December 31, 2010

Is CO2 concentration and emergent property of Earth?

This post is an expansion of the core CO2 idea from my previous post...

I have been pondering the inexorable rise in the CO2 concentration of our planet’s atmosphere.  With the signing of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, political leaders from around the globe agreed that we should take steps to stop the increase of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.  Nearly 20 years later, despite many Conferences of the Parties and extensive public policy efforts, those gasses continue to accumulate.  And they continue to accumulate at roughly the same rate as when the FCCC was signed in Rio.

The usual response to this state of affairs is that we need to work harder at those approaches that have failed so far.  At some point I began wondering whether in fact our challenge is deeper: perhaps we have incorrectly diagnosed the nature of the problem.   What if the continuing emissions reflects some overarching intentionality of the Human System and hence is immune to direct public policy solutions?

A friend of mine agreed that we may have misdiagnosed, but he argued that I was giving humanity and public policy too much weight – what if increasing CO2 concentration is simply an emergent property of the Earth system?  That is, growing CO2 concentration is simply a property of the complex interactions that occur as a result of the evolution of the Earth System.

In this context, our policy efforts have been akin to a hammer looking for a nail.  If CO2 concentration is in fact an emergent property, then we will need to work at the scale of the Earth System as a whole if we are to manage GHG concentrations.  Perhaps more importantly, if this is the case, we should also be investing much more than we are in planning for life on our planet with CO2 concentrations in the 700ppm range.

December 25, 2010

Emergence and Empiricism

This one is too cerebral for Qualia (but I am going to rework it for them):

In the gray of a late '70s northern Ohio winter, Norman Care led me through Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. At the time I really didn't get it, but as I have continued to ponder in the intervening decades, I have come to take Meditations as the origin of the mind / body split and extended that event to the separation of Humans and Nature.  Several centuries after Descartes, John Searle solved the mind / body problem to my satisfaction (to my pleasure even) in his Rediscovery of the Mind by essentially declaring that it is a red herring and asserting that consciousness is simply an emergent property of brains.

So what might be the analog to my extension of the mind / body problem to the Human / Nature problem?  It is an entertaining exercise to think of humans as neurons in an Earthly consciousness, but I usually stop short of taking that analogy too far; none-the-less, it does not seem too far fetched to imagine that there are properties of Earth that are observable, but that are not simple, linear causal / effect relationships.  There are all sorts of Gödelian knots in here, but putting those aside, consider the implications of mistaking an emergent property for a something simpler...

One of my candidates for this sort of thing is the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere.  Observations of that parameter clearly show unbroken increase despite decades of policy wrangling and hand wringing.  Is is unreasonable to think that greenhouse gas concentrations are simply an emergent property of human evolution?  And if this is the case, are linear policy approaches the only solutions we should consider?

I don't know the answers here, but I find the questions fascinating.

December 03, 2010

Trust and Transparency

My most recent Qualia post:

I have spent the last couple of days trying to decide what I think about the most recent Wikileaks dump.  On the one hand, I think that transparency and a free press are vital elements of functioning democracy.  On the other hand, I do not have much confidence in the ability or willingness of our media and other social institutions to be nuanced in their reactions to the material.

My deepest concern related to this latest episode is that it will unnecessarily erode hard won trust among diplomats and politicians whose job it is to make the our planet a safer place to live (this concern is nicely captured in a recent TNR article by James Rubin).  Climate science experienced its own analogous brouhaha with the release of emails among prominent modelers.  The subjects of that leak did not always come off as particularly nice folks, but who among us does not have moments of lesser discretion?  And while the climate science has been vindicated, it is less clear that relationship between the scientific community and others has come away unscathed.

I have reached the following conclusions so far:

  • each of us should all strive to be the best human that we can be, 
  • each of us is indeed human and with that comes a set of foibles and flaws which brings a need for nuance and forgiveness in our trust building, and finally,
  • well-deserved and robust trust enhances our ability to the create the communities we need in order to address the complex challenges that we face going forward.

December 01, 2010

On "Qualia"

Community is a topic in may of the circles I flow through and a big part of the conversations that I am part of have questions related to social media and other web-based technology at their heart.   Related questions include: "What does it mean to be part of a community in this day and age?"  "How do radical changes in communications and digital media affect our relationships with each other and with ideas?"

