Friday, August 07, 2015

Good news for the planet? And are "ecomodernists" part of the solution?

As most of you might guess from my novel Earth, I am a firm believer that we owe our mother-planet fealty and care, if for no other reason then for the sake of our grandchildren. This is one of many reasons why I despair over the lobotomizing effects of the so called "political axis."

The left shares my concerns, but is all-too often so rigid in reflex that it does more harm than good.  The right is vastly worse, attempting relentlessly to squirm out of even thinking about posterity or planetary destiny.

Striving to evade this silly dichotomy -- this dogmatic Scylla and Charybdis -- is a movement called "ecomodernism," which starts with the clear truth that the left is correct in its concerns... but that its reflex-hostility toward technology is utterly unhelpful

If we are going to get across the minefield, a large share of our solution methods must be technological, moving forward, not lamenting a nostalgic-romantic past.

== What is Ecomodernism?" ==

First, just to be clear, I do not like "movements." They are generally easy to hijack. And I will show you below some examples of how such attempts are being made on ecomodernism.  Still, in a case of respect-by-association, if Stewart Brand is for something, I will certainly give it a close look.

Elder statesman “techno-hippie” Stewart Brand has joined a dozen other luminaries to publish a deeply thoughtful and moving declaration of principles that they call the “Ecomodernist Manifesto.” It starts out with one fundamental -- accepting as utter fact global climate change as a major crisis for humanity and the planet.  Only then questioning the reflex that puritanism is the sole acceptable solution.

"Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation. While advocates differ in the particular mix of technologies they favor, we are aware of no quantified climate mitigation scenario in which technological change is not responsible for the vast majority of emissions cuts."

Later: "Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy. Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so." The exception being large scale use of solar.

And yes, that means these guys are in favor of ramping up the much-better designs that have been emerging for nuclear fission power, since that could end the reign of King Coal far sooner and help bridge us for thirty years, till the great era of full sustainables arrives.

If you disagree and want to gather facts to argue over priorities, great! 

But if your reflex is to dismiss such folks as enemies, then you are the problem here. And I know how you'll react to the following!

== Welcome (partial) good news! ==

Here is an important talk by Jesse Ausubel at the Long Now Foundation, describing how: “Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing through Concentrating Human Activities.” 

Introduced by my old "Architechs" co-star, Alexander Rose, and by Stewart Brand, Ausubel's presentation is long, but worthwhile and fascinating, demonstrating how much good news there is, brightening our outlooks for a planet that might — just might — survive the transition era we are in.

Alas, only about a third or less of those who watch Ausubel will draw the right conclusion. 

Some will reflexively react with outrage at any sign of good news, fearing it is a trick, aimed at reducing our passion for world-saving — an absolutely crazy notion that I dissect elsewhere. 

The response of the loony Entire Right will be even worse — to prove the leftists’ fears correct!  Members of the mutant cult that has taken over American conservatism will watch Ausubel’s charts and declare that world-saving does not need our ardent, zealous attention and coordinated intervention, guided by science, augmented with firm action by individuals, groups, governments, nations and our maturing species.

Two versions of insanity, hemming us in with their crazy trips (albeit one worse than the other, at present). 

Fortunately, a few of you will watch this video and draw the correct conclusion… one promoted by Stewart and the Long Now Foundation and their penumbra of can-do techno-liberals and cyber-hippies. 

Yes!  There is some great news!  In fact, Ausubel shows good reason to believe that — if we get our acts together and negotiate sensibly and innovate like crazy and invest in new science and tools -- and try for much better consumption habits -- we may be able to bridge the minefield – saving this world for our posterity!  And possibly even limit the Anthropocene shift so that it will only be one of the planet’s medium scale extinction events, instead of an epic wave of death.  The sort of scenario that I described in Earth (1989.)

We can do that. The statistics are clear, so watch this video (or see his article, The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment) — knowing that it is not a lullaby for complacency, but the strongest clarion call for vigorous — if calm and adult — action.

Criticism welcome!  Did I sit and rub my hands with smug glee while watching this video?  Of course not.  I spent half the time shaking my head muttering "Yes... but!" murmuring quibbles and exceptions and problems.

 For example, as much as half of the reforestation that Ausubel talks about is in the form of tree farming of monoculture pines. Better than nothing... but we need legislation forcing such agricultural forests to include stripes of hardwoods and creature-friendly diversity. And we will have to reduce water use by a whole lot more before we stop dangerously drawing down exhausted aquifers that it took nature millennia to fill. In other words, every positive step will prove to need tweaking and improvement. Skeptics and critics are welcome. 

You can help in that department! I offer an easy, even lazy method to be part of the solution-set, by joining the NGOs that amplify your proxy power! They are a bit part of the reason for some tentative good news and they are the chief paladins fighting against the bad. DO this!  Join at least half a dozen of these groups, or know you are part of the problem.

But also you can help by soothing our neighbors of the Far-Left and the Entire-Right, whose towering rages and rigid dogmas do our children and our planet no good, whatsoever. Preach that we must save the world... and that some mixed-good news suggests that the job - while hard - is actually... possible.

 == Ecomodernism: National Review backpedals...
                         while maintaining the Big Lie ==

Alas, the right's reaction to ecomodernism has proved that, if anything, I understated the plummet into lunacy.

William F. Buckley’s National Review always styled itself as the most intellectual wing of the conservative movement.  There was a time when, perhaps, that meant something. Today, it signifies only one thing: how many three or four syllable words you’ll find strung together.  

For example, take this piece - The Environmentalists' Civil War - all about the “the growing schism within American environmentalism. On one side are the pro-energy, pro-density humanists. They call themselves ecomodernists and are led by the Breakthrough Institute, a centrist, Oakland-based environmental group.”

The NR reporter waxes on about B.I.’s “ecomodernist manifesto,” which asserts that economic development is essential for environmental protection. He contrasts this to the “opposite side” of the schism — anti-energy, pro-sprawl absolutists like the students protesting for “climate justice” by demanding universities divest their portfolios of fossil fuel interests. NR: “They believe that the threat of climate change trumps all other concerns, including the welfare of people living in energy poverty.”

Rightwing propagandists have glommed onto the ecomodernists in order to portray them as brave rebels against a troglodytic community of dogmatic Standard Environmentalists.  Indeed, there is a gulf. But ecomodernists like Stewart Brand have far more in common with standard environmentalists (SE) than they do with Murdochian hypocrite-shills like this one. For one thing, they admit scientists are smart and are right more often than not, and that human generated climate change is a severe crisis that merits desperate action to reduce fossil fuel use.  Funny how the shills praising ecomodernists as enemies of Greenpeace never mention those traits!

What stunning hypocrites and liars! Ignored is the fact that the liberal side has always had a huge proportion that favored scientific advancement, technological RandD and market-driven innovation as paths toward solving many modern problems.  Science budgets always do better with democratic Congresses and/or presidentsas, indeed, do all other metrics of U.S. national health. This does not just reflect a corporatist sell-out (as some fringe lefties assert), but genuine zeal to move forward, past filthy and inefficient Intermediate techs, a belief fostered especially by folks like Jerry Brown, Al Gore and so on.

Take this paragraph from the Ecomodernist Manifesto:  "Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive, and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards. And international collaboration on technological innovation and technology transfer is essential in the areas of agriculture and energy."

In fact, a burden of proof falls upon propagandists -- like this National Review liar -- who spread the calumny that “shiver in the dark” has ever been anything more than the mantra of a small, loony fringe, far outnumbered by the throng of Fox reporters pointing at Earth-Firsters, screaming “See?”

