"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another Sign of Dawning Realization

Dot Earth is running "Eleven Questions for Obama's Science Team" and I would like to especially recommend they (and all of us) think long and hard on question eight, which is a nice statement of one of our themes here:
My request to the Obama transition team is to introduce the economy team to the science team. Economists like Daniel Tarullo would benefit from discussing the laws of thermodynamics with Steven Chu. I’m also sure that the science community would benefit from learning something of the complexity of economics theory and practice. New ideas might evolve!

I’m certain that physics has laws that must be obeyed at our peril, but I’m not convinced that economics has shown their ‘laws’ to be inviolate. In fact, just now to the contrary those principles are looking quite tarnished. And, I’d like to see a science-cum-economics dialogue continue and evolve throughout Obama’s tenure in the White House. It would greatly benefit our transition to a sustainable economy based on alternative energy, resource conservation, green jobs and creative partipation by all sectors of our society.
Thanks to the questioner, Wayne Hamilton of Springdale, Utah.


Post-Growth America

A surprising glimmer of recognition spotted in the major media:
"Look," said the President, walking across the stage with a microphone in hand, "here's what no one wants to tell you. Structural changes in our economy, and new competition from countries like China and India, mean that we're in a different world now. That pattern we once took for granted, in which our incomes basically kept rising across the board, turns out to be something we can't sustain. Many of you are earning less than your parents did, and the truth is, many of your children will earn less than you do."

The President paused, watching as the words sank in. "I don't think denial helps any of us. I know it won't help us come together to do the things we need to do as a nation to thrive even amid these new realities."

Don't worry, you didn't miss the news; the scene above has not happened yet. Few politicians would say those things even if they believed them to be true, because it would challenge a notion at the heart of the American dream: the idea that the kids will earn more than we do.


There's a third worrisome attitude traceable to our faith that the kids will earn more than we do. This is the imprudent conviction that we can live beyond our means, because somehow we'll earn enough later to deal with any problems. This outlook represents a dramatic shift from earlier American thinking, as the sociologist Daniel Bell noted in 1976. "Twentieth-century capitalism wrought a ... startling sociological transformation," he wrote, "the shift from production to consumption as the fulcrum of capitalism." Both as individuals and as a society, we've been gambling on better days tomorrow to make good on unsustainable borrowing today.

Such is the toll of a Dead Idea.
This is from Matt Miller, editor at Fortune, raised in Greenwich CT and Rye Town NY, BA economics magna cum laude Brown, LLD Columbia Law School, member Council on Foreign Relations. In other words, to the extent that there's still an "Establishment", he's in it. You heard it there second.


Monday, December 29, 2008

Academia and New Media

Bora Z tweets about a fascinating blog about new forms in academia called Academic Evolution.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tierney vs Holdren

NYTimes science reporter John Tierney goes after Obama appointee John Holdren, about whom I have written admiringly of late, with both guns a-blazin'.

Along the way he expresses concern for how Lomborg gets treated in certain circles and has a kind word to throw in for Roger Jr.. It's sticky stuff, not as easily dismissed as the usual denialist tripe, as I have argued before. This stuff is badly wrong, but it needs to be handled with care.

Update: Three guesses what Joe Romm thinks.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama on Science

More grownup talk:

Whether it’s the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century jobs—today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It is time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.


Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us

Like my friend J says, he better not f'ing blow it. Don't you want to hear Palin's take on this issue?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Grownups in Town

It's so very nice to see grownups in the executive branch; any hope that the legislative will follow suit?

The choices of Holdren and Chu show every likelihood that the incoming administration wants to put the carbon problem on the front burner. This is great news!

But they have so much else to do what with the "economy" of the US and to some extent of the whole world being shown to be based on utter lunacy over the last twenty years. Oh and that little thing about the two bollixed wars... OK, I'm not saying anything you haven't heard...

The referenced Dot Earth article doesn't dwell so much on John Holdren, whom we discussed here recently. Rather it branches sort of peculiarly into a very good discussion with Gary Yohe, from Yale's e360 site.

