Jaron Lanier and the Morita Principle

Jason Jaron Lanier defends money. (long, but excellent video rant here)

He begins in the same place I do, and Rushkoff does, essentially, that there is no longer a market for labor.

To be sure he only makes passing reference to limits to growth. I think those greatly complicate the situation.

But Lanier’s key point about money is, um, right on the money. Between smothering bureaucracy and cruel neglect, there stands only one possibility: a functional middle class.

And for this to happen, bespoke creative work has to be valued. There is no limit to the amount of art we can produce OR consume. We may be at the beginning of an immensely creative era, but only if we agree to monetize creativity. How to do this requires some careful thought. The idea that we are all in the midst of an endless apprenticeship (while traditional commercial and industrial modalities vanish all around us) doesn’t scale.

But I think we have to let go of growth, or many other things break. So that complicates the job; real things cannot constitute a vanishingly small part of the economy in any way that is stable. Else, you end up with a tulip crisis, of course.

Somehow this all has to be balanced, growth gradually and smoothly ended, fairly soon in the richer countries; somehow all the global constraints have to be fed into the incentive systems too. Nothing resembling government today is competent to do these things. But I don’t see how we manage without burning new constraints into the system.

It’s going to be enormously hard to even get people to understand the spectrum of possibilities.

I call it Morita’s principle; Akio Morita (the Steve Jobs-like visionary behind Sony for many years) frequently said “the customer does not know what is possible.

This applies to our collective vision of the future. People are selecting from a profoundly demoralizing pair of implicit competing visions (universal poverty on the left; militarized wealth in a sea of poverty on the right, both in a diminished, biologically depleted world). We need to create a shared vision of a future that is something other than extrapolation, something other than a more comfortable car to be stuck in traffic in, something other than shabby and grim and dehumanizing.

But most of our customers, that is, the people who need to buy into some new more inspiring vision, are mostly stuck in their day to day problems and just want strategies to see them through the week, not the century.

We must ask people for a lot of thought and a lot of effort and some sacrifices. We cannot succeed without a positive vision of the future, something that no political party anywhere is offering in any credible way at this time.

The US Government Cannot Help the Climate

Jeff Sachs recommends an informal international mostly academic collaboration to come up with actual options and get around the noise-making. He points out that expectations of leadership from the US government are unrealistic in the near future.

Long (over an hour). Intro lasts about four minutes.

h/t Rust Never Sleeps

JEFF SACHS from HUCE on Vimeo.

Book Review: A Planet for the President

A Planet for the President, by Alistair Beaton, showed up in the remainder bin at BookPeople in Austin, and thus, inevitably, followed me home.

It’s a dark comedy by a British writer about a US President of the conservative stripe (the name of his party is never mentioned but is obvious) and his cabinet finally coming to terms with the unsustainability of the American lifestyle on a crowded world. This group decides that rather than dealing with the sustainability aspect, they might just want to consider the crowding aspect…

Many hilarious incidents ensue, the situation becoming ever bleaker. For instance, the plot is almost leaked on account of a fastidious general ordering an enormous supply of deodorant, in the hopes of keeping the fumes from enormous numbers of dead Mexicans and Canadians from wafting across the border.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book, and hard luck for its author I imagine, was the scene wherein New Orleans was devastated by a hurricane and ensuing floods, creating thousands of casualties. The book was published only a few months before Katrina hit. In the storyline, the President is distracted from the disaster by his son’s publicly coming out as gay.

(In this regard, the fictitious president is actually slightly less horrifying than Bush was in the event, as Bush had no real distraction but paid no attention anyway. Sometimes truth is very strange.)

I think it may be time to take yet another president’s suggestion. Bill Clinton recently said:

“If you’re an American,” Clinton said, “the best thing you can do is make it unacceptable” to be a climate change denier. “We look like a joke, right? You can’t win the nomination of one of our major parties if you admit that the scientists are right.”

Well, unfortunately we’ve been looking like a joke for a while. And while it’s a gloomy sort of a joke, sometimes it pays to laugh.

This book is out of print, but Amazon has a dozen or so copies at cheap prices. I won’t tell you how it ends. I will tell you I enjoyed it.

Flattery Gets You Somewhere

An email from Climate Nexus:

Dr. Tobis,

I was wondering if you were aware of 350.org‘s upcoming Moving Planet day of action this Saturday, 9/24/11? We here at Climate Nexus (a new organization focusing on climate communications) are helping get the word out to as wide an audience as possible. We think that In It For The Gold would be a great outlet, given its robust readership and influential status in the blogosphere.