== The other side's  polemics... ==

Shall I swivel and remind you the Left - while currently less dangerously insane - does have its loopies? Have a look at reviews and comments on Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, to see how the intellectual traps and silliness of that side -- while nowhere near as bad as the right's -- are crippling and foolish.  

For example: the stunning insipidity of conflating competitive market capitalism with monopolistic-oligarchic cronyism and proto-feudalism, displays a level of smug stupidity almost comparable to National Review... which tellingly makes the same conflation! Only the right wingers call this good.

In fact, (Adam) Smithian capitalism is open, flat, fair, transparent and benefits from very close regulation of the competitive playing field... as do all other competitive arenas... from courts and democracy to science and sports. The left demonizes the word "competition" and the right demonizes the "regulation" without which competitive arenas always fail and collapse into cheating.

In fact, flat-open-fair competitive markets are as the right contends, the most vastly effective solution finding systems ever known, and they only started taking off when the western enlightenment started regulating them carefully to eliminate inevitable oligarchic cheating. Flat-open-fair competitive capitalism is the first and greatest VICTIM of today's ongoing oligarchic cheater putsch.

And if you are so unable to liberate yourself from a lobotomizing metaphor than you cannot rise above the hoary "left-right axis," then you will never comprehend the five paragraphs in this section, no matter how many times you read them. 

== Examples of the need... and the ingenuity ==

The present El Nino event may become the most powerful on record. Tell us about it!  We just had an inch of rain in SoCal… in July!  I am already clearing my drains and preparing for winter flooding. And yes, both this and the drought are evidence we are gathering, for when it comes time for slapping a great big tort lawsuit on you denialist cultists.  Do not think there will be no consequences for your deliberate obstruction of even the mildest precautions, just in case the smartest people on the planet (scientists) turn out to be right, after all.

And yet, good possibilities keep arising. For example, the Indian government plans cover the more than 19,000 kilometers of canals in Gujarat with solar panels, both generating power and reducing evaporation.  Keep an eye on this California, and especially Arizona!

Can Technology Heal What We Harm?  An article by Ron Bell on Aeon Ideas offers up a sampling of bold yet practical technologies that might help us bridge the next few decades and cross the danger zone to a better world, if only we find the gumption. Though it will take one major step, admitting that a few carbon lords are raking it in, off our children's' future:

"Every day 85 million barrels of oil are used world-wide. This is the equivalent of 3.57 billion gallons of oil every 24 hours, 365 days per year. If all the water flowing over Niagara Falls were oil, this daily amount of oil consumption would equal 6.6 hours, a little over 25%, of Niagara’s daily flow. The world’s annual oil usage equals 55 days of crude oil  continually flowing nonstop over Niagara Falls, rather than water. It’s a stunning amount of natural resources, all of which are destined to be burned and, in turn, channeled via fumes and smoke back into the atmosphere."

No, we are NOT out of the woods.  It is a time fraught with dangers and greedy mistakes that may have wrecked ecosystems and hope on a myriad other worlds, helping to explain the Fermi Paradox.

So?  In that case, let's be the first to cross the minefield. Let's earn our name as the wisest of the wise apes.


locumranch said...

The term 'crisis' comes to us from the Greek 'krisis', meaning the "turning point in a disease" (as used by Hippocrates & Galen), and it describes the juncture between danger and opportunity.

In & of itself, a 'crisis' is not a bad thing: It is a challenge-worthy moment; it is neither to be feared nor avoided; and, most often, it is to be sought after & desired. And, so it is with the climate change 'crisis'. Being neither intrinsically good nor evil, it merely represents a transition point between the now & what comes after.

Climate Change should (therefore) be welcomed. It should be embraced and CELEBRATED like any crisis as it signals that humanity has finally 'Come of Age', transitioning from an irresponsible youthfulness to a consequent-ridden adulthood; it is our puberty; and we should all be PROUD to belong to a culture that has altered the very nature of an entire planet.

Yaaay, Climate Change: Let the adult consequences begin!!


Paul SB said...

The Genetic Fallacy

Lorraine said...

I speak only for myself, but I'm more leftist than liberal. I'd probably qualify as loony-left in your book.

I have no problem with technology, and am in fact very pro-technology. I just wish technology could be pried apart from technocracy. I hate primitivists even more than I hate bright-green corporate types, if that helps.

The thing about Eco-Modernism (which to me seems like pretty much the same thing as the "bright green" thing) is that it looks to me like something some public relations firm came up with. Maybe if the "solutioneering" were to be split 50-50 between corporations and academia I'd be more at peace with it. Maybe if the smart grid pumped raw data into the public domain rather than the proprietary algorithms. Maybe if "publish or perish" applied to research and not just researchers. Maybe if GMO came without DRM. Maybe if government-funded research were kept free of intellectual property encumbrance, like open source software. Maybe if a citizen could play an active role in solving problems without being some kind of corporate yuppie (The "I'm an IBMer" kids with their beaming "I got hired by IBM" faces, or maybe that dipshit with Shell who says "people accuse me of being a hippie") or pedigreed academic or some other 99.999th percentile talent. These PR ads (that sponsor center-right initiatives like "Meet the Press") about how corporations are uniquely qualified to solve the Big Problems feel like a smug "you're welcome" addressed to the public. And hey, if economic policy went full-on Keynesian so there'd be enough money sloshing around to hire some of us 75th percentile types into some pretend jobs with sciency sounding titles, then maybe some of us would at least feel like team members in some sense, and less as if the future is a party we weren't invited to.

Tony Fisk said...

Alex Steffen gave a useful categorisation of the various shades of green environmentalism. (light, bright, dark, and grey/scaly)
A little later, he precipitated a little spat with the 'dark' green Transition Town movement. Words were said. Points were raised. Gardening gloves were waved in challenge... and the comment thread took on a courteous* air quite at odds with the civil warfare suggested by NR.

*although I gather the bouncers were busy.

Jumper said...

Lorraine, you are pretty much speaking for me, too. Especially on open-sourcing government (and university) research. And the rest.
I got into a letters-to-the-editor war with Jesse Helms once. He made the claim that species extinction was "natural" so implying nothing to see here; move along. No, they printed in my response, species extinction is going on at thousands of times the "natural" rate, and it's human caused. The point is, this nonsense is not dead and you'll hear it again. And it sounds much like the idiots who claim current and upcoming climate change is "natural."

Tim H. said...

Ecomodernism sounds potentially fine here, should more or less fit into TWODA, which I feel is important, because such a change can't be like a crash diet, it must work for the foreseeable future. As a plus, economic justice will make it work even better, because even if people mostly buy stuff they could live without, the new toys will be mostly more energy efficient than the old ones. Another plus, overseas trade may be carried in hybrid vessels, solar electric backing up sails festooned with glittering solar cells, and for a show like that, I could live with my next phone taking an extra week or so to get here. And there's something for Locum here, even if we make Stewart Brand proud, and make all this change, we aren't likely to see a change in the climate in our lifetime, we'll just stop digging the hole, so Locum may "enjoy" whatever's coming our way. As long as we can have cultural sustainability to go along with ecological sustainability, we should be fine.

Paul SB said...

Ecomodernism is kind of the paradigm in architecture these days, and I agree with Lorraine, Jumper that there are some serious issues. Given the scale of the problem, I don't see that high-tech solutions will not necessarily be part of the solution. It is the story of humanity since the first stone tools that we have solved most of our problems with technology. But the kids of high-tech solutions we are seeing are usually far too expensive for a majority of people, and they suffer from the issues Lorraine points out. There are quite a few low-tech solutions for a lot of our energy problems that are within reach of ordinary people. Most of the ones I am familiar with are architectural, like earth sheltering (hobbit holes), hay bale, earth-bag, passive solar systems and other alternative home-building techniques that tend to be on the energy efficient side. But like Tim I think that a lot of the high tech stuff will mostly come in the form of improvements to the kinds of consumer goods we mostly use anyway. Large-scale power generation is a different matter, though, and requires much larger entities to create (though I could see communities getting together and creating alternative energy co-ops). But there does need to be some major reform not just to our energy grid, but to the corporate/government system that delivers and manages it.

