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Ahhh, Houston, We Have a Dilemma

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If U.S. culture were a moonshot, right about now we might hear the following message come over the control room PA speaker: “Ahhh, Houston, we have a dilemma.”

The other day I read an article over at CNN Online by Laura Paddison entitled Heat waves are getting longer and more brutal. Here’s why your AC can’t save you anymore. In essence, Paddison describes what systems scientists call a negative feedback loop. Most negative feedback loops present some form of dilemma. Here’s the dilemma Paddington describes.

As Paddington points out, summers are getting hotter and heat waves are lasting for longer periods of time. In response, people are buying air-conditioning systems whether a window unit, a mini-split, or central air-conditioning. This has two main effects: an increased demand on an already shaky and dated electrical system, and an increase in the pollution associated with energy production. This second effect serves to increase global warming, which, in turn, serves to increase the demand for more AC systems. This dilemma, this negative feedback loop, could be looked at as a vicious cycle. As Paddington puts it, “Air conditioning is far from perfect. It gobbles up energy, most of which still comes from planet-heating fossil fuels, meaning it exacerbates the very problem it’s used to mitigate. Plus, it’s only available to those who can afford it, further widening social inequality.” She continues, “Demand for AC is exploding, expected to triple worldwide by 2050, as global temperatures soar and incomes grow.”

Citing a report from Climate Central, a nonprofit research group, Paddington alerts that “weather accounted for 80% of major power outages across the US between 2000 and 2023.” If the power goes out, so too the AC system that one is using to “beat the heat.” The weak link in this vicious cycle undoubtedly has to be the U.S. power grid. Pulling from work by Michael Webber, a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, Paddington points out that the U.S. power grid was designed to withstand weather systems from the past. They were not designed to withstand the forces we now see associated with extreme weather systems such as hurricane Beryl, which is scheduled to hit the Texas coast as I write this post. At the risk of being glib, we are looking at a perfect storm here. The question becomes How does one intervene in such a way that the effects of a negative feedback loop or vicious cycle are mitigated or buffered in some positive way? Let’s look at another negative feedback loop that I ran across recently, one that also involves putting an increased demand on the electrical grid.

As my previous post on the embrace of automobile electric steering systems might suggest, I have an interest in what is happening in the automative industry. To that end I follow two YouTube automotive industry journalists, Mark Sanew and Jack Holmes who host the YouTube channel Savagegeese. Just yesterday Mark released a rather profound YouTube video providing social commentary on the future of the automative industry.

In his commentary, Mark describes a negative feedback loop worth considering. He’s talking about why EV (electric vehicle) cars have not been readily embraced by the American car-buying consumer. Mark goes a step further and argues that car-buying consumers are expressing distain for EV cars specifically and the automative industry generally. Why? Well, it’s a vicious cycle. Federal regulators are increasingly putting demands on carmakers to increase safety as well as fuel efficiency while at the same time decrease car emissions. Doing all of those things all at the same time is no small feat. Car manufacturers have responded.

One of their big responses has been the development of the EV car. However, as Mark points out, much of the technology behind EV cars is largely unproven. Consumers are being asked to be, in effect, “beta testers.” And all of the R&D (research and development) being put into EV cars amounts to billions of dollars. These costs are being spread out across all car models, which includes ICE or internal combustion engine cars. This drives up costs for all cars, which, in turn, has put an extra burden on the car-buying consumer. In addition, an increase in the production of EV cars will put a strain on the already taxed electrical grid (as talked about above). Plus, EV cars require some form of charging station. Mark talks about how a home charging station is costly to install, costs going as high as $2,000 or more. And if you live in an apartment or rent a house, you may not be able to install a home charging station. The public charging station system is spotty at best with charging costs varying greatly. And at least for now, EV cars are expensive, which further exacerbates social inequality as mentioned above with respect to buying AC systems.

