Post-Growth Progress

I have never really expressed the core problem that well, despite having thoroughly convinced myself of it.

And to be honest, I’ve always preferred stellar, gonzo, Taibbi – Sterling – Tom Wolfe – Andrew Sullivan – type nonfiction writing to the careful, prosaic and accessible. But some ideas are important enough that they need to be expressed in the simplest possible terms. Lester Brown is not in the gonzo category at all. Here is how he explains the cruel hoax:

Today, China consumes more basic resources than the United States does.

Among the key commodities such as grain, meat, oil, coal, and steel, China consumes more of each than the United States, except for oil, where the United States still has a wide (though narrowing) lead. China uses a third more grain than the United States. Its meat consumption is nearly double that of the United States. It uses there times as much steel.

These umbers reflect national consumption, but what would happen if consumption per person in China were to catch up to that of the UNited States? If we assume that China’s economy slows from the 10 per cent annual growth of recent years to 8 per cent, then in 2030 CHina’s 1.46 billion people will need twice as much paper as is produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.

If we assume that in 2030 there are three cars for every four people in China as there now are in the United States, China will have 1.1 billion cars. The world currently has 860 million cars. …

By 2030 China would need 98 billion barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 85 million barrels a day and may never produce much more than that. There go the world’s oil reserves.

What China is teaching us is that the western economic model – the fossil fuel based automobile-centered throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China it will not work for India, which by 2030 may have an even larger population than China. Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the “American dream”. And in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil, and steel, the western economic model will no longer work for the industrial countries either.

The overriding challenge for our generation is to build a new economy – one that is powered largely by renewable resources of energy, that has a more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. We have the technology to build this new economy, an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress. Can we build it fast enough to avoid a breakdown of social systems?

Well, I question “an economy that will allow us to sustain economic progress”, actually. What does that mean? If it means “growth” in dollar value without inflation, it’s sort of inconceivable. Although socialism is notoriously hard to get right, parks are in principle better and cheaper than lawns (ask the French), trains are in principle better and cheaper than cars, and in a growth economy BETTER AND CHEAPER IS WORSE. That’s why, although socialism is notoriously hard to get right, lots of people still pitch in to make it even harder.

But it doesn’t matter. I’d rather you blame Bush than Obama for the sheer abruptness and disarray of the thing, but in the end it was coming, and every president since Carter gets a slice of the blame, along with most other world leaders. The growth thing has to end, and as the Club of Rome figured out, that would happen sometime in the first half of the 21st century. So we’re a little early; that may actually help make it look more like a fizzle than a crash.

But we can’t fizzle indefinitely. At some point, we take sustainability seriously or we fail to sustain. One way or the other we reach the zero-sum world. Oil I burn is oil you don’t get to burn. Carbon I emit is carbon you don’t get to emit. Fish I eat, water I drink, fertilizer that I cause to be consumed… you get the picture.

One of the numerous disasters we have to look out for is a world where cynical colonialism re-emerges; where some countries prosper explicitly at the expense of all the others. This may be obviously unethical put in such raw terms, but we are seeing anew how populations can be riled up to hate and blame each other.

But we can’t just put up a world of constraints as an alternative. We need to repair the gap between inventiveness and sustainability. We need to drop the cultural caricatures and explore less consumption-crazed ways of valuing our lives and competing with each other. We need to revive the notion of progress.

“Economic progress”? If that means “full employment” or “recovery” or “growth” or ever increasing “wealth”, no. We have reached peak wealth. Half our economic activity cheapens and trashes the world. We need to lose that half, and preserve as much of what we’ve got as we can.

(Thanks to Marc Roberts yet again, with a hat tip to Hank in the comments.)

So, like Bruce says, let’s have a positive vision of the future, because we really have no choice.

We have to continue to offer excellent rewards for creativity and productivity, to encourage the best possible thinking from the best minds. But we can no longer punish unemployment. Many of our “jobs” are not helping. There is plenty to go around, but in our mad rush for growth we are damaging it, not preserving it.

Progress is progress toward a world where work is optional, where we can retire modestly but safely at 35 after a few years of grunt work, where we get to learn to play the fiddle, where we are not driven by hostility and jealousy, where we have time to take the slow boat to China, where perpetual student is not an embarassing career.

