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Key points:

  • Simply reducing emissions is not enough; “if you’ve dug yourself into a hole, you don’t just stop digging, you need a ladder”. I.e. we need to reduce greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere and/or reduce global temperature.
  • Waiting for the biosphere to reabsorb the carbon liberated over the past centuries is a matter of further centuries. We need to take counteraction to break the positive feedback loop we are already seeing.
  • Two proposed fixes: dumping crop waste to the ocean floor rather than letting it biodegrade and release carbon back into the stratosphere; and releasing aerosolised sulfur into the atmosphere, initially above the Arctic for testing purposes, in order to reflect solar energy back into space.

Greg Benford is a very smart guy, and I was impressed by his presentation and the ingenuity and efficiency of the two key ameliorative techniques he presented. Many of my reservations were addressed. (Doesn’t dumping crop waste sequester elements other than carbon? Turns out that the particular waste types he’s proposing dumping, particularly corn stalks, don’t have much else in their composition. Doesn’t transporting the waste create more emissions? Not if you use river transport, which efficiently lets gravity do most of the work. Won’t there be effects on seabed biospheres? They’re studying it but it looks like there is little long-term harm. Doesn’t pumping sulfur into the atmosphere increase the risk of toxic/acid rain? Yes, and over decades the pH of the ocean will change, but there are other measures to counteract that… and the breathing space we get will enable us to concentrate on finding other tech to fix the core problem.)

However there are still a hell of a lot of questions there was no time to ask. How much will stratospheric sulfur precipitate, and what effect will that have on ice melt rates? (Is it like salt, which accelerates melting? That would be my assumption.) Are the metal frames which held the bales of sequestered crop waste in the study necessary every time? If not, does their absence change anything?

He was also far, far too acquiescent in the existing economic models that are precisely to blame for the problem. He kept talking about what is “affordable”; one of the key jobs for scientists, in my view, is to debunk the economic models that hold that minerals in the ground and – particularly – trees in a forest have no economic value until they are ripped out and injected into the human production chain. It’s the same mentality that makes a heart attack a hundred-thousand dollar boost to the economy – all that surgery, medication and equipment, isn’t it awesome how much money has to be found! The way to get the infrastructure we need to fix the problem is to ensure that the costs of inaction are accurately included. It isn’t that long ago that economists were seriously, unironically writing that they couldn’t see how a global temperature rise of even several degrees would have any major effect on industry, other than maybe increasing aircon bills in factories a bit, and agriculture would just have to shift specialities to the new climatic realities for their regions, but that wasn’t a big deal, people change crops all the time. Trying to muster resources to deal with the new realities in such a twisted framework is unnecessarily hard work, if it’s possible at all.

I’m also sick of the internal jockeying for who gets to be the heroes in this. Yes, engineering solutions will be indispensible to dealing with the problem. So will political and economic reform to reduce energy waste and excess emissions; there is no way around that either. As I think I mentioned in a post yesterday, greenies are usually pretty OK with technology having some part in dealing with the problem, though they do exhibit a certain wariness about further large-scale interventions. But given the history of humanity’s dealings with the environment, that’s kind of understandable, and unless confronted with absolute intransigence, I regard that as proper scientific scepticism. I’ve yet to see the equivalent of the claims I’ve seen here, that it’s “an engineering problem” (with overtones of that being the only significant part of the problem). I’m not saying that kind of crap never happens – I’m not exactly a central figure in these debates so I’m sure I’ve missed that sort of stuff – but either way it’s not like we can afford to be neglecting any avenue of attack on a problem of this scale and complexity. That means we need mutual encouragement and support, and joint action against the human systems that caused and sustain the problem, not territorial pissing contests. (Excuse the fused metaphor but I think the blend is not inappropriate… aside from the urinary element.)

OK, got to get to bed for tomorrow’s sessions, but the thing that struck me from this session was that there are a lot of false divisions that need to be overcome.

There was one bloke – didn’t catch his name, but he was coming from the science end, and talked about the influence of science fiction on encouraging people into careers in the sciences – who basically slagged off “greenies” and accused them of being incredibly selfish people who thought hugging trees would make everything OK and who ignored science. I have never once met someone who seriously advocated hugging a tree, and I know rather a lot of greenies, all of whom got interested in the topic precisely because of the science. I know there are people out there who match the stereotype, but it’s completely irrelevant and kind of destructive. I suspect it comes from the opposition to things like genetic engineering of food crops; but everyone I know who opposes it does so on historically-informed scientific grounds, by which I mean that they are conscious of how radical human intervention in complex systems can completely derail them – has done so in the past, for instance the ways the Green Revolution of the 70s has directly contributed to degradation of crop soil – and so they are not gung-ho optimistic about how right it’ll all be.

Another example was the tension between human rights and the pressing need for sweeping changes in human systems; reconciling the need to re-engineer our lifestyles with people’s freedoms is a toughie. But in fact the tension isn’t an opposition; human rights violations will only increase as environmental change takes place and competition over resources grows, while ignoring human rights while creating change will only lead to conflict that will slow change at best and (if it grows violent) lead to tremendous destruction.

Another union of contrasts is the solution: science and literature. As pointed out in the session, both require imagination, exploration and publication; and they offer a chance to show how the world might work in sustainable ways. I actually think we need to go beyond that, to try to imagine new forms of heroism and new kinds of solution. Too often heroism is defined as the quality of a particular individual or small group of individuals, whereas what we require here is co-operation on a truly epic scale, of the kind that won World Wars. And the solution here is not only new technologies, but the wisdom to accept voluntary austerities and restraints before they become scarcity and constraint; in other words, not the single stroke that saves the world, but the steadfast, ongoing will to hold ourselves within limits set by reason rather than blindly bloating out to the boundaries of a capacity we know extends well into self-destruction.