In short, Moving Planet is intended to build global support for moving past fossil fuels as a solution to the climate change problem. By connecting groups across the world, it hopes to show our global leaders that the time for strong climate action is now.

Attached is a 1 page backgrounder we’ve prepared for you to look over. It includes a synopsis of the event as well as some examples of what will be happening.

We would absolutely love it if you could provide a mention of it on your site so your readers can connect to groups in their area, or even better, organize your own action to mobilize your local readers!

Aw, shucks. Well, if you put it that way:

Moving Planet is an international day of action planned by 350.org. It is intended to build support for moving the planet away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable transportation. On September 24, 2011 participants from over 170 countries will hold events aimed at solving the climate change crisis by eliminating our global dependence on fossil fuels.

Movers on a Mission

On September 24th, 2011, hundreds of thousands of people across the world will be working together to send the message that it is time to move beyond fossil fuels. Through independently conceived creative rallies, groups will promote sustainable transportation for the future by walking, biking, skating or whatever creative and non-fossil fuel based methods of transportation they can imagine!

The day of action intends to build support and demand for a comprehensive clean energy plan to be reached in the November session of the UN Climate Meetings in South Africa, as well as the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil next spring.

The message is clear-the time has come to move past fossil fuels. We will no longer tolerate inaction on climate change as severe weather continues to threaten lives and livelihoods around the world. Climate Change is a global problem that requires a global solution. The time for comprehensive action from the UN is now, and anything less will be unacceptable. We will all bear the brunt of a changing climate, and we must all now band together to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

Emissionless Examples

  • These are just a few of the hundreds of events planned!
  • Organizers in Indonesia have already begun a 350 hour cycling trip, collecting petition signatures on the way.
  • Students in the Dominican Republic are painting the first bike lanes in Santo Domingo.
  • Hundreds in Ukraine will be “flash-dancing” in the main square of Kiev. (err…? -mt)
  • A massive parade is planned in Egypt, where participants will wear blue clothing to form a giant human Nile river.
  • Hundreds of Parisians will unite to form an image of a wind-turbine.
  • In New York, a giant bike ride calling for climate action will end at the United Nations General Assembly.
  • Amateur astronauts in New Zealand will “launch” a rocket in search of a new planet to colonize. Once that fails, they’ll try and save this planet.

See this map to find an event near you. Or, there’s still time to plan your own!

I’ll be at the Texas State Capitol protesting the impending tar sands pipeline from Alberta and headed thisaway. Watch for my clever picket sign.


Major Cuts to Environment Canada

From a promising young researcher at the University of Toronto. James emphasizes that he is speaking for himself here, independently of his supervisor and his department.

Canadians, especially, please take note.

Over the past several months we have seen major cuts to Environment Canada that have left it without any real scientific or research power. These cuts include the Environment Canada lab I presently do research at under Dr. Brad Bass of Environment Canada’s Adaptations and Impacts Research Section (AIRS). Almost the entire Section – which focuses on measuring impacts and responding to climate change across Canada – has been cut, alongside many other departments. Dr. Bass and many other Environment Canada scientists have had their jobs cut and we’ve seen in recent days rather strong political intervention from above in what EC scientists can and cannot mention to the public, whether it’s research critical of present policy or even just discussion of the cuts.

We have seen many prominent scientific jobs cut, research funding slashed, and our ability to effectively do environmental assessment and management largely neutralized (see here, here and here). Our scientists have been muzzled, and their ability to go to press has become tightly managed by a new “media relations office” put forth by the Harper Government. There is no more money to do research on Adaptations and Impacts as we do, projects on water quality have been halted (including those serving Aboriginal reserves and northern communities), and many of the tools and researchers necessary in order to adequately measure the consequences of the Athabasca Tar Sands are presently in a questionable state of limbo. This rearrangement of staff – preceding the 5-10% first round of budget cuts coming in February as part of Harper’s “balancing the books” will effectively leave Environment Canada powerless and effectively useless. They even went so far as to slate twenty-one out of twenty-four water quality monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories for shutdown – an act that managed to embarrass Harper (who was touring the region at the time) sufficiently for it to be reversed. But the cuts and targeting of research in the public interest continues.

Tony Clement perhaps put it best: Environment Canada is now “open for business” – you may now hire their award-winning scientists at will, privatize their research and keep them from working in the public interest.