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has launched a new web site as part of their thinking on this front.  The MemberCentral site was created for AAAS members and includes blogs, profiles and other content designed to spur thought and interaction.  I have been writing for their Qualia blog and my most recent post reflected on the meaning of that blog's name.  That post is mirrored here...

As I write this, I am listening to Coltrane and drinking my morning coffee.  My mind is in an introspective state and I am experiencing all of the sounds and tastes in a certain and subjective way.  If you were here with me, you would be subjected to the same inputs, but it is far from clear that our subjective experiences would be the same.  These types of experiences are referred to as “qualia”  by philosophers.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about “qualia”:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this standard, broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head.

In simpler terms, qualia are things like the subjective experience of seeing red.

As I have thought about qualia and their relationship to the AAAS blog I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the intention of [Qualia] is to perturb our subjective experience and through that perturbation enrich our experience of Science.  Certainly that is my intention in reading and writing here.  Just as participants in the philosophical debates surrounding “qualia” are striving to advance our knowledge, vigorous discussions here will advance our understanding of the world and hopefully enrich our subjective experience of it.

Now on to Tom Waits.

Credit where credit is due: Sara Shopkow provide editorial assistance on this post that made the ideas much clearer and hopefully improved your subjective experience of it.

November 15, 2010

Swings in Harlem

(the editing over at AAAS is getting rather heavy handed, but I will try to learn to stick to a single idea and to use simpler sentences...)

My daughter’s childhood was spent in the little-kid wonderland that is Upper Manhattan.  Playgrounds abound and there is never a dull moment when one is out and about.  As we would swing together in the Downstairs Playground, I pondered the nature of our swinging.  In particular, despite the fact that the chains on our respective swings were the same length, the period of our swinging was different.  Similarly, when kids flung the swings without a body in them, they didn’t exhibit the wonderful behavior of the introductory physics lab.  What was going on?

The simple answer is that we were in a playground in Harlem.  In Harlem, the pendulum’s “massless rod” has mass and displacements are not necessarily small.  All of those messy terms related to mass and displacement don’t go to zero and the nice oscillatory solution of the lab gets swallowed up in a jumble of vandalism prevention and youthful exuberance.

Just as my thinking about swings in Harlem reminded me of forgotten assumptions, much of my thinking lately about “sustainability” has to do with the often-unstated values that are imbedded in its use.  “Sustainable” usually has implications of conservation and efficiency, while “sustainability” usually spans a larger domain that also includes notions of “social justice.”

I think that it is important not to forget what we mean when we say “sustainable”; even more, I think that it is important that we continue to reflect on those underlying meanings and their associated values.  Physics in Harlem is going to remain fairly constant over the coming centuries, but I expect that values there will evolve.  And while swinging may be universal, what Dad does while it is happening can reflect important regional differences in today’s value systems.

November 12, 2010

Sustainability as a Satisficing

(this is a cerebral version of the last post on satisficing - it also has some better links)
Curious readers of my last post may have clicked on a link and found themselves in a wikipedia entry on satisficing.  That link was part of my implied definition of sustainability as the existence of a set of possible futures that are at least acceptable to Earth’s current human inhabitants.  So where did that come from...

As I pondered the classic definition of sustainability, I found it lacking.  Specifically, in order to determine whether or not we are in a sustainable state, that definition requires that we know things about the future that are unknowable in the present (e.g. the needs and capacities of future generations).  Hence, I set out to devise a definition in which the presence or absence of sustainability could be determined in present.

Among the things we can know now, at least as individuals, are characteristics of the futures we would wish for our progeny.  (The problem of the aggregate was opened in the last post.)  We can also make some reasonable guesses as to whether those futures are possible.  I might wish that my great grandkids live on an Earth where the wooly mammoth is abundant; this is not going to happen.  But an Earth where all children receive at least an 8th grade education? - this is still possible.

While some sort of maximized future might be wonderful, I am inclined to set the bar for “sustainability” lower.  If we take now as our baseline, I think that breaking even counts for sustainable.  Even if we want to include some notion of progress in our definition, there is still a lot of room between the baseline and utopia; hence sustainability is the condition of possible futures that are at least “good enough”.

Note added in proof: that last link is quite obscure and not as good as I would have liked.  Any ideas about a good utopia link would be greatly appreciated.

Qualia: Creating a Satisficing Future

In my last post there was an oblique reference to the idea of satisficing (in the Assertion, the bit about “at least satisfactory”).  It is now about 6:30 on a Saturday morning and I have a cup of warmed over coffee from yesterday and some cool music from Budapest on the stereo.  One of those things is satisficing (barely) and it isn’t the time of day or the music.