Anyway I am glad this way of thinking has finally made its way into the Times:
Uncertainly is ubiquitous. There are some fundamental conclusions that we now know: that the planet is warming; that humans are the cause of it. We’ve seen the climate signal and changes in global mean temperature… But there’s some uncertainty that simply will not be resolved in a timely fashion. Yet once you adopt a risk-management perspective, then uncertainty becomes a reason to do something rather than a reason not to do something. And people who argue against doing anything then have to guarantee that humans aren’t changing the climate. They can’t do that, so they can’t argue against enacting some climate policy. At the same time, though, uncertainty is something we need to recognize will be persistent. We have to learn how to make decisions under uncertainty.


So the point is that climate policy has to adopt a risk-management approach. It involves both adaptation and mitigation. We have to think seriously about how we do mid-course corrections. What is near-term policy? How do you make adjustments? Well, you keep track of how you’re doing relative to the short-term target that you set up. But you also have to worry about whether or not the target was right, and that’s where increased knowledge about the climate system and the economic system come into play. And so every 10 years or so, you have to sit down and say, “Okay what have we learned? Are we doing well compared to the target we set? Is the target right? Is it too high? Is it too low? Should we ramp these things up or ramp these things down?” And those are the essential things that we need to do.
Maybe this kind of sense will somehow find its way into the congress. Paging Sen. Inhofe?

The Financial WTF in Context

Walden Bello has put together a fascinating presentation putting the financial crisis in context.

It's more leftist in tone than I'd like, and I'm not sure it adequately understands the irrationality of growth addiction, which really is shared by left and right.

Also a couple of the slides are misformatted.

All that said, it does focus on the key role of manufacturing overproduction and excess capacity in the present financial disaster. I think it's a very helpful and insightful summary and I am definitely adding it to my conceptual arsenal. Maybe you should do likewise?

I stole the wonderful image from the presentation. It's based on what for all I know is, or at least once was, a heavily advertised bubble bath product called Mr. Bubble.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Singularity

Unlike a certain breed of AI enthusiasts, when I contemplate the possibility that we are at a singular point in human history, that we may be at a point where past conventional wisdom needs to be actively disregarded, I don't see it as a moment of new kinds of progress but one of new kinds of peril.

Basically, we are going through a phase transition, between a state where there were few monkeys to one where there are many monkeys. This means the former time where issues are distinct and perhaps have tenuous connections is over; now there is one big tangled problem: how do we keep the monkeys happy while settling them down and training them to live in a more or less zero-sum situation.

Maribo (H/T Stoat) offers us this daunting image to bring home one slice of the problem:

and a recent article in the online Journal PlosOne goes further.

In Ecosystem Overfishing in the Ocean by the Spanish, Canadian and Italian collaboration of Marta Coll, Simone Libralato, Sergi Tudela, Isabel Palomera, and Fabio Pranovi, the overfishing problem is viewed as a bulk biogeochemical process.

Here's the abstract:
Fisheries catches represent a net export of mass and energy that can no longer be used by trophic levels higher than those fished. Thus, exploitation implies a depletion of secondary production of higher trophic levels (here the production of mass and energy by herbivores and carnivores in the ecosystem) due to the removal of prey. The depletion of secondary production due to the export of biomass and energy through catches was recently formulated as a proxy for evaluating the ecosystem impacts of fishing–i.e., the level of ecosystem overfishing. Here we evaluate the historical and current risk of ecosystem overfishing at a global scale by quantifying the depletion of secondary production using the best available fisheries and ecological data (i.e., catch and primary production). Our results highlight an increasing trend in the number of unsustainable fisheries (i.e., an increase in the risk of ecosystem overfishing) from the 1950s to the 2000s, and illustrate the worldwide geographic expansion of overfishing. These results enable to assess when and where fishing became unsustainable at the ecosystem level. At present, total catch per capita from Large Marine Ecosystems is at least twice the value estimated to ensure fishing at moderate sustainable levels.
In other words:
Fisheries catches represent a net export of mass and energy that can no longer be used by trophic levels higher than those fished. Thus, exploitation implies a depletion of secondary production of higher trophic levels due to the removal of prey. Based on this assumption, a new method was developed to quantify the loss in secondary production (L index) due to the removal of marine organisms through catches (expressed as PPR equivalents) compared to a theoretical unfished situation...
Humans aren't just overfishing species, we are exporting biomass, degrading it, and pooping it back out into estuaries to first order. We are clear-cutting the whole ocean.

