The Ergosphere
Friday, March 04, 2005
 

Read the whole thing

Over at Muck and Mystery, back40 has harsh words for a post over at WorldChanging.  He rips author Alex Steffen a new one:
The math spoken of is miser-math, or as the poet said "here's one for you, nineteen for me", since there is no intention at all of an equitable sharing. The overwhelming majority of the loot will be reserved for official use. Only the crumbs left over are subject to equitable sharing.
That's a mighty bleak view.  He goes on:
No, we owe our kids increased well being rather than table scraps, leavings that we did not consume. Our task is to improve the world so that they can have a better start and reach a higher percentage of their potential than we did.
But Steffen disagrees rather vehemently with such outcomes:
Planet's shrinking, clock's ticking: what to do?

There are four usual answers.

I'm ashamed to say, some people still think the first and worst is an option, that we ought to "let nature take care of the problem." ....

The die-off plan isn't discussed much in liberal polite company. That it's ever discussed at all -- at the tail end of a century that saw the Nazis, the killing fields of Cambodia and ethnic genocides from Armenia to Rwanda to Bosnia -- is disgusting. It rings like jackboots on cobblestones to imply that a large number of one's fellow beings shouldn't be here, or may not be able to survive.

The idea of drastic forced reductions in population is horrible. People are rightly appalled to hear about forced sterilizations, or the abuses of China's one-child policy. But the idea of die-off, of reducing the world's population through the simple expedient of letting millions and millions of people starve and murder each other when we might have saved them: that's both idiotic and evil.

It's idiotic because dying and desperate people are no respecters of nature, the future or their legacies – they're desperate, and they will use any and all resources and tools at their disposal to survive....

And it's evil, simply and totally wrong, to do next to nothing to avoid the death, destruction and pain already unfolding around us in magnitudes that dwarf the Holocaust.
Steffen goes on:
And are we really willing to cut back enough to live lives that are truly sustainable? I certainly don't see any evidence that we are.... And if we aren’t willing to live within those limits, why do we think everyone else will be?

This is a story without clear good guys and bad guys. The First and Third worlds now live around the corner from each other, mutually dependent everywhere.
He's got a warning, and a prescription:
Unfortunately, the model we used to get rich is no longer replicable. For everyone on Earth to follow the Western model of development, we'd need somewhere between five and ten additional planets'-worth of resources and waste sinks, which is somewhere between five and ten more than we've got. As 2002 Jo'berg Memo puts it, "[T]here is no escape from the conclusion that the world's growing population cannot attain a Western standard of living by following conventional paths to development. The resources required are too vast, too expensive, and too damaging to local and global ecosystems."

...

What we need, then, is a new model. We need a new model which allows unprecedented prosperity on a sustainable basis. We need a new model which will let everyone on the planet get rich and stay rich, while healing the planet's ecosystems. We need to create what some Brits call "one-planet livelihoods" which are so prosperous, so dynamic, so enticing that the alternative of chasing the old model of green follows gold seems simply moronic.

Designing a system which would lead to that kind of sustainable prosperity would already present an epic challenge. But we're not done yet. For that system also needs to work in the real world. It must be rugged and shock-proof.
What did back40 have to say about the same subject?
Looting the earth is not our best option since we are quite capable of producing our own loot.
Funny, I thought that's what Steffen was saying, with the caveat that it is EXTREMELY important that we start doing it RIGHT NOW.

Even Randall Parker seems to agree.  He quotes nobelist Richard Smalley approvingly, and winds up with an opinion of his own:

"It would be very nice to have an alternative to fossil fuels—an alternative to nuclear fission—that would be capable of providing energy for what will probably be 10-15 billion people in the middle of this next century. I believe that if this alternative exists, it has to be solar. Right now we do not even have a solar technology that is even laughably close to being able to handle—for example—80% of all the world's energy production. If you don't do 80%, you're not touching the problem. And if you don't provide energy technology that is economically cheaper than the alternatives, it won't be adopted at all.

"Where is that solar technology going to come from? [It will come] not just from improving solar cells, but from something totally new...."
We need to start working seriously on alternatives to fossil fuels.
Just maybe, if we would take the time to read the whole thing, we'd find out that we're all reading from the same book.  A little understanding instead of flaming is all it may take to get to the same page. 
Comments:
"A little understanding instead of flaming is all it may take to get to the same page."