No? And, exactly, why the hell not?

Cheering me up

It appears Tom did not intend to cheer me up in the first place. Alas!

It’s just as well. You cannot cheer me up by a vision of the future that is boring. Whatever the future is, it is not boring.

The sort of thing you should say to cheer me up is something like this:

Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities, neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just “sustainable,” but enhances the world. The natural world should be better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It’s not too much to ask.

You and I will never live to see a future world with those advanced characteristics. The people who will be living in it will pretty much take it for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision for today’s technologists: because that is wise governance for a digitally conquered world. That is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.

Without vision, the people perish. So we need our shimmering, prizes, goals to motivate ourselves, but the life is never in the prize. The living part, the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those dark cliffs looming ahead — that is the height of your achievement.

We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

Bruce Sterling

Fuller tries to cheer me up

One thing I’ve learned about my writing recently is that I have a tendency to insert throwaway lines that distract from my point. Consider Yulsman getting all upset about the Forbes piece because of a throwaway line at the end. Consider the trouble I got into with my contribution to the Edge question. And it happened again in my most recent piece. That one, you’ll recall, was about the disconnect in Andy Revkin’s mind about the seriousness of our problems and the lack of seriousness in his recommended response. But I closed with a grunt of despair which seems to have distracted lots of people:

The evidence is piling up that our circumstances are beyond our cognitive or managerial abilities. I’m more scared of that than of hundred degree oceans right now. I think at the present rate we will not manage to maintain what we are pleased to call civilization long enough to get to 5xCO2. I suppose you could say that may be more good news than bad news; at least a few vertebrates will straggle through.

Should I have said that? I mean, it was a difficult piece to pull together to begin with. Any sane editor would have told me to tighten it up. That the best writing in the thing was so off topic didn’t help. (Of course, pessimism is where written language most readily shines! Oop! Forget I said that!) And sure enough, Keith jumped on me for it.

So I followed up thus:

As Grypo pointed out, that wasn’t really the main point of the article. I have a bad habit of distracting from my main point with excessive but tangential rhetorical flourishes. I’ll have to watch that.

Still it’s true, I did say it. So let’s discuss it.

Keith, do you really think the world is handling its challenges well? Do you see any immediate prospect of improvement?

First of all, food production is practiced as an extractive industry, dependent on depleting aquifers, petroleum and natural gas. That’s unsustainable by definition. Secondly, resource allocation is inequitable, we are running out resources, and the implicit promise of universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham about now. Thirdly, despite the fact that our economies are grossly overheated, the idiot bankers have gotten us in a situation where if we don’t resume growth our whole organizational pattern will collapse. Fourthly, after some decades of improvement, the momentum has resumed toward xenophobia, isolationism, and ethnic blame. In particular, Christianity and Islam are about as friendly now as they were during the crusades. Fifth, the cheap petroleum is running out and the next cheapest replacements double the carbon burden of the atmosphere and oceans, which leads us to sixth, the atmosphere and oceans are already about as full of carbon as we can reasonably risk. Seventh, in the middle of all this nobody gives a rat’s behind about nuclear proliferation which we all used to lose a lot of sleep about. Eighth, the world’s major power is controlled by obstructionist elements and is redeveloping a fascist streak that had been in remission. The fact that Africa is dying of AIDS and hunger, and that species extinction is accelerating, now seem to disturb nobody’s sleep anymore amid all this. Did I miss any?

The good news? Well, Twitter is pretty cool. So is my iPhone; so are movies on demand which after decades of promises have finally arrived. But somehow I don’t think that sort of thing is enough.

I mean, please. It’s one thing to mock my worry; it’s another to explain what’s wrong with it. By all means, cheer me up. What did I miss?

And who should rise to the challenge but Tom Fuller, who wrote a remarkable quantity of stuff between 4:15 and 5:29 yesterday in response. I make it out to be about 1900 words in barely an hour. Even those of you unimpressed with his writing have to give the fellow credit for one thing. He sure can type!

Anyway, an effort like that deserves some sort of answer. My original claims will be in blue. Tom Fuller, for purposes of this article, will be responding in red. And I’ll redouble in black.


First of all, food production is practiced as an extractive industry, dependent on depleting aquifers, petroleum and natural gas. That’s unsustainable by definition.