The moving truck is here, so I will probably be off-line for the next day or so.

David Brin said...

Lorraine, I would sniff carefully at “ecomodernism” except that it is supported by Stewart Brand who, I assume, has done due diligence to show that it is not just a Koch-Heritage front. I have learned, if Stewart is for it, I probably should be.

As for “technocracy”… show me any signs of “rule by the smartest.” Sure, that could go sour, too, as all power centers fall into self-deception, corruption and rationalization. But so far, those scenarios re scientists-in-power have only ever happened in sci fi tales. All my life I have fought to disperse and distribute power, widely enough so that it cannot concentrate that way! But if I faced a stark, either-or choice between rule-by-feudal-oligarchy and rule-by-scientists I would grind my teeth and choose the latter!

The former had 6000 years of utter failure and cruel stupidity. Try something else.

Paul, tech advances that swiftly percolate from the rich to the rest of us tend to go well. It is those that wind up the sole province of elites that turn worrisome. Note I chose the latter when I did KILN PEOPLE.

Good luck with your move!

See guys? This is why we keep locum around. He raves things that are simultaneously true — (we need and respond-to and are tested-by challenges) — and then exaggerates that truth into something hysterically dumb (bring on the deathly crises!)

By his reckoning, we should all go charging into freeway traffic everyday for exercise! What better soul purifying “crisis” than Russian Roulette? Sorry, son. Life throws more than enough crises and challenges at us. Read Jared Diamond’s COLLAPSE. Using foresight to reduce their number and severity is not cowardice, it is sapience. It means we’ll stand a chance at dealing with the others, including those that take us by surprise.

And there will be surprises. We will be far better able to cope with that asteroid or plague or alien fleet or sunspot burst if we aren’t already tearing ourselves apart with two billion climate refugees from a “crisis” that was made far worse by blithe, polyanna-shrugging imbeciles.

Jumper said...

That's what I have to say about that.

Alex Tolley said...

I watched the Jesse Ausubel talk. To get his positive directions he misleadingly interspersed global and US data, and even with US data made a positive spin on very bad numbers.

A few points:
1. reforestation. Yes forests are increasing, although in some parts of the world, decreasing rapidly - e.g. Brazil and Indonesia. But he failed to distinguish between extending natural, high biodiversity forests and tree farms, which are not really forests but agriculture.

2. Yes, the US use of materials is declining. Is that due to reduced consumption or manufacturing? What relevance does it have when the rest of the world is ramping up consumption? He glibly hand waves away the issue of China and India's rapid industrialization by saying they will soon follow the US' 20th century pattern. Really, when they are starting from a very low baseline?

3. Water use in the US has peaked. Maybe it has, but what relevance is that when we are drawing down the aquifers. It's like saying it's all good, we're borrowing less. I'm not even sure I believe the data, as in California private well water flow is not measured. maybe we've seen peak water because of increasing US drought conditions?

4. Yes charismatic mega fauna are returning to Europe. Meanwhile how many species are going extinct?

5. He mischaracterizes the argument about wild vs farmed fish. It has nothing to do with wild being "better". It is about the real problems of farmed fish - genetic pollution of wild populations, disease in sea pens and pollution.

It is good that we are being smarter, and technology will be necessary to increase efficiencies in food production, but the talk was far too glib about the losses the planet is experiencing.

Finally, does he have any idea how chickens are farmed in the US? If it did, it just might put him off his chicken tenders.

I like Stewart Brand, but I try not to accept his word because of his stature. Fact check, fact check, fact check.

Anonymous said...

I think you made a typo at the end of the seventh paragraph. I believe you meant nuclear not solar.

locumranch said...

Listening to NPR report the 'sexist' nature of Trump's recent comments this am, it becomes increasing clear that neither of the two dominant US political parties -- neither the Democrats with their overt matriarchal bias (women & children fist; men last), nor the Republicans with their pretend patriarchal emphasis (men demanding that 'women & children go first' with men last) -- are capable of dealing with the coming changes of the 21st Century, especially when the (worldwide & US) female majority voting pool prioritizes fashionable footware, free childcare & 'goodfeelz' emotionality in preference to the demonstrative benefits of ecomodernism, a publicly funded space program & infrastructure repair, meaning that crisis-related technological fixes are NOT going to get a voter mandate unless they are manufactured by either Manola Blahnik or Dolche & Gabanna.

That, and we all nee to chip-in to purchase a dictionary for Paul_SB so he can look up contemporary word use before invoking the 'genetic fallacy' argument out of sheer ignorance (current definition of 'crisis' listed below) and, perhaps -- in the interest of eliminating excessive hyperbole -- we could agree to eliminate redundancy from terms like 'Climate Change Crisis' when either 'Climate Change' or 'Climate Crisis' would serve just fine.


n, pl -ses (-siːz)
1. a crucial stage or turning point in the course of something, esp in a sequence of events or a disease
2. an unstable period, esp one of extreme trouble or danger in politics, economics, etc
3. (Pathology) pathol a sudden change, for better or worse, in the course of a disease

[C15: from Latin: decision, from Greek krisis, from krinein to decide]

1. ≡emergency, plight, catastrophe, predicament, pass, trouble, disaster, mess, dilemma, strait, deep water, meltdown (informal), extremity, quandary, dire straits, exigency, critical situation Strikes worsened the country's economic crisis.
2. ≡critical point, climax, point of no return, height, confrontation, crunch (informal), turning point, culmination, crux, moment of truth, climacteric

Collins English Dictionary & Thesaurus

Alex Tolley said...

Paul_SB isn't alone in using the phrase "climate change crisis"

Alex Tolley said...

@locum - you don't think Trump's remarks were sexist? What will be interesting is whether his comments will blow up his presidential run as predicted by DB, or whether it won't make a whit of difference. I am looking forward to talking with my women friends who have suggested they like Trump whether they still will vote for him after this episode.

David Brin said...

It is likely Trump will cause a fissure among female viz male Right Wingers. And about time. (Oh and L's missive this time was too silly even for comment.)

locumranch said...

The truth is often silly.

Synonyms for crisis: turning point, transition, transformation, CHANGE ...
My point being that the phrase 'change crisis' represents a needless redundancy.

As to whether or not Trump's reference to FOX hack interviewer Megan Kelly 'bleeding' (from her eyes, nose, etc) represents 'sexism', that's either a matter of opinion or projection, but largely irrelevant to the faithfully Hillary-ous voters who believe that women are also the primary victims of war, climate change AND climate change mollification strategies (in simultaneous fashion) & all things.

Remember the $787 Billion dollar Stimulus package?? Most of it went to social comfort programs & only a pittance went to infrastructure:

So proud, I am, of a culture that does such things.


alan said...

Ecomodernist logic is tempting to be sure and at least in part is good. The good part is that we do need to include technology in managing our planet and our selves.

However, be careful of their claims that endless growth and unlimited energy will somehow limit the increase of our population. The claim is also made that there is no limiting resource to hamper growth: "Given plentiful land and unlimited energy, substitutes for other material inputs to human well-being can easily be found if those inputs become scarce or expensive." If true this would make humans unique animals in a biological system, continuously capable of replacing limiting resources with substitutes. I doubt this is true.

