The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Talk is Cheap

This just has the status of internet rumor from where I'm sitting but I'd like to call your attention to this article:

New cars, including the Mercedes A, C and E class, BMW 5 series and Peugeot 308, are now swallowing around 50% more fuel than their lab test results reveal, according to new on-the-road results compiled by NGO Transport & Environment (T&E). T&E calls for a comprehensive investigation into both air pollution and fuel economy tests across Europe and a complete overhaul of the testing system. 
Greg Archer, clean vehicles manager at T&E, said: “Like the air pollution test, the European system of testing cars to measure fuel economy and COemissions is utterly discredited. The Volkswagen scandal was just the tip of the iceberg and what lies beneath is widespread abuse by carmakers of testing rules enabling cars to swallow more than 50% more fuel than is claimed.”
Again, I am not saying that one article convinces me that this is the case. But I find it entirely plausible.

I think this is informative for the larger question of how Kyoto failed and how Paris is likely to fail.

Everyone is motivated to express enthusiasm for global goals and cut corners on the obligations for their own sector, their own business, and their own individual activities.

This adds in to how there is a gradual diminution of concern from climate experts, to IPCC WG I, to the impacts and adaptation groups, to the bureaucracy, to the public.

The net result is lots of cheap talk and very little expensive action.

To me this all argues that there needs to be a profound cultural shift; that a little regulatory pressure is not enough. Is complying with the letter of the law rather than its spirit an essential feature of the modern world, rather than an anomaly? Is modest regulation enough? Or do we all have to change how we think at a more fundamental level, as Pope Francis urges?

UPDATE: The Guardian is running with similar claims.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Laudato Si, Señor

The big question is this: can climate change be viewed in isolation, or is it part and parcel of a deeper problem.

People who have not taken the time to read Laudato Si', the new encyclical, seem to think it's about fixing "global warming"; but it isn't. Climate change barely has a few explicit mentions. It is about humanity's fraught relationship to the earth, in a context of the overvaluation of economic optimization. Except for a few secondary points, I find myself in full agreement with the great majority of it.

Meanwhile, though, the climate problem has a special urgency, and it's NOT hard to imagine resolving it in the current economic context. Just put a price on carbon, stand back, and let capitalism handle it.

I believe that with an adequate and globally enforced carbon tax (basically ramping up quickly until emissions are so insanely costly as to essentially cease), the problem would be solved.

(There are side effects to such a solution, one of which is its regressive nature, and another is its transfer of wealth from rural to urban areas. So I don't think the sufficiency of the tax means that a tax-only strategy is the best one. But it's enough to keep us from cooking ourselves, leaving enough space for conventional conservation to make some difference in ecological issues.)

But our whole way of thinking, our whole incentive system, America's last "bipartisan" agreement that "growth" is the goal of government and the key to the economy, bakes in problems to which the climate problem is only an instance. Without a massive cultural shift, even if emissions cease, the populaces's desperate search for surplus-driven employment in a world where capital is positioned to allocate most of the surplus, the fact is that we are profoundly motivated to eat our seed corn.

So I think that there is a crucial question of time scales. How quickly will the other boundaries to sustainability be transgressed by what we are now doing, with minor tune-ups. If we retreat from the recent unfettered capitalism to the ad hoc occasionally fettered capitalism that us older folks grew up with, if we go back to responding to environmental issues as they come up with bureaucratic constraints implemented as damages become intolerable, can we get by long enough for the cultures of the world to wake up to the constraints of a full planet?

I go back and forth on this. I don't really have a preferred strategy right now. We have to stop emitting carbon ASAP in either case. But what I don't know is whether that is all we need to do.

My problem with Naomi Klein's position is that she just thinks climate change strengthens the left. It does, more's the pity, because that increases the intransigence and attraction to counter-science of the right. She says it "changes everything" but she doesn't grapple at all with the fact that it means the left has to change too. Everything is going to change, and few people outside obscure corners of academia have been addressing it on realistic terms.

Pope Francis has changed that. It's hard to avoid thinking that this is not a moment too soon. Can we kick the can down the road, patch up our system, draw a line against CO2 emissions and leave the moral reckoning to the future? Here is what the Pope is saying about that. (Excerpts from the encyclical follow, highlighted in green.

I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? This question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal. When we ask ourselves what kind of world we want to leave behind, we think in the first place of its general direction, its meaning and its values. Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences. 
Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family. Furthermore, our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development. Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting. Hence, “in addition to a fairer sense of intergenerational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intragenerational solidarity”.

Also he quotes the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in paragraph 8:
“For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

To that observation I have no hesitation in saying "Amen". The question is fundamentally an ethical one. There is no plausible moral system under which we have the right to behave as we do.