Tobis, could you please be more specific? The UK government, not known for its skeptical bent, talks about a number of environmental successes here: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Environmentandgreenerliving/Thewiderenvironment/Lookingafternature/DG_064406

Let’s address your comment #5 one item at a time.

“First of all, food production is practiced as an extractive industry, dependent on depleting aquifers, petroleum and natural gas. That’s unsustainable by definition.”

I refer you to this site: http://wsu.academia.edu/JudeCapper/Papers/116659/Demystifying_the_Environmental_Sustainability_of_Food_Production

Actual beef yield per animal has increased from 266 kg per animal in 1975 to 351 kg in 2007. Milk production per cow has increased 443% since 1945. “The environmental mitigation effect from increased productivity is a function of either output per animal or the time taken to produce the product.” Both have increased dramatically in modern times, reducing the ‘industrial’ drain on resources ranging from land and water to sewage treatment.

The intensive agricultural practices you bemoan actually reduce emissions (primarily, but not solely, because they require less land/less deforestation).

Intensive agriculture (using an ‘industrial’ model that maximizes output and pays attention to inputs) also is better for the climate than dependency on locally grown foods. It often reduces ‘food miles’ outright, but even when it doesn’t, other efficiencies more than compensate.

Tom starts off with an actual reference. Two really.

His first addresses”environmental” progress in the UK, which doesn’t map onto my concerns at all. He may have missed my intervening comment in the same Kloor thread:

I think the environmentalist perspective and the sustainability perspective are different. Environmentalism is about ecology, watersheds, preservation of local systems. Sustainability is about a whole earth perspective, deep time, and demographics. Mondo addresses the first set of issues in a well-trodden but not entirely unconvincing way, though one could argue that the connection between prosperity and environmental protection is not entirely cast in stone.

I am raising the second category, where my thoughts have always been since I was a young science fiction reader. It turns out that now that they are realistic and increasingly urgent, we simply do not have ways of weighing these problems and addressing them. This is not surprising, because they are new. What is surprising is how badly we are doing at rising to the occasion.

His second attempts to prove the sustainability of agriculture with an article supporting feedlot beef over pastured beef because its immense impact is claimed to be smaller insofar as greenhouse gases are concerned. (Even so I was stunned to see that a gallon of milk is the greenhouse equivalent of more than a gallon of gasoline!) I had some other concerns with that paper but it’s all perfectly moot. Much of the rest of the thread shows that Fuller is confused about agricultural sustainability. So his first point is a whiff.

Secondly, resource allocation is inequitable, we are running out resources, and the implicit promise of universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham about now.

Again, in comment 5 you write, “Secondly, resource allocation is inequitable, we are running out resources, and the implicit promise of universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham about now.”

Are resources allocated equitably? Some are, some are not. ‘It rains equally on the just and the unjust,’ but the sun shines more in some places than others. I doubt if you are advocating the redistribution of natural resources, however, other than by commerce, which even someone like you must realize is beneficial to the poor and disadvantaged.

How about ‘unnatural’ resources (manmade)? I suppose you would argue that Nike shoe factories in South Asia are exploitative rather than beneficial–overall I would disagree. But certainly the trend of pillaging commodity resources and leaving nothing behind for the inhabitants has reversed, even if that sometimes proves a curse for the country involved. We pay Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for oil, and China pays Indonesia for the hard wood it shouldn’t be buying. But unnatural resources (which could also be called the ‘value added’ portion) flow in great quantity from the developed world to the developing part–from intellectual property bought or stolen to pharmaceuticals, with a lot in between.

Whether these resources are allocated fairly is not always up to us.

In any case, inequality is decreasing, not increasing, worldwide (even as it increases within many countries, including mine). And this is a miracle of the modern age that we should be celebrating with the popping of many a champagne cork.

If you don’t see that, Tobis, you’re literally living in a cave.

To continue about resources, you write that we are running out of them. I’d love to see some evidence of that–which resources are we running out of?

I can’t imagine you’re referring to fossil fuels, which I think you would cheer the disappearance of. Sadly for you, their demise is probably less imminent than you would prefer, and their replacements already exist.