Michael Schellenberger (President of the Breakthrough Institute and main advocate for the ecomodern movement) rejects current solar energy as a useful form of energy today. Even though the manifesto notes that: "The amount of solar radiation that hits the Earth, for instance, is ultimately finite but represents no meaningful constraint upon human endeavors" he claims there is too much impact on the land. In fact, full out solar would not occupy very much land if chosen carefully.

Although global warming is acknowledged, ecomodernists argue for - not against - fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas - until their technological solutions are in place. A quick calculation reveals that if climate modellers are correct the world will be well over the top of safe carbon levels in the atmosphere before their technology can "save" us. In fact, he reckons that 550ppm CO2 will be their target and should be fine. This does not agree with the mainstream science on global warming.

I certainly agree that nuclear fission until fusion (ITER in France underway) is ready, high end solar when it gets here, and carbon capture are needed, but interim solutions and reasonable policies are also needed. At this stage the implementation of ecomodernist thinking is a blank checque for fossil fuel use.

Robert said...

I will admit I will be amused if in the wake of the political debate where everyone says "Trump is unelectable" you see only a marginal drop in his polling numbers and he remains at the top of the pack. If that happens, you may very well see some of the other people running on the Republican ticket be asked to drop out so that Bush or Rubio can be pushed up in the polls so to provide a "proper" candidate on the Republican ticket.

If done improperly and it leaks? You'll see a backlash in the party. If Trump didn't get the nomination and yet doesn't run as a third-party candidate, those pro-Trump voters could refuse to vote. And that could kill the Republicans in the House and Senate elections... and in local elections.

We can only hope. ;)

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

@Robert. 2 unscientific polls with completely different results:

Silver's FiveThirtyEight site suggests watching Trump's favorability ratings to see where he is headed. Too early to tell yet. Who would be the front runner if Trump falls, Rubio? Please not let it be Cruz, or Walker, or... Even Fiorina sounds sensible in comparison.

Burt Webb said...

I have a blog about nuclear power, weapons, waste, etc. at I have been posting five essays a week for over two years. I have reviewsed many arguments for and against nuclear fission power generation. There are many arguments against that do not get much press. When the social, environmental, economic, institutional, political, military and other arguments are brought together, nuclear fission turns out to be a very bad choice. The biggest problem is not the technology, it is the failure of captured regulatory agencies and the greed of corporation that drives them to ignore safety, maintenance, training, and clear indication of problems in the construction and operation of nuclear fission power plants. If there were not billions of dollars involved in the sale of nuclear power plants, it is very unlikely that they would be promoted as aggressively as they are. Ultimately, it is inevitable that there will be another high profile nuclear accident that could have been prevented. This will turn consumers and investors against nuclear power generation and support for this option will evaporate regardless of the cause of the accident. BTW, Fukushima did not have to happen. There were clear warnings of danger and requests for action that TEPCO ignored until it was too late. This is a perfect illustration of what I am trying to say in this commennt.

David Brin said...

Alan one thing saves us... the fact that when human females are educated/empowered and when they feel their children will thrive, they tend to equilibrate at having just two kids (plus or minus). That trait may be anomalous and a quirk that enables us to get past the malthusian trap.

Alex Tolley said...

@alan - I see what you mean about BI being pro-nuclear. They are almost shilling for the industry. They also seem to damn renewables with faint praise, downplaying their future.

Breakthrough or industry apologists?

sociotard said...

Dr. Brin, wasn't Wesley Clark a commander you admired? You once said he should have been John Kerry's running mate.

Wesley Clark: “Disloyal Americans” should be tossed in internment camps for the “duration” of the war on terror

David Brin said...

Sociotard, when you say a politician is interesting and worth calling to the attention of others, it does not declare that you have done full vetting, only that he sounds good so for and merits closer attention. But Ick. Ptooie.

alan said...

David, it is true that empowering women is one of the best and fastest ways to reduce the rate of reproduction in today's world. Empowering women has many other advantages as well, of course, and so that should always be on the top of the priority list.

The present slow-down in rate of human population increase is occurring at a time when food and energy resources are hovering at a standstill relative to our population. However, at each time in human history when significant increases in resources and energy occur, health improves, sanitation increases, food availability increases, and expectations rise with a consequent increase in population growth rates. If the actual curves of human population growth were the result of a normal population of animals in a new environment, they demonstrate an inflection about 1950 at a population of about 5 billion. If we behave the way the curve suggests we will, then it predicts an overshoot in about 150 years reaching about 11 billion people. This prediction assumes the average human ecological footprint and average resource availability remains about what it is today. Overshoot implies the Malthusian limit (in ecological terms, the carrying capacity of the world) will have been breached and over time would settle back to about 5 billion people after some pretty nasty times.

The Ecomodernist thesis is that this time it will be different. They do not see resources remaining constant (I hope they are correct!). They propose rapid increases in energy from energy-dense fossil fuels and nuclear energy (fission and fusion). They also propose intensive farming using modern synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to increase the efficiency of field cropping such that even a 50% rise in population (they assume this level) as well as increasing consumption can easily be handled within the existing arable land (or less). They also argue that there is no such thing as a limiting resource because we can always find a substitute. If this is true, which I doubt, it will provide the mechanism for the endless economic growth they propose. Endless economic growth is likely to support the projected overshoot and enable even greater carrying capacity. It is unlikely to result in stagnant expectations or zero population increase. When we reach that limit, the population of the world will be concentrated into cities of immense size (see the manifesto for the vision). The likely scenario is that with increased expectations population will rise to meet the increased carrying capacity of the new world and likely will exceed 11 billion. It has been calculated that the far-out carrying capacity of the world is about 14 billion people (using today's average ecological footprint).

Humans have the brain power to beat Malthus and the Club of Rome, but it won't happen automatically by virtue of the Ecomodernist vision of endless economic growth, based on futuristic energy and food-producing technologies.

Duncan Cairncross said...

I listened to Wesley Clark's answer
I was expecting to find that he had been misinterpreted by the media
No such luck!
He is actually proposing breaking your constitution for a risk that kills less Americans than ingrowing toenails

Senile Dementia??

Robert said...

On a brief tangent, a couple people reimagined what Harry Potter could have been if in Book 4, Cassius Warrington of House Slytherin had been chosen as the Hogswort Champion for the Tri-Wizard Cup.

I have to say, it would have made for a fascinating and fantastic series... and dealt with some of the flaws and lost chances inherent in the original Harry Potter series.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Alan... If we see a burgeoning of resources that includes space colonies and asteroid cornucopias, then it is not my business to tell those uber-rich descendants how many kids to have, so long as they are enlightened beings who have learned not to foul their homes.

Your correlation is a poor one. Ecomodernists note that high density urban life CAN be delivered at lower resource densities, if well-designed and with good local access to food and jobs. But those apartments tend to be small and THAT certainly contributes to lower birth rates.

Paul SB said...

Alan, I'm not too sure from what you have written here exactly where you stand on growth, except that you are aware of the dangers of a Malthusian disaster. Humans have been raising our K since prehistory through technology, but we have often failed to do so and suffered demographic catastrophes anyway. This is where I differ with Alfred on the matter, though I don't know if you were reading way back when we were talking about this. He says that there is no K for humans because we are so clever, where I see it more as a moving target. To me the Ecomodernists may be doing exactly what humans have been doing since the Acheulean tool tradition - trying to beat the Malthusian odds by creating new technologies that will allow more growth than would otherwise be possible.