Satisficing is a term coined by Herbert Simon in his work on how institutions work.  It is part of the bounded rationality stuff and it refers to the idea that decision-makers often move forward with solutions that suffice, that are satisfactory.  Compared with the optimal solution, which is unique and maximizing, the satisficing solution is one that gets the current job done and reflects the current preference ordering and information availability.   (My coffee reflects my tolerance for bad coffee and my current preference ordering for getting to work rather than making fresh or going out in the cold).

And herein lies a challenge with the Brundtland definition of sustainability - it assumes that we can know things about the future which are unknowable.  We cannot know the needs, preferences, or the capacities of future generations (unless your grandfather was Vannevar Bush, he probably didn’t even imagine the internet).  But we can project our own values into the future and in so doing imagine a future that we desire for our progeny (Grandpa probably did wish safety and security for you).

So in my view, sustainability is about creating a satisficing future.  One that is good enough, hopefully at least a bit better than the present, but certainly no worse.  It is a pragmatic vision and it is one that is rooted in thinking about how institutions actually work.

Qualia: Sustainability as a Problem of Democracy

I have only a few words, so I am going to jump quickly into the fray and defer some pretty important elaborations to future posts.

Assertion: Sustainability is about maintaining possible futures that are at least satisfactory to the humans currently living on Earth.  (After all, we are the ones currently calling the shots.)

Taking that as a starting point, the obvious question is, “how do we decide which futures belong in our global portfolio?”  My individual portfolio is probably pretty similar to yours, but it is likely to be very different from that of a farmer in a developing country.  Even in very different portfolios, there are likely to be some elements of commonality, but how do we resolve the inevitable tradeoffs and incommensurability?

Given my rearing by reasonably liberal, middle class parents here in the US, complete with public school civics and government classes, I argue that democratic processes should be central to answering this question.  And those processes are going to have to be much more sophisticated than “winner-takes all / choose between 2” voting.  Further complicating things is Kenneth Arrow’s Noble-winning proof which showed that there is no way to uniquely choose between 3 options under conditions that we take for granted as fair.  And even if we ignore Arrow, we are not going to all get together and rank our own portfolios, much less the union of all portfolios of possible futures...  This is a very hard problem of values and institutions.

Difficulties aside, I see this challenge as absolutely central to sustainability and much more complex than “paper or plastic?” Current choices matter, but their meaning is greatly enhanced if they are made in the context of collectively imagined futures.

Writing for Qaulia

There is a new blog on American Association for the Advancement of Science web site called Qualia. It is part of the MemberCentral section of the AAAS web site and I fear that it is not accessible unless you are a AAAS member (do you get Science, if yes, then you are a AAAS member).  So that means that pearls of my wisdom recorded there will not be accessible to most of the people of who have internet access.

The other thing about those posts is that they are stripping all of my hyperlinks out.  I ask you, what is the point of a blog post that cannot link anywhere?  The jokes all go away and in one case the main point of the post was compromised.

So I am going to repost things from Qualia here.  That is probably some violation of trust or some agreement to which I am party, but also unaware.  Time will tell.

On with the show.

March 20, 2010

CO2 clock

Check this out: Deutche Bank, in a riff on the old national debt clock at Madison Square Garden, has installed a CO2 counter in about the same location.  More info can be found on their website.
(Note the difference in the value between my picture (here) and the picture on their website.)

March 19, 2010

World Energy Technologies Summit

Yesterday, thanks to the organizer's (Jim Clark) generosity, I attended the World Energy Technologies Summit at the Time Life Building in New York City.  It was a fascinating day full of very smart people talking about the current state of energy technologies and the challenges we face going forward.  In the following I will summarize some of the main ideas that seemed to recur over the course of the day.

Portfolio of Solutions
There was broad agreement that there is no silver bullet.  The full menu of renewables was represented as were ideas relating to improved handling of fossil fuels.  CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) was present only in the context that it is a long way off and very unlikely to be a significant part of our near-term management portfolio.  Combined Heat and Power (CHP) on the other hand was presented as an immediate and easily implemented improvement to a broad spectrum of our energy production facilities.  Clearly there will be other views on the details, but there was a strong sense that we need to be working very hard across a very broad spectrum of technologies.

