Bare Bones Biology 024. Problem Solving I

So, I retired about 10 or 11 years ago, I know you’ll get tired of hearing this story, and looked around to find some charismatic leader who is going in the same direction. I would become his or her follower and so make a contribution to the future. The only requirement was it has to cause more good than harm for people and the ecosystem.

I looked.

And looked.

And looked.

Lots of charismatic leaders flying off in all directions, but if you put them all in one big pile they cancel each other out. No progress. This is OK if you believe in the evolution model of solving problems, because eventually something will climb out of the pile that brings about change, but it’s extremely inefficient.

The evolution model is that everyone works really, really hard at whatever they are good at, and then one wins according to the conditions of the day, and the other 99 get lopped off. That may be OK for dinosaurs and other creatures that don’t do science and history, and don’t know how to learn from their mistakes, but I think it’s really inefficient for persons like us who have logical brains. I prefer to work at something that has more than a ½ percent probability of succeeding.

So I kept on looking, and what I found, among the charismatic leaders around the world, was a set of problem solving techniques that don’t solve problems. Or rather, they only solve little temporary problems — sometimes.

This was beginning to remind me of the time in my previous life that I determined never again to do anything I would be ashamed of. It lasted almost two years, and I basically never did anything at all for the whole two years except maintain life and limb and keep my job . I contrast that with my first trip to Japan. I squirm with embarrassment even now, remembering how almost everything I did was inappropriate to where I was, and yet I wouldn’t trade that experience for any other single experience in my life. But it would have been better if I knew what I was getting into before I got into it.

Maybe there is something between those two, where we can avoid the really, really dumb mistakes, and study the things we don’t understand before we try to change them. I mean, we are the only creatures gifted with that kind of mind.

And there is, actually, a set of problem-solving methods that can be expected to do more good than harm, but only rarely do we see it actually used. Maybe that’s because the people who used these techniques succeeded in solving some problems, and that’s why we don’t hear about them on the public media. Problem gone. But of course you’re asking how this could be done, and I will tell you. It’s different for every problem, and it will only work if the people really want to solve the problem. So whatever it is the problem you want to solve, don’t claim that you have really tried until you follow this program:

1. Identify your very specific goal so you decide what actions are more likely to accomplish that goal.
2. Study the root causes of whatever problem you are trying to resolve, not only the sound-bite possibilities, or the propaganda possibilities, or whatever you want to make happen.
3. Learn the differences between facts and opinions.
4. Be very skeptical about the opinions and the “facts” of people who have money invested in the outcome.
5. Be very sure about the parts of the problem that you can not change. There are always parts you can’t change, even if you are a rich American who owns a technology company. Don’t try to change them.
6. Figure out what human behaviors are contributing to the problem. Because human behaviors are nearly the only thing you really can change.
7. Don’t lie to the people. They’ll probably figure it out.
8. Listen to the people who disagree with you. They may be your best source of good ideas.
9. Discuss the problem with everyone who is affected by it, including the children, unto the seventh generation.

In a Hostel in Japan

“If English is good enough for the Bible, it’s good enough for us.” (former Texas Governor)

“Unlimited Economic Growth . . is the pet idea of a Party of Hardheaded Realists. That unlimited economic growth can be accomplished within limited space, with limited materials and limited intelligence, only shows the unlimited courage and self-confidence of these Great Minds. That unlimited economic growth implies unlimited consumption, which in turn implies unlimited pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth, only makes the prospect even more unlimited.” Wendell Berry (Was he talking about the UN Millenium Project? I don’t know.)

July 19, 2005
Today is Wendell Berry day

I am sitting at breakfast in a Japanese Youth Hostel, speaking with a Dutch Youth who lives in China. He speaks nearly perfect English; I will not misrepresent what he said. He said some things about fundamentalist religious people being unable to listen to any other perspective than their own: “Oh, well, that’s because they are fundamentalist – that’s what it means.” (Not quite I don’t think, but let that go. I’m not sure myself what it means. What could be more fundamental than the created natural laws of the creation in which we are living?)

“Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.” (Philip Sherrard, Greek Orthodox theologian.)

Our breakfast conversation moves along to economic growth, and immediately the experience for me becomes no different from trying to converse with the most fundamentalist of Texas or South Carolina Christians (which I have done, and I listened). He says the economy goes up and down but it will always be as it has always been. He thinks it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t understand biology because it is not relevant to the economy. And besides, we have to work to maintain this current economy because otherwise we wouldn’t have jobs. Nice, tall handsome blond young man. Nice smile.

