? The elderly and disabled are going to depend on communities to survive, as are children. In traditional societies the former two often played key roles –they often looked after children while the parents farmed or what have you, and they made necessary items like blankets. Could your parents move in or nearby and help with the kids?

Security –I don’t think we’ll have the raging hordes so beloved of doomers. But crime will go up as things get worse. (As will hate crimes, so if you’re a target, take measures now to protect yourself.) I’m not going to say go out and get a gun, though that is an option. But at least take measures to secure home as well as possible and learn to be alert. Also consider getting a dog. Yes, they take up resources but most burglars pass up houses with dogs and even if they don’t you’ll have a low-tech, eminently sustainable alarm system. ;-) My dogs alert me when anyone comes near the property –they don’t even have to set foot on it.
Yes, there are a lot of questions here and not many answers. That’s because each person’s situation is going to be very unique. In part two I’ll look at my own situation and do my best at prognosticating the future.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is excellent RAS!

This is going to take some time for a deeper response, but one point you make is really crucial. About praying for a larger force to take responsibility. That stuff drives me nuts. And is one of the tenants of some contemporary religions that really bothers me. It encourages complacency. I don't think God? or Goddess really perceives to differentiate when economies, and resource usage become non-sustainable. In fact I have lived in some third world countries where chaos reigns supreme, but their dysfunctional illogical hope is still placed in prayer. Same thing with climate change, Mother Nature does not discriminate between wealthy, poor or who prays the most... Drought and flooding is both color blind, and spiritually indifferent. Though, natural calamities might help people enter more logical and spiritual connections with themselves, and their Gaia.

Unfortunately, many people right now want simple answers, and most of our populations are dysfunctionally trained in our schools to not think critically. What we need is a revolution and evolution in logical thinking, with a huge side dose of empathy.

Yes, people need to slow way down and meditate about our future. And not as in meditate to get all blissed out and be in a nirvana now where everything is all groovy.

We are in a powerful transition period. And gleaning the future is very complex right about now, and I have been doing this for thirty years. Took a university class from an international futurist, and have been blessed / cursed to be continually spending much time envisioning twenty year event horizons. And in reality, one must visualize the entire spectrum of horizons, which is not always a lot of fun. Thinking and seeing rationally, can be painful at times. Which as you said when decisions are based on emotion, that too becomes dangerous, because people do not like making decisions on things that feel painful. Another reason why people are often subconsciously experts at running escape routines to avoid looming problems that might not feel good, they will escape by doing a distraction that feels good.

What we need, is to help people learn what our powerful emotions are in our ultra complex brain operating system tool box. Emotions, and feeling can be highly valuable in the thinking process. Lets not forget intuition and pre-cognitive gifts too to be added to how we shape our futures...

Again, thank you for opening up discussion on this highly complex future we are "ALL" looking at!

8/15/2008 6:20 PM  
Anonymous murph said...

I like you post ras. It's right in there with the right questions to ask in my opinion.

8/15/2008 9:24 PM  
Blogger MoonRaven said...

Thanks for this post. There's a lot of useful stuff here.

I really like your final point (although there's lots of other good stuff here): "...we need to focus on the basics." And I agree that "Shelter, food, water, community, and security" is a pretty good list of the basics. Too many survivalists seems to think they don't need the community piece but I think that may be the most important part of all--if you've got community, you can probably share shelter and food and work on conserving water together (teach each other rainbarrel collection and how to use greywater). And being part of a community provides a lot more security than trying to make it yourself or with just your family. I think Benjamin Franklin's quote is still applicable today: "We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately."

8/16/2008 5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the most useful things we have done in our community is start a core group organization that promotes and educates about economic localization and sustainability. Touches all the points you mentioned. Shelter, Food, Emergency Preparedness, Energy, Health & Wellness, Building Community, Climate Change, Waste Recycling, Water and Transportation. It has been a slow and intense process, but we have succeeded in helping the local administrative government respond and begin implementing forward moving action. Though, it is always a challenge because so many people do not want to alter their thinking from the continual growth model. But things change fast. A car dealership just closed after being in business for 30 years. They used to sell big cars and trucks...

There is also a lot of dialogue about developing community wealth, versus individual wealth. One other aspect is developing a local bartering monetary system.

One of the best things in all of this, is that farmers markets are really growing, along with more and more small farmers coming on the scene. It is very encouraging to see how well respected and honored the small farmers are here. And there are a lot of community gardens coming on the scene, for both building community, and looking ahead towards basic food security.

One of the early models, transition towns that inspired our community was the WELL movement in Willits, California. They were one of the first communities in the U.S. to recognize and move forward with the peak oil issue. They were also featured in the follow up movie of Escape from Suburbia.

Another area that is important to come to terms early on about is job losses in traditional model business. But hopefully, that is an area when localizing, more jobs are protected, because more of the community choses to rely on local services and goods as much as possible. Buy local is a big movement, and sometimes hard to get the point across to people that when they buy foreign goods, it funnels money and jobs right out the community loop. Getting people to understand that cheaper is not better, is a hard mind set to alter... But doable.

Loved the Moonraven comment, quote from Been-mind-jamin Franklin. How so very true!

8/18/2008 2:59 PM  

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