As I see it we are on very different pages.

"We need a new model which allows unprecedented prosperity on a sustainable basis."

I don't think so. I'm arguing that the model we have worked out over the years of cultural evolution is working well in spite of periodic broadsides by shallow thinkers who don't understand the world around them, and so dedicate themselves to changing it. All the world changers have done over the decades is delay progress and cause misery. There are useful contributions we can make now, but they need to be insightful advancements that work with existing momentum to help achieve present goals. The better we cooperate the faster the progress.

Perhaps confusingly, being on the same page or all pulling in the same direction is the exact wrong thing to do. Wisdom emerges from independent, diverse and decentralized efforts - the combined vector is progress even when none are moving in that direction. It's related to the knowledge problem, our inability to make useful plans and predictions since we can't gather or process information in the volume or speed needed. The poet may grasp this even if the engineer is squicked out.
 
Every time I hear one of the millennialist Greens talking about the coming "dieoff", I want to reach for my gun. This is the philosophy of communism: somebody at the top splitting the fruits according to some inflexible five-year plan. And Jeremy Leggett wonders why Michael Crichton calls the Greens "defeated communists"!
 
back40 sez:

"As I see it we are on very different pages."

Perhaps as far as fears, but what about ends?

"I'm arguing that the model we have worked out over the years of cultural evolution is working well in spite of periodic broadsides by shallow thinkers who don't understand the world around them, and so dedicate themselves to changing it."

Our "model" has been in continuous change over the last two centuries.  It's changing as this discussion goes on.  We've made major shifts in our methods and sources in just the last 15 years.

Our shifts have been made mostly in response to issues of supply, but pollution has been an increasingly important factor.  Most of the increase in natural-gas fired plants is due to pollution regulations rather than fuel cost.  It's time to do it again.

This isn't the first time we've had to radically slash emissions of a substance - even a plant nutrient - to eliminate serious environmental problems.  Laundry detergents used to have lots of phosphates in them to make the soap work better, but phosphate was a limiting nutrient in many lakes and rivers (esp. Lake Erie) and the consequent algal blooms threatened to turn them into anoxic, stinking dead zones.  We eliminated phosphates in most detergents and worked on sewage treatment systems and now Lake Erie has great fishing.

"There are useful contributions we can make now, but they need to be insightful advancements that work with existing momentum to help achieve present goals. The better we cooperate the faster the progress."

You mean, like the kind of things we'd get if we rewarded the right kind of results and got the hell out of the way?

"Perhaps confusingly, being on the same page or all pulling in the same direction is the exact wrong thing to do. "

True in the case of methods or technologies, but unlikely in the case of goals.  I can't find a way to argue with this:  "We need a new model which will let everyone on the planet get rich and stay rich, while healing the planet's ecosystems."  You can contrast the destructive stripping of the land for charcoal in Haiti with this account from India.

And I'm quite familiar with the knowledge problem; I am not sure which avenue is going to be most productive, which is why I oppose the Bush administration's premature focus on hydrogen and propose rewards for any measure which will get to the desired goal, whether we've thought of it yet or not.

And rob said:

"Every time I hear one of the millennialist Greens talking about the coming "dieoff", I want to reach for my gun."Consider it a way to motivate them to support your program.  Even if it "squicks you out".
 
"We need a new model which will let everyone on the planet get rich and stay rich, while healing the planet's ecosystems."

Who is we? Why a new model?

This is tired old cybernetic, steam age thinking, the clockwork view of society. The way reality works is that information affects everyone and each responds as they will. The net result is something we call a model, but no one created it, predicted it, or understands either how it came about or how it works.

That's not to say that there hasn't been a tiresome parade of world changers munging up things all along, but they just inhibit progress and create misery in their blundering.

We don't need a new model. Continual evolution, as you noted was the perpetual condition in earlier remarks, works a treat. That model has been called "the discovery machine" for its ability to conduct multiple, parallel experiments and computations and communicate the results widely.

A useful thing we can do is to help that machine work more quickly with modest efforts to increase education and communication. The better people are educated the better their experiments will be and the better they will understand the experiments of others. The better their communication with one another, the more quickly and broadly the information will flow.

