"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reflections on Feynman per J. Case

My next serious read (what's yours?) is Competition, a (mostly nontechnical) plea by prominent mathematician James Case for a post-equilibrium economics. A browse in the bookstore reveals that he has little respect for the equilibrium models favored by quantitative economists. I think he is starting from results in game theory. More on this anon; I haven't read it yet.

For the present, I just wanted to discuss something from his epilogue. An important message for "believers" (as I (not to mention James!) am described elsewhere) and "skeptics" alike:
Seldom has anyone explained what science is - and is not - as simply and well as Richard Feynman in his 1974 commencement address to the students at Caltech. Science, he said on that occasion, is nothing more than a method developed over the years for separating ideas that work from ideas that don't. Anyone who observes the same natural phenomena day after day, such as the ebb and flow of the tides or the barking of dogs in a village street, will begin to develop ideas about them. Try it and see. There's nothing scientific about having ideas. Everyone does that. Science, said Feynman, begins when somebody figures out a way to test an idea to see if it works or not.


Feynman devoted a substantial portion of his 1974 commencement address to the subject of scientific integrity. Scientists, he said, have a responsibility to other scientists - and perhaps to the public as well - not to fool themselves. "after you've not fooled yourself" he assured his listeners, "it's easy not to fool other scientists." But not fooling yourself is far from easy because, liking your own ideas, "you are the easiest one to fool". Scientists have been learning for generations - indeed are still learning - ways of avoiding self-deception. One such way, he hastened to add is to divulge every reason you can think of why your conclusions are only tentative and may yet be proven wrong.


The perpetrators of pathological science are guilty not of fraud but of self-deception. Enamored of their own ideas, and fully expecting their experiments to confirm their theories, they find confirmation where none exists and - entirely too often - rush into print with results that are easily disproved.
Such behavior is irresponsible, because it creates unnecessary work for others. Yet those who engage in it are seldom accused of dishonesty.


There is a scene in Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo in which the master and his assistants are preparing to test the Copernican notion that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo explains to the others that as a matter of discipline, their purpose must be to prove the earth stationary. Only if the ascertainable facts render that position untenable will they allow themselves to find in Copernicus' favor. In fact, says Galileo, "if we find anything which would suit us, that thing will we eye with particular distrust."
(Emphasis added; resemblance to any real "AGW skeptic" living or dead except those who happen to be economists is coincidental; Case is talking about the failure of mainstream economics to attend to this ideal.)

Let me add my own taxonomy here, back to the AGW issue and related themes. There are "skeptics" and "believers" and there are also investigators and pseudo-investigators.

Investigators cultivate certain habits of mind that enable the advancement of science, while pseudo-investigators cultivate those habits of mind which advance a particular agenda even as they attempt to make use of the justified credibility of the real investigators.

Unfortunately, and increasingly, the habits of mind of the investigator are somewhat unfamiliar to a public that when it rises above distraction and confusion retains a very utilitarian frame of mind. The network of trust among serious investigators no longer extends to the general public, which is prone to various distractions, some well-intended and some amazingly malign.

To be sure every auto mechanic and every plumber, every engineer and every MD, not to mention many other professionals of modest or exalted reputation, is an investigator in a very real sense. And one thing that infuriates me as well as some serious skeptics is the arrogant refusal of science to learn from more utilitarian professions some of the commercially successful techniques for refining a solution to a particular problem.

However, it doesn't follow that the expert in some domain understands and has thought about the methods by which the expertise was brought into the world. And here we see a certain hubris appearing again and again: "I don't understand it so it must be mumbo-jumbo". Not to say that every scientist really thinks about epistemology or needs to. But what scientists are looking for is deeper than a diagnosis or a repair strategy, and is based on a more diffuse platform. Furthermore, some things are hard to understand, because not many people understand them, and they may not be experts in explaining it, and there may not be enough demand for the knowledge to support people expending too much effort on the explanation, and it may take years of study to see the picture emerge.

The failure to provide a "complete explanation" is interpreted as caginess, but with twenty dedicated skeptics for each even marginally first rank climate scientist who has many other responsibilities, there simply isn't enough response to go around. Gatekeeping is the inevitable result. (Sometimes excessive gatekeeping happens for this and other reasons, but under the present constellations of forces and social groups some gatekeeping is inevitable.)

I've been exposed to a couple of great climatologists.

(Update: Specifically Ray Pierrehumbert and Francis Bretherton, who bear no responsibility for my beliefs, but whom I have been privileged to interact with at length, and who jointly hold primary responsibility for my deep respect for climatology as a respectable branch of physical science. And I cannot imagine myself or anyone else explaining much of what they say in a typical single hour's peer group conversation to an above-average electrical engineer (say, a graduate of Northwestern University's tech institute from the 1970s like myself) in less than three months of one-on-one full time exposition. )

There is more there than curve fitting or squashing facts into a preordained pattern. You can tell a person who has a healthy skepticism about his or her own ideas once you listen to them expound for a few dozen hours. That doesn't mean you can explain it.

On the other hand an AGW "skeptic" can be relied upon to celebrate certain results and mock others not depending on the quality of their evidence or their reasoning, but on whether or not the evidence is convenient for their beliefs. This is, in other words, pseudo-investigation, or in John McCarthy's formulation "lawyers' science".

On the other other hand, it is rare for a theoretical science of modest means and accomplishments (such as climate science) to abruptly become not only an applied science but a subject of controversy. And therein lies the reason we are still arguing over the parts of the picture that are not in great doubt among the community of actual investigators.

I don't think there is any poll, per Bi's recent suggestion, that can capture this. The only thing I can imagine improving matters is a re-established network of trust, a thing which has been deliberately undermined by the obvious malign social forces which seem to exult in promoting fear, division, hostility and suspicion whether it is warranted or not.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


John Fleck has an interesting article about confusing the two questions: 1) is there significant AGW? and 2) should very much be done about it? I missed it when it came out but fortunately Revkin linked to it.

John argues (presumably somewhat under the influence of RP Jr.) that the latter question is legitimately an open one, that substantive information already in existence is insufficient to settle it.

The primary audience of this blog is people who disagree with John on the second point. That is, we agree that the focus of the discussion should move away from physical climatology, the focus on which is a deliberate red herring on the part of people who oppose action. We disagree with anyone who suggests that it is a marginal or unproven case that such action is necessary. This requires us to broaden the conversation from physical climatology to the whole structure of modern society, which makes it incredibly interesting and incredibly difficult to make a case. It's immensely frustrating that there is still a focus on the physics part; regardless of what you may hear it is really a slam dunk by now that contemplated levels of CO2 are climatically significant.

So, one of the questions that most irks me is how and why we are still spending so much time on the first question. On the other hand, while I am convinced that only one answer is possible to the second question once present evidence is accounted for, it doesn't immediately follow from the first. Several steps are missing between a significant change and a policy imperative, but they are all quite solid.

One way of looking at it is as follows:

1) Are humans changing the composition of the atmosphere?
2) Does that change have observable consequences already?
3) Given current human behavior, what is the likely trajectory of those consequences into the future?
4) Are those consequences morally acceptable?
5) If not, what action should be taken?

It's hard to avoid a doubt whether question 4 is admissible. Some will prefer to substitute "Are those consequences economically acceptable?" I find this substitution unacceptable for various reasons.

Aside from question 4, a conclusion that dramatic changes need to be made is extremely solid. So why aren't we discussing point 4? Well, because that would get us thinking seriously about what society is for and what life means. All sides seem intent on avoiding the question of what our moral obligations are and how we should think about them. Focusing the conversation on a basic and unsurprising and incontrovertible result in climate physics at the expense of a discussion of who we are and how we should make collective decisions is a sign that social maturity has ebbed drastically.

So, as a refinement of John Fleck's argument, I would say that it's true that all of these are typically conflated. The extent to which we are discussing 1 and 2 to the exclusion of 3 and 4 and 5 is simply a mistake. On this point I agree with John.

On the other hand, I believe that we disagree in that I think the evidence on points 3 and 4 is overwhelming, but my position of #4 (and the implicit position on #4 of most who agree with me) is not based on an explicit social consensus, for once we get to the meta-question of what the right question 4 is, we are in a deep quandary.