Again, the incentives for individual ship owners to behave this way are clear enough. The question is how to remove those incentives when the catch becomes too large, which it clearly is. I don't know; cap and trade is hard enough to enforce on nations, never mind on boats. And maybe, since we're going to acidify the oceans beyond supporting advanced life anyway, it could be argued that we might as well go ahead and send boats to pick out all the nice sushi first.

The sorts of decisions that have to be made to preserve the entire ocean are without precedent. It is a good thing that scientists go out and try to keep us informed as to what is happening. It would be better if there were some way to reward people for coming up with ways to change our collective behavior.

Update: Here's some perverse incentives for you, in a video clip sent by "tidal".

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ah, Academe

Interesting discussion on managing PDFs on the NYTimes kicks off some grumbling.

I agree with both points made by a snarky outsider (Acronzy, comment 12):
I will try to put this delicately. Lack of public access to journal pulications , when almost all of the research and support represented by those articles is significantly indebted to tax payer dollars, is simply disgusting. If the New Yorker can archive, index, and provide a search engine for everything it has ever published, so can any journal.
Of course, the existing firewall system for journals is just completely inexcusable, but at least most academics understand that, admittedly without taking ownership of the problem.
Your rather naieve [sic] efforts to “organize” your “on line” research material, would make any relational database designer shiver in his shoes.
When will academia understand how backward it all is? The lack of the most ordinary, elementary, entry-level office skills is just appalling. Not only are the skills and experiences I picked up in the private sector completely unvalued, but I have to put up with the sort of idiocy every day that would quickly get people canned out in the real world.

Not that our actual administrative staff is all bad; some of them (by no means all!) are real gems. It's the PIs I'm talking about.

Actually UTIG is a real exception since many of the PIs actually run expeditions. If they don't have management skills, people's lives are at risk. But I don't have much to offer the intrepid explorer crowd, unfortunately.

I absolutely adore some of the people I am complaining about. I'd walk twenty miles on hot coals if it suited Ray P's purposes. Still, both I and the world would be better off if there were more totally mundane information management skills around groups like his. The idea that EndNote or Papers is some great breakthrough in information management is indeed as laughable as Acronzy suggests.

There really is no market for organizing professors.

Irene and I tried to find a niche doing that once. We helped quite a few professors, especially at UW-Madison, but though we were locally famous, getting paid was still a monumental hassle. The universities and grant agencies have no line items for outsourced managerial services, and more than one researcher ended up paying us out of pocket. Our LLC is still an established vendor of consulting services to academics at UW-Madison, but my two academic employers since then have treated my time, including consulting to academic institutions, as irrelevant.

The need is so profound it isn't perceived at all. When I was a consultant I noted that people who had no interest in management were as bad as customers as people who specialized in management; the latter didn't need the services but the former couldn't even perceive their absence. There are managerial structures in universities focused on money, but almost no managerial attention is focused directly on research productivity.

So I am in a frustrating bind, that having lived in such a way as to gain skills that could be of considerable value in a research institution, I have no publication record so I have no obvious way of getting into a position to put them to use.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Anything that can not be sustained eventually stops. Given that our whole way of living is unsustainable, the next question is "when?" The exponential growth of human impact on the planet will eventually cease, and the curve will take some other shape. When will the growth curve break?

(Modest clarification for the mathematically inclined: We do not know what shape the curve will take when the exponential stops growing, but it will be something other than exponential growth. After the point of inflection, the long term average of human impact on earth necessarily must stabilize or decline, possibly with superimposed wobbles and swings of various shapes. At some point in the persistent growth, human impact reaches or exceeds the long term sustainable average. Necessarily something else happens. Now we have to decide what. Arguably that point has been reached, and indeed that is what I believe.)

So, when? To be more specific, is it now? It seems to me that the present economic event is already big enough that it is likely to appear to the eye of the historian of future generations as a notable event. It may well look like the first major disruption of the impact curve rather than just a big glitch that is superimposed on that curve.

If so, if the great inflection is now, it is a drastic mistake to confuse the inflection with a recession. In a recession we should arguably go on doing what we've been doing in the past, and somehow we'll wander out of it. But if this is the inflection, what happens in the future depends sensitively on how we react to it. It is necessary to accept that impact has peaked or soon will peak, not just in greenhouse gases, but altogether.