EV technology development is occurring rapidly. As a result, potential buyers do not wish to be saddled with a $70,000 EV car that will be technologically obsolete in a few years. This has caused an uptick in car leases in essence creating what Mark calls a “throw-away economy of cars.” What’s happening in the automative industry today is a perfect example of the types of negative feedbacks one can expect when changes are mandated without recognizing and taking into account an overall system. As Mark puts it, we have an “endless loop of broken ideas and broken policies to make things work.” Sadly, regulators and policymakers are looking at the EV car as being a kind of “savior” (Mark’s term) that will, almost magically, make things right. In my opinion, this is wishful thinking that reveals a lack of leadership and systems thinking. In contrast, Mark suggests that we need to figure out how to do things “in a smart way” (which I take to mean in a systems way) “to get people excited for [change].” What would this look like?

Mark suggests that we need a “government subsidized charging infrastructure where you have regulated rates on energy delivery.” Not unlike the old saying of “a chicken in every pot,” Mark suggests that we need an EV charger in every house or at every apartment complex, installed at the government’s expense. Using his 20/20 hindsight, Mark tells us that the systems issues surrounding EV cars should have been looked at and addressed BEFORE “starting the process of moving people over to EV cars.” As it turns out, I am currently looking for a new vehicle. I have zero interest in or excitement for any electrified car for all of the reasons mentioned above (although I did own and enjoy an Escape hybrid in the mid-2000s). I hope younger people will get the reference, but I’m not in the market for a Sony Betamax. Let’s look at one more negative feedback loop or dilemma before we wrap up.

If you have been reading my posts with any regularity, you know that I’m a big fan of neurobiologists such as Antonio Damasio, Allan Schore, Louis Cozolino, and Elkhonon Goldberg. I’m currently reading Goldberg’s 2018 book entitled Creativity—The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation. I am heartened to read that Goldberg is making observations that dovetail nicely with the work of Antonio Damasio as can be found in Damasio’s 2021 book entitled Feeling & Knowing—Making Minds Conscious. I talk about Damasio’s work in some detail in my blog post Beyond Thoughts & Prayers: Bridging Brain Research to the Public Sphere (Pt 3), so I’ll be brief here.

In his book Feeling & Knowing, Damasio lays out the process whereby brains become conscious. The first step is for an organism to develop what Damasio calls organelles: precursors to organs like the heart and the lungs. The appearance of organelles on the evolutionary landscape creates a necessity for some way to coordinate the various activities of these organelles now that they are a bit spread out within the organism. Evolution’s answer: the nervous system. Here’s the diagram I used earlier to help illustrate this process.

Or stands for organelle while Sn stands for sensing apparatus, like an early version of an eye or an ear. The point that Damasio makes is the nervous system is well suited to map its environment as it is a grid that is taking in sensory information from both within and from without. Damasio calls this a perfect hybrid and suggests that the best way to frame consciousness is as a form of hybrid combining a tangible inner milieu (the body) with concepts, such as those representing objects and object relationships, drawn from the outer milieu (the environment). Creating maps of a hybrid nature is not enough to form consciousness. For that, we need a way of not only storing maps, but also being able to inspect stored maps and to act on those stored maps. This is the job of the brain. This is where Goldberg comes in.

Goldberg (in the early sections of his book Creativity) is talking about how humans developed language. In essence, Goldberg’s story of cognitive development tracks Damasio’s. Goldberg suggests that a “gradation” exists between the maps the nervous system makes (and are stored in the brain) and the brain centers responsible for language, which are centrally located in the left brain. As an example, Goldberg provides brain imaging evidence that shows excitation in the motor-control regions of the brain when a test subject is asked to use a verb. Simply, the doing conceptually conveyed by a verb is on a continuum with the actual doing of motor-control. Further, there is a connection or continuum between those areas of the brain involved in the perception of objects and the use of nouns. Damasio’s idea of a hybrid or Goldberg’s idea of a continuum smash the idea that there is a body/mind duality originally popularized by Descartes. How cool is that (with apologies to Descartes)!