However, I'm not certain that perpetual growth is necessarily a good thing. It is very American to think so, or at least, very typical of American economists, whose thought patterns have grown up with the intellectual constraints of Cold War thinking. I don't entirely trust Americans to have a perspective on such things that is in keeping with the rest of human experience. I'm sure there are plusses and minuses. There's a little activity I do with my 9th grade students that might make my point. I divide the desks into 5 groups, one labeled North America, another Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia (I didn't create the activity or I would have gone with just the continents). I have these regions written on little strips of paper in a hat, which students pull and go to the appropriate part of the classroom. Keeping a typical class of 30-35 proportional to actual population figures, you end up with about 2 people on North America, 3 on Europe, 3 for Latin America, 4 for Africa and all the rest (13 - 18) at the Asia desks. Then I hand out bags of cookies representing how much food is available for the people in each of those regions. North America, with 2 people, gets 92 cookies. Europe gets 40, Latin America 10, Africa 2 (given how much of that continent is desert, that should not surprise) and Asia 6. The looks on the kids' faces when they see how many cookies they have to divide among themselves is priceless. Most focus on the extreme poverty of Asia, and most years some of the more fortunate students are magnanimous enough to share. But look at the difference between North American and Europe. Europeans are pretty well off compared to most of the rest of the world, but most seem to be much less obsessed with growth, competition and consumerism. That's the impression I get, anyway.They seem to have a better sense of how much is enough. Americans for the most part think they are normal, but compared to the rest of the world, they are major outliers.

Of course, it could be that this growth model (I heard a population biologist say that any growth beyond maturity is either obesity or cancer - which made me think of Wall-E) could be exactly what we need to overcome many problems that have plagued humanity. But on the other hand, we seem to create new problems among with our solutions. I'm persuadable, either way. One way is certainly more optimistic, and optimism is more healthy. Thoughts?

Jumper said...

I wonder if it's a good idea to lump all the "ecomodernists" together. Not sure. Also, in any discussion of growth and Malthusian limits it's important to differentiate economic growth from population growth.
It's been noted here the loss of the frontier and its effect on the human psyche. That's the result of the burgeoning population. (Not to mention the waves of epidemics which depopulated the Americas and elsewhere which caused much of the frontier. Or the Plagues.) Which is the point I want to cover: there are two ways to reach sustainable (smaller) population on our planet. One is a mass die-off, which is not necessary and is horrific. The other is to humanely wind it back with birth control, which is problematical in theory but not in fact, because on an almost completely voluntary basis, North America and Europe have done this, not counting immigration. For all the institutional racism of the West, accusations from countries we attempt to export birth control to, of ethnic cleansing, ring hollow in light of our own successes in population control of our own countries. The fact that vigorous efforts by the West to export birth control have been hamstrung by powerful interests is a tragedy, but one which could be reversed if there were the will to do so.
One day the population will fall to some smaller number, be it six billion, or less. Those descendents will regain the space humans crave, sufficient to satisfy some human needs. If we are denied that for now, so long as we work for it for our descendents, I'm satisfied it's the right thing to do. If I can't make it, they will.
On the other hand, that group which refuses to admit the limits and yet hopes rather openly for a mass die-off, for their twisted fantasies, are in every sense enemies of the human race as we exist now.

Paul SB said...

Jumper, while I agree with you here, there are structural reasons why countries where the UN has been trying to promote birth control has failed. They should know better, given that the Demographic Transition has been understood for many decades now. (One of the consequences are tragedies like the UN's polio eradication program, which is constantly being stymied by people who believe the UN is trying to sterilize them.) The will comes less from people consciously deciding and more from circumstances forcing people to make a more uniform set of decisions. Nations where most people are still living on the farm are nations where birth control means promoting birth, not limiting birth. That was how it was for the US and Europe until the Industrial Revolution. When people moved into cities that started to change. Just a few weeks ago I heard that now half the people on Earth live in cities instead of farms. The economics of city life make having huge numbers of children a huge disadvantage, and most families eventually work this out.

But there are other factors, too. Power relations matter. What Dr. Brin said about women being given the choice is born out by the facts. When girls get education they grow up to get jobs, and when they have money they have the power to say no to horny husbands who don't change the diapers themselves. That's why girl's schools are a favorite target of the Taliban, and one of the main things Boko Haram wants to see an end to.

But sexism isn't the only factor. In many countries where you have groups of people who are treated as hated minorities (structural inferiors), those minorities commonly do whatever they see as the opposite of what the dominant ethnicity does. Since mainstream Americans and Europeans average around 2 kids per family, those populations that are treated unfairly within their borders will tend to have big families, and ridicule the mainstream for their differences. As long as unequal power and unequal respect between peoples exists, this is likely to continue to be a problem. These things go hand-in-hand, and are part of why I wish people in this country would pay at least half as much attention to W.E.B. du Bois as they do to Martin Luther King.

alan said...

I am delighted to see the discussion has many points of view. For the record, I recognize the potential ability humans have to manage our planet so that it will continue to be a comfortable place for humans to live. The record of human achievement is impressive. The technological advances are amazing and much of the science fiction of my early years has become a reality. Today we have more than 7 billion people. For all the wonderful advancements we still have one in nine people chronically undernourished even though there is food enough to go around. North Americans have ten times the global ecological footprint of most of Asia with an overall estimate of about 1.5 times the global resource replacement rate being used each year now. The loss of biodiversity is a more than a bit scary, the impending and actual clean water shortages are worrying, almost all of the arable land is used, and to top it all off there is a potential juggernaut of global warming looming for our children and grandchildren to contend with unless we deal that soon and effectively.

I continue to be optimistic that we can and will solve all of these problems.

David's headline to the blog asked the question whether ecomodernists are good for the planet and are they part of the solution. In my opinion they are potentially part of the solution, but they also represent a potential high risk. My purpose was to call a warning on that risk. There are many risks inside the manifesto vision, and I can point them out if you wish (I distrust anyone who uses terms like unlimited energy and endless substitution of limiting resources), but for me the most critical danger is their insistence on using fossil fuels until nuclear energy is in place to supply the world's energy.

Ecomodernists reject wind, solar and other renewables as they are currently developed as a means to control CO2 emissions, instead they argue that fossil fuels are better, more dense energy sources. They further argue that only nuclear power (fission or fusion) is a reasonable solution. The world may eventually have safe nuclear power, but for many, maybe most people, safe nuclear power has not yet been demonstrated to their satisfaction. So the political will to implement the ecomodernist's favoured energy source is pretty weak right now. The time frame to control CO2 emissions must be within the next 30 years at the outside or parts of the globe will be unliveable. Ecomodernist insistence on using fossil fuels in the an unrealistic timeframe to wait for an energy source that is currently in much disfavour represents a real and present danger for our descendents.

I agree with David that space-faring and asteroid mining are real possibilities and are potentially enormously beneficial. I disagree that human nature would agree to limited resource use when "unlimited energy and endless resources" are available to them in cities. I worry that time will run out before the vision can come even close to implementation.

raito said...


Ages ago I reviewed a book for a professor on global economic modeling. As I recall, it was a series of synposes from some conference or other (I do with I had a better reference for it).

The model I found most interesting was the 'latin american' model (so named, I recall, because it was formulated in South America). At it's root, it found that the best predictor of a country's economy was birthrate and education. Low birthrate and high education = prosperity. High birthrate and low education = poverty.

This was very much out of step with the indicators used by the models developed on more properous areas of the world.

Alex Tolley said...

The idea of substitutions was reinforced by Simon's winning the bet with Ehrlich over commodity costs. Simon correctly predicted that scarce materials would be used more efficiently and substitutions found. That works for many materials, but obviously not for biologics, e.g. phosphorus shortages. Either we find new sources, recycle more efficiently or use it more sparingly in fertilizers. If food production is increased, my guess is recycling will be the best approach.