One of the most prominent areas to be hit was climate change research and adaptations: exactly what our thirty-person lab has focused on and our broader Adaptations and Impacts Research Section has pioneered in for the past seventeen years since its formation. Dr. Bass is a co-recipient of the IPCC Nobel Prize, and the work many of our researchers do is critical to the advancement of science and the development of viable responses to climate change the world over. Because Environment Canada scientists cannot go to press over this, coverage (and response) has largely been muted – and the Canadian public, by and large, is unaware of the changes that are taking place. This is, to put it lightly, a major problem not just for Canadians but for the whole of the international community.

Our lab in particular, based at the University of Toronto, does cutting edge research on community energy systems, energy conservation, urban agriculture and food security, new methods of waste management, and urban sustainability through design and green infrastructure to address many of the problems we now face as Canadians. Our research is open, our results are available to the public, and we are presently slated to lose everything – much like many other prominent Canadian research institutions if nothing is done and no attention drawn to the changes we now see. Government research partnerships with universities are likewise slated to be terminated.

Myself and a number of students working with Dr. Bass have independently decided to attempt to address and draw attention to the cuts as we now see them. We have put together a list of very simple things even ordinary Canadians can do in order to fight the changes we now see. These include writing to your MP or school board trustee – just a short “I don’t want to see this laboratory gone” should do – and spreading the news about the cuts. The CBC recently drew attention to one aspect of our research , and our team is rushing to put up a website to draw attention to some of our projects to address the food crisis, do away with plastic waste, make desalination cheap and easy to do and much, much more.

I hope you can help with this matter. Please feel free to respond with questions, ideas or even just support, and I’ll answer you as best I can.

All the best,

James I. Birch

Student Researcher,

Adaptations and Impacts Research Section,

University of Toronto

Is There a Swarm Solution?

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

It’s a stupid name; about grass roots environmentalism rather than about wars of invasion.

It starts off strong and then gets into some frantic handwaving and saccharine and not entirely well-grounded reassurance and encouragement.

I honestly don’t think the swarm they describe will be enough. And perhaps what swarming there will be doesn’t need this kind of cheerleading. The makers will make and the thinkers will think. It is perhaps a bit early to get the B Ark folks too interested. And not everyone will be too attracted by the piece’s 60’s utopianism, though I for one think the cultural history is presented about right. And the amount of oversimplification in this little pep talk is astronomical.

I really liked it anyway.
It is, at least, a start toward a vision of the future that isn’t a horror. And if the cloying narration starts to get to you, you can turn the sound down and enjoy the excellent and creative animations.

Nielsen-Gammon vs the New Normal

John Nielsen-Gammon, our Texas State climatologist came up with this scary image that most of you have seen, and that everyone in Texas ought to take a good long look at. I was one of the first to reproduce it, but I’ve seen in lots of places since, and with good reason.
Unfortunately, John has followed up on this contribution with what I consider a mistaken article, wherein he claims that

“Texas would probably have broken the all-time record for summer temperatures this year even without global warming.”

Before we get into his argument and its drawbacks, let’s note the obvious. We see that this years drought/heatwave is far outside the observed pattern distribution of events.

It’s hard not to take note of the tremendous similarity of the situation here to Australia’s a couple of years back, though Australia’s droughts are on the other end of the El Nino seesaw. (Australia has, in fact, been extraordinarily wet of late.)

So is it a “New Normal”? Is Texas in perpetual drought now? Will we swing back and forth out of unheard-of droughts and unheard-of floods? Will Australia do the same, along with other parts of the formerly semi-arid subtropics? Certainly this is the intuitive impression that many of us come away with. Barry Brooks is no amateur, and he was at least willing to quote a colleague saying

“Given that this was the hottest day on record on top of the driest start to a year on record on top of the longest driest drought on record on top of the hottest drought on record the implications are clear…

It is clear to me that climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of “climate change increased the chances of an event” to “without climate change this event could not have occured”.

Clearly, we can say similar things in Texas this year. But should we? Nielsen-Gammon says we shouldn’t.

Let me summarize his argument:

  • The temperature anomaly this summer is about 5.4 F
  • Global warming to date has led to a local warming of Texas summertime temperatures of 0.5 F, so the temperature anomaly can be divided into 0.5 F background warming + 4.9 F other warming.
  • There is a strong correlation between annual rainfall variation and annual temperature in the graph. N-G finds a second order curve that fits the data [about as well as the linear fit] (see comments), and figures that the low rainfall could account for most of the remaining 4.9 F
  • He sinks into the tea-leaf territory of the “AMO” and claims to pick up the balance
  • Leaving aside the odd idea of superposition of temperature anomalies and the very weak evidence for the AMO, clearly there is a plausible claim that the huge temperature anomaly is “mostly” “because of” the drought
  • There is no obvious trend in Texas toward drought, so climate change does not cause unheard-of droughts
  • Therefore this is a fluke and has nothing to do with climate, or that other fluke in Australia in ’09, or all the other flukes we have been seeing lately
I don’t buy this for a minute. I am, in fact, shocked by the seriousness with which this argument is being taken.
It is interesting that when I have run this by non-experts, they all think it is crazy. Are they right?
I’ve been struggling for an analogy, and have come up with nothing resembling a realistic real-world example that allows this fallacy, so allow me a parable instead.

