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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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Here are some intriguing closing remarks from President Phil Chase, a character whom I first quoted in this post, from the end of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy of near-future environmental catastrophe: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. (These books are far better than their hokey titles suggest.)

Economics-related )

On sustainability:
    "By permaculture I mean a culture that can be sustained permanently. Not unchanging, that's impossible, we have to stay dynamic, because conditions will change, and we will have to adapt to those new conditions, and continue to try to make things even better—so that I like to think the word permaculture implies also permutation. . . .
    "Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species. . . . People worry about living life without purpose or meaning, and rightfully so, but really there is no need for concern: inventing a sustainable culture is the meaning, right there always before us . . . [and] will never come to an end while people still exist. . . .
    "We have to become the stewards of the Earth. And we have to start doing this in ignorance of how to do it. We have to learn how to do it in the attempt itself."

This from a president who has supported dumping mass quantities of salt into the north Atlantic to restart the Gulf Stream, as well as pumping massive amounts of water from the rising seas inland to form new salt lakes.  The full impacts of actions on this scale are unknown, and some of Robinson's characters do worry about this, but they rationalize that things have already gotten so bad over the course of the trilogy that there's no time left to look before we leap.  Hence the title of this post, which recurs several times throughout the trilogy.

One might conclude that we have a ways to go yet before that attitude becomes unavoidable.  On the other hand, consider how far we've already leapt in the wrong direction:

    "Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently estimated the ocean has absorbed 118 billion metric tons of CO2 since the onset of the Industrial Revolution—about half of the total we’ve released into the atmosphere . . . [which] is good for our atmosphere but bad for our ocean, since it changes the pH. Studies indicate that the shells and skeletons possessed by everything from reef-building corals to mollusks to plankton begin to dissolve within 48 hours of exposure to the acidity expected in the ocean by 2050. . . .
    "Collectively, marine phytoplankton have influenced life on earth more than any other organism, since they are significant alleviators of greenhouse gases, major manufacturers of oxygen, and the primary producers of the marine food web. Yet because many phytoplankton produce minute aragonite shells, these pastures of the sea may not survive changing pH levels."

Major manufacturers of oxygen, eh?  That would be an understatement: "phytoplankton draw nearly as much CO2 out of the atmosphere and oceans through photosynthesis as do trees, grasses and all other land plants combined" (p. 57), converting it all to oxygen.  We're talking about a large fraction of the world's oxygen supply, slowly dissolving before our eyes.  In this light, crazy proposals like those described above, or like using iron dust to promote phytoplankton growth as described in the linked SciAm article, start to seem worthy of strong consideration.
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In 1980, Julian Simon famously bet Paul Ehrlich that the prices of five raw metals of Ehrlich's choosing would fall over the next decade. He won the bet, and used this and other evidence to support his theory that human ingenuity, which he called the "ultimate resource," would always prevent resource scarcity from becoming a problem.

The book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, published in 1999, notes that "The prices for most raw materials are at a twenty-eight-year low and are still falling. Supplies are cheap and appear to be abundant," but "ingenuity" is only one of several factors promoting this impression. The list of causes they give includes "the collapse of the Asian economies, globalization of trade, cheaper transport costs*, imbalances in market power that enable commodity traders and middlemen to squeeze producers, and in large measure the success of powerful new extractive technologies, whose correspondingly extensive damage to ecosystems is seldom given a monetary value. After richer ores are exhausted, skilled mining companies can now level and grind up whole mountains of poorer-quality ores to extract the minerals desired. But while technology keeps ahead of depletion, providing what appear to be ever-cheaper metals, they only appear cheap, because the stripped rainforest and the mountain of toxic tailings spilling into rivers, the impoverished villages . . . are not factored into the cost of production."

In short, "ingenious" methods of extracting some resources (such as metals) are destroying others (such as trees, fish, and farmland). Ultimately, the cost of such measures, both to other industries and to quality of life, will be so great that local populations and even other businesses will be forced to intervene.

The right way to continue to ensure that prices for resources don't rise, then, is not to insensibly try to expand resource supplies forever, but to use even more ingenious techniques to reduce demand for raw materials through efficiency and recycling, and ensure that non-recyclable "wastes" are biodegradeable and can serve to replenish the "natural capital" that resource extraction uses up.

*Of course, now that oil is approaching $100 a barrel, transportation costs are much higher than they were eight years ago.

P.S. Natural Capitalism focuses partly on another radical step to reduce the flow of resources needed to make new products: the creation of "a service economy in which consumers obtain services by leasing or renting goods rather than buying them outright" (italics in original). Oddly enough, the concept originated independently from two sources, one of whom was Michael Braungart, a co-author of the book Cradle to Cradle, which didn't mention the concept of a rent/lease economy that I can recall. Yet because a rented product always returns to the manufacturer to be cleaned up and re-rented (and eventually recycled), the other originator, Walter Stahel, "called the process 'cradle-to-cradle.'" Weird, eh?
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"That's the argument. We can impact the environment. We may not be as smart as we need to be, or know what we should know, to make things better. We could easily make things much worse."
-[ profile] bdunbar, responding to this post
Frequency: Unique (if you meet it, it's eaten the planet) Armour Class: -10 Move: 0 Hit Dice: 1,000,000,000,000 % Damage/Attack: Eats the planet (including all adventurers not already aboard spaceships)
-Charles Stross, "Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds"
And now Sir Richard Branson is offering a $25-million prize to the first person who can invent some and throw it at the problem of global warming. Okay, the prize is for any solution that would sequester a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. But what other technology than self-replicating nanomachines could possibly eat up the 800 billion extra tonnes we've added to the atmosphere in any reasonable length of time? Particularly if we use the presence or promise of such a quick, cheap technical fix as an excuse to keep pumping out an additional 30 billion tonnes every year? (Back-of-envelope calculations based on these figures)

Being in charge of the massive Virgin corporate empire, Branson probably sees us all as hopelessly addicted consumers, and has just realized what that means for the future of the world. He's clearly panicking, and needless to say, if we want to come up with workable solutions that won't be worse than the problem, we can't afford to panic.
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In intellectual circles, the continuing debate over global warming goes something like this:

"Well, Mr. Naysayer, the evidence is all in--the climate is definitely warming."