Stewart Brand famously reversed his opinion to favor nuclear power. The problem of course is regulatory in the US, and government insurance subsidies (no private insurer can cover the costs of an "incident" or "event"). It remains to be seen if China and India become the main users of nuclear power. In the US nuclear power is an expensive power option, although this needn't be an issue if carbon emissions are paramount and if reliable baseload power is required that cannot be fulfilled by renewables and storage technologies. I'm optimistic that renewables will work for baseload power, but it isn't a done deal.

Reducing children per family isn't all about women's choices. In Italy for example, the birthrate in a predominantly Catholic country is very low due to the high cost of raising children. This seems to be a similar problem in countries with few social support services like the US (private insurance for hospitalization for births, medical bills, spotty parental leave, high daycare costs, high costs of post K-12 education, etc., not to mention poor prospects for graduates.

Jumper said...

Imagine an energy surplus. A big clean energy surplus. It's what we need. With surplus energy (granted, it won't be for long) we can do things like capture phosphorus; extract CO2 from the air and sequester it, desalinate seawater, etc. Power is progress. Greenhouse gas power is obviously not, however.

David Brin said...

Alan... please either rephrase this less polemically or consider it to be simply a tendentious lie: "Ecomodernists reject wind, solar and other renewables as they are currently developed as a means to control CO2 emissions, instead they argue that fossil fuels are better, more dense energy sources. They further argue that only nuclear power (fission or fusion) is a reasonable solution. "

In fact, none of that is true. You may dislike the degree to which most mainstream ecomodernists tout New Nuclear and deem methane power to be a bridge and cheer on sustainables without expecting short-term miracles... but the exaggerated version of those things you proclaimed is simply a slanderous falsehood.

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: The argument being made that women are 'choosing' to limit family size doesn't rely much on why they are making these choices. Like prices in an open market, you don't have to know why a price is high to know something is happening to drive decisions. The explanations are a separate issue.

The best 'why' explanation I've seen is their babies are surviving to have their own babies and the mothers know it early enough to change their economization plans for the children they do choose to have. There are other viable explanations, but as long as they take into account the inclusion horizon, survival rates, and immediate & opportunity costs, I suspect the real answer will be all of the above.

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred - what I read (but I'm not saying this cannot be disputed) is that Italians families (mother and father) were deciding to reduce the number of children due to high costs of raising them. In the US, we know that the cost of daycare is about the same as minimum wages, making this difficult when you need 2 incomes. Anyone who knows families living on the edge has seen the very great difficulties these families face compared to well paid professionals. I'm not seeing things getting better in this regard, and when the minimum wage is raised, it won't make a difference to these families as the gains will be directly lost by the raised costs of daycare services. For Walmart employees, it is even worse, as Walmart is not raising the wages of long term employees, so they will be losers in this regard.

Low child number families can also be mandated by law, as in China, although I think this has just been rescinded. The sex ratio was horribly skewed by the one child per family law. (I hope it doesn't require a war to correct it).

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: It isn't that there is no K for us. It is that K in a meaningless concept in the presence of rapidly appearing black swans. If the rate those swans appear is low, one could argue that K is a function of that rate. For us, the rate is not low.

If we knew the rules of the system, we might be able to make probabilistic predictions about black swans making them a known unknown. They are inherently unknown unknowns. What we DO know about them is they might change us in small ways (neat... not all swans are white) or in huge ways (1000x increase in population size since the ice began to melt), but the biggest known is that they occur more often when more people are looking for them. I don't know that I believe the Singularity folks who argue it is an exponential growth rate, but a high order polynomial fit is still impressive.

Since the Limits to Growth argument relies upon stable definitions for commodities and recipes turning them into goods and services, a growing black swan incidence undermines the meanings that give moral power to the argument.

We could certainly fail to innovate or trip over a really ugly (negative) black swan, so I don't want to argue for us being infinitely clever. It's just that we are trending toward inclusion of more billions of minds in our markets, so I'm betting on more black swans and some really impressive ones this century. Maybe we'll wipe out along the way, but I sincerely doubt it. By the end of the century, I suspect there will be more than 11 billion people and they won't be going hungry. There will be as many of us as we want there to be based on whatever drives women. The problems we have today will be replaced by others, but the ratchet will click forward often enough to be noticed each year.

alan said...

riato, I am not certain if you are referring to the Latin American World Model or not, but if so, it was a project underwritten by the Canadian International Development Research Centre and carried out in Buenos Aires, Argentina and published in 1976. You can find the reference here as a pdf: The idea was to craft a new world order based on the idea that exponential growth of consumption and population would lead to resource depletion and pollution that has the potential of collapsing society. The researchers saw the main driving force to be population growth with all other problems a consequence of the increase in population and that the impediments to proper management of the planet in a sustainable fashion are not physical but instead are sociopolitical. They developed a conceptual and computer model with many variables. I won't try to summarize all the findings, but relevant to your question, the model proposed that everyone should have equal access to those goods necessary for the satisfaction of basic needs; equality of opportunity for those goods and services not included in these needs was also advocated. In other words, an essentially egalitarian income distribution was assumed. The egalitarian assumption of the model was based more on a sense of basic justice and social solidarity than on technical economic considerations. The model shows that it is possible to control population growth to the point of equilibrium by raising the general standard of living, particularly with relation to basic needs. They recognize this would not be an easy task and would require some level of world government and a comprehensive income and wealth tax to ensure universal support for basic needs. But they concluded that this would stabilize world populations and provide a universally healthy environment.

In our current world, the Nordic economic model (Sweden, Finland, Denmark) is quite similar to this Latin American model but on a national, not a world scale. It is in practice now so you can examine its results today (hint - it is good but not perfect). In economic terms it is a capitalist society that values and implements universal social benefits and support systems while remaining corporately competitive.

Alfred Differ said...

@Alex: You may be right (or the author of the article) about Italy. It's been a while since they've faced slaughter, famine, and disease on a scale large enough to drive a woman's fear. I suspect the author is listening too much to the popular explanation, though. In the US, we haven't faced such problems in about as long, yet there was a mini population boom around the time I was born. My mother 'explained' it to me once as "That's just what people were doing then" when we asked her why she had four of us instead of the two she thought was proper later.

Regarding day care costs, I would be tempted to do a Homer Simpson "D'Oh" except it is pretty easy to see. The price of day care SHOULD correlate with the minimum wage since higher wage earners will have replacement options putting price pressure on day care rates. Lower wage earners won't have options and are effectively captured by an industry that is essentially a utility. My brother-in-law and his wife hired a nanny for their daughter's earliest years because they could. My wife stopped working because we could. Lots of people don't have a lot of options, but many more choose lifestyles that prevent those options, thus a utility is born.

alan said...

David, I apologize if I overstated, but I am essentially quoting the manifesto and Michael Schellenberger. Feel free to remove my post if you find it offensive, but insofar as I have used the sources available to me, it is not an exaggeration.

David Brin said...

Alan I am not offended! You exaggerated and I exaggerated. We have thick skins here.

But I remain puzzled -- even boggled -- that actually actually actually think you did not commit an outrageous exaggeration. I have to wonder what you are taking.

David Brin said...

Guys The Global Post just ran a tighter version of my Black Lives Need Tech posting. Do drop by...

and feel free to comment. Most of the commenters so far are drooling fools, alas.

alan said...