So what resources are disappearing? Not water–we have plenty, even if we will have to learn how to transport it efficiently in future. Not sunlight. Not land–the population density of this world is effectively less than Afghanistan. Not minerals–the rare metals China is hoarding have just called back into production mines the world over to replace that withdrawn from the market. Not food–half of which rots in the distribution system, and large quantities of which are discarded uneaten after purchase.

Precisely what valuable resources are disappearing?

To finish up on resources, you write that ‘universal development is looking to the less developed world like a sham.’ Do you have any evidence that that is true? Has China or India renounced development, or are they in fact committing more time and more energy and more resources to speed it up? How about Indonesia? Turkey? Mexico? Brazil?

Can you quote people living in those countries saying it’s a sham? Are politicians being turfed out (where that is possible) in favor of medievalists preaching ‘back to the land?’

Or is it possible you are projecting your belief system onto them?

Well, as a champion of Hans Rosling, I’d have to admit that many countries have made material progress. And so I’ll grant Tom a fraction of a point here; I might have acknowledged that.

But some poor countries have little to offer; our response seems to be to let them suffer. The sustainability issue here, of course, is that they are breeding grounds for people who hate us and wish us ill.

As for “running out of resources”, for an environmental reporter to be unable to think of a half dozen instances is a bit shocking. In addition to fuel, there’s potassium phosphorus, rare earths, zinc… Also topsoil, clean water, mangrove swamps, coral reefs…

Thirdly, despite the fact that our economies are grossly overheated, the idiot bankers have gotten us in a situation where if we don’t resume growth our whole organizational pattern will collapse.

From Tobis’ comment 5: “Thirdly, despite the fact that our economies are grossly overheated, the idiot bankers have gotten us in a situation where if we don’t resume growth our whole organizational pattern will collapse.”

Economic growth does vary by country, Tobis. The countries growing most quickly (at or about 10% per annum) are precisely the countries where you worry about resources not being fairly allocated, I believe. This growth is welcomed by almost all, and is a solution, not a problem.

Growth in the developed world is not very resource-intensive, and is occurring in the services sector. It also is welcomed by almost all. But far from being overheated, most of the developed world is struggly to recapture trend growth. Many bankers are idiots, true. I would suspect the percentage is much the same in any industry, however.

Tobis, do you think growth should be stopped? Pious thoughts about Gaia aside, economic growth is not a cancer. It can be stopped–and we have seen occasions where this has occurred. The results have been uniformly disastrous for the people involved, and it has not been kind to the environment either.

Do you have any evidence that the world economic growth (estimated at between 4% and 5% this year) is ‘overheated?’ How do you define that and what do you think the consequences are likely to be?

Most of this is completely nonresponsive.

I think growth as conventionally defined is ending in the most advanced economies, whether we want it or not, though in fact I think it is also necessary to slow it down considerably. Reasons have been discussed on this blog several times. Yes, that’s always turned out badly in the past. So we’d better think pretty hard how to avoid it turning out badly in the future, because infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.

Fourthly, after some decades of improvement, the momentum has resumed toward xenophobia, isolationism, and ethnic blame. In particular, Christianity and Islam are about as friendly now as they were during the crusades.

In the infamous comment 5, Tobis writes again, “Fourthly, after some decades of improvement, the momentum has resumed toward xenophobia, isolationism, and ethnic blame. In particular, Christianity and Islam are about as friendly now as they were during the crusades.”

Political discussion regarding the concept of the ‘Other’ always degenerates in times of economic distress, and this period is no exception. From Jean Marie Le Pen (and now his daughter) to various U.S. Republicans, talk about differences is certainly not improving.

But in terms of actions, what do we see? 3% of the world’s population is immigrant, and 700 million people in their home countries would like to follow suit. Individual acts of violence against the ‘Other’ certainly occur, but they are dwarfed by violence against those of the same ethnicities/religions, etc. The most violent conflicts we see are not Christian vs. Moslem by and large, but Sunni vs. Shiite. And even these are only a pale shadow of past struggles. We just celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. You would (unintentionally, I’m sure) be insulting his memory and the story of his life if you characterized today’s racial environment as anything but a huge improvement over that which he struggled with–and he proclaimed that he would rather live in his era than any preceding one.

Do you know what happened during the Crusades? How can you even compare then and now? You are redefining hyperbole.