“Nature is the best farmer and forester, for she does not destroy the land in order to make it productive.” Wendell Berry

In fact, this sort of conversational experience has been pretty standard for me ever since I determined thirty years or so ago to stop playing “Aint it Awful” (Games People Play, Eric Berne) because I couldn’t think of any good that could come of that social game. I’m glad I stopped playing, but will modify my opinion of “no good” in the light of maturing wisdom. “Aint it Awful” is very good for booksellers, which keep the game going with an unending series of aint-it-awful books. It’s also good for fundamentalist economists and power politicians, because the game stimulates the economy without actually generating change. Come to think of it, almost everyone enjoys a good game of “Aint it awful,” except maybe people the likes of Wendell Berry who wish to genuinely live their religion.

“If we understand that no artist–no maker—can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them—all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance; In answering them, we practice, or do not practice our religion.”

Not surprisingly, after my decision to stop playing “Aint it Awful” I pretty much lost contact with my old friends. We no longer had anything to talk about and it took me a long time to figure out there are other things to say and do, and so they wandered off into some gracious void wherein presumably resides someone else with whom to share their interminably recycled pretence at concern. I am thankful to my lost friends; not that they are lost but they helped me when I needed it. They are nice people.

And I guess I was not the only person who found that game depressing, because we next had the “perky” generation, which was notable for its profound belief that NOTHING AT ALL is wrong – it’s only “my perception” that is out of whack. I once heard Dr. Laura, on her help line, advise such a young woman. The poor young thing no longer felt happy; she had always been happy and she had everything; she wanted to know what was wrong with her, what was she doing wrong that she was no longer happy? Dr. Laura asked this poor woman about her load of responsibilities, as I recall it included four children under the age of five and massive volunteer responsibilities, and then Dr. Laura simply and gently told her: “Nobody feels good all the time. Did you think you are supposed to feel good all the time?” And yes, it turned out, she did. A nice young woman; a compassionate and insightful older woman. It was a sweet moment because you could tell that simple conversation would have a profoundly healing result.

Then we had a generation of young who told us that anything you believe is true “for you,” because you believe it! “It’s your perception, and so it’s valid.” According to them, there is no such thing as hard factual reality. Unfortunately, that pattern of thinking erases several hundred or a few thousand years worth of important factual knowledge. The reason facts are facts is because they don’t change. They won’t go away, which means that someone else must take care of the facts while we are having opinions and beliefs.

And now a zillion 30-somethings who have just turned 40, salt the face of the earth, dedicating their lives to bringing for the benefit of others the system that so enriched them. Unfortunately the system that enriched them (and you, and me), and which did indeed give us an abnormally cushy life-style, is now beginning overtly to crumble and no longer has the safety net of our wide-open unused spaces. These 40-somethings are very, very nice people, and admirably dedicated to helping others reap the rewards of the American economy but not realizing – or maybe they do and hence their determination to help – that they themselves, and you, and I, have eaten up, or burned up, most of the excess fruits of the American Dream, and we are running down. The American economy must go on a diet or — after it gobbles up whatever defenseless other countries it can conquer or con — it will starve. That is not a perception. It is a mathematical reality.
2 + 4 + 16 + 256 + 65536 mouths to feed, or even 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32, is not at all similar to 2 + 2 = 4 mouths to feed…and the mother of all food is being murdered. The fantasy industry will tell you it’s not that simple, but that’s why it’s called fantasy. They do not deal in facts. My career is built around facts, and I tell you it indeed is exactly that simple. Limitless is not possible, maybe unless you are God. We are not God, and THAT fact is foundational.

“The aims of productivity, profitability, efficiency, limitless growth, limitless power, limitless mechanization and automation can enrich and empower the few (for a while) but they will sooner or later ruin us all. The gross national product and the corporate bottom line are utterly meaningless as measures of the prosperity or health of the country.” Wendell Berry

But back to the generations, I am not here to comment upon their idiosyncrasies, except to remind you that if we were night-and-day different, we are all in the same boat. I am in fact here to say that we are not very different. The common denominator of all these apparently disparate generations is that they all are nice people who “know” how to “fix” what previous generations did wrong. The aintiitawfuls “know” but they have faith the system will take care of itself if we explain it often enough, the perkies blame themselves and try harder, and the 40s believe that they can do anything if only they work hard enough, but they are working harder and harder at promoting a poisonous economy that is progressively destroying the ecosystem in which we live (and there aint no place else), so in fact the harder they work the smaller percentage of people can benefit, and the sicker becomes the poor old earth while she tries to feed more people.