Clean Energy Standard
The focus of all of the participants was on producing energy with low carbon impacts.  There was very little distinction made between renewables and low C fossil.  There was a strong case made that there is a lot of natural gas coming on line and that, properly managed, that resource could put a big dent in our (US) current CO2 emissions (to the extent that CCS was considered feasible, it was in the context of natural gas).  Hence there was a strong sense that Clean Energy Standards should replace Renewable Energy Standards.  (The case was made that by eliminating all fossil fuels from a standard, the perverse case of maintaining coal plants often results.)  Our attention needs to be on driving down the amount of carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere in the face of the very real demands for energy that will develop in the coming decades.

Information Technologies
It is clear that information technologies will play a big role in managing (reducing) our energy usage as we go forward.  Google is putting a lot of effort here and there was at least 1 other startup present focused on sub-household / sub-building level energy management.

The regulatory framework in the US is broadly perceived to be very badly broken.  In the context of arguing for Feed In Tariffs, Kevin Parker from Deutsche Bank argued that countries that will compete well for investment funds will have regulatory frameworks that have transparency, longevity  and certainty (TLC).  In the US we currently have none of these, while Europe and some countries and Asia do.  While not explicitly stated, it seemed implied that the floundering about wrt a cohesive energy policy in the US could be worse than not trying at all.  While there was broad agreement that we need a "good", systematic energy policy framework and there were many examples of policies that were counterproductive, beyond the need for TLC, there was no discussion of how we would go about designing a "good" policy landscape (not entirely true, see the links to the Breakthrough Institute below).

Finance and Investment
This issue is closely related to the previous point.  Many speakers encouraged vastly increased government investment in energy technologies, both on the R&D side and on the market side (e.g. in the form of loan guarantees).  It was also clear that the government cannot fill the demand for investment.  The notion of a "trillion $ market" came up often and it is clear that private investment will be needed.  The absence of TLC in the US policy landscape strongly discourages domestic investment because regulatory risk cannot be quantified; hence investment dollars go elsewhere (e.g. Europe and Asia).

A sense of urgency
Things are happening very fast in this arena.  Companies that did not exist 5 years ago are now global leaders in some sectors (e.g. photovoltaics).  While the US continues to have strength, Germany and China are rapidly emerging as leaders in energy technology, not only in manufacturing, but also in innovation.  While the state of play is not rosy, a presentation by the Breakthrough Institute made the case that with decisive action, the US can maintain its historical leadership role.

Many more bits and pieces, but I will leave it at that.

March 16, 2010

A thought experiment on the future

Let us imagine for a moment that the 3 largest sovereign CO2 emitters on Earth are not really all that serious about mitigating their impacts on the planetary climate system.  Leave aside the reasons; simply consider the possibility.

Now, taking that as a starting point, what are the things we would want to know in the world that will result?  And how should we determine the priority of finding these things out?

Remember we know many of the first order effects of increase atmospheric CO2 already:

  • We know that sea level will rise.
  • We know that the surface ocean will become more acidic.
  • We know that the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere will rise (and with it over a very long time the heat structure of the oceans will change).
  • We know that climate variability will increase.
It is tempting to say that what we need to know is more detail on the above; it is tempting because it is what we know how to do.  We have a very sophisticated climate science infrastructure that can run models and dig deeper and deeper into the natural science minutia.  It is safe and it is a little bit like looking for our keys under the streetlight because the light is better.

But will doing more of the climate science we have been doing for a couple of decades really help us evolve more robust and resilient societal structures?  Will it help us design storm water systems or point to entrepreneurial opportunities?  Will it help natural resource planners design forests and fisheries for the middle of the coming century?  Will it help us design healthly cities for the 3 billion residents we will add to our planet in the coming decades?  Remember we already know the things in the list above, but we have very little sense of what societies will do in the face of those changes.  And we have done very little thinking about how we would adapt to those changes on any scale.

I think that it is time to focus more on the human side of the equation.  Off the top of my head, some of my own answers to the questions I posed in the opening are the following:
  • What is the variance in human decision making processes?; and the corollary, What do human decision making processes have in common?
  • How do societal adaptive strategies vary with culture and geography?
  • How can economies evolve to be more robust in the face of increasingly rapid change in both the natural and human landscape?
  • How do human perceptions and sensitivity to risk vary over Earth?  What is the relationship between that geography and our expectations regarding global weirding?
Apologies to those who already work on these questions; my naivetĂ© merely exposes the distance these questions currently stand from our discussions about how to cope with a changing climate.  I don't think that we should completely abandon climate modeling, but I do think we should be investing many more resources into thinking how humans will react to the coming changes.  And I think we should *carefully* think about how we spend our climate modeling resources.  And finally note that, beyond implying they should have higher priority than they do now, I have not prioritized my list of questions...