We need to adjust to a finite world or that world will adjust us for us. The decisions involved are not well-represented in an economics that models labor and capital and real estate as first order inputs but consumable resources as a correction.

The press is not so much afraid to discuss this as utterly incapable (what news slot does it come under?), and advocates on all sides (except for market libertarians for whom it is all too simple) ignore the elephant altogether. Consequently the public is utterly confused about the choices imposed by the transition that is upon us, one that is as great as any in history.

Journalists and Hyperlinks

Regardless of how you feel about the content of the article (and I don't want to discuss it here) it is nice to see someone at the NYTimes who uses hyperlinks profusely, properly and effectively. A little progress.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Wishful thinking department

A not-very-informative history of climate change science  is remarkable only for its headline:
Ian Sample looks at how the study of the climate has moved from being a relatively minor branch of science to one that now dominates most others, thanks largely to the work of one man
Leaving aside the toxic lone-genius model of science, i.e., science as mutant superpower (see "Good Will Hunting"), wouldn't it be nice?

If you're seriously interested in the topic, Spencer Weart is a good source. 

Sunday, July 27, 2008

How Loud to Squawk

The question of scientific neutrality vs scientific obligation to the greater good comes up constantly.

As the title and explanatory anecdote of this blog allude to, one of the most irritating aspects of denialism (which is to say, about deliberate lying regarding science) is the suggestion that controversy advances one's career. In fact, it is always safer to pick the strict neutrality position for someone pursuing a conventional career in science. People like Joe Romm have a different career path; people like me, not conventionally ambitious, have less to lose. The career scientists who are the mainstay of RealClimate, though, get no advantage for their efforts: time spent on taking a position, even a position that is totally in line with scientific evidence, is time at best wasted in advancing a career in geophysics.

(It may be different in biology, particularly wildlife ecology, for reasons which are interesting.)

The usual person who comes to mind in this context is James Hansen, who has clearly become an outspoken advocate. Even some of his peer reviewed papers have a tinge of advocacy. Is this the right thing to do?

On the one hand, one wants a body of knowledge that is reliable and as untainted by custom, culture and opinion as is possible. That is what makes science science. On the other hand, eventually matters reach a point where one has to begin to insist that society is grossly mishandling a situation, is severely out of touch with the extent of risk that is happening.

I received via email a pointer to an interesting debate on this subject involving my correspondent and the the Texas State Climatologist, who is a meteorology faculty member at Texas A&M and a blogger at the Houston Chronicle.

The question is to what extent the State Climatologist's job is to rub the government's nose in the mess it is leaving on the carpet, fully aware that doing so may lose one the title and the modest funding that I am guessing goes with it. To suggest that this is part of the role of the State Climatologist is itself interesting; certainly that is not the traditional role of that position. A case can be made. On the other hand, if the SC is so outspoken as to lose his or her position, the replacement is likely to err on the side of caution.

Max Planck found himself in a similar quandary. The question of the extent to which to defend Einstein and Haber as contributors to physics in the light of a certain lack of respect from the German government for people of Jewish descent turned out to be a major theme in his later life. He avoided speaking out. Wikipedia has the following anecdote:
Hahn asked Planck to gather well-known German professors in order to issue a public proclamation against the treatment of Jewish professors, but Planck replied, "If you are able to gather today 30 such gentlemen, then tomorrow 150 others will come and speak against it, because they are eager to take over the positions of the others."[6] Under Planck's leadership, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG) avoided open conflict with the Nazi regime, except concerning Fritz Haber. Planck tried to discuss the issue with Adolf Hitler but was unsuccessful.
All of this is discussed in detail in the remarkable biography of Planck: The Dilemmas of an Upright Man (J. L. Heilbron, 2000).

Science, properly construed, is neutral, and the main goal of the scientific community must be to protect that neutrality. The question is what is the right thing for an individual scientist or a scientific community to do when society's relationship to that neutral science goes awry. Such quandaries go back to Copernicus. I don't think we have an easy answer.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Is "Climate Change" Everything?

Via the Guardian, some peculiar editorial cartoons about sustainability here. I have pasted in my favorite, since it ties into many of my themes. Some of them are worth thinking about.

However, the headline is most peculiar: "Cartoons make climate change a laughing matter".

The complaints we hear about "global warming" superceding everything else may make some sense at least as a criticism of the press in the UK. Really, the way the cartoonists responded to the challenge of "climate cartoons" makes little sense.

Most of them were not about 'climate change' at all but simply about the total appropriation of the biosphere to economic activity. I would call it the 'sustainability' issue, but there is a theme running through these cartoons that is a bit darker, more visceral. These are "end of nature" comments. It's most peculiar calling them 'climate change'; only two of them seemed related to climate at all, #13 and the remarkable #9.

Also, most of them were far more gloomy than funny. "Cartoons make something other than climate change something other than a laughing matter", then, but go look for yourself. They are interesting.

Update: Some rather funnier cartoons via ICE.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Limits to Clean Energy

I've been meaning to talk about the comparison between carbon-based energy and clean energy in terms of global warming. One way this comes up is when the delusionists bring up "heat island" effects. Somebody who doesn't understand that the greenhouse warming is already observed will pipe up that "maybe it's just the amount of energy we're using".

Well let's get some numbers. A CO2 doubling is usually treated as a top-of-atmosphere imbalance of about 4 W/m^2 with fast (century delay or shorter timescale) feedbacks included. What would the comparable number be for ordinary, sensible, net-emission-free energy usage?

Well, here's a site claiming "Using 1995 figures provided by the World Bank, in that year, the world's energy consumption totaled 316 quadrillion BTUs." OK that's 316,000,000,000,000,000 = 3.16e17 BTUs = 9e16Watt-hour = 9e13 KwH = 9e13/7e9 KwH/capita-yr = 12800 KwH/capita-yr = 12800/(365*24) Kw/capita = 1.4 Kw. So the average person and all his or her support infrastructure currently burns about 1400 watts, night and day. That seems believable.

Then the world wattage is 1.4e3 * 7e9 = about 1e13 W. The area of the world is 5.1 e8 km^2 = 5.1e14 m*2. So the direct heating of existing energy is on the order of 1e13/5e14 W or about 1/20 watt per square meter. Compare this with 2 watts of anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, on its way to 4.

This is in line with what I got all the other times I worked it through, it's just verging on noticeable but is certainly not comparable to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing. Even if everyone lived at much higher US power consumption levels, this would still be a small forcing, about 1/3 W/m^2, comparable to observed solar variability.

But in the 8 July 2008 issue of EOS, whose website, proudly proclaiming its mission for the advancement "through unselfish cooperation in research, [of] the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity." doesn't make available to nonmembers, Eric Chaisson of Tufts and Harvard puts a different spin on this story. He suggests that this comfortable margin is not as comfortable as all that under conventional growth scenarios.

He points to theories that 1) economic growth is tightly coupled to energy growth and 2) economists believe healthy economic growth is at least on the order of 1%/annum sustained. Suppose we stipulate these ideas. When does non-greenhouse anthropogenic global warming become a problem? High school level computations suffice for an estimate on the order of 450 years for a global warming of 10 degrees Celsius. Higher growth rates bring that point much closer. And nothing in the assumptions allows the warming to stop there.

Accordingly, even in the total absence of an anthropogenic greenhouse effect, the world cannot sustain indefinite increases in energy use. Either the coupling of growth to energy or the growth itself will necessarily stop. Blithely ignoring the discount rate and thinking like a geophysicist, Chaisson concludes as follows:
Even acceding that the above assumptions can only be approximate, the heating consequences of energy use by any means seem unavoidable within the next millennium - a period not overly long and within a time frame of real relevance to humankind.

More than any other single quantity, energy has fostered the changes that brought forth life, inetlligence, and civilization. Energy also now sustains society amd drives our economy, indeed grants our species untold health, wealth and security. Yet the very same energy processes that have enhanced growth also limit future growth, thereby constraining solutions to global warming. Less energy use, sometime in the relatively near future, seems vital for our continued well-being, lest Earth simply overheat.