It's not helpful when advocates, activists or philosopher kings try to game the system, skew the results, or impose their narrow and ultimately mistaken views on society. There is no useful contribution activists can make. They are noise in the system. There's no eliminating them, they are natural too, but see them as they are, part of the problem rather than anything useful. They must be opposed so that they can't gain sufficient power to harm things, but that's just normal social hygiene, the governance equivalent of flossing.

""Every time I hear one of the millennialist Greens talking about the coming "dieoff", I want to reach for my gun."Consider it a way to motivate them to support your program. Even if it "squicks you out"."

You have conflated two posts from different people. Want to rephrase that after you get untangled?
 
I don't normally use sarcasm toward people I like, but this is just too blatant an exhibition of the phenomenon under discussion.

back40 said:  "You have conflated two posts from different people."

But in the post he was quoting, immediately before the section he quoted, I wrote:  "And rob said:"

Next time read the whole thing, okay?
 
back40 writes:

"Who is we? Why a new model?... "

"We" are the people who use energy to raise ourselves above subsistence living to achieve what we might as well call the "modern lifestyle".  Most of the people on earth want to be in this group, and barring catastrophe will eventually join it.  It's obvious that the entire world can't do things the way the industrialized nations are doing them now, so something's got to give.

"New model" is Steffen's term, not mine.  I won't put words in his mouth, but I get the feeling that it means something different to you than it does to me.  From your reaction, I suspect that you regard it as meaning a standard dictated by some planning entity and rigidly adhered to.

"This is tired old cybernetic, steam age thinking, the clockwork view of society."

There's another meaning, a la "a city on the suburban model of detached single-family homes rather than Brooklyn brownstones."  In this sense, any significant technological shift results in "a new model".  Science and technology are not merely on the march but doing double-time, so we're going to get one no matter what else we do.  The question is what it's going to look like, and today's allocations of development attention and investment are going to be crucial in determining the speed, direction and consequences of those shifts.

"The net result is something we call a model, but no one created it, predicted it, or understands either how it came about or how it works."

But sometimes we recognized needs which were public goods; we created policies and incentives, and we got something that has to be called "a new model" by that definition.

Beginning in the 1960's we told the oil and auto companies to concentrate attention on reducing NOx, CO and HC emissions of cars to address smog problems; it got done, and the "model" for petroleum refining and automotive powertrains changed and continues to change (I've had a very small part in this).  Lately we've been telling utilities to concentrate attention on fly-ash, sulfur and mercury emissions to address air quality, toxic contamination and acid rain problems.  As a consequence the model for power production changed somewhat on the coal-fired end and a great deal in aggregate, with gas-fired turbines taking a very large share of new generation capacity.

If we recognize new problems and demand solutions to them, we're going to wind up with a different model than we would otherwise.  There's nothing unnatural or sinister about it, though we probably don't want to watch the policy being made (or sausage).  One element of policy relating to Detroit was an exemption to anti-trust laws to allow the Big Four to cooperate on pollution-control technologies; we got catalytic converters much more cheaply than we would have otherwise.

Your objections to the term "new model" seem like semantic quibbles, so I wish you'd either accept it or propose a better one.  (Language shapes thought, so consider this an opportunity to shift the terms of debate in your favor.)

"Continual evolution, as you noted was the perpetual condition in earlier remarks, works a treat."

One point about the evolutionary metaphor:  evolution responds to selection pressures.  We need to apply pressure away from dumping acids, toxics and additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  The pressure should not be so extreme as to cause economic collapse, nor so trivial that the system doesn't respond, but economic pressure in some range will start the nascent tipping of energy consumption away from carbon-emitting methods.  We already have some methods available, the prospect of profit will promote the development of others, and when human ingenuity finds methods that really work the trickle will become a torrent.

"A useful thing we can do is to help that machine work more quickly with modest efforts to increase education and communication."

Few things concentrate people's attention better than the prospect of saving or making money; it is one of the best ways to get people to inform and educate themselves.
 
"Beginning in the 1960's we told the oil and auto companies to concentrate attention on reducing NOx, CO and HC emissions of cars to address smog problems; it got done, and the "model" for petroleum refining and automotive powertrains changed and continues to change..."This is the "politicist" view of technological evolution. It's false in an important way that goes to the heart of this dispute, and why I am so critical of activists. It assumes that the only way technological development will occur is if "we" force "them" to change. It's not only a false assumption but in most cases false history.