March 10, 2010

Science can only do so much...

In his column in Nature this month, Dan Sarewitz gives a very clear assessment of the current foundering of climate scientists.  He points out that in the case of climate, we have asked Science to carry out a task that is best left to Politics.

Climate science has made it clear that Earth's atmosphere is warming due to increasing accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is becoming increasingly clear that that same CO2 is changing the pH of the surface waters of the global ocean in ways that will make it harder for the bottom of the ocean's food chain to function.  A number of consequences of the increasing heat content of our planet's atmosphere are also beginning to become evident, in particular increases in the variability of weather and climate.  Climate science has also established with reasonable certainty that humans have a discernible influence on the atmospheric changes that are currently underway.

Climate science does NOT tell us that these things are bad.  The scariness of glacial retreat, sea level rise and other effects in the climate litany is a human response to those things.  There is no external reference frame that we can call on that will impose mitigating or adapting actions on the part of humans.  We must CHOOSE to do those things ourselves.

Choosing what to do next has at least two components.  The first, and most argued about, is the resource component.  Should we reallocate resources currently allocated to X over to Y?  The second element has to do with norms and values.  Is switching from X to Y the right thing to do independent of the associated risks and benefits.  Science can help us place boundaries on some of the benefits and risks of switching from X to Y; but it cannot tell us which choice is better.

The choice of better is political and, as we have seen over recent decades, it has time and space varying components.  I will reiterate - there is no external framework that can unambiguously impose a choice on how we should re/allocate our resources in the face of human impacts on our planet.

Humans can, and I would say very likely will (albeit through passive rather than active means) , choose to continue to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for CO2.  This choice makes me quite sad, and I think it will prove to be a costly folly with respect to human well being.

But the sooner that we start talking about this choice in the context of political tradeoffs rather than scientific uncertainty and foibles, the better off we will be and the better the decisions we actively make are likely to be.

March 01, 2010

Environmentalists as Tea Partiers

Yesterday Frank Rich painted a very sobering picture of the current political populism in the US.  He called attention to what I will call the growing instability of a growing segment of our population, a segment which is pretty thoroughly disaffected right now.  (Even more sobering was Dave's (who has a lot more patience with idiots that I do) comment that it is going to get worse before it gets better.)  Central to the Tea Party movement is a distrust of any government and the idea that all government should be eliminated.  In particular Rich calls attention to the invection of violence that can be heard in the rhetoric of people like Glen Beck and Sarah Palin.

The really scary bit of the Tea Party is the following:  The very angry people who identify with the Tea Party do not seem to be for anything.  But they are very much against many (most?) things.  Anger works best against rather than for.  Most of the things this populist movement is against are quite complex and I suspect only distantly connected to the real disaffection of the Tea Partiers.

Building the fear for me is the corollary of not being for something.  That is, the Tea Party does not have ideas for replacing the Fed or the IRS.  They want the government to go away, but there is no discussion of what would replace it.  (and note my rhetoric here assumes there is a thing called the Tea Party which of course is not the case).  And if Beck and Palin are successful in stirring this angry mob to violence or other sorts of destruction, what will we have left?  And will those people's lives actually improve?

It is the absence of being for something that leads me to link environmentalists with the tea partiers.  My recent post on the reading of the litany bemoaned the absence of vision regarding a positive environmental (or otherwise) future.  We need to replace the nihilism of being against everything and seeing only the bleak aspects of humanity with a positive vision of the future.

February 28, 2010

Life System Proxies: Top Predator Health

All ecosystems include food webs, and many of those webs contain a predator this is a dominant member.  Early conceptualizations of predator / prey relations characterized the system as a chain with bigger things eating smaller things in a more or less linear relationship.  We now know that the image of a chain is too simple as many species are prey in multiple food relationships and similarly those same species may eat across several of what we formerly referred to as chains.

But I digress.  The point is that in these eat and be eaten systems, be they chains or webs, there are a species that pretty much only eat.  These are things like bears, wolves, and sharks that for all intents and purposes are not normally food for other species, but do eat a lot themselves.  This species is called the top predator.