Got that? It's a fundamental limit to growth from which there is no escape (short of escape velocity) It won't cut in soon but if none of the other ones do, this one will eventually show up. The future of the planet has fundamental limits.

Update: Tidal notes that this limit does not apply to earth-based renewable energy, i.e., directly or indirectly solar. The question of what fraction of that we can appropriate is not obvious to me, but the total is vast. A quick follow-up on the calculation above indicates that solar forcing (after relection) is about 4000 times human energy consumption. We appropriate a good fraction of it already for food, though.

If we assume that we can appropriate 10% of that energy effectively at most (allowing some for a biosphere, some for food production, and some for insurmountable inefficiency in the conversion process) that leaves some 8 or so doublings. At 1 % growth that is about 560 years until we run out of renewables. Still in the same ballpark as Chaisson's numbers. At 3% growth in a pure renewables scenario, we run out of sources of renewables in 180 years.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Filling Texas up from the bottom

It's amusing, the way Americans draw their maps... They don't even see it as odd.

The image the from National Weather Service shows 24-hour precipitation in southern Texas ending at 7 am CDT this morning. The white area represents 10" or more.

Hope things are going well down in the valley - on both the side which exists and the one which doesn't. Dolly is losing energy but still is providing plenty of moisture. Up here we got a few sudden splats but that's it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Post-Paper Journalism

Once the news media understand that the printed paper is an adjunct to the website and not the other way around, we may start getting more useful information.

Hank Roberts just posted a comment on this thread pointing to a recent case wherein our friends at the Wall Street Journal got it right. Now of course, they didn't get it right on any topic of immediate interest to sustainability questions, but there's no reason that the same approach couldn't be taken.

OK? To review:
  1. Take an extra day and get it right.
  2. Word count doesn't matter. If you only have a paragraph about an important news item, write a paragraph. You can add more later.
  3. There is no more ink. If it takes 15,000 words to tell a story that is not featured prominently, tell it all anyway.
  4. Your work will be more valuable if you link to your competitors than if you just link to random places on your own site.
  5. Link to your sources. If you did your job right you have nothing to hide.
  6. Not everything important has a specific dateline. Feature slow but important stories on the front page sometimes.
  7. The paper copy isn't important. It isn't a "paper" anymore.

Update: So much for getting it right. You'll have to just imagine the example now; it's behind the subscriber firewall. (Or at least I will, anyway. While Rupert Murdoch should feel free to send me money, I prefer not to have it flow the other way, thanks. )

Monday, July 21, 2008

How the Public is Deliberately Misled

Deltoid reports on a complaint to the UK's media watchdog commission about the unfairness of the infamous Great Global Warming Swindle swindle. The outcome appears to have been somewhat marginal; if I understand correctly the commission agreed that the program was egregiously misleading, but somehow not in violation of the letter of the law.
Actually Ofcom said that to be in breach, not only did Swindle have to materially mislead, this misleading had to cause "harm or offence". Ofcom decided that it wasn't harmful if viewers came to believe untrue things about the science, so it sidestepped the question of whether Swindle was misleading.
Charming. Anyway, the text of the complaint is perhaps the most thorough document we have of the methods of this particular effort to mislead the public on matters of science, and is most revelatory about the techniques used elsewhere in the misbegotten sleight-of-mind industry.

People taking the bait on such nonsense as the culpability of Rachel Carson in all malaria deaths and so on ought to consider that there are people going around doing this sort of thing.

The text of the complaint is available, and a summary is also available.

[Update: Above emphasized because it is my main point and I didn't want it lost in all the bickering.]

The plaintiffs have also got some interesting supporting commentary from some leading lights including Pachauri, Houghton, Wunsch, Santer and Trenberth. (Unfortunately the organization of their website is a mess; hopefully they will reorganize it somehow. The only thing worse in an information website than a how-to-use page is an information website whose how-to-use page is 404.)

Tim Lambert has crossed my mind several times this week, and it's time I doffed my cap to him for some extremely valuable work he has done over the years on his blog. People interested in environmental science and environmental policy really ought to follow his efforts.

And congratulations also to William, who appears to have had a hand in setting the ball in motion, and who has an insightful summary of the outcome. Links in the comments there are also useful.

Assorted bickering follows:

Update: [Meta-Update: McIntyre continues to insist I withdraw the following, on the grounds that the text "That’s not to say that Ofcom said that Durkin’s point of view had been vindicated, merely that the complainants were seeking comfort in the wrong bed." was in the original article. He is correct. Accordingly I hereby withdraw the following:
McIntyre is portraying this as complete vindication [Update: "vindication" is disputed by McIntyre: see below; however, unabashed admirers of McIntyre also read McIntyre's description as vindication] of the propagandists.
My attribution of "vindication" was factually incorrect, and I apologize for it.

I remain very unhappy with the way McIntyre is handling this business, but I did not phrase my complaint, which expressed my honest opinion after a quick reading, with acceptable precision. I'll be more careful in future.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled Update.]

Presuming he is serious, and not simply as malign as Durkin, this [McIntyre's apparent satisfaction with a result he sees as a "stuffing" of the plaintiffs] is a very grave error and a real shame, I think. I can understand a nonscientific body being shy about judging what is or isn't a reasonable representation of science, but nobody with any grasp of the issues should condone this level of spin, in any direction.

This sort of provocation cannot serve to improve communication between scientists and serious skeptics.

Update: Under my challenge Steve McIntyre recast what read to me as a celebratory bleat as helpful advice to scientists undertaking a legal challenge that I oddly misread. See if you are convinced (comments 69 and 71). Then go read the latest on Deltoid for some context. Tim seems to share my impression that McIntyre's report reads as something other than sage advice to future petitioners.

Update: quoth McIntyre (comment 92):
I repeated the statement that he had not been “vindicated” twice in the comments here here, including once in reponse to Michael Tobis.

Notwithstanding these clear and repeated statements that Durkin had not been “vindicated” by Ofcom (which is a quite different thing than thecomplainants being stuffed), Tobis told his readers at his blog that he had siad the exact opposite - that I claimed that Durkin had been vindicated. Tobis: in a post about “How the Public is Deliberately Misled”, then misleads his reading public by attributing to me a statement where I had said the opposite three times.

McIntyre is portraying this as complete vindication of the propagandists.

Maybe he was trying to see if his readers could pass a skill-testing question on being misled. If Tobis wants to talk to his readers about “deliberate misleading”, maybe he could start by withdrawing his untrue and misleading characterization of my post.
I concede that McIntyre has adopted a conciliatory tone in his response to me and explicitly disavowed vindication in that reply, as well as perhaps elsewhere.

This doesn't change the fact that his article actually seems not just to emphasize the aspects where the complaint failed but to relish them. To be sure, that seems to be what his audience wants, but I think it undermines his claim to want to get past games and actually look at the facts. There is little doubt that making fun of opponents can be fun. (See Joe Romm using an inappropriate and excessive Monty Python metaphor about the celebrated Lord Monckton of late) but it doesn't do a lot of good either way, insofar as one concedes that we need to collectively get a good estimate of the seriousness or otherwise of the carbon problem.

So I am a bit taken aback by the injured tone, here.

McIntyre here is just gleefully stirring the pot. At least Romm knows he is being puerile. (Not that this didn't lose Romm quite a few points with me; one should keep one's class resentments in one's own country and not try to import others'. Such things lose a great deal in the translation.)

I really do try to see the point of what the skeptics are saying, and it is on occasion more interesting and thought-provoking than you might expect (though, of note, a couple of silly lit-crit types apparently haunt CA trying to go all deconstructionist out of left field at the slightest opportunity!) It wouldn't take a great shift on their part to make the conversation much more productive than it is, and I'm willing to do some compromising of my own to that end.

Alas, though, McIntyre's protestations, though arguably valid in the letter, frankly seem contrived to me in spirit. Worse, they seem contrived to reassure McIntyre's audience, largely populated by politics-first no-such-thing-as-AGWists, and to offend those of us in the mainstream.