There is a small, isolated urban country where the wild fauna have been eliminated, and the public is only familiar with pets: dogs, cats, hamsters, and a few horses used in ceremonial events. The entire population knows very little about other animals, and even the experts have acrimonious debates based on fossil records and old paintings, just as we are familiar with contemporary climate but have to extrapolate to ancient or future climates.

One day, there is an earthquake. Not only does a border fence fail, but that fence abuts on the neighboring country’s great zoo. Many animals escape into our urban country, and it happens that one of them is an elephant, which they will perceive only as a large, bizarre animal.
However, our experts have been observing the zoo from a distance. They believe they have a good idea of the number of animals at the zoo from the number of feeding stations (visible from an observation tower), and a good idea of the total mass of the animals (calculated from the size of the food deliveries). They conclude that the average zoo animal is the size of a large dog. Therefore, the elephant is not an escapee from the zoo! It must be an extremely unusual dog or cat.
That’s the best I can do. It makes no sense, does it? We have an invasion of phenomena which we have only weak characterization for. We have some idea of averages and trends because of physical constraints, but we know very little of the nature of outliers in the changing climate.
(This is to say nothing of anomalies due to transient climates for the present.)
Here is the thing. We are increasingly disturbing the climate. A truly bizarre season occurs in a particular place. Either these extraordinary events are connected, which is perhaps unlikely, or they are unconnected, which is extremely unlikely. That is, you are asking for a bizarre coincidence.
But now we add up the number of bizarre coincidences, for each of which John can make comparable arguments. The tornado outbreak this spring. The huge blocking event in Asia last summer which did so much damage in central Russia, Pakistan, and parts of China. The fires in Australia in 2009 and the floods this year. The floods in the midwest. Heat waves in Europe.
None of these are clearly part of local trends. None of these are particularly predicted in the literature, and as far as I know the GCMs don’t indicate these things happening.
But, here’s the thing. They are happening.
So when I look at John’s plot, I see that there are only two possibilities. First, a bizarre coincidence as John suggests: a gigantic grey housecat with big teeth, floppy ears, enormous legs, and a strange nose. Second, an unexpected consequence of climate forcing. An elephant.
That is, what we have is not because of a change in the mean but because of a spreading, an expansion of the cloud of possibilities. From a dynamics perspective, that’s not surprising in the least. We’re passing, year by year, from one climate configuration to another at a very rapid pace, and we are used to thousands of years of unusual stability.
Does anyone actually expect “global weirding”? Well, I am not sure how we should specify an a priori metric for it, and without one we can’t really formally detect it. And the models, well, we already know that the non-assimilating GCMs are very stingy with extreme events. Why? My theories on that are too vague for publication, but it’s widely known to be true.
But when I see a graph like that one, I don’t find myself saying, hmm, obviously not part of the trend, therefore natural.
Now my other analogy is emotionally fraught, and let me apologize if it offends anyone, but I have to say it. When I saw a couple of 100 story buildings falling down, I didn’t say, there’s no anthropogenic trend to date for buildings to fall down so they must have fallen down naturally.

I’m sorry, but I find that argument, ahem, less than compelling.
Let me offer a couple of simple propositions instead.
  • There’s a first time for everything.
  • If you push something hard enough it will fall over.
I for one think the fan is no longer pristine.
I am working on a longer version of this article. It also ties into the less obvious but very similarly wrong arguments about rainfall anomalies and also to a case that the egregious Pat Michaels has been flogging.
I think it’s time to take this bull by the horns. You can’t apply small-signal arguments to large signals in nonlinear systems. So please stop it.

Update: Via Google Plus, Jonathan Abbey summarizes my argument nicely:

Climate characterizes the statistics of weather and the statistical bounds of weather. If we start seeing weather patterns change, that can indicate a change in climate.

The question is all about how likely it is that this weather would occur if the statistical parameters of the climate were held fixed as it has been since instrumental records began, say.

If weather like this is sufficiently unlikely under our previous understanding of regional climate, it may be (a piece of) evidence that the climate is itself experiencing a dislocation.

Which is sort of interesting.