It is not impossible that clever enough contrivances may decouple "money" from "impact". What I mean by this is that we somehow change our incentive systems so that people enhancing sustainability profit and those detracting from it pay.

To be sure, there are gestures in this direction, but systematically the incentives are almost universally perverse. There are good historical reasons for the perverse incentives and it will be a very delicate matter to reverse it.

Rewarding sustainability is by far our least disruptive path. Humans don't change easily, and time is short. If we weren't in a hurry, I'd consider changing the culture to something less driven by financial incentives, but given our time constraints that idea will not work. I think the most promising escape route is to play around with incentives so people are rewarded for more benign behaviors and penalized otherwise.

This won't be easy but any alternative I see is much more severe.

Update: Gloomy? Moi? Check this out. H/T Dennis at Samadhisoft.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Wanna see something scary? I discovered this while fishing around yet again for M J Sparrow's impressive http://tinyurl.com/agw-consensus .

Google "global warming consensus". Look past the first couple of listings. Find the next example of something vaguely in tune with reality.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Black Carbon

INECE press release:
Dangerous Sea Level Rise Imminent Without Large Reductions of Black Carbon and Implementation of Other Fast-Action Mitigation Strategies

Poznan Panel of Experts Discuss Importance of Black Carbon, the Montreal Protocol, Biochar, and Methane as Part of Global Climate Strategy

Poznan, Poland, December 11, 2008 – The world is already close to passing the tipping points for abrupt climate change events, and if strong measures aren't taken immediately the results will be catastrophic, concluded panelists during a side event at the UN climate conference in Poznan Tuesday night. Both scientific experts and government representatives alike at the event sponsored by the Federated States of Micronesia and Sweden, stressed the urgent need for fast-action mitigation measures that should be implemented and expanded immediately in order to avoid devastating consequences such as sea level rise.

Dr. Hermann Held of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research pointed out that land ice melt is being vastly underestimated, and that non-linear abrupt climate change is not being taken into account as it should be by the climate convention. The world is already committed to an astounding 2.4 degrees of warming, due in part to the warming effects of black carbon – a substance that is now considered the second-greatest contributor to climate change after CO2 – which are being "unmasked" by reductions of SO2, which produces a cooling effect.

"As we continue to reduce sulfur emissions around the world for health reasons, we are unmasking additional warming that is bringing us closer and closer to tipping points like the meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet," said Dr. Held. "In order to avoid a large jump in temperature and in turn avoid the devastating effects of sea level rise, we need to act quickly to reduce black carbon emissions in coordination with sulfur."

"Black carbon is extremely bad news because it contributes to climate change in two ways: it absorbs heat from above and contributes to warming, but then as it falls on snow and ice it darkens the ground and reduces the albedo, or reflective ability," said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. "As a major contributor to snow and ice melt, this is especially troublesome for places such as the Tibetan Plateau, which is a critical tipping point. If this ice mass disintegrates, millions of people will lose their drinking water and irrigation for agriculture, leading to famine and possible national security threats over natural resources."

Zaelke emphasized that although the current situation is dire, using these fast-action measures can still save the world from passing the tipping points. As the world's best environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol was brought into the discussion because of its track record of mitigating climate emissions by 135 billion tonnes of CO2-eq (many times more than the Kyoto Protocol) and effectively delaying climate change by up to 12 years. With its continued success in regulating ozone-depleting substances for both ozone and climate benefits, the Montreal Protocol can serve as an important model for climate.

"Since the creation of the Montreal Protocol, the Parties have been conscious of the potential effects of these ozone-depleting substances on climate, but now they have openly accepted their responsibility to protect climate, with the historic agreement to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs in September 2007 and again this year with the decision to address the dangerous ozone chemicals from old equipment which are also very damaging to climate," said Marco González, Executive Secretary of the Montreal Protocol Ozone Secretariat. "So far, we see more potential for the Montreal Protocol to benefit both ozone and climate, and we must continue to strengthen it."