But societies don't change quickly, and there is the "art of the possible" to contend with.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why write?

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite. 

- Leonard Cohen

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Snyder's Nazi References are Not a Violation of Godwin's Law

There is a provocative article by historian Timothy Snyder connecting our climate quandaries with Hitlerian delusions.

I would like to speak in defense of the article - I do not know if I will feel inclined to defend Snyder's work in general as this is the first I've heard of it.

It's quite an intense and unusual piece. For instance:
The Holocaust may seem a distant horror whose lessons have already been learned. But sadly, the anxieties of our own era could once again give rise to scapegoats and imagined enemies, while contemporary environmental stresses could encourage new variations on Hitler’s ideas, especially in countries anxious about feeding their growing populations or maintaining a rising standard of living.
Of course it immediately drew fire as a violation of Godwin's Law. Breakthrough Institute's Mike Shellenberger was quick on the draw.
Apparently oblivious of Godwin's Law, Yale professor @TimothyDSnyder says climate deniers" are like Hitler.
I find this a superficial criticism. Starting a conversation specifically about Nazis is inherently not a violation of Godwin.
"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1" 
"there is a tradition in many newsgroups and other Internet discussion forums that once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress." 
"Godwin's law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Nazis – often referred to as "playing the Hitler card". The law and its corollaries would not apply to discussions covering known mainstays of Nazi Germany ... if that was the explicit topic of conversation, because a Nazi comparison in those circumstances may be appropriate"

Godwin's law is set to expire soon. The youngest person to have a clear memory of Nazi power will be nearly 80 years old now.

I knew many holocaust survivors including my own parents; most of them have passed on or are at best not following political discourse closely. I was an early enforcer of Godwin back when no one outside usenet had heard of it, but I'm less of one now. Atrocities eventually fade into history. We need to learn from them, not bury them in respect for the feelings of people no longer paying attention.

Snyder's invocation of "denying" in his closing paragraph does seem deliberately provocative. BTI's Shellenberger finds it irresistible to tweet:
Apparently oblivious of Godwin's Law, Yale professor @TimothyDSnyder says climate deniers" are like Hitler.
But this hardly seems oblivious. To the contrary, Snyder is willing to connect some dots that urgently need connecting.

In the end, this is about human history. A serious historian asserting that consequences have begun is timely and important. This speaks of climate in a language that is accessible to many powerful people who have dismissed the problem to date.


The fact that we experienced climate warriors may find this article strange and unsettling may be a feature, not a bug.

Once, a few years ago, trapped in an airport without any of my own reading material, I found myself reading a book by Fareed Zakariah about the geopolitics of the 21st century. The book never even mentioned climate change. I felt I was reading about a different planet, but it probably attained more readers than any contemporaneous book which faced our circumstances realistically.

In speaking in terms of power and history rather than in scientific or geophysical language, I wonder if Snyder will not be able to reach audiences focused on power and politics who have somehow not come to terms with our collective quandary.


By the way, Jim Hansen casually violated Godwin a few years back. His comparisons then seem to me far less considered than Snyder's. Still, maybe it's the passage of time and the passing of my parents and their siblings and their cohort from this world, but it bothers me less now than it did then.

It is time to start considering the enormity of our folly as a fair topic for conversation.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Monday, September 7, 2015

Managing Without Growth

This is a one-hour lecture. But I think it's worth the time.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Some tweets on the futility of growth

My tweets of this morning, slightly edited for legibility:

Literal growth in children is good while growth in adults is unhealthy.

Why is the case not similar in economies?

In speaking of growth people usually mean GDP.

Even if wealth mapped to well-being, which I doubt, GDP growth doesn't imply wealth increase.

If I sell you a chair for $30 on MWF and you buy it back for $30 on TuThSa, we have increased GDP by $180 that week and achieved nothing. No one is the wealthier.

If someone stops cooking at home and starts cooking similar meals at a restaurant which their family buys with the restaurant salary, GDP increases. But no one is the wealthier.

GDP measures effort, not result.

Increasing GDP would mean more employment, not necessarily better well-being, except now we have robots to do the work.

The sound historical reasons to connect meaningful work and income have broken down, and much "work" becomes meaningless and demeaning.

People need meaningful ways to spend their time and reliable ways to allocate resources. Tradition and history have coupled these needs. Nowadays, though, things which need doing and which people otherwise would do are left undone, because people must be employed in activities where there is a surplus, so they can allocate resources.

There are plenty of resources to go around. We are not struggling to create wealth, we are struggling to allocate it. It's maladaptive. People aren't starving because there isn't enough food available. There's plenty. People starve because they can't allocate any for themselves.

Also, The Impossible Hamster