David, to further clarify my position: I fully approve of the interim solutions using wind, solar and anything else that has as close to zero carbon footprint as possible. I am not opposed to nuclear power and look forward to the development of fusion using tokamak technology. I have worked with the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organization to find the best ways to deal with waste. I live in farm country and understand the need to improve crop efficiency if the growing population and their food needs are to be met. I do cheer on and support many of the local initiatives that emphasize ways to reduce our ecological footprint ( what the Ecomodernist temed "decoupling of environmental impacts"). Much of my career was spent working to improve science literacy and on developing environmentally sustainable policies and projects.

There may be Ecomodernists who do not adhere to the published manifesto. The statements in the manifesto I find most disconcerting regarding potential interim solutions using the current renewable technologies taken together are these:

"Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy.

"Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so. The scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future.

"Present-day solar technologies will require substantial innovation to meet this standard and the development of cheap energy storage technologies that are capable of dealing with highly variable energy generation at large scales.

"Nuclear fission today represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy.

"Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world's people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives. [the contention is that other forms of energy like solar and wind are too expensive and should not be used]

If you can point me to sources that suggest a less extreme perspective than the manifesto presents and is more similar to the one you espouse and that I also I think is appropriate, I would be most grateful and would be pleased to revise my opinion of Ecomodernists on that basis.

Until then I will rely on the good sense of many people who understand that interim solutions using sources other than fossil fuels are quite reasonable.

alan said...

David, The other source of my unease is Michael Schellenberger who is the main advocate on social media for the Ecomodernist movement. I will refrain from further statements you may find to be exaggerated, but suggest you examine these references for information on his position. It may be that even though he is one of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, that he does not really represent mainstream ecomodernists. I, however, did not exaggerate his position or statements on renewables.

As for what I take, it is food, mostly vegetables, and not too much.

Anonymous said...

Alfred, once again I don't think we differ by much here. Though I agree with your black swans argument academically, for a nation or other body trying to make intelligent policy decisions it's not very meaningful. Black swans are uncertain by definition, so betting on them is like the guy who chain smokes, then says he's betting on a miracle of medical science to save him. That miracle might happen, or it might not. It's better to ditch the cigarettes anyway - don't count the unhatched chickens.

"It's just that we are trending toward inclusion of more billions of minds in our markets, so I'm betting on more black swans and some really impressive ones this century."

This is the one argument that might favor the current lack of birth control policy. If more people have the opportunity to get good education and have access to "the means of production" as old Uncle Karl would say, there is a greater chance of someone coming along and inventing and/or discovering some amazing game-changing thing for the world.

" I suspect there will be more than 11 billion people and they won't be going hungry."

You're still thinking in terms of basic animal resources (food, water, territory, etc) but even many animals are beyond that. There's already enough food on Earth for everyone, it's just that it's not distributed very evenly (92 cookies for North America, 6 for Asia). The old Ratopolis experiments they did in Canada back in the 70s shows that even if there is enough food for everybody, crowding causes stress and stress leads to violence for at least some segment of the population. In terms of invention and innovation, population growth is a positive sum game. But in psychological and sociocultural terms, there may be a threshold beyond which it becomes a negative sum game.

On another subject entirely, if Trump gets the nomination, who would be his running mate? Scrooge McDuck? That could make for a funny bumper sticker: Trump/McDuck 2016 - because two cartoon characters are better than all the insiders.

Paul SB said...

I seem to have accidentally clicked the anonymous button.

Paul SB

Jumper said...

Alan's points reminded me of the idea of guaranteed incomes, which arguments have been around a while, but invoked for me another reason: eliminate the fear of poverty in old age, and you eliminate a fearful reason for having lots of kids to take care of you in old age.

Jumper said...

I'm stealing that, Paul SB. I'll credit you under that name unless you tell me otherwise.

Paul SB said...

Stop! Thief! Sto-o-o-op! :]

Go for it! Glad I managed to get a chuckle out of someone...

I would ask my daughter to draw it for me, but she would probably say it's a waste of her talent.

raito said...


It could have been, though some of your statements don't agree with what I remember (like the assumption of egalitarian income distribution).

But again, I didn't read the entire paper, just the synopsis in a book full of other synopses from whatever conference.

Andy said...

It's a pity that the military-industrial complex was too obsessed with building weapons of mass destruction to pursue the much more promising use of thorium as nuclear reactor fuel. Thorium being cheaper, safer, and more abundant than uranium. But you can't make bombs out of it, so screw it!

China and India are using the thorium prototype designs the US researched and forging ahead. It isn't too late for the US to shift priorities and massively invest in thorium. However I feel the window of opportunity is closing. In a few more years, more efficient solar power and/or fusion power will likely make pursuing thorium nuclear power too inefficient to be worth the investment.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: Heh. I know we aren’t far apart. I’m just nit-picking in the usual libertarian way.

Those intelligent policy decisions nations are making look to me like they are based on astrological charts because the black swans are uncertain as to their scope and arrival date, but damn near certain as to the fact that they WILL arrive. Obviously, one can’t make probabilistic statements about them (Taleb made that clear enough), but there sure have been a lot of them in the last few millennia and they seem to be coming at us more frequently. While the landscape is losing biological diversity, the memescape is exploding in that sense. Our Cambrian explosion is underway.

I have to chuckle at birth control policies, though. I’ve never met a notion that I thought was more futile. We are fundamentally liberal when it comes to our procreation opportunities (my interests/my decision), but tempted to constrain others if we have the power. What a waste of treasure. Until we are willing to engage in a breeding program to turn those others into something less than human, our efforts can’t help but fail… and we already know exactly why.

I remember the rat stress demos. My issue with them is that stress is fundamentally useful for humans in our search for black swans and not so useful for the rats. Today’s cut may deliver 92 cookies to North America and 6 to Asia, but a generation from now it will be 148 for North America and 102 for Asia. The generation after that gets hard to predict because the definition of ‘cookie’ will probably change along with the recipes for making them. I’m the son of the son of an immigrant coal miner, but I have an education and the associated advanced degree because the cookie I got became affordable to vulgar commoners like me. Black swans change the shackles and constraints of one generation into wisps of smoke and illusion for the next. How can one write intelligent policy in that setting? The best policy, I believe, is to plan for these swans instead of planning for solutions.

locumranch said...

The naive belief that 'Black Swans' will descend from heaven to solve all of our problems, especially the (Mathulusian) problem of the pending Democalypse, smacks of Deus Ex Machina, religious faith and wishful thinking, its sole purpose being the justification & perpetuation of Western Society's most self-destructive 'Me First' aspects.

Then & now, this is the Roman Societal Model of repetitive Binge & Bust, preceded by the infantile belief that rights & privileges can be causatively separated from adult consequence & responsibilities BECAUSE some Magical Parental Black Swan will (most certainly) 'descend from the heavens' to intervene on our (most) deserving behalf.

This is insanity, people: Repeating the same optimistic claptrap over & over while expecting a different outcome.

Most certainly, technology has given us a good run by extending the civilisation bubble to proportions unheard of during pre-industrial times, but that does not imply an indefinite suspension of cause & effect, and the bill (in the form of a giant democalyptic ARM-style balloon payment) has just (or will soon) come due...

Especially when the tried-and-true business solution keeps staring us in the face.


Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: I've encountered the 'faith' argument regarding black swans before, so don't be surprised when I flip it around on you. From where I sit, the people who ignore these swans have far too much faith in their own infallibility. Cycles are easy to believe and deliver an aesthetic fix for those who prefer a calmer change environment, but they fail miserably at explaining how the human population grew by about 1000x since the last time ice dominated the landscape, how we managed to domesticate plants and animals since then (and dogs before), and how we managed to fall into and then crawl back out of the Y-chromosome bottleneck.