As we have learned more about how food webs work, we have learned that the presence or absence of a top predator can have a big effect on the functioning of the food system and the related ecosystem as a whole.  Sever over-fishing of northwest Atlantic cod and related predators has left huge swaths of the northwest atlantic habitat without a top predator.  As a result the food web in those areas has shifted to a very different configuration and it is not clear that the system that supported the cod will be able to re-emerge simply with simply the reduction of the fishing pressure.

So presence, absence, or change in the top predator in a food web can tell us things about how that food web and its associate ecosystem are functioning or may be changing.  Following on this a strategy that monitors the health and resilience of top predators might serve as a proxy for the health and resilience of the larger systems that those beings are part of.

February 27, 2010

Life System Proxies: Forest cover

A few posts ago I noted that I would follow with some specific examples of Earth System proxies.  I got distracted, but here is a first one...

A clear indicator of the state of the Life subsystems of the Earth system is the amount of Earth's land surface that is covered by forests.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that forested land is archetypal in western cultural images of "natural".  Forests house ecosystems that are more or less independent from humans; they provide homes to many of our cherished charismatic megafauna and they provide a whole host of ecosystem services ranging from materials to spiritual solace.  A couple of less obvious of these include gas exchange with the atmosphere that removes CO2 and releases O2 as through photosynthesis and moderating the hydrologic cycle - the rain forests of Brazil are sometimes referred to as the lungs of our planet.

So changes in the percentage and distribution of forest cover on Earth's land surface will change in very fundamental ways how the Earth system functions.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution (say 1776), the distribution of forest cover on Earth changed slowly in concert with other elements of the Earth system (e.g. during glacial cycles).  Following the industrial revolution and the attendant increased consumption of energy and expansion of human population that came with it, humans began to have a significant impact on where and how much forest there was on Earth.  For instance, much of what is now forest in New England, was cleared for farmland in the 18th century.  Those forests began to return as transportation corridors opened up to the west and allowed the much more fertile and easy to work lands of the midwest to take up some of the demand for food on along the East coast.

On a much larger scale (the economy is now global and removal rates are higher), similar economic pressures are driving the removal of rain forests in Brazil, Indonesia and parts of Africa in current times.  Rain forest soils and ecosystems are very different from the deciduous forests of New England and it is clear that re-growth of the rain forests will take much longer than those of New England.

If we monitor forests, where they are, how they are changing, we will be monitoring a part of Earth's Life system.  The challenge of course is to know what those variables tell us: Are those changes good or bad? and What futures do they signal or eliminate?

Reading the Litany and Counting the Bodies

I have become sensitive of late to what I have come to think of as the "reading of the litany" or if I am feeling more grumpy "counting the bodies".  I first became aware of this at the recent NCSE meeting in DC during Gus Speth's acceptance address.  While I had heard bits and pieces of the litany earlier in the day, Speth gave a extensive reading of the impacts that humans have rent upon the Earth with their implications of impending doom growing with each entry.

More recently, Dan Brayton generated a similar list for the oceans as part of his argument that literary critics should pay more attention to the oceans than they do.  He also showed pictures with the same accusatory message as Speth's list.

I too have done this sort of thing.  In the mid-1990s as we were building the Earth Institute at Columbia, I compiled lists of human impacts and was aghast at their implications.  My sensitivity now is that litanies are read for and with those who are already in the church.  I know that humans now have the upper hand over Mother Nature.  I am worried about it and I have plenty of guilt.  More to the point, the litany is starting to wear me out.  I know things are bad and to a certain extent I have to turn off that knowledge in order to get out of bed each day and attempt to do something about it.

Filling out my title, consider briefly my body count metaphor, which is where this line of thinking actually started.  Think about the following:  If you are getting your ass severely kicked, which is the better strategy: 1) devoting energy to a thorough and ongoing assessment of your losses; or 2) putting full energy into figuring out how to end the beating.  Personally I am going to try to end the beating first and worry about the detail of my losses much later.

I know, part of the reading of the litany is the hope that we can scare people into fighting back through fear of eternal damnation.  Against that though, I recently heard someone note that if the only futures we image are dystopic, we are likely to end up in a dystopia.  And here in lies a great part of my concern:  If the only pictures we paint of the future look like Road Warrior, I am afraid that we are likely to end up in the Thunderdome.

This state of affairs suggests to me that we should spend more time imagining futures that we want rather than obsessing about the futures we don't want.  What if our litany included more items like "All children on Earth receive a free education through grade 7", or "All humans on Earth have access to enough clean water to supply their dietary and sanitary needs."

