A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

On dreams of climate and consequence

I had a weird dream the other day, which would make a great science fiction movie if only I had the time. But since I don’t, here’s a short version.

In my dream, the world had pretty much gone pear-shaped. There were forest fires all over the country ($3B a year, and climbing fast); hurricanes were decimating cities; with bees gone and droughts everywhere, food costs were through the roof; tornadoes were ripping up houses in the Tornado belt; and rising oceans were flooding and destroying coastal homes.

So, basically, today, only more so.

Anyway, at this point the federal government was effectively bankrupt, crippled by Tea Party politics, healthcare profiteering, a declining workforce, militarization, and of course bailing out natural disasters. This is true now—insurance premiums are way up—but it had gotten much worse.

This world has shades of Jennifer Government, a great dystopian novel of rampant commercialism, where every citizen has to ally themselves with a brand faction and change their last name to the company for which they work: John Nike; Jane Red Bull.

In a world like this, where there isn’t enough to go round, how do we ensure the most deserving—rather than those with the squeakiest wheels—get  assistance?

Past behavior, future benefits

There’s another excellent book by Bruce Sterling called Holy Fire. It takes place in a world where medicine has progressed nearly to the point of conferring immortality—but not for everyone. So how does society decide how to allocate this precious resource?

In Holy Fire, Sterling proposes an interesting solution: we base it on civic contribution. Our protagonist has devoted her life to helping others, serving in the military, and doing charitable things. So when a radical new treatment (telomere scrubbing) promises to restore youth (albeit for an unthinkably high treatment cost), she’s first in line.

I won’t tell you what happens—it’s worth a read, if only for the almost poetic first half of the book—but the model has stuck with me. What if we look at someone’s past behavior (particularly when they didn’t know it would have a benefit later, and it is therefore selfless) as a way of assessing how they’re treated in the future?

Facebook knows if you’ve been naughty or nice

Anyway, back to my dream. Short on money and long on needs, FEMA was allocating emergency relief from climate-change-induced disasters based on social media indications of our green behavior. So if your timeline showed that you were a vegan living in a multi-tenant dwelling who never flew, firefighters rushed to your house. On the other hand, if you’d lived a life of Hummers and thick steak? Sorry, we’re not saving that house.

In my head, this led to some pretty funny consequences: revisionist greening and panicked scrubbing of our digital past; lawsuits about the Twitter archive; cries for a Facebook statute of limitations; Catholics complaining that they should confess and be forgiven; and so on.

This is also a thorny policy issue: Apportion scarce resources based on past behavior; or focus society’s efforts on addressing big problems so we don’t have to do so in the first place?

  • If we knew climate change, and resulting disasters, were inevitable (they are) and budgets were shrinking (they are) and that our environmental footprint today would determine our well-being tomorrow, would we change behavior?
  • On the other hand, as a species we tend to find solutions to pressing problems—vaccination and urbanization, fertilizers and food, information, ant the Internet. So maybe this is all moot, and we’ll come up with an answer, and all those who lived a life of deprivation hoping for some kind of payoff down the road will have squandered comfort for naught.

Pascal’s Other Wager

It’s like Pascal’s Wager, with Gaia rather than God at the center. I suspect this diagram says more about the Democrat/Republican, or Liberal/Tory, worldview than most late-night talk shows.

Either way, to not address such policies is to ignore some pretty obvious facts.

I’m not advocating right or wrong here (though maybe my subconscious is.) But it’s an interesting mental experiment to think of a world where we may be scrutinized today for a good or service we don’t yet know we want; that’s certainly where health insurance is headed.

Anyway, weird dream.