Update: Stoat's take, from closer range than McIntyre's, obtains a very different verdict on who was "stuffed". And Revkin comes right up the middle!

Update: Tim Lambert has mysterious psychic powers about such matters.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Party's Over

Eliza Gilkyson again:
the party’s over, we had us a time
everybody got loaded, everybody looked fine
we emptied the coffers of water and wine
the party’s over
we had a good time

we danced on the tables midnight til dawn
'til all the time was up and the good stuff gone

the house is a shambles, broken glass in the streets
guttering candles, blood on the sheets
we burned all the kindling, passed the bottle around
watched the last coals dwindling
and the ice melting down

the party’s over, we had a blast
brought in the lawyers to cover our ass
left a note for the children to clean up the mess
the party’s over
it was a big success!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Los Angeles

The picture is lifted from here on 3quarks. I don't know anything about the picture. The traffic is quite light; it could be a sunday morning or something, which makes the haze all the more impressive.

Huge interchanges fascinate me, in the light of the constant assertions of the powerlessness of the public sector to achieve anything non-automotive. These are astonishing constructions, the likes of which were never seen on earth before the modern era, and are treated as mundane, especially in the southern half of the US, where respect for government is perhaps lower than anywhere on earth.

The south (and for these purposes that includes California) is a land of bizarre contradictions that are somehow invisible to the natives.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Point of View in a Nutshell

If tribal cultures could consider the seventh generation, we with our much greater power should be considering the seventieth. The thirty year horizon that economists and politicians consider very long range is just a blink in the geological history of our planet. Now that we dominate surface processes of the earth we have taken over the responsibility for its sustenance. Our obligation to our descendants and our world doesn't end when the discount rate kicks in.

Our minimal goal is to avoid an abrupt human population collapse, which in retrospect, if there are any survivors, will be eventually be called a "world war". The carbon problem is a serious threat to sustaining human population in the long run. Although it is one threat among many, it is imminent. The time to address it has come. The energy shortage problem is temporary, but any solution that doesn't deal with the carbon problem is disastrous. I am pro-nuke, pro-sequestration, pro-renewable including big hydro projects, pro-biofuels, conscious of the drawbacks and risks of all of these. Any geoengineering that targets temperature rather than carbon is worthless. You can call me an "environmentalist" if you want but that doesn't mean I agree with everything any "environmentalist" says, nor they with me, by a long shot.

Individual conservation action is useful to set an example, and habitual long distance travel especially must be scaled back, but such efforts are insufficient in the face of the necessity of bringing 3/4 of the world out of poverty. Vigorous and intelligent policy changes are urgently needed.

While outside investigation of a field should be tolerated, economic theory as it exists is vastly more primitive than climate theory, and deserves much more auditing attention since it claims such vast importance. Claims that "growth" is indefinitely sustainable and always desirable, which lie at the core of most modern interpretations of economics as axiomatic, are at odds with fundamental dynamics of the rest of the universe, and should be treated with great skepticism. The presumption of indefinitely sustained meaningful growth, along with an outmoded attachment to equilibrium models which can't handle and thus ignore long time constants, skews the thinking of economists into recommending minimal and delayed policy action. By claiming to be gatekeepers of policy decisions, economists systematically subvert any attention to the long range trajectory of society.

From the point of view of mitigation policy, we shouldn't be talking about climate theory all that much. It's not that climatology is complete or "settled" as some like to claim we claim; it's a very interesting and fruitful pursuit as sciences go these days, and it may well have application value in adaptation planning. It's that the carbon question, which is crucial for policy, isn't a close call anymore, and hasn't been for about two decades now.

There is too much carbon in the active reservoirs of the earth system, by which I mean the collective stores of carbon which have large annual fluxes, i.e., atmosphere, ocean and biota. It is the total carbon in these places that matters, and it's getting rapidly worse. There isn't anything subtle or marginal about it. Consequences are inevitable, but not instantaneous. One thing many people don't understand is that what we see now is the consequence of decisions made decades ago.

Carbon is by no means the only problem of this sort. Human actions form a first order perturbation on the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, ocean biomass, fresh water, bulk minerals and many other important systems. The consequences of many of our current decisions are decades in the future. We are already committed to much larger disruptions of climate and geochemistry than we are now experiencing.

Any controversy about the point that we have committed to disrupting global scale processes too much already is partly due to malfeasance. A few private interests have actively tried to prevent a solution to this problem. Even as major industrial organizations quietly withdraw from such efforts, the efforts persist. A major strategy is to confuse the public. One way of achieving this is to paint sober facts as wooly-eyed fantasies, and serious, moderate thinkers as extremists. They think they're protecting an economic or political interest and doing their job, but they really ought to rethink on ethical grounds.

Most people have trouble believing anybody competent would be so shortsighted as to risk the survival of the planet for a few bucks. I have trouble understanding it myself, but it's apparently true. Some journalists understand the source of the confusion, but most popular media are afraid to report it for some reason. Positions that are at odds with any reasonable interpretation of facts and any reasonable ideas of morality are not challenged in the way the press would have done in the past. As a consequence, the public debate about global change issues is dangerously skewed from the most basic and crucial facts, as currently understood and enunciated by virtually every major scientific body in existence.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hansen on You Tube

Consider the possibility that he might be telling the truth.

Avoiding the Clathrate Echo

I've been talking about the ethics of leaving the world in a condition where a major clathrate release in the rather distant future (order thousands of years) would be more likely. Others have suggested that the human influence is so strong that predicting that far would be futile. Perhaps we'll be smart enough to be able to overcome this problem easily. Perhaps we'll be stupid enough that we won't be here, and we can let the rats and roaches fight it out...

Well, one way to avoid the release of clathrates in the distant future, saddling our distant descendants with a rerun of the global warming episode, would be to dig em all up now. Indeed, I am invited to a talk this week:
Gas hydrate research in India – a synoptic view

The world is searching for new and alternate energy resources due to the manifold increase in consumption of fossil fuels. Methane gas hydrates are perceived to be the future alternate energy resource. Hence, considerable interest has been generated in the field of research and technology development of these deposits world over. In order to meet the India’s energy demand, Indian National Gas Hydrate program (NGHP) was launched in 1996. NGHP is a consortium of national E&P companies and national labs steered and guided by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbon (DGH). A separate R&D intense programme on exploration and technology development on exploitation of gas hydrates has been launched by Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Govt. of India with national labs as members.
The occurrence of gas hydrates in the Indian continental margins has been inferred from the presence of Bottom Simulating Reflectors (BSRs) as observed in the multi-channel seismic data. Total prognosticated gas resource from the gas hydrates in Indian offshore area is placed at around 1894 trillion cubic meters, which is almost a few hundred times the conventional natural gas resource established in the country.

... The drilling results confirm the presence of gas hydrates in the Krishna-Godavari (KG), Mahanadi and Andaman offshore basins. Krishna-Godavari basin shows a fracture-dominated massive gas hydrate deposit.
Great news, huh? You'll notice that climate is not a primary concern among solid earth geophysicists.

Seriously, unless most of the clathrates are recoverable, this is the worst of both worlds. It makes the potential warming more severe while still leaving the gun loaded for a burst of warming in some future we can't envision.

We need to find alternatives to fossil sources and/or sequestration strategies. Unfortunately, the people who look for fuels are talented and numerous and have little need of public funding and all the productivity overhead that comes with it.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

On Providence

This is the draft of a talk I gave last week to the Ethical Society of Austin. I'll clean it up a bit (and document a few ad lib improvements) soon. I'd appreciate your feedback.


Michael Tobis

I'm going to talk about how we relate to the bounty of the earth. I'll start with a reading, one which may or may not be true (I've run into people who are adamant in each direction), and which resonates in some ways with the question I want to raise. It's from John Graves' excellent book, Goodbye to a River.


“A tale exists. I heard it once about Charlie Goodnight and once about another of the old ones who stayed alive long enough to get rich, and it may or may not be true about either of them. … he lived on what was called the Quitaque Ranch… Once, a scraggly band of reservation Comanche, long since whipped and contained, rode gaunt ponies all the way out there from Oklahoma to see him.