Hmmm; a half a point for Tom. Christianity and Islam are not actually at war. It remains a small and vocal minority in both groups that wants that to start up again. But the trends are terrifying.

Fifth, the cheap petroleum is running out and the next cheapest replacements double the carbon burden of the atmosphere and oceans,

Again from comment #5, “Fifth, the cheap petroleum is running out and the next cheapest replacements double the carbon burden of the atmosphere and oceans…”

I’m surprised you complain about this, as I would think you want petroleum to be priced at least high enough to reflect negative externalities. As for the next cheapest replacements, for natural gas that is not even close to true, as it is less emissive intensive than petroleum, and as for coal, it is not twice as emissive, even when burnt inefficiently, and when burnt with today’s technology it performs much better. Nuclear and hydropower are not at all emissive. And I still have hope for the non-emissive solar industry.

Did you think before writing this? Do you really worry about this?

Tom makes some damn thing up about coal which I am pretty sure is not just wrong but clueless, failing to pacify me. Coal to liquids and gas to liquids are worse than liquids by a long shot, and they are coming online. Our infrastructure commitment to liquid fuels is going to be voracious and is already causing immense international tension. And even with all that there seems to be noting in the way of planning to replace the self-powered liquid fuel vehicle as the basic tool of our lives. So yes, I worry about it, and yes, in some ways it helps the greenhouse problem but on balance it might well make matters worse.

sixth, the atmosphere and oceans are already about as full of carbon as we can reasonably risk.

Which brings us to “…which leads us to sixth, the atmosphere and oceans are already about as full of carbon as we can reasonably risk.”

Which, as you might have noticed, is a subject currently being discussed, both here and elsewhere. And which, I hope I can infer, is the reason you subjected all of us to the rest of your lament.

As it happens, I am close to agreement with you on this, depending on what ‘about’ means. As we will not know the answer for at least another 30 years, I think we should take vigorous actions to accelerate measures to reduce that measure, including a tax on carbon and transfer of technology to the developing world. But then, I’m just denialist s__m, so my opinion doesn’t matter.

But failure to accomplish this will not destroy civilization, the environment nor the human race. It will be like Bladerunner, not Waterworld. Pretending othewise is scare tactics–and the first victim is apparently yourself.

If we dawdle long enough, if things break the wrong way, it could well be enough to bring down civilization by itself. Waterworld is silly, of course, but Mad Max? Maybe not so much.

But all of this seems to miss the point of how these problems, when they get big enough, start to interact.

Seventh, in the middle of all this nobody gives a rat’s behind about nuclear proliferation which we all used to lose a lot of sleep about.

Gee, who invented the term ‘Gish Gallop?’ In comment #5, Tobis writes, “Seventh, in the middle of all this nobody gives a rat’s behind about nuclear proliferation which we all used to lose a lot of sleep about.” Umm, did you just notice that we just got a treaty with Russia? That there is a nuclear summit this year and a non-proliferation conference in Tehran this year, of all places? That in 2005, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei introduced a fatwa against the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons? That we have the same cast of characters with nuclear weapons that we did a decade ago?

Tens of thousands of people are working to stop nuclear proliferation, Tobis. They just don’t always make the news.

Well, thousands of people are working on the other problems, too. People don’t work on solved problems. All this work is the opposite of reassuring.

Eighth, the world’s major power is controlled by obstructionist elements and is redeveloping a fascist streak that had been in remission.

And finally, “Eighth, the world’s major power is controlled by obstructionist elements and is redeveloping a fascist streak that had been in remission.

I hope I addressed your concern about China and Africa above.

China? China??? That is funny.

The fact that Africa is dying of AIDS and hunger, and that species extinction is accelerating, now seem to disturb nobody’s sleep anymore amid all this. Did I miss any?

As to your question about missing any, my answer is yes.

We should be concerned about a widespread movement whose aim seems to be to stop the material progress of the human race in the name of environmental concerns. Without the material progress needed to lift billions out of poverty, there will be no peace, no justice, no chance to either care for or appreciate the environment. There will be no equitable balancing of resource use or allocation, no end to religious or ethnic strife, no chance for non-proliferation to take hold–it’s no coincidence that the most recent entrants to the nuclear club are incredibly poor.