This sentiment was echoed by Husamuddin Ahmadzai from Sweden in his statement to the audience: "Among the opportunities for cooperative action now, measures to strengthen the Montreal Protocol can provide significant climate mitigation to help avoid tipping points. This is supported by the world's major economies who, in July 2008, through the Declaration of Leaders Meeting of Major Economies on Energy Security and Climate Change, pledged:

'We, the leaders of … the world's major economies … recognizing the need for urgent action … commit to taking the actions in paragraph 10 without delay. … To enable the full, effective, and sustained implementation of the [UNFCCC] between now and 2012, we will: … promote actions under the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer for the benefit of the global climate system.'" An agreement to hold a workshop next year on possible collaboration between the Montreal Protocol and the UNFCCC in regulating potent HFC greenhouse gases, is a positive step, and another way to maximize the potential of the ozone treaty to protect climate.

Andrew Yatilman, Head of Delegation for the Federated States of Micronesia, expressed his support for using means under both treaties to address the climate crisis and reduce the serious threat of sea level rise to island nations: "The Federated States of Micronesia takes the Montreal Protocol and the UNFCCC very seriously because we understand that the future of our small islands and the lives of our people depend on the success of these two treaties. We urgently need to find the political will necessary to move these fast-action strategies forward." Micronesia submitted a proposal last week in Poznan regarding Paragraph 1 of the Bali Action Plan, in order to stress the importance of fast-action climate mitigation measures in the face of tipping points and abrupt climate change.

"One clear way to move the climate negotiations forward is to focus some attention on trust and confidence building through concrete actions and decisions during this COP and this year," said Ana Maria Kleymeyer from Argentina. "Parties need to believe that they will be able to carry through on their agreements, for which financial and technological assistance are the keys. Under the Montreal Protocol, developing countries have consistently been able to achieve all goals because the Multilateral Fund and its supporting institutional and capacity building support were firmly in place to help deliver results. We can, with similar instruments, build that foundation of trust within the climate convention in order to move forward."

Another key piece of the fast-action strategy is an emerging technology called biochar, which refers to a charcoal-like substance sustainably produced from biomass, that has the ability to permanently sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in soil.

"Biochar is one of the most promising carbon-negative technologies available," said Peter Read from Massey University Centre for Energy Research in New Zealand. "We need these technologies because reducing emissions (even to zero in 25 years, which is not a realistic possibility) cannot avert the threat of climatic catastrophe with unacceptable consequences for Micronesia as well as many populous river deltas around the world. While it is important to cap emissions, there is no question that we need an additional strategy for taking carbon out of the air and putting it somewhere safer – biochar has incredible potential to do this, along with a great deal of good in raising soil fertility and enabling sustainable rural development. It should be seriously considered by the climate convention." The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has already submitted a proposal to include biochar under the UNFCCC.

Although methane's contribution to climate change is not a new issue, recent increases in temperature could drive up methane emissions significantly. Importantly, like black carbon, methane is a short-lived climate forcer, making its reductions an ideal way to benefit climate in the near-term, while at the same time improving air quality and reducing mortality rates.

"Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and currently accounts for 18 percent of radiative forcing," said Ashley King, Co-Director of the Methane to Markets Partnership Secretariat. "Reducing methane emissions from anthropogenic sources, which are estimated to increase 23 percent by 2020, is an important tactic for avoiding serious abrupt climate change events."

The key message from the panel was summed up by Durwood Zaelke: "Several years ago, we thought that abrupt climate change events were something for future generations to worry about. True, the effects of passing the tipping points will continue to worsen as time passes without serious action. Unfortunately, we have to face the fact that increased emissions from dangerous substances like black carbon are exacerbating the climate situation and leaving us very little time to react. Taking quick action that will immediately benefit climate, is quite simply our only near-term option."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Taking

There's an interesting exchange at an interesting article in Environmental Economics. The article advocates cap-and-trade along with market creativity. (Pessimists argue that the market isn't all that creative, and that the wealth of the past century has been more about expending seed capital than about actual expansion in human per capita wealth. I don't entirely buy it, though there's certainly a case that it has been that way of late; see Fig 4 here.)

Anyway. There's an above-average exchange on the old "takings" question in the comments on the E-E article between "LVTFan" and "Hydra". The former suggests that land values in previously unpalatable places are the result of public investment, and the public rather than private investors should be capturing the increase in value. The latter argues that doing so retroactively is unfair, raising the old property rights problem.