No buffalo had run the plains for decades; it was their disappearance, as much as smallpox and syphilis and … soldiers that had finally chopped apart the People’s way of life. Jealously, Mr. Charlie had built up and kept a little herd of them.

He knew one or two of the older Indians; he had fought with them and ;ater had gone to see them and remenisce with them in Oklahoma. They asked him for a buffalo bull.

He said: “hell no.”

They said: “They used to be ours.”

He said: “They used to be anybody’s that could kill one. These are mine. They wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for me. You go to hell.”

“Please, Buenas Noches,” maybe one of them said. Maybe not. The people seldom begged.

He said no again and stomped in the house and stayed there for a couple of days while they camped patiently in his yard and on his porch, curious cowhands gathering to watch them. In the end he made a great deal of angry noise and gave them the bull they wanted, maybe deriving a sour satisfaction from thinking about the trouble they’d have getting it back to Oklahoma.

They didn’t want to take it back to Oklahoma. They ran it before them and killed it with arrows and lances in the old way, the way of their arrogant centuries. They sat on their horses and looked down at it for a while, sadly and in silence, and then left it there dead and rode away…


I start with this story, which is true in a way even if it a myth, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing a good talk by a Texan, I figure, should begin with a tall tale of the wild and wooly west if it can manage it, and so far this is my favorite tale of all I've heard. I missed the patriotism colloquy last week so let this be my nod to my new homeland. “My Texas, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." As the old saying goes. Then again, someone replied that “My country, right or wrong is like saying, my mother, drunk or sober."

That being as it may, I am not here to talk about whether Charlie Goodnight was in the right or in the wrong. It’s the Comanche that interest me here.

The Comanches lived for centuries in the relationship between man, horse and buffalo. It’s interesting to note that they never were a purely indigenous culture: the centrality of the horse to their endeavors means they could not have predated the arrival of Europeans. Still, they carved out a vast and forbidding empire for themselves, and as anyone with roots in Texas surely knows, guarded it successfully and fiercely, if not exactly well, for hundreds of years.

It appears to me that the story captures a fundamental issue about our relationship to the world around us. To whom does a thing belong? To whom does a fruit, a tree, an animal, a pond, a prairie, an ocean, belong? It matters, you see.

The way John Graves told the tale, this did come up in the conversation, with Goodnight pointing out that the old scheme was labor-driven (“whoever can kill one”) and the new one capital-driven (“these are mine, they wouldn’t even be alive without me”). And, in the story, the Comanche have to make a huge adjustment in how they see the world.

I suppose it’s strange to think about Comanche ethics, though they must have had some beliefs about how the world provided for them. The point is that those beliefs were subject to an abrupt and severe change.

Sometimes the world doesn’t live up to what we believe about the world. These are the times when beliefs change. I think we have been in such times all my life. I don’t know that any of us were brought up in Ethical Culture, so presumably most of you have had some sort of similar experiences. Most people, though, haven't had such challenges, or haven't faced up to them. But the world is going to change soon, evne more than it has.

In the past, we have had to challenge our beliefs about race, gender, sexuality, and these are surely serious matters. All these are about our direct relationship to each other. Suddenly we are faced with a new sort of ethical dilemma, which involves our relationship to the world, or perhaps to each other as mediated by the world.


I have never really understood the Christian trinity, but the Hindu trinity is easy for me to understand. Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Of these aspects of the universe, Vishnu is the one associated with its maintenance; Brahma with its origins and Shiva with its destiny. Maintenance of the universe is viewed by the Hindu as one of the three great facets of godhood. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, a comparable idea has been called Providence.

The world is, on the whole, remarkably kind and tolerant to our like, to the extent that there will soon enough be about 10 billion of us. We live longer lives than our ancestors, and many of us in comfort and plenty. Many of us have riches that would be unavailable to the great monarchs of the past: Queen Elizabeth I had to commission Shakespeare’s company to come down from Stratford for special performances of their current play. I can invoke better performances of Shakespeare in my living room so easily that I am likely to fall asleep before the end. I can interrupt the entire play for a restroom break or a telephone call. Queen Elizabeth didn’t even have a telephone! I can get private performances of the world’s great music at a whim. I can get strawberries and peaches every day of the year. I can compose my talk to you on a computer grander than any that existed in the world on the day I entered college, and I can fetch quotations using it for the talk from anywhere in the world.

What is it about the world that provides this bounty? The traditional religious answer attributes it to divine intervention, Providence, the daily intervention of the divine to prevent the world from stopping. Not only is reality the creation of God in this view, but it’s a contraption that needs working. If God’s attention were to stray for an instant, we used to believe, everything would suddenly end. We weren’t sure that God demanded our gratitude for this feat, but you can understand that people didn’t hesitate to go out of their way to give thanks at every opportunity, lest God tire of the game.

Still, the world, whether created or managed by God or not, somehow does provide for us, and to some extent this is mysterious. Physicists point out that the physics of the universe changed only in the slightest degree would not support life. Planets would not form, or water would not stay wet, or DNA would not twist, or the stars would collapse back into a great fireball before our ancestors learned to walk on land. Perhaps this luck alone needs a name.

The modern view of Providence has its roots in the same enlightenment that formed the humanist movement. It is nearly universally held, among atheists, agnostics, humanists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and even fundamentalist Christians. Something so universal must be a great thing, you would think. Unfortunately I believe and I will argue that in addition to being almost universal it is also spectacularly wrong.

Well, OK, that’s pretty arrogant. Let me soften it a bit. The modern view of Providence is rapidly becoming outdated.

The modern view is that wealth is the consequence of hard work. Yes, some people give luck or grace a little credit, but basically, the idea is that the harder we work, the more we will have. More to the point, we believe that we should have as much wealth as we are willing to work for.

If everyone on earth had an equal share of the earth, how much would we have? It turns out that we get 15 acres of acean and 6 of dry land, of which 4 or 5 are pretty much wasteland. You are living on a two acre ranch, whether you know it or not, and so is everybody else. Now, I don’t mean to say that everybody automatically should get the same share of everything. But the fact remains that the average share is what the average person lives on. If a rich person lives on twice that, then only half of us can be rich, and the rest are left living on nothing at all. And as it happens, estimates are that the American lifestyle demands about triple the total available land; that each of us pretty much extracts all the production of about eighteen acres of our available six.

Each of us has something like 5000 gallons of gasoline left. Maybe 10,000. For ourselves and all our descendants. As an American you are likely to end up with a larger share, but every gallon you end up using is a gallon somebody else will not use.

This zero sum game is effectively new. The exponential growth of our impact has just recently approached the limits of available resources. Suddenly the growth that we have advocated has reached a point where it certainly cannot continue unaltered. Yet, our politicians still talk of growth and our voters still demand it. A recession, urgently needed if the world is ever to become more fairly divided, is avoided with the utmost urgency. Growth is considered an imperative.

Our growth ethic was built in a vast, infinite world and its consequences are playing out in a crowded and shrinking world. Something is going to change, but what? Let me make this clear. I am not begging for a change. I am begging for a sound and humane change, but change itself is unavoidable. That which is unsustainable will eventually end. That is what unsustainable means. There are reasons to suspect that the time is upon us.

Let’s consider how Providence was viewed through the ages. If we look at what changed in the past we may get some insight as to what we can consider changing in the future.

Now I’m going to take an entirely Eurocentric view here, despite referring to the Hindu pantheon on occasion. Basically I am sharing an interesting book I just read, and sharing how it sheds light on the question of how people viewd the way the world provided for them. The book, from the 1970s by an Oxford Don, Arnold Pacey, is called “The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology”. This is a history of the last thousand years of technological development in Europe, pretty much from a standing start, with a focus on the ideology as well as the inventions of the people doing the inventing, people we would nowadays call engineers. Pacey stresses that much of the work of technical progress had little to do with personal profit, despite our modern understanding of why people do things. I propose to compress an impressive and wide ranging history into a few minutes of sweeping generalizations. I might leave something out, maybe even something important. My review will suffer to some extent from the fact that I have a slightly idfferent topic, though a closely related one.