We should be further concerned that this movement, which hides behind the skirts of the much-loved environmental movement which did so much good for this planet, is so willing to use scare tactics, hyperbole and the occasional outright lie to advance its cause. Much as Tacitus lamented that the generals created a desert and called it peace, you would create a desert and call it Gaia. You are the problem, Tobis. You and those like you who think that escaping poverty is a crime against nature.

This idea that feeling that growth has reached its limits in America means one wishes to keep the poor countries poor would be laughable if it weren’t so commonly wheeled out. As it stands, it’s just libelous. The reason growth must stop, and possibly reverse slightly, in the west is precisely to leave a share, or at least a potential share, for everybody else.


Overall, Tom really thinks this was a Gish gallop, and responds sort of in the way Scott and I responded to the awful Forbes article. But a crucial point about sustainability issues is that they can’t be taken in isolation. They operate at a global scale, and jostle at each other. Yet they are existential issues. Each of them taken alone seems possible, though not easy, to cope with. Taken together they represent a daunting picture.

The world is smaller than it was, and problems arise on larger time and space scales than our institutions are capable of handling (journalism among them). At least as I see it, the signs are that we are not only failing to cope, but that we are to some extent failing to see the landscape at all.

Trees, meet forest.



Update
: This apropos infographic cheered me up a little.

World Doomed; No Action Required

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

I had been seeing signs of progress from Andy Revkin, but the scratched side of the coin came up this week. Check this article.

Now I want to say that critics of science ask good questions, even though they tend not to listen to the answers. Revkin kicks off by quoting Larry Griesel (apparently disgruntled by the whole climate question) asking for quantification:

I would encourage Mr. Revkin to post a Dot Earth blog entry in which he QUANTIFIES the following:

1) “A big buildup of greenhouse gasses”: Please restate, in ppm of atmospheric CO2.

2) “A long-lasting and very disruptive shift”: Please specify the exact nature of the one or two most-serious disruptive shifts, and QUANTIFY the minimum degree of this risk. For example, if the “disruptive shift” is future flooding and droughts, specify the predicted annual agricultural output in the period following this “disruptive shift”. “Long-lasting” to be quantified in number of decades.

3) “RISKS”. For each most-serious disruptive shift specified in (2), state the probability of this shift, as a range. For example: Probability range = 0.1 to 0.5. Or, probability range = 0.01 to 0.10.

4) Present the “consensus climate science” that substantiates the RISK probability range specified in (3), to the 80% confidence level. Presumably this consensus climate science is available in an IPCC publication.

This begins with the not uncommon confusion is the idea that the amount of greenhouse gases in the air is a quantity not under conscious control. What will be depends crucially on what we do. (Think of Scrooge’s question to the Ghost.)

But these questions can be answered quantitatively as a function of emissions trajectory, and the uncertainties only get severe as the outcomes get severe. I think it’s worth giving it a try. And indeed, a team (including In It reader Jim Bouldin) Vince Gutschick takes a shot at it in Revkin’s article.
And here is where things get weird. The group concludes:

The most extreme risk envisioned in all climate studies is surely a runaway greenhouse effect, in which human activities cause a buildup of CO2 to a level (ca. 1400 ppm). In this condition, as hot as it would be and as much as the patterns of precipitation and other processes have been altered, large additional rises are unstoppable. Natural processes release massive amounts of CO2. Some are biological, such as rapid respiration of vast stores of organic carbon in soils globally by bacteria, activated by high temperature. Others are a-biological, such as ocean degassing from the lower solubility of CO2 in warm versus cool water and also melting of methane clathrates (ice with trapped methane, which is more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. There is good evidence of past runaway greenhouse events. One or more ensued as the recovery from Snowball Earth episodes (a fascinating story, but there is no room to detail this here). Another is themid-Cretaceous period, when CO2 has been inferred to be as high as 3000 ppm (very indirect evidence, such as from the structures of plant leaves). Ocean temperatures as high as 38 C (100 F) are inferred. This level would be lethal to us; dinosaurs prospered in what Richard Alley from Penn State has called the “Saurian Sauna.”

OK, that is some scary stuff. It’s not “runaway” as on Venus; the ocean does not boil off, but geochemical feedbacks act to take us into territory far beyond normal, far beyond what complex terrestrial life can handle.