"Yup, have to agree with you there."

"Really! So what are you planning to do about it?"

"Absolutely nothing."

"What?? Well, whyever not?"

"Simple. There's no proof of the correlation between your so-called 'greenhouse gases' and global average temperatures. I say the Sun is causing the warming, not us. And you can't beat the Sun."

"I'm sorry, but that's no excuse for sticking your head in the sand and waiting for death. Just because we don't know for sure whether reducing emissions would help doesn't mean we shouldn't try it, particularly considering the economic benefits of switching to renewable energy before the oil runs out!"

To this dialogue I would add that whether or not human activities are inadvertently impacting the climate, we may be able to impact it intentionally if we really try. It won't be easy, but then, hey--the future of our species may be at stake here.

Idea 1: We could release large quantities of global-cooling pollutants such as sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere.
Objection: The resulting acid rain would kill off the world's plant life. Plus, if all that CO2 isn't affecting the climate, why should we believe that any chemicals we put up there will make a difference?
Rebuttal: None at this time. Maybe I'll write one after reading the collection of scientific papers on celestial forcing provided to me by Professor Tim Patterson. (Oddly, Prof. Patterson never replied to my question about the startling lack of media attention paid to scientists like him. Maybe he agrees with Michael Moore that the news media is just trying to keep everybody as afraid as possible. [slaps self on hand for blatant ad-hominem attack])

Idea 2: We could plant millions of white-leafed trees to raise the planet's albedo, reflecting more of the sun's light back to space before it gets converted to heat.
Objection: This strategy would cause massive damage to already-strained ecosystems.
Rebuttal: Probably not as much damage as continued global warming would cause.

Idea 3: Similarly, we could cover the polar regions with giant white sheets to prevent the sunlight from melting the ice.
Objection: That's a whole lot of white sheets, and white or no, they'd eventually absorb so much heat that they would contribute to the problem rather than helping.
Rebuttal: Again, none at this time.

Idea 4: We could place an immense, semitransparent sunshade near the Lagrange point between Earth and the Sun, stabilized by the solar-sail principle.
Objection: To cast shade over an appreciable fraction of the planet, the sunshade would have to be tens of millions of square kilometers in area. And even if we could manufacture three-gram-per-square-meter carbon-fiber sheets in that kind of quantity, fifty million square kilometers of the stuff would still weigh about 150 million metric tons, making it basically impossible to lift it all into space in any reasonable length of time. Isn't mega-scale engineering fun?
Rebuttal: There's already plenty of carbon in space, in the form of large asteroids which might collide with Earth if we don't take them apart. In short, if we build the sunshade we can knock out two major threats to the existence of our species in one masterful stroke!

And even if none of these pans out, sticking our heads in the sand doesn't make any sense when we could be evacuating areas due to be inundated by water or disease, preparing to replace lost crop yields with hydroponics, and so forth. If things get really bad, we can move the human race down into some nice cool cave cities if necessary. Key take-home message: Where there's life, there's hope.

Essay 2

May. 19th, 2006 04:43 pm
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This next one is much longer and was my final paper for Intro Environmental Studies.  It was titled "Can humanity become independent of the natural environment?"

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According to Mr. Wright, my tenth-grade social studies teacher, religion provides people with answers to three important questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? The last question is particularly important, since the answers given are usually used to counteract the fear of death. Belief in an afterlife or resurrection is probably most of what makes religion so attractive to so many people. So if the science-based Church of Gaia/Earthseed is ever going to get anywhere, it will probably need to include one or more of these concepts: read the list )
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"And that's your guiding star, isn't it? What's of use."

- Dr. Simon Tam, in Serenity

"Have you ever wondered how we will be remembered a thousand years from now, when we are as remote as Charlemagne? Many [technophiles] would be satisfied with a list that includes the following: the technoscientific revolution continued, globalized, and unstoppable; computer capacity approaching that of the human brain; robotic auxiliaries proliferating; cells rebuilt from molecules; space colonized; population growth slackening; the world democratized; international trade accelerated; people better fed and healthier than ever before; life span stretched; religion holding firm."

- E. O. Wilson, The Future of Life, Chapter 6

One libertarian technophile named Charles Stross recently published a novel, Accelerando, envisioning a near future that closely matches these predictions. It's certainly not a standard take on radical optimism, though. read more )
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According to Dr. Rob Lempert of RAND corporation, economic growth doesn't have to be based on growth in the amount of physical resources used. It can depend on services and other intangibles--and indeed, the United States and other "industrialized" nations have become largely service economies. Now, this doesn't mean resource use isn't increasing--it has to in order to support the still-growing world population; it's just that most of the resource-intensive production has been moved to the second and third worlds.

However, if Lempert is right, stopping the dangerous increase in the physical scale of the human presence may not require quite as drastic a restructuring of the economy as I thought. Unbounded growth may be possible if it's only growth in the production and consumption of ideas.

On the other hand, information requires matter and energy to store it, so in the long run this may not disprove the hypothesis that the economy can't grow forever.

March 2015

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