The story I am going to tell has some familiar characters in it. Galileo and Newton play a role. But it's not the usual science versus religion story: Kepler and Copernicus don't matter; Darwin and Einstein are nowhere tt be seen. The usual scinece vs religion story is about how science challenged the idea of God the Creator, or of what the Hindus call Brahma. This story will be about technologists vs religion, the people whom today we call engineers, and how they challenged the idea of God the Provider, what the Hindus call Vishnu.

(Interestingly, the Christian version of Shiva the destroyer remains extremely popular.)


The story begins in about the year 1100, in northern France and southern England, where the first burst of postclassical technical creativity in Europe occurred.

It’s fair to say that medieval times had shrunk back from the early Greco-Roman civilization. So while their feudal philosophy must have been very different from the various views of the many small primitive tribes that the world has supported, it’s inevitable that they must have viewed Providence as something external to human action. God or the Gods provide, we merely scratch in the dirt to retain such bounty as the heavens in their wisdom allow us.

It was into such a world that the Cistercian monks arrived to invent architecture.The underlying ideology was Catholic: the glorification of God. This was at about the time of the maximum advance of the Islamic Moors into Spain. Consequently, European Christian civilization came into contact with the knowledge that the Arabs had salvaged from the Romans and Greeks, or had managed to extract from the far east.

A certain revival of technology was underway. Waterpowered mills, canals to support them, and elaborate buildings to house them formed a first burst of what we call technology into Christian lands. Remarkably, the Christians took to this revival like ducks to water, in many cases relatively rapidly surpassing the state of technology in other lands. The early European engineers were unconflicted in their enthusiasm for these innovations, as they were inevitably cloistered monks.

The Cistercian order played a particularly large role in these advances. Followers of St. Bernard, they considered work as part of their spiritual practice. The order encouraged their finest monks to travel great distances and confer with one another. Learning and experimentation were thereby encouraged. The travel circuit among the Cistercian monasteries formed a sort of prototypical internet, a sudden increase in human skill and capacity. One specialty was water works. They diverted river water through their monastery, and used it for a variety of purposes, sacred and profane. A water clock, sort of a wet hourglass, was one crucial piece of hydraulic equipment. Their greatest achievement was the development of Gothic architecture, i.e., the great cathedrals of France and England. The technology required for the remarkable and awe inspiring spaces that they created was far from trivial. Indeed, some attempted cathedrals collapsed during construction. I imagine there were some who lost their lives. All of it, however, was in pursuit of the glorification of God.

At the scale of our discussion, there was more or less steady progress, mostly within the monastic tradition, in developing various mechanical contrivances to further the aims of the order and the glorification of the almighty. Commercial uses of technology emerged, with spinning silk an early leader, and improvements in weaving also following along. Also the mechanics of sailing ships became quite elaborated.

The association between God and the sky, though, had some unexpected consequences. There was a long tradition that had moved from Greece to the Arab lands of building machines, called astrolabes, that could reresent the motions of the planets (including the sun and the moon in the old view) against the background of the fixed stars. Of course the motions of the sun and moon had practical implications. This tradition moved into Europe in the 14th century. Someone came up with a spring-loaded mechanism that released its wound-up energy in a constant way, and the astrolabe would put the planets through their paces without human intervention. These devices were great extravagances for royal palaces, not everyday items.

Of course someone quickly noticed that with the right gearing mechansim, the part of this model that showed the motion of the sun could serve as a mechanical clock. At the time there was little interest in clocks. Only the priests needed to know the time of day with precision. Most people could get close enough by watching the sun, though this wasn't perfectly satsifactory in the cloudy climates of northern Europe. The first clocks were more in the nature of geek toys than useful instruments: at first the water clocks must have been more accurate.


And eventually (here I am skipping a great deal, of course) the clock became a metaphor for the whole world, the whole universe. Consider that one could have great admiration for the designer of the clock while realizing that he or she need not be on the scene to ensure its continued operation. Could the universe be analogous to clockwork? Here is where Galileo and Newton, with their efforts to mathematize the world came in. Like the clockmakers, their idea was not in itself intended as a challenge to the clerical orders, but on the contrary an elucidation and admiration of the creator's handiwork. They didn't think of themselves a reducing the universe to mathematics, but rather as exalting it, revealing its underlying unity and harmony and glory.

Galileo in particular, following in the great artisan traditions, made experiment a part of the investigation of the natural order, and mathematics a key to its outcome. Galileo's contmporary, the archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Francis Bacon, was struck by the limitless possibilities of the human intellect once we had uncovered the secrets of nature. He surely wasn't thinking of this work as in some way anathema to Christianity. Nevertheless, once the laws of the universe began to be revealed in mathematical terms, the room for divine intervention became rather smaller.

Before too long it was discovered that the mathematical principles describing nature could be applied to engineering problems. Arguably the first modern engineer was a gentleman named Mariotte. His case was a civil engineering problem in determining the lightest and least expensive pipes that could safely carry water to the palace at Versailles. IN another unprecedented burst of ambition, one William Petty who was charged with a complete survey of Ireland, so that a so-called fair distribution of the vanquished Irish lands might be endeavored to pay the debts of the English government. Twenty counties were surveyed in total by a thousand men in fifteen months. The level of logistic organization involved had no precedent.

The approach that made such feats possible was contemporaneously called the method of detail, or later, reductionism. A problem is reduced to its constituent parts and their interrelationships are examined hierarhcically.

"This mechanical philosophyis sometimes described as a disenchanted view of nature, because it left no room for any mystical appreciation of natural phenomena, and it outlawed astrology and magic. But it would also be appropriate to call it a disconnected world view, in which the links between the different parts of entities were often ignored or broken, and in which subjects were habitually studied in isolation form their broader context." Consequently, the mystery of the human spirit becomes a subject not so much taboo as irrelevant, not suited for conversation among busy professionals, self-indulgent. The clockwork view was not so much complete as it was self-sufficient. The inconvenient ghost in the machine made all the judgements but rarely spared a thought for itself!

Providence, the sustainer, Vishnu, is altogether gone in this view. While the view leaves some room for Brahma, the creator, eventually that idea was called into question as well. By the time of Napoleon, the great French mathematician Pierre Laplace promoted an explanation about the formation of the solar system in which no God or Gods played any part. When questioned by the emperor on this, Laplace had the temerity to reply "I have no need for that hypothesis".


At about this time, the steam engines that had always been curiosities were scaled up to perform real work. In order for this to happen, massive amounts of fuel were needed, and the fuel at hand, in England, was coal. Coal was found in hillsides, in increasingly deep holes, and working in those deep holes required an ability to pump water out. So the first significant non-animal pwered engine was designed to make it possible to dig out the coal which would make the engine work!

This was a crucial step in the emergence of industrial civilization, the application of fossil energy on a large scale. It was also the first step in our downfall, as it began the large scale usage of resources that are depleted by their use, unlike stones or metals which remail in roughly comparable form and are in vast supply. Also it was somewhat emblematic of our eventual frenzy of feeding coal to the machine to pump the water out of the coal well so we could get more coal to feed the machine... the bizarre circular nature of our modern desperate striving for gainful employ is well represented by the first economically important self-powered machine.

At this point, in the view of many educated people, the combination of the success of human clockwork, and the successful explanation of nature with clocklike principles left a windup universe in which the idea of Providence was cast off altogether. In practice, what was provided was provided by man and man alone, digging in the dirt, literally and figuratively. To be sure, many people still held to the old religions, but one has the idea that they were beginning their long decline in most of the advanced countries, a decline that has only recently been reversed in this country for some reason, but that's another subject entirely. It was socially acceptable to believe in a distant, standoffish creator who had not intervened in human affairs for many centuries, and privately many informed people already saw this as a fairy tale. However, an alternate human-centered theory was not to emerge until toward the end of the eighteenth century.