When information about threats becomes known people don't have to be forced to avoid them. Some people will discover ways to avoid the threats and prosper. Others who are less inventive or loathe to change will decline. This is a superior way for techno-social cultures to evolve because it does more and does it faster.

This is what always happens, or starts to happen, but is sometimes interrupted. The techniques to do a task are discovered and begin to be applied before "we" intervene. An accurate history wouldn't tell the tale as being a matter of change forced by politicians, it would acknowledge and celebrate those who pioneered the effort. Activists and politicians jump in front of passing parades and pretend to lead them, try to get their names in the papers and history books and take credit for the accomplishments of others. Loathesome as this is it isn't their worst crime since they also use force to stop creative enthusiasts from doing ever more, and make them serve the political machine instead.

The politicist view of history that attributes change to political actors is misleading, and this isn't just neeping about historical accuracy. It is a socially destructive view, one that fails to set useful expectations for future change or motivate new discoveries. The false histories and politicist expectations displace and degrade techno-social evolution by society. There is a huge literature that spells out this mechanism and its effects.

Real change is made by enthusiasts with technical objectives not activists with political objectives. Even in politicized cultures this is so though they are inhibited. Societies that enable and empower enthusiasts progress further and faster. If there was a "we" that was useful, "we" would grasp this and assist this more natural and effective system.

"If we recognize new problems and demand solutions to them, we're going to wind up with a different model than we would otherwise. There's nothing unnatural or sinister about it, though we probably don't want to watch the policy being made (or sausage)."If we listen to enthusiasts they will tell us about issues and problems we haven't considered yet. If we assist them to find solutions rather than demanding that they solve the problems "we" selected more will be accomplished in less time for less cost.

This is how human social systems work. They can be distorted by politicists with some conception of a "new model", but those are just overlays on reality that stifle progress.

"We need to apply pressure away from dumping acids, toxics and additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."No, we don't. People are eager to correct these flaws when they see that there are problems. People aren't evil, don't like to foul their nests, don't want to live in filth or die prematurely. Helping to gather information and make it available speeds problem recognition by those in a position to make corrections. Information is the best selection pressure since it brings both threats and opportunities. Some will work to avoid the threat, others will seize the opportunity.

It's the we problem, the politicist view of society that inhibits progress. It isn't politicist model version 2 that is needed, it won't be any better than the last one. Comprehension of, and cooperation with, human capbilities and preferences, the underlying natural model, working with the system rather than against it, will advance society further and faster. Useful things can done such as promoting education and communication. For example, opening up libraries and journals to larger audiences by making them freely available online advances both of these objectives. What "we" can do is pony up some bucks to compensate the publishers so that they will be able to continue doing their jobs. There are a variety of other things of this sort that "we" can do once "we" grasp how things work and agree to cooperate rather than try to take over and dominate society.

This isn't an ideological or political conflict. It's a pragmatic issue, one that has increased in significance, making it more useful for us to mature and become more cooperative than in the past. Old fashioned political behavior is less tolerable than in the past because things move faster now and the threats have increased. Many have been saying these things for decades and the failures of politicist methods are becoming ever more difficult to conceal, so there is reason to speak up now, more hope that rational approaches will be adopted.
 
"Beginning in the 1960's we told the oil and auto companies to concentrate attention on reducing NOx, CO and HC emissions of cars to address smog problems; it got done, and the "model" for petroleum refining and automotive powertrains changed and continues to change..."

This is the "politicist" view of technological evolution. It's false in an important way that goes to the heart of this dispute, and why I am so critical of activists. It assumes that the only way technological development will occur is if "we" force "them" to change. It's not only a false assumption but in most cases false history.

When information about threats becomes known people don't have to be forced to avoid them.


You have fallen into the mental trap of classifying all things as private goods.  This is an error of logic; some things are public goods and cannot be privatized.  For example, the air quality enjoyed (or suffered) by an individual in the Los Angeles basin cannot be meaningfully improved by anything they do.  Worse:  a 1% minority which chooses to drive cars emitting 20 grams of NOx per mile can completely wipe out the contributions of the other 99% replacing 0.2 g/mi cars with ZEV's.