The cycle is a useful analogy over short time spans, but the ratchet is a better one over longer periods. Black Swans make those clicking sounds you hear around you and they won't shut up until we become something other than the humans we became at least 3,000 generations ago.

locumranch said...

I love 'Black Swans' and I hope as you hope that a great green cold fusion analogue will save us all, but that doesn't mean that we can't help ourselves now with available technologies.

First, read this article:

Second, extrapolate while realising that 'World Corp' has over-extended itself, being unable honour the debts of all of its subsidiaries, deal with the environmental consequences of global business-as-usual, provide a first-word level lifestyle for all of its client-employees, deal with the imminent retirement of HALF of its population, or (even) deal with the ramifications of global economic migrations.

Third, while recognising that the human economy is fundamentally amoral, we balkanise, spinning off the more successful enterprises from the loss leaders, followed by strategic bankruptcy, contractual dischargement & reorganization, and LANCE this social abscess before this (localised) infection spreads & kills the entire host.


alan said...

Because "black swan" events are unpredictable and of a nature that is essentially unprecedented (in Taleb's thinking), there is no assurance that the black swan events will be either positive of negative. Thus it is waiting on random chance and not knowing if that "anticipated" black swan event will be an unpredictable catastrophe or an unpredictable miracle. In the meantime it might be prudent to take reasonable measures to deal with any known threats such as global warming, widespread poverty and malnutrition, etc. while at the same time encouraging a supportive environment for innovations that might provide small to large leaps forward in our technological or cultural development.

Alfred Differ said...

@locumranch: You say you love black swans and hope for the good ones, but then you talk about extrapolation of trends. That demonstrates you don’t grok these swans. Extrapolation isn’t just hard, it’s meaningless when you know these swans keep appearing. Read Taleb’s point on this. Extrapolation requires we live in Mediocristan. We don’t.

@Alan: I have no qualms with TWODA actions. What I want to caution against are solution designs that unnecessarily constrain future options and bias against some of the friendly black swans that might arrive.

Personally, I think we will need a couple of pretty ones to get out of the climate mess we are making for ourselves short of billions dying. I sincerely doubt people are going to choose to live a lesser lifestyle than those of us in the US until they are forced and that’s not exactly a choice, right? That means the prudent thing to do is every TWODA action we can imagine while making as much room for unconstrained innovation in this area.

Alex Tolley said...

"In fact, (Adam) Smithian capitalism is open, flat, fair, transparent and benefits from very close regulation of the competitive playing field... "

To get away from black swans for a moment. The problem is that highly competitive markets are common, the goal of marketers is to reduce competition by creating unique niches, and businesses try to reduce competition by reducing competitors. For many mature markets, there are is usually only room for about 3 successful companies, one of which is dominant and is trying to become a monopolist. Studies of business show that just a handful of major banks "control" much of the global marketplace. We seem to be getting back to where we were when TR was trust busting.

So one needs to be aware that flat, competitive markets are ideal states, requiring rather special conditions, and that like social attractors, the business attractor is towards monopoly, even if that is just in a small market segment.

David Brin said...

Who is this cogent debater and what did he do with locumranch? Seriously we must our hyperbolic, strawmanning loon!

Alan, you are reading the same things and yet leaping to absurd conclusions. Paraphrasing, they are saying sustainables are "insufficient to bridge us across the current gap and so they need supplementation in a broad range approach that must include high density sources like nuclear, till our parallel heavy support for sustainables can truly take off..."

But YOU are taking this to be saying "instead of." Seriously guys, did ANY of the rest of you make that conflation?

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
alan said...

David, I also read this the way you did at first, and I was very excited about the whole concept of using better technology (after all that is how we got to where we are now) and it makes excellent sense that advancing technology is also the way forward. Careful reading revealed a different picture. What rang the alarm bell on energy production during the implementation phases, is that the manifesto and its advocate Schellenberger actually say that it is OK to use solar and wind very locally in some instances but that it is very expensive and is not energy-dense. They also recognize that their choices of thorium fission and deuterium fusion are a long way off.

So the question is what are the existing energy-dense fuels that are inexpensive? They are fossil fuels. Energy-dense fossil fuels release free time and human energy to allow economic development and the means to escape poverty. So in the view of ecomodernists, fossil fuels are the natural bridge. Where wood and charcoal are the fuels, the idea is to upgrade to coal, where coal is the fuel, upgrade to oil, where oil is the fuel, upgrade to natural gas - each time reducing the carbon load. In fact, of course, they are correct, this has been the mechanism by which nations have "decarbonized," and it is the mechanism the ecomodernists propose to continue to use until energy-dense nuclear or eventually high efficiency solar is invented.

In email correspondence with Schellenberger, he estimates they can keep the CO2 down to 550ppm until enough nuclear is in place to take over. This would produce between 3C and 4C increase in global temperature. Personally, I doubt nuclear will be in place soon enough to meet that target. Continuing to routinely use fossil fuels where (in my opinion) large scale wind and solar can be used effectively in its place is downright dangerous for the future. The manifesto does not suggest a range of renewables (except for yet-to-be-invented high efficiency solar cells) as the future energy source - it specifies nuclear and fossil fuels with yet-to-be-invented carbon capture and sequester (CCS) technology.

The Breakthrough Institute (authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto) routinely attacks renewable energy in favour of fossil fuels.

There are sensible people out there, and possibly there are other "ecomodernists" of a different stripe. Certainly we see active and energetic people and organizations shifting to non-fossil fuel alternatives. Some of the Nordic countries have made impressive strides, and it bodes well for the future. But Schellenberger, Nordhaus and the Breakthrough Institute are no saviours of the planet.

Robert said...

Here's another for your Prediction Registry, Dr. Brin: Conservative Billionaires are starting to talk about income inequality as a bad thing and are considering what to do about it. It is almost akin to the scene in "Existence" except it's not a closed-door meeting, there's no alien artifact, and the billionaires are considering doing what their associates did in the 1930s - go for Roosevelt's plan.

Rob H.

Matt Colborn said...

Hi David --

Broadly speaking, I'd call myself an 'ecomodernist' or 'ecopragmatist.' I've long raised eyebrows amongst environmental friends by advocating a space program. Similarly, I've sometimes felt very uncomfortable amongst space advocates who seem to think that the environmental movement just gets in the way of 'technological progress' (no matter what gets trashed on the way). This has, frankly, left me feeling like an outsider to some degree in BOTH groups. But I want to live in a future where there's a lot more wilderness on the Earth AND we colonize the solar system! Kim Stanley Robinson's writing, as well as yours, of course :-) have helped find a new way over the last 20 years. Thanks!

David Brin said...

Thanks Matt. I have come to realize that it all boils down to one basic matter of personality. Can you grasp the concept of positive sum games? Nearly all leftists and rightists cannot. Everything is either-or. Liberals (as opposed to leftists) inherently think that way... that the pie can get larger WHILE sharing it generously.

David Brin said...


Matt Colborn said...

Thanks for replying, David. I also found your comments about Naomi Klein's book useful. Whilst there's a lot of interesting stuff in that book, I agree that she, like the guys on the 'other' side tend to conflate a whole lot of different things (e.g. modern takes on Adam Smithian economics, feudal social structures, globalization, etc.), and this renders a lot of what she says problematic.

My own view is that economics/politics needs to become a lot more evidence based than it seems currently. Too often, in the UK at least, policies seem based upon mindlessly following ideologies as opposed the proponents being honest about what they really are -- social/economic experiments. So we need to attend to the effects of various policies and be honest about the upsides and downsides of a given approach (this includes free market economics, BTW.)

Basically, I think, in the end, I'm against faith-based solutions and for ones that are realistically and honestly applied to problem domains.