By then, the Industrial Revolution was beginning in England. Entrepreneurs discovered that a judicious application of coal and cotton and use of the latest industrial technology could create a worldwide market for clothing that could generate enormous wealth. Many stories, of course, are told about the disruption in the lives of the rural poor that resulted, and the decline in their standard of living, but the owners of the mills saw it otherwise. They saw themselves as civilizing the peasantry. Many of them weremembers or sympathizers of an upstart protestant sect, the Unitarians, a nonconformist creed which felt that man's impulses, enluightened by reason, would tend to work for good, and that teh mind of God was more clearly seen in his creations than in the scriptures.

A theorist came out of their ranks who provided the theory that to this day replaces our idea of Providence, Adam Smith. His ideas, expounded in several books, are easy to summarize, and I'm sure you're all aware of them. A man's economic behavior is chiefly determined by self interest. It is futile to deplore the predominance o fsuch selfishness. Such behavior often has a constructive consequence. While benevolence may be the greatest virtue, slef-interest could lead to virtues such as thrift, hard work, and discretion. Everyone free to pursue their own interests, would lead to a better ordered society than any benevolent monarch could ever provide. This is the invisible hand of the marketplace, and it should be as unfettered as possible. This philosophy was called "lineralism", though today in America it is more associated with people calling themselves "conservative".

While Smith himself had little interest in tehcnical progress, it was burgeoning around him, and its chief beneficiaries tended to be among his acolytes. They seized upon his theories at every turn to give intellectual and moral cover for their most excessive schemes. In particular, English Unitarians at the turn of the nineteenth century were outspoken advocates against labor laws, including laws against child labor!


Which leads us more or less directly to the present day. While rationalist religions may be in decline, Smith's capitalism remains in full flower. There is no denying that in the intervening two centuries it has been a spectacular success. We can all think of numerous illustrations; last Monday at this time I was in Montreal, and by midnight I was in Austin. Year by year and decade by decade, the economic world grows exponentially.

What has changed is that, where it used to be a consequence of laissez faire, the growth itself is now the explicit policy of almost every government, left or right,atheist or fundamentalist, on earth today. Every member of every party supports growth, perhaps blaming the opposition when it fails. And we have as a consequence built a society that works well only in the presence of growth, and risks sudden destabilization when growth fails. We don't have much to draw upon. So everyone sees that growth years are better than recession years, and votes accordingly.

This amounts to steering the ship of state into a massive typhoon, because growth is never permanent.


In nature, exponential growth is never sustained forever. A child who does not grow is considered unhealthy, but an adult who does grow is also considered unhealthy. The goal of growth is to reach a robust, sustainable adulthood, not to grow to monstrous scale.

Economists see no constraints to growth in their equations, but that is because their equations were developed at a time when the limits to growth were far away.

It would be silly to deny that it has worked, but it can't work forever.

We in the west have been presenting ourselves as an example to the world. Our burgeoning success advertises the power of our methods to the rest of the world, and our movies and television evangelize its comforts. And therein, of course, lies the worst of the problem. As we see for the first time in the mdoern era a large country making the transition to what we like ot call "developed" status, we suddenly find the rest of the world facing shortages of food and fuel. Why food? It's not climate change. Last year's cereal production set an all time record. Why are the prices of cheap grains exploding? It is because the Chinese can afford meat now, and the poor people of Haiti are suddnly in competition with China's cows for the cheap grain. Perhaps mroe land can be brought into production for a little while, but China is only 10% middle class yet, which amounts to a lot of people (half of America) but leaves over a billion still looking for that steak dinner. Can China really catch up? And India? And everybody else? No, not if everyone expects to eat a lot of meat, drive cars a lot, and water their lawns. It just doesn't work. It's not clear the world can support the Americans (and Canadians and Australians) it already has. Nine billion more will simply not work. Yet America still plans for exponential growth, hoping to account eventually for two Americas itself!

It's amazing to me that these problems are tied directly to the intellectual legacy of the protestant reformation, the enlightenment, and the emergence of secular humanism. You could argue that it is so humanist as to go too far. Or perhaps we have taken humanism too literally, with the result that our world is utterly inumane? If we have a hundred times the wealth of a century ago (and by most measures we do), why can’t we work 40 hours every hundred weeks instead of 40 hours a week?

What makes us so frantic in the pursuit of something we choose to call wealth? Is it really wealth? Or is it illth? And what is all that stuff piling up in the sudden prolkiferation of storage lockers all over hell's half acre?

Our comforts and our triumphs are real, but it doesn't take a lot of arithmetic to understand that in some way they have to change. I don't think it's necessary to abandon capitalism, but it may be necessary to stop watering our lawns. We may still travel, but it might be by bicycle or rickshaw in town, and by train over longer distances. We can still have enormous unheard of wealth in other ways: the arts, the internet, the ability to meet people of different backgrounds and exchange ideas, and so on. The changes do not have to be horrible. But they do have to happen. Not everyone can drive around like an American; there isn't the wealth to do that.

Let me tie it back to providence, then. Much of our success is indeed provide by human work, but it is human work presuming that we have a viable planet. If our activities make the planet less viable, then no amount of invidiual work will make us collectively better off, quite the contrary.

Nature provides us air and water and land. No amount of hard work will create more air, more water, more land. Nature also provides us with coal and oil and natural gas. No amount of work will create more of these, but work can and does deplete them. To some extent this is also true of soil and of well water. Some of our bounty comes from nature, and there is a limited quantity to go around. Some comes from nature, and t=is not only limited but depleted. The more we work, the harder we strive to compete to use these up, the sooner they will be gone.

Has that time come upon us more suddenly than we expected? If the great correction has begun, it came sooner than I expected.


So, if western rationalist philosophy got us into this situation, can it get us out again? Let's remember the quandary of the Comanche. The whole world is shifing under us; it may be within the scope of a generation that everything we have come to rely upon is suddenly falsified by the failure of our key assumptions.

If we take the reductionist view, no. We have to see the forest and not just the trees.

In the end, reason itself tells us nothing unless reason is informed by values. We got into this situation by abandoning superstitious values and adopting values that celebrate human dignity and success. The way out is notby abandoning reason but by augmenting our values. Now that birds and trees and fish are suddenly rare, we must put vrey great stock in their survival, far more than we did in the past. Now that the atmosphere and oceans are themselves vulnerable, we must take their sustainability into account of ourselves. Like it or not, we are either Vishnu or Shiva now.


The Great Correction

down on the corner of ruin and grace
I’m growin weary of the human race
hold my lamp up in everyone’s face
lookin for an honest man

everyone tied to the turnin wheel
everyone hidin from the things they feel
well the truth’s so hard it just don’t seem real
the shadow across this land

people round here don’t know what it means
to suffer at the hands of our american dreams
they turn their backs on the grisly scenes
traced to the privileged sons

they got their god they got their guns
got their armies and the chosen ones
but we’ll all be burnin in the same big sun
when the great correction comes

down through the ages lovers of the mystery
been sayin people let your love light shine
poets and sages all throughout history
say the light burns brightest in the darkest times

it’s the bitter end we’ve come down to
the eye of the needle that we gotta get through
but the end could be the start of something new
when the great correction comes

down through the ages down to the wire runnin out of time
still got hope in this heart of mine
but the future waits on the horizon line
for our daughters and our sons

I don’t know where this train’s bound
whole lotta people tryin to turn it around
gonna shout til the walls come tumblin down
and the great correction comes

don’t let me down
when the great correction comes

-Eliza Gilkyson

Friday, July 11, 2008

DOE EIA Projections Ever Upward

This is awfully cheerful or just awful, depending on your point of view I guess.
Report #:DOE/EIA-0484(2008)
Release Date: June 2008
Next Release Date: June 2009
(full report available July 2008)


World marketed energy consumption is projected to increase by 57 percent
from 2004 to 2030. Total energy demand in the non-OECD countries increases
by 95 percent, compared with an increase of 24 percent in the OECD countries.

I guess it's worth taking note of CO2, in a sort of passive way, now.

I'm confused. It's hard to know if this is wishful thinking or malice at this point.

Update: Phil Randal makes a similar point.