The only solution to such problems is to make a public choice and then force the minority to go along.  If free riders are allowed, the whole system collapses.

"Real change is made by enthusiasts with technical objectives not activists with political objectives."

You mean, the mechanics are done by enthusiasts.  Adoption may be driven by those same enthusiasts for private goods, but not for public goods.  What good is a catalytic converter and unleaded gasoline to the individual?  It doesn't make their car any faster, more comfortable or more attractive to the opposite sex, nor does it make a detectable difference in the amount of pollution experienced by the owner.  But when society made the public choice to make the shift, we got much cleaner air and near-elimination of automotive lead emissions.

You aren't the only person to miss the distinction between private and public goods; I may have to blog about that, even though it's not my field.
 
"What good is a catalytic converter and unleaded gasoline to the individual?"

This is the confusion. This specific technology isn't of any interest to most individuals but cleaner air is interesting. This objective can be achieved any number of ways, often coupled with other desirable characteristics such as economy or longevity. When politicists force use of a specific technology, pick a winner, they destroy the creativity of society that when left free to innovate achieves superior results and does so more quickly.

This can be difficult to understand since it takes time for natural systems to function. This may seem contradictory. On the one hand I say that it is quicker and on the other I say it takes time. Free evolution is quicker over a period of time but is not immediate. Force is immediate but the result over a period of time is slower.

This is true at every scale. Authoritarian nations can show a spurt of growth and evolution at first, but over time fall behind free nations since they have destroyed society and its inventive, productive engine. Immediacy at the expense of longer term improvement is the politicist blunder.

At a smaller scale, in agriculture for example, growers can force productivity by taking control of natural processes. They can provide chemical nutrients, kill off competition, reduce diversity and reap an immediate reward. But their land degrades and the competitors become stronger over time. The immediate reward is achieved at the cost of longer term reward.

Every natural system, no matter whether it's human society or a garden, is more productive and healthier when management systems are cooperative rather than authoritarian.

It's not a private vs public good issue, that's the politicist view and offers no insight into natural systems and effective management since it assumes its conclusions, that force will be used and that force is required. This is steam age thinking, the logic of mass production and regimentation. It is being abandoned wherever technology allows, and is the basis of "leapfrog" thinking, the idea that developing countries can steal a march on history by going directly to information age methods without experiencing the harms of mass industrialization.

This is the information age and we would be wise to learn its features, use them well. When people have good information they make better decisions and are quite capable of both short and long term thinking as well as local and global thinking. It makes authoritarians crazy to let go and trust undisciplined and uncontrolled societies, they can't fathom how this will turn out well, but it is what is required. The issue isn't whether some cheat or simply fail to make good decisions, it's how society as a whole functions. It's not just OK for some to work at cross purposes, it is necessary to achieve superior performance.
 
This is the confusion. This specific technology isn't of any interest to most individuals but cleaner air is interesting. This objective can be achieved any number of ways, often coupled with other desirable characteristics such as economy or longevity. When politicists force use of a specific technology, pick a winner, they destroy the creativity of society that when left free to innovate achieves superior results and does so more quickly.

But no such "winner picking" occurred in this case.  The auto companies were required to meet emissions standards and had a prescribed method for testing compliance (I've had a small part in that too), but had complete freedom in their methods of so doing.  And there was indeed quite a bit of variation in the methods early on!  The earliest systems were systems like thermal reactors; engines were run somewhat rich to reduce NOX, and added air in the exhaust manifold burned off hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.  These only worked so well, and they were replaced with reducing/oxidizing catalytic converters (also with air injection).  The industry finally invented the 3-way catalyst, which uses precise engine mixture control and EGO sensing to achieve the same reductions while eliminating the air injection pump.  The technology evolved to meet the demands of the environment.

Believe me, I was watching the whole time.  Washington wasn't in the tech loop, and is not to this day.  The auto companies get a set of requirements to meet, and near-complete freedom regarding how they do it.  (The same is not true of fuel requirements; coughethanolcough.)

Authoritarian nations can show a spurt of growth and evolution at first....You're beginning to sound like a skipping CD, and you are citing no examples to back up your assertions and support your theorizing.  If you want to be taken seriously, show me how individual initiatives have cleaned up the air anywhere in the world.
 
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