Language, then, is a hybrid connecting body (material) and mind (concepts). This agrees with the work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff, arguably one of the chief animators behind what is know as embodied cognition. Lakoff makes the observation that a sentence is very much like a walk through the woods: It starts, you move (verb), you observe things in the environment (nouns), you have sensations and feelings (adverbs), and it ends. This is why persons who engage in dream interpretation will advise against moving in the morning before recording a dream because the manufacture of a dream involves the motor-control centers of the brain. If you move, you in essence risk erasing the dream not unlike those drawing toys we had as kids (yes, before computers and iPhones). OK, OK, hybrid, nervous system, language, embodiment … where’s the negative feedback?

As talked about in greater depth in my blog series The Drama of Earth Systems (and pulling from the work of Katherine Hayles), starting during and just after WWII, scientists conducting research in the fledgling field of information science came up with what at the time was a shocking notion: what if information could exist outside of a body. In essence, these information scientists were playing with the idea of separating the hybrid nature of human consciousness, that is to say, separating body from mind. Looked at another way, these scientists wondered if the mind could engage in language without being attached to the body. According to Hayles research, these early information scientists rejected the idea of embodied cognition. Well, not entirely. I get the impression that the idea of pure, disembodied information troubled them. So they were content to use alternate forms of embodiment, say, putting information into a machine. Rather than a body/brain hybrid, they imagined a machine/brain hybrid. All that surrounds us today—AI, computers, smartphones, the Internet, social media, tablets, smartwatches—got its start from the desire to make machine/brain hybrids. In short, this throwing off of the biological body represents a merging (or fusion as Goldberg puts it) of the machine body and the the conceptual worlds of virtual reality that it holds, with brain. So what? Here’s my take:

The body is what connects us to the Earth. Consciousness came out of our four billion years of interactions with environments found on the Earth. If you believe in embodied cognition, as I do, then our very ability to think and engage in language depends not only on our bodies but also our relationships between body and the environment. Machine/brain hybrids will do away with all of that. They will do away with our connection to and concern for the Earth. And this makes sense given that virtual worlds are now the new Earth.

Bringing this back around to the above sections, it’s clear that climate change and global warming are increasingly making Earth more inhospitable. As one small indicator, people are buying AC systems in droves. World governments are reacting, thus the push for cleaner and more fuel efficient cars here in the U.S. At least here in the U.S., EV cars are being looked at as a form of savior. Heck, technology itself is being looked at as a savior. But as Mark from Savagegeese points out, people are not buying what regulators are selling mainly because cars have become prohibitively expensive to buy, maintain, and insure. But, let us not forget, it’s technology that got us here in the first place. It’s technology that has made disembodiment a real possibility, which will only accelerate our disconnection from the Earth, which, in turn, will make selling a “save the Earth” or “green” agenda that much more difficult.

Richard Louv wrote his 2005 book entitled Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder because he feared that as virtual worlds consumed the attention of children, the next generation of conservationists would not materialize. Just throwing technology at problems like global warming is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire. It only makes matters worse. It only further drives us toward our posthuman future as talked about by Hayles and others. These are huge systems problems that, as Mark suggests, need to be approached smartly and with leadership. Throwing EVs at these problems and wishing for a miracle is neither smart nor leadership. Maybe it’s time to once again become excited about being an embodied biological entity. You can start by taking a short walk in the woods and telling a friend about it. No technology required.

I feel bad because I have presented three situations where negative feedback loops prevail. I have not really talked about how to create positive feedback loops. In my next post I’ll introduce you to the work of systems scientist Donella Meadows and her 2009 book entitled Thinking in Systems—A Primer. Meadows talks about the problem of declining population growth and how two counties attempted to address this systems problem. As a bit of a tease, one country’s intervention was an unmitigated disaster (one I am familiar with from my Bowlbian attachment studies). The other county’s intervention produced OK results; not spectacular but respectable. I think talking about these two examples will give you a sense for what happens when, on one hand, you mess with a complex system not knowing at all what you are doing, while on the other, you take an approach informed by smart systems thinking.