Great Moments in Unintentional Irony

In a more or less typical "economists who agree with my preconceptions are reasonable, economists who don't, aren't, and climate science doesn't really exist" essay, someone calling himself the Skeptical Optimist manages this wonderful blurt:
GW news is too frequently contaminated by confirmation bias, belief preservation, and rehearsed political dogma. I stop reading as soon as I detect any of that, which means I skip a lot of GW “news.”)

I was glad to see Freeman Dyson’s recent review...
(Link added by your humble editor. Needless to say, I skipped the rest...)

It is nice to see Mr. Optimist doing such a good job of avoiding confirmation bias.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Peak Coal

Indented text quoted from "The Maze of Ingenuity", Arnold Pacey, first MIT press paperback edition, pp 298 ff, 1985 edition, written in 1974. Words in italic are attributed therein to W. S. Jevons. (Hopefully this renders reasonably in your browser. )
During the 1860's, the earlier optimism of Babbage and many of his contemporaries was challenged in a well-argued book on Britains coal resources written by th eeconomist W. Stanley Jevons. The life of Victorian England depended so heavily on the steam engine, Jevons said, and accessible deposits of coal were relatively so limited, that the nation's material prosperity could not continue to increase for much longer.
He claimed that if the observed rate of increase were to continue indefinitely, then total quantity of coal mined prior to a future date, estimated as 1961, would inevitable eventually exceed total reserves.

What would happen, Jevons said, was
that coal would have to be obtained from progressively deeper seams, and so would become increasingly expensive. Consumption would no longer increase by 3.5 % annually. It would become static, and then begin to fall; 'the conclusion is inevitable, that our present happy, progressive condition is a thing of limited duration.' ...
He also said that if we
"lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation and distribution of our riches, it is hard to overestimate the pitch of benevolent influence to which we might attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity."

Materialist Millenialism

I popped into a thread on geoengineering at the always interesting Overcoming Bias site. (Eliezer Yudkowsky in particular has an amazing way of thinking, and when I can follow his arguments I find them extremely interesting and stimulating.)

Nevertheless we see an overvaluing of the sagacity of the marketplace all over the site. I might tend to call that a bias, but that's just me.

What's really interesting and terrifying (and why this is news, at least to me) is the rationalist or pseudo-rationalist equivalent of last-days-fundamentalism. It's easy to see why people who literally expect the Rapture don't care much about preserving the environment. You wonder how and why their libertarian brethren on the right manage to go along with this, though.

Well, it appears there's a materialist rapture in the offing, as well. We, or perhaps the robots we appoint as our successor sepcies, will have intellectual superpowers, by means of which we can recover from any damage we might incur. So don't worry! We'll be so much smarter later that none of this will matter!

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here are some quotes, starting with a response as to whether one could set a low dollar value on a guarantee human extinction centuries into the future.

Prof. David Archer of the University of Chicago department of Geosciences is of the opinion that contemporary global warming left unchecked is in fact likely to set of a series of events leading to the relatively sudden release of seabed methane clathrates some thousands of years hence, possibly enough to trigger a much larger global warming event. He does raise the ethical implications of this scenario when he discusses it. So the 630 year question is not entirely a hypothetical.
Tim Tyler:
We'll have AI and nanotechnology within 50 years. That will make climate change into an irrelevant storm in a teacup.
Mitchell Porter:
I wrote about this issue recently. It could even be the subject of a post here: what is the rational way to approach problems of unsustainability if you expect a Singularity? The answer I proposed is essentially to compartmentalize: treat sustainability as a matter of mundane quantifiable governance, like macroeconomics, and treat the Singularity as a highly important contingency that can't be timed, like a natural disaster. I would still defend that as a first approximation, but clearly the interaction can be more complex: if you really do think that the Singularity will almost certainly happen within 50 years, then you won't care about environmental changes "thousands of years hence", or even those slated for the second half of this century. In general, expectation of a near-term Singularity should skew preferences towards adaptation rather than mitigation.
I am definitely rooting against the Singularity in question. We have plenty enough Singularities to deal with as is. I think turning the planet over to machines of our devising is every bit as stupid an idea as boiling the ocean, but I suppose that's just me and my biases again.

Anyway, the end of time as we know it is nigh; I suppose on this model the messiah will return as a cute pet puppy robot from Sony soon enough. So if you feel like boiling the ocean and burning the forests meanwhile, well, that is the least of your sins, compared to supporting public transportation or universal medicine, I suppose.

Reality is going to be replaced by a throwaway science fiction pulp. Is Phil Dick really dead, or is he still alive and we're just part of his dream? An excellent basis for rational planning I must say.

I guess this wouldn't be worth noting at all except that the site itself shows such intense intelligence along with this bafflingly lunatic wishful thinking.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I'm Reading

Had some time to read some books this week. I'm mostly preparing for a presentation to the Ethical Society of Austin on Sunday morning. Feel free to join us if you are in the neighborhood. My topic is "providence", by which I mean, the mechanisms by which the world provides for our sustenance.

Books I'm reading in preparation for my talk:
  • The Maze of Ingenuity (Arnold Pacey, Penguin, 1974 (US edition- MIT Press) "Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology"
  • The Man Who Saw Through Time (Loren Eisely, Scribner, 1961) "Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma"
  • Issues in Science and Religion (Ian Barbour, Prentice-Hall, 1966) "How can God act if the world is governed by scientific laws? What is God's relation to the causal processes of nature? ... Can we still accept the idea of providence, God's governance of nature and history?"
  • Deep Economy (Bill McKibben, Holt 2007) "The wealth of communities and the durable future"
  • Goodbye to a River (John Graves, 1959) "By Heaven! cried my father, springing out of his seat as he swore, - I have not one appointment belonging to me, which I set so much store by, as I do these jack-boots - they were our great-grandfather's, brother Toby - they were hereditary."
It's been nice to have some longer-attention-span reading for a change. I highly recommend all these books. I'm not sure they're all in print, but Goodbye to a River is, and on many levels it's the finest reading I've encountered in quite some time.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Goodbye to a River

"To note that our present world is a strange one is tepid, and it is becoming a little untrue, for strangeness and change are so familiar to us now that they are getting to be normal. Most of us in one way or another count on them as strongly as other ages counted on the green shoots rising in the spring. We're dedicated to them; we have a hunger to believe that other sorts of beings are eying us from the portholes of Unidentified Flying Objects, that automobiles will glitter with yet more chromed facets next year than this, and that we shall shortly be privileged to carry our inadequacies with us to the stars. And furthermore that while all the rivers may continue to flow to the sea, those who represent us in such matters will at least slow down the process by transforming them from rivers into bead strings of placid reservoirs behind concrete dams.

"Bitterness? No ma'am... In a region like the Southwest, scorched to begin with, alternating between floods and drouths, its absorbent cities quadrupling their censuses every few years, electric power and flood control and moisture conservation and water skiing are praiseworthy projects. More than that, they are essential. We river-minded ones can't say much against them - nor, probably, should we want to. Nor, mostly, do we...

"But if you are built like me, neither the certainty of change, nor the need for it, nor any wry philosophy will keep you from feeling a certain enraged awe when you hear that a river that you've known always, and that all men of that place have known always back into the dawn of men, will shortly not exist.

"They had not yet done more than survey the sites for the new dams, five between those two that had already risen during my life. But the squabbling had begun between their proponents and those otherwise-minded types - bottomland farmers and ranchers whose holdings would be inundated, competitive utility companies shrilling "Socialism!" and big irrigationists downstream - who would make a noise before they lost but who would lose. When someone official dreams up a dam, it generally goes in. Dams are ipso facto good all by themselves, like mothers and flags. Maybe you save a Dinosaur Monument from time to time, but in-between such salvations you lose ten Brazoses...

"It was not my fight. That was not even my part of the country any more; I had been living out of the state for years. I knew, though, that it might be years again before I got back with time enough on my hands to make the trip, and what I wanted to do was wrap it up, the river, before what I and Hale and Satanta the White Bear and Mr. Charlie Goodnight had known ended up down yonder under all the Chriss-Crafts and the tinkle of portable radios.

"Or was that, maybe, an excuse for a childishness? What I wanted was to float my piece of the river again. All of it."

John Graves, 1959, Goodbye to a River