It’s possible. It just needs to be imagined loudly enough.

…is becoming one of the central themes of my economic thought.

In my previous post I argued that what we’re calling economic “growth” is largely not maturation or development, but mostly bloat.

For years now, I’ve been calling 4WDs (SUVs, to Americans) “bloatmobiles”, for their ridiculous carbon footprint, the way their puffed-up shapes block the sightlines whether moving or parked, the increased risk of death and injury they pose both to their own passengers and (by a factor of about 5) to other road users, the absurd tax subsidies they get to their price because of the fiction that they’re “trucks” and therefore automatically work vehicles, and the deliberate marketing of overinflated ego that has been used to sell them. I never minded them when the only people using them actually needed them…

I digress. I may even rant. My point:

Bloat is unhealthy expansion. Its applicability to a huge number of aspects of modern life, especially the economic/environmental, is obvious. Spread the meme.

[As seen on graffiti alongside the light rail.]

…Actually, although I agree with the underlying sentiment, no.

Growth is ideally supposed to be an approximation of the prosperity of a nation. And prosperity can continually increase, as technology improves. What’s finite is the raw materials and the capacity of the biosphere (us included) to survive the byproducts (and sometimes products) we’re creating. If we were completely recycling everything we created, including neutralising harmful compounds and reintegrating them back into our production cycles, there is no reason we couldn’t continue to grow indefinitely.

What we can’t continue to do indefinitely is expand our environmental footprint. Or, if you prefer, bloat. The word “growth”, with its connotations of maturation and health, is too important to surrender to the econocrats. (Mind you, it has also come to have connotations of cancer… so, you know, it’s not a single-edged sword either way.)

This all suggests an interesting idea – that when calculating growth, extraction of raw materials should actually be deducted from the total. To the extent that we’ve had to increase our demand and throw things away, we haven’t improved our capacity to use the resources available, we’ve just cheated and used more resources. If we’re measuring growth in economic efficiency, our impact on the natural world should surely decline.

More simply: a rising tide only lifts all boats because water is near impossible to pile up. Water finds its own level, quickly and nearly irresistibly. Money… not so much.

So a society’s prosperity is a function of amount, distribution and fluidity of money relative to need. Volume by itself tells us nothing.

I don’t know why, but this phrase (and concept) appears to have almost completely vanished from public conversations about economics. Of course, public conversations about economics are not exactly thick on the ground; but it wasn’t that long ago that the question of who owned how much of the world was actually of interest to the wider community.

I’m not a socialist, or a communist. Equal distribution of wealth is impossible, and undesirable in any case. But wealth does unquestionably equal power, and excessive concentration of power is undesirable too – but not impossible. (In fact, through a process of natural selection, power in any form will tend to act in ways which aggregate more power; which is to say that people with disposable wealth will tend to spend their money in ways which get them more money back, and the richer you are the larger the range of options you have, and/or the more of those options you can use. Additionally, the more power you have, the more likely you can influence the writing of the rules in your favour. The only way to combat this is to actively work against excessive accumulation of wealth, whether by periodically changing the rules by which large fortunes can be amassed and kept, actively redistributing it, or whatever.)

The thing is, the concentration of wealth is not only bad for the vast majority of us who are being squeezed out of prosperity. An egalitarian economy, which still has rich and poor in relative terms, but which ensures that that “vast majority” is doing well enough that we have disposable time and income, is the essential foundation for the kinds of extraordinary explosions of innovation which we’ve seen in the past half-century.

This is for four reasons. First, mass opportunity is essential to generating a large mass of innovative thinkers. It’s a numbers game: if 10% of the population would innovate given the chance, but only 5% have the wealth and spare time to try out their ideas, then you are looking at only getting somewhere between 1/20 and 1/2 the possible innovations, depending on how many more innovators there are per capita in the rich 5% than the societal average.

Second, even if you have the bright ideas, economies of scale indicate that many fewer innovations are financially viable without a mass market to sell into.

Third, where the general community is impoverished, ambient conditions deteriorate even for the wealthy. The people on the street are unhappier, sicker and probably smellier and less attractive. While this is obviously far more of a problem for the poor than it is for the rich, my point is that even the most self-centred rich bastard ends up worse off in a society where most people are not prosperous.

Fourth, and relatedly, as wealth levels diverge, more money has to be diverted from actively improving life (i.e. innovating) into protecting wealth and the wealthy from poor people who (wrongly or otherwise) calculate that the quickest way to get wealth is to take it from those who do. This may not simply be laziness or greed; where the future – or life – of the self or a loved one is on the line in any time-critical way, which is also far more likely in a mostly-impoverished society, the incentives for criminal behaviour rise; and where the victim is drastically better off than the criminal, internal sympathetic restraints (“I wouldn’t like it to be done to me”) are easier to rationalise away with “it’s only property crime, and their need is less than mine”.

There’s also the fact that concentration of wealth, if the trend continues, will ultimately only benefit the super-rich. After all, if the apparatus for extorting wealth out of the moderately prosperous stops working because they aren’t any more, the slightly-more-prosperous will be mined next.

So: if you’re rich, you need to think about whether you’re best served by the continuing trend towards concentration of wealth and power, and possibly entertain the idea that redistribution of wealth – or rules that ensure that wealth is shared equally in the first place, rather than being hoarded for the people who steer the large masses of money we call corporations – is good for you too.

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