I personally have been the "victim" of a government "taking" just recently. When I bought my house, I inquired about its flood status, and it was not in a flood plain. Due to recent FEMA reanalysis, I have been demoted to the 100-year floodplain, even though the property across the street, barely a foot higher it seems to me, is still outside the 500 year flood plain. I am obligated to buy flood insurance, and report this when I sell my home; two very substantial financial hits. I don't know whether the old or the new FEMA evaluation is the sound one; it's a strange gully behind the house, emerging from a highway interchange with no visible source upstream.

Now, I think the coal companies should not be allowed to sell their product without sequestration, and it's up to them to make that work. I think houses discovered to be in a flood plain should be required to be insured, too. However, changes like that are very disruptive. I am taking enough financial hits about now along with everybody else to have to put up with this totally random hit.

There is no question that policies need adjustment, and there is no question that such adjustment inconveniences people in what feels to be a random and capricious way. Being a liberal, I am willing to take this relatively in stride (though if anyone can tell me how to check FEMA's actual results I'd be grateful) but I can see how something like this would cause some people who run on tighter margins to become absolutely beside themselves. Changes like this should be softened by the public sector, but nowadays we seem to be too busy nationalizing the financial and automotive sectors to compensate individuals inconvenienced by factors beyond their individual control.

Unsurprisingly people are less opposed to capricious bailouts than to capricious liabilities. (Even though you could argue that public ownership of General Motors pretty much amounts to a capricious tax on all other industries.) On the whole, though, it would be best if there were some sort of meta-policy so people would understand how much invisible risk they actually carry.

On the other hand, the "takings" philosophy is nuts. The commons is held in common. Without air or water your property is worthless. Real estate confers some complex set of socially determined rights; your home may be your castle but it isn't a separate planet.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Celebrate the end of the Rat Race

Via Wikipedia:
Linus Torvalds himself also describes a notion as Linus's Law in the prologue to the book The Hacker Ethic: "Linus's Law says that all of our motivations fall into three basic categories. More important, progress is about going through those very same things as 'phases' in a process of evolution, a matter of passing from one category to the next. The categories, in order, are 'survival', 'social life', and 'entertainment'."
So stop worrying. Kick back. Set a spell. This is progress.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not getting it

In a fine example of not understanding radically changed new circumstances, French economists have managed to convince the Sarkozy administration to subsidize purchases of new automobiles, to "stimulate" the "economy".


Economists will try anything to put Humpty together again, and who knows, maybe they will have succeed for a little while, but we had better start thinking about a what a post-Humpty economy looks like instead.


Radical Novelties

Slashdot is featuring the twentieth anniversary of renowned UT computer science professor Edsger Dijkstra's essay "On the cruelty of really teaching computer science". It happens I believe Dijkstra's central point in the essay is bit ill-conceived (he misses the connection between testing and proof) but that needn't concern us here. The first six pages of his painstakingly handwritten essay (quotations painstakingly typed in by me) are of interest to sustainability questions as well:
The usual way in which we plan today for tomorrow is in yesterday's vocabulary. We do so, because we try to get away with the concepts that we are familiar with and that have acquired their meaning in our past experience. ... It is the most common way of trying to cope with novelty: by means of metaphors and analogies we try to link the new to the old, the novel to the familiar. Under sufficiently slow and gradual change it works reasonably well; in the case of a sharp discontinuity, however, the method breaks down: though we try to glorify it with the name "common sense", our past experience is no longer relevant... One must consider one's own past, the experiences collected, and the habits formed in it as an unfortunate accident of history, and one has to approach the radical novelty with a blank mind, consciously refusing to try to link it with the familiar, because the familiar is hopelessly inadequate. ... Coming to grips with a radical novelty amounts to creating and learning a new foreign language that cannot be translated into one's mother tongue.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More on Texas and Evolution in Schools

General interest:

There is information at the Texas Freedom Network

Note especially the survey of Texas scientists.

Local interest:
Asbury United Methodist Church is hosting a free showing of a movie, this Friday night, related to science and the schools.

"Kansas vs. Darwin"
Friday December 5, 2008 7:00-9:00 PM
Asbury Methodist Church Fellowship Hall
Cherrywood & 38 1/2 St. (1605 E. 38 1/2 Street, just east of I-35)

In January, the Texas State Board of Education may make a decision as to
whether "alternatives to evolution" will be taught in Texas public
schools. This movie offers some timely commentary on a very similar
situation in Kansas.