Basically, anything that can’t survive in a zoo is doomed in that scenario. If civilization survives through something like that, the only silver lining is that it will be great for space colonization, there being no particular advantage to the Earth over other planets.
This is at 5x background CO2 + CO2-equivalent. That won’t happen overnight, but it isn’t outside the realm of the possible if people continue to make a religious issue out of not accounting for externalities.
That’s weird enough. I mean, how scary do things have to get. But that’s not the weird part of the article.
Revkin doesn’t question this terrifying scenario at all. But he throws in a pitch for Pielkian insouciance anyway. He can’t resist.

(For what it’s worth, I agree with Yohe’s assessment, although I differ with his preference for a rising price on carbon as the most feasible way to develop an energy menu that works for the long haul.) “

(Lest I be misunderstood, Yohe is not the one talking runaway. That isn’t the point, really.)

The point is, how strong is the compulsion to be “reasonable” and “centrist” and “opposed to draconian taxes” in the face of the literal destruction of the world!
I’m not saying I think the total destruction of the world is on the table. I am resisting believing that. It’s probably my own coping mechanism.
Revkin, however, is quoting people saying that the destruction of the world is on the table, and isn’t calling that into question. He just doesn’t think that an outcome like that is serious enough to try raising taxes.
The evidence is piling up that our circumstances are beyond our cognitive or managerial abilities. I’m more scared of that than of hundred degree oceans right now. I think at the present rate we will not manage to maintain what we are pleased to call civilization long enough to get to 5xCO2. I suppose you could say that may be more good news than bad news; at least a few vertebrates will straggle through.
Note: Attribution in part to Jim Bouldin above was incorrect. The error followed Revkin’s erroneous attribution. Jim corrected this and in fact replied in a very scientifically conservative and unimpeachable way which you can now see at the referenced article.

Science for Everybody #159

158 illustrious contributors have been asked for a very short essay answering the question

WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?”

This is a wonderful question and I look forward to the answers, many of which may also be wonderful, even though I may end up burdened with as many as 158 concepts.

(Note the linked page is quite a godawful mess, web-designically speaking. Scroll down to “BEGIN READING HERE” when you are ready to start reading…)

However, judging by the 158 titles, they should have asked me, because the one I would propose appears to be missing. So, before I go exploring the other 158, here’s my contribution.

COHERENCE

At first glance, there’s a fundamental problem with science as a method. On the one hand, one is expected to take nothing on faith, to doubt everything, never to defer to authority. On the other hand, science is obviously a cumulative business. By now millions of person-years have been amassed, and it would seem to be impossible, to long have been impossible, to replicate enough of that thinking to get to the cutting edge where knowledge could be advanced.

In practice this presents no problems. We base our work on “established science”. But how is this possible when we take nothing on faith? We pretend it is by reference to the “peer reviewed literature” but that is something of a pose. Reviewers are insufficiently rewarded to provide the requisite review. The system is there to make a plausible claim for a good-faith effort. It doesn’t actually provide effective gatekeeping, and many trivial or incorrect results are published. Consequently the literature is really not enough. (*) But obviously science does work.

The undercelebrated key to science is coherence. The facts and methods that work in any discipline are the ones that “make sense” in the context of all the other facts and methods. Outsiders coming in and offering ideas generally fall outside the established context. The experienced scientist’s first reaction is “no, that can’t be true”, followed by identification of a contradiction with a well-known bit of reality. That is, the wrong idea is incoherent with established knowledge.

Ideas that fall into “hey that might be true” are dramatically rarer, especially if they have a soupcon of “and that would explain this other thing that has been bugging me, too”. And those are the ones to which we need to apply the full brunt of our skepticism, the ones that might survive into the shared network of coherence. So, our ability to advance the truth is based fundamentally on our understanding the truth well enough to quickly discard most untruths. Constructing a realistic and productive perspective is a matter, like the sculptor removing all the marble that is not part of his subject, of getting good at throwing away the stuff that doesn’t matter. The stuff that doesn’t matter is the stuff that is incoherent with what is already known.



(*) Highlighted text used to say: We pretend it is by reference to the “peer reviewed literature” but everyone knows that much of what passes peer review, probably a majority, is nonsense published for the benefit of tenure committees and grant reviewers. The literature is no help.

It’s been argued that this is too strong and in retrospect I agree.