What we need now is not body counts, but vision.  And not just any vision, we need strong and powerful visions of positive futures.  We need imaginations that are creating and holding on to those visions.  And we need institutions that are preparing future citizens who can bring those positive visions to life.

February 22, 2010

Plan for a 700 ppm CO2 world?

An editorial in the New York Times today crystallized somethink that has been lurking in the back of my mind for a while now (at least since when I described my book to someone last week).  In that editorial the editors were thinking about the implications of the resignation the UN climate chief, Yvo de Boer, and noting that his departure has deepened the sense of pessimism that the world (that is Earth) will get its act together and create a global effort to manage the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The crystal that formed, was the following:  What if the difficulty of reducing CO2 emissions is not a failure of will, but simply a part of the future?  How much of our overwhelming sense of need comes from a harking back to the past and a time when Mother Nature clearly had the upper hand? At what point does a future atmosphere that is connected to pre-industrial Earth fall out of our portfolio of possible Earth futures?

Let me be clear, I think that curbing and managing CO2 emissions should be among the highest priorities of Earth.  And I hold that view because my own working definition of sustainability calls for futures with increasing aggregate human well-being.  I am quite convinced that triple pre-industrial CO2 in the coming century is incompatible with my sustainability goals.

But what if we do hit those high levels?  Will humans go extinct?  I don't think so, but in the context of currently imagined technologies, economies, modes of sovereignty etc, they are quite likely to be much more miserable rather than less so.

So if we think about efforts toward sustainability in the context of managing a portfolio of possible futures and maximizing human well-being over that portfolio, doesn't it make sense to plan for a 700 ppm world so that if it comes to pass we are as well off as possible in it?  

Welcome to monday...

February 17, 2010

Earth System Proxies

For a large project that I am working on, I have been thinking about examples of things that hold a lot of information about the state of the Earth System.  And of course I have been doing that in the context of the the diagram presented here (and whose original files are no longer available to me due to the evolution of computer software and related technologies).  The bit of the diagram that is important is the middle bit with the 3 lobes.  I gave an introduction to this diagram many years ago, and some changes have occurred, not the least is that it now shows the natural / artificial system boundary that separates bits of the Earth system that are related to human intentionality from all of the other bits (and whose continued usefulness I now wonder about).

Examples of things that might represent the state of the Earth system include things like the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the state of the ENSO system.  ENSO is a great example, because it has teleconnections that influence climate variability across vast swaths of the entire planet AND we can predict it to a certain extent.  This means that in a rational / logical world we should be able to use our understanding of the physics of the ocean and atmosphere to make decisions that improve the quality of human life on Earth.  Unfortunately it is not that simple, as we discovered in the mid-1990s at Columbia.

Each member of a set of such proxies would have the following qualities:
  1. It would be easy to measure.
  2. It would contain a great deal of information about the current state of some portion of the Earth System; and perhaps tell us something about what is likely to happen in the near future.
  3. It would be more or less independent of the other members of the set (in geek speak, the members of the set would be more or less orthogonal).
  4. Changes in this measure would tell us something about whether life on Earth was getting better or worse.
In the next few posts I am going to play around with some ideas for proxies in the "Life" lobe.

February 16, 2010

On the demise of the Mean

Perhaps I should call this On the demise of the Normal.  More and more these days I encounter distributions where the median is a much better descriptor than the mean.  Of course if things are distributed normally then the median and the mean (and the mode) are all the same number.  But if things are abnormal then those definitions start to point to different parts of the distribution.

My first encounter with non-normal distributions came in graduate school as I was thinking about the distribution of elevations in topographic profiles.  Turns out that those things have a lot in common with power-law distributions.  So does the distribution of sizes of earthquakes.  And all sorts of other things in nature as well.  Then of course there were arguments about the differences between log-normal distributions and power-law distributions and how you might be able to tell in which was which by measuring things.  In the context here, it doesn't matter; neither one in normal.

I have been pondering this lately because I have been trying to write about proxies for the state of the human system part of the Earth system and central tendency indictors and variability around those have come up with considerable strength.  And now I am wondering if that most archetypal of all normal distributions - heights of humans - will stand up as normal over all of Earth.  Or does that example really only work in a suburban middle class classroom in the mid-1970s.

Which in turn makes one wonder whether in fact it is the normal distribution that is abnormal...

(ain't I clever!)