The wisdom of crowds

goinggreenJames Surowiecki wrote a book a few years ago that began with an anecdote about a crowd that guessed the weight of an ox. When their individual guesses were averaged, they were spot on. The title sums it up: “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies, and Nations.”
What better way to end my column in the Community Word than to examine whether the many are smarter than the few. The wisdom of the crowd just might reveal the ‘weight’ of our environmental challenges. I found the crowd on line, via email as well as Facebook. All I had to do was pose the question, “what’s the biggest challenge facing us today (as individuals, as a nation, as a planet)? Responses formed the melody for this “swan song.”
The responses at first blush seemed quite diverse, but they all revolve around a central theme. One comment in particular captures a sense of the challenge… “where are we going, and how’d we get in this hand basket?”
The challenge that showed up most was human population growth. When I began writing for the Community Word, the world population was just about 5 billion. Back then there was awareness about global warming, lack of food, soil loss, lack of fresh water, and a dearth of arable land. Here we are a couple decades later, our numbers have grown to about 7.25 billion and continue to rise. Demands of an ever growing population only make the problems worse.
The next most mentioned problem was anthropogenic (human caused) global warming (some prefer “climate change”). The amount of carbon dioxide (a heat trapping greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere a mere three centuries ago was at about 285 parts per million. It’s risen steadily since the dawn of the industrial age, surpassing 400 ppm about a year ago. This carbon comes from burning of fossils and deforestation. The largest culprit is coal-fired power generation, next is transportation. As a result the hottest years on record have occurred within the past decade, and ocean temperatures along with sea levels are on the rise. Remember Earth is mostly a water planet.
The third big issue listed was extinction and habitat loss. A normal rate of extinction has been estimated from the fossil record at about one species lost per million species per year. That translates roughly to an expected loss of between 10 and 100 species per year. Today, just in the tropics alone, losses are estimated to be an astonishing 27,000 species per year, and it’s increasing. We are seeing such an erosion of biodiversity, it’s being called Earth’s 6th major episode of extinctions. The tapestry of life is unraveling as a direct result of ever increasing human demands for food, fuel, living space, water, and other natural resources. So great is our impact on the planet today, geologists are beginning to refer to our time as the “Anthropocene.”
The next most common challenge is water. Nearly a billion people today lack access to clean drinking water. Aquifers all over the world are being tapped out for agriculture as well as for human consumption. Water is definitely a weak link in our chain. Earth is a water planet, but the vast majority of it is salt water.
Greed came up as one of our more serious challenges. We’ve been witnessing “reverse Robin Hood” economics, where wealth is being taken from the lower and middle classes and usurped into a handful of increasingly wealthy billionaires. This adds up to trillions of dollars. In America, the upper 10 percent of the people control over 75 percent of the wealth… the top 1 percent control 38 percent. This is crazy, and is a greater disparity than is seen in any other developed country.
Many responders listed politics as problematic. This is particularly true since wealth is converting America to government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations. Oddly enough, environmentalism is labeled “liberal.” Apparently only liberals use clean air and water and worry about the future. Reagan’s admonition that “government is the problem,” should have been a red flag. Deregulation and “tax relief” have greatly deteriorated government efficacy and hence our ecologic as well as economic health have both suffered… while the richest are getting ever richer.
A few people mentioned the fallacy of an economy based on consumption and growth. Indeed it’s a common belief that a healthy economy is a growing one. But growth is the “philosophy” of cancer. We pretty much know where that leads. To survive sustainably in the biological system on which we depend, we need to create an economy based on equilibrium and recycling, not growth.
The need for effective education made the list. This is particularly true today in public education as well as in journalism. News reporting is dominated by “fluff,” and public education is under attack in many states thanks to the misguided zeal for privatization. The goals of education have to do with literacy and accurate information, not dividends for share holders.
The wisdom of our ‘e-crowd’ was spot on. Population is at the root of just about everything else. Trouble is in politics and the media, these very real problems are swept under the carpet. The issue of population growth is taboo. Thanks to obfuscating corporate self interest, the impending crisis of global warming is considered by a large percent of Americans to be controversial. The issue of extinctions is written off as “natural.” Efforts to find clean energy alternatives are thwarted by politics. Who can forget the Republican convention where the chant of “drill baby drill” set the consumptive tone. In the words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy… and he is us”
Let’s hope the wisdom of the crowd may one day overcome the foolishness of the greedy few. Please support the Community Word, as it continues to be an important platform for independent journalism!
Thank you… and Happy Trails!

Dale Goodner



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