And all this is happening even though we all agree upon the foundational realities — that we are not God and that the health of mother earth is a bottom-line survival issue. We all agree – all except the exploiters, and they are not nice people and they are not in the majority. And we also agree that the problem is difficult, so we all find ways to not think about it. Folks, if we don’t think about the health of our earth, it will not get better; it will get sicker. And in fact our experts do know how to help. There are factual realities that they understand (and we can understand if we try) in a factual way. “Factual” is a very important word. “Factual” means we have hard data. Hard data is information that we can measure again and again at least a hundred times and get the same answer within a mathematically permissible margin of error, and THAT means these are not personal opinions, they are hard data. We have hard data that describes ways we could be helping the poor old earth to hold the line, and maybe even perk up a bit if we don’t wait too long. But we also know that ecosystems have threshold sensitivities beyond which they are not able to recover. We know all these things. We don’t really disagree at all.

So it must be that all these very different, very nice people are working at odds with each other, right? If we all agree on the bottom line, why are we not fixing the bottom line? Again, the rather shockingly simple answer is that all these nice people are not working at odds with each other – we all (except me and Wendell) are engaging in the same activity. We are dedicating ourselves to essentially the same, age-old escapist technique (change the subject) to AVOID LISTENING to the throbbing, hurting heart of reality, or even to each other. We all have been, in practice, fundamentally dedicated to creating God in our own image. And yet, if God our creator (or whoever is our creator) is in fact reality, why would we want to be all the time changing the subject so that we need not think about reality?
“If we want to succeed in our dearest aims and hopes as a people, we must understand that we cannot proceed any further without standards, and we must see that ultimately the standards are not set by us but by nature.” Wendell Berry

The scariest generation just walked out the door for his bike ride around the island. I think he believes that the purpose of life is to have fun, and believes that fun is real and it is easy to have, so long as you have money to buy it with. And he believes that the ecosystem is a subset of the economy. And he KNOWS that he knows better than anyone else, especially little old ladies that he meets in youth hostels in Japan. He is either purely ignorant or purely selfish, or maybe both, but frankly I would rather be persecuted by a fundamentalist ”Christian,” and I have been, than to watch the death of creation at the hands of a fundamentalist economist. Both, equally, are dedicated to ignore KNOWN FACTS and the SAME FACTS. Evolution is a fact; how it works is how it works. Economists can not change how evolution works any more than “Christians” can, just on the evidence that some neurons inside their own brains don’t like it. Damn I wish I could find someone for a good old fashioned game of “aint it awful.”

“Salesmen and saleswomen now hover about us as persistently as angels, intent on “doing us good” according to instructions set forth by persons educated at great public expense in the arts of greed and prevarication.” (Wendell Berry)

Folks, Wendell and I are old. We are not practicing greed and certainly not prevarication. We expect neither benefit nor harm, personally, in the year or two we have left to worry about these things. We are working for reality. What are you nice people doing?

You CAN understand the basic biology. Organize a study group. Get a textbook. Or start with the below. Invite a knowledgeable person to answer your questions. Do not study anatomy and physiology textbooks. It is the earth that is hurting; anatomy and physiology are about people. The earth is not us; she is very much more. Study the living earth. Study basic principles of biology and living cells, and then study ecology and evolution. Study FACTS. Opinions make people feel good, but they will not save the earth. Make healing brain waves.

Start with Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson, The Way Life Works. It should be in your library. If not, you should tell them to get it. It is short and very attractive and concentrates on basic principles at an adult, responsible level. They don’t treat you as though you are unable to do the work, but they do a beautiful job of relating basic principles to the whole of life. Curtis Freshman Biology College Textbook, available at college bookstores.
If you want to enjoy and dig in The Great Courses, The Joy of Science is good, and if you don’t want to spend a year or so on the whole thing you should concentrate on the lectures on the scientific method. It comes in relatively inexpensive tapes or classy DVD’s so you can watch the handsome lecturer talk. They have lots of sales. Try for a sale.
Do not bother with opinions of people who write aintitawful books that all contradict each other. That is part of the con. FACTS ARE AVAILABLE.

But they were not easy to find, and that is why I began writing my Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook as this fine young man walked out the door. But now I’m getting the scary feeling that people already knew the facts and don’t really care. Damn! I keep forgetting I’m of the generation of Americans who believed that everyone is well intended, and I just can’t get it out of my head.

Excerpt from upcoming memoir
“Dancing on the Dying Face of God,”
by Lynn Lamoreux

How to Stay Alive

What are the two most important things that most people don’t know?


Technology is not a source of energy. Technology can not make energy. Ever. Unless God were to change the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics that permit life to exist on earth.


The source of all energy for the survival (food for) all living things including the ecosystem and all the animals and plants in it, and humans and their factories and transportation, is organic energy. Oil and coal and gas are organic energy that was fossilized millions of years ago. There is no more being made. Organic energy is made only by green plants and photosynthetic one-celled organisms. The energy to keep us alive only comes from green plants.

We are now building cities where the green plants used to live.