Kansas vs. Darwin <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1098212/>

A documentary about the Kansas Evolution Hearings. Covers the politics
and motivations behind the school board decision to challenge the
teaching of evolution in Kansas public schools. All witnesses brought
in by Intelligent Design Network. Kansas educators and scientists
organize a worldwide boycott of the hearings, which some say confuses
the issues. Participating school board members admit they don't
believe in evolution at the outset and some admit they don't
understand the science presented by the witnesses.

I will be speaker (for only a few minutes), and then discussion leader after the movie.

--John Keohane

Withdraws from Funded Work due to Climate Ethics

Convenient ethics is no ethics. UT astronomy Professor John Lacy chooses the viability of the planet over funded astronomy, choosing a less convenient path in service of the greater good.

I think he's right in this particular case, but it's easy to make such decisions for others.

Should this show go on?

Generally, when should we make omelettes and when should we refrain from breaking any eggs? That is, how should we judge the importance of activities that have other benefits against environmental impacts? Absolutism won't work; a prescription for misery won't get much traction in practice.

Still, it's worth appreciating that there are still people who put the general interest above their own personal advancement. On a related note, check this out:
The question, in effect, is What are we to make of evidence suggesting that material self-interest is a powerful force in people's lives? The thesis of the article is that this evidence is inherently ambiguous because the ideology of self- interest, widely celebrated in individualistic cultures, functions as a powerful self-fulfilling force. The assumption of self-interest contributes to its own confirmation in at least two ways. First, individualistic cultures structure their social institutions to reflect their belief that people are naturally disposed to pursue their self-interest, which results in these institutions fostering the very behavior their structure presupposes occurs naturally ( Lerner, 1982 ; Schwartz, 1997 ). Second, as argued here, individualistic cultures spawn social norms that induce people to follow their material self-interest rather than their principles or passions, whether the latter be noble or ignoble. Stated more boldly, people act and sound as though they are strongly motivated by their material self-interest because scientific theories and collective representations derived from those theories convince them that it is natural and normal to do so. As Kagan (1989 ) observed, "People treat self-interest as a natural law and because they believe they should not violate a natural law, they try to obey it".

Evidence that material self-interest is powerful, therefore, may speak more to the power of social norms than to the power of innate proclivities. Interpreting the presence of self-interested behavior to suggest that self-interest is inevitable and universal rather than historically and culturally contingent only serves to strengthen the layperson's belief that pursuing self-interest is normatively appropriate, rational, and enlightened. The result of this is a positive feedback loop: The more powerful the norm of self- interest, the more evidence there is for the theory of self- interest, which, in turn, increases the power of the self-interest norm ( Schwartz, 1997 ). None of this is to say that self-interest, even narrowly defined, is an insubstantial force in human affairs. But, however strong the disposition to pursue material self- interest may be, it is likely not as strong as the prevalence of self-interested behavior in everyday life suggests. Homo economicus, it should not be forgotten, inhabits a social world.
This is why it appears bizarre and even rude for me to call into question, in the title of my blog, that I might be operating from some other values in addition to pure self interest. It seems that altruism is something best performed privately and in secrecy. It's simply been out of fashion of late.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Shale energy and water constraints in Colorado

The Colorado Independent asserts:
The Bush administration and the Bureau of Land Management are pushing relentlessly ahead with plans to fast-track Colorado’s long-dormant oil shale industry, but a study released this fall exposes one factor that could put a big damper on the boom: a serious lack of water.

The report, prepared for key government and private water stakeholders in the area, says that northwest Colorado rivers can supply enough water to meet the growing demands of the natural gas, coal and uranium industries, but unproven oil shale production technology would “require tremendous amounts of water” that might not be available.


“In a nutshell, the energy industry in Colorado will need a lot of water, but it’s manageable — with the exception of the speculative oil shale part of the equation,” said water consultant Caroline Bradford, the former director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, an organization devoted to preserving that tributary of the Colorado.

If true this is disappointing but not surprising. According to several sources I've seen, the Bush Administration seems to be pushing for a lot of environmentally doubtful intiatives in its waning days.

Regardless of the political machinations, this particular water/energy tangle is a good example of how everything is One Big Problem nowadays. Nice to see Andy Revkin catching on to how everything is all tangled up.