Yes, many of these overlap (think Venn diagrams), evincing recursive cause-effect (feedback loop) oscillations. Some may be transient, eventually materially abating with or without concerted mitigation efforts. Others may well worsen irrespective of our countermeasures. I’ve been devoting most of my KHIT.org blog time of late to many of these topics. What among the foregoing might legitimately be characterized as “existential?” Obviously, “Species Extinctions” fits the bill. “Starvation” is certainly existential for those succumbing to it.
I don’t see how anyone can claim to be “bored” these days. I certainly am not. So little time, so much to learn (and unlearn).
(This post will accrue over time, given the breadth of issues and new developments.)
FEBRUARY 24th 2022: RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE
Buckle up, my friends. This could quickly go all the way bad. Putin quickly hinted at going (literally) nuclear.
LATE DECEMBER UPDATE
This stuff is absurd.
Mike “Wompus” Nieznany is a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran who walks with a cane from the combat wounds he received during his service. That disability doesn’t keep Nieznany from making a living selling custom motorcycle luggage racks from his home in Gainesville, Georgia. Neither will it slow him down when it’s time to visit Washington, D.C. — heavily armed and ready to do his part in overthrowing the U.S. government.
Millions of fellow would-be insurrectionists will be there, too, Nieznany says, “a ticking time-bomb” targeting the Capitol. “There are lots of fully armed people wondering what’s happening to this country,” he says. “Are we going to let Biden keep destroying it? Or do we need to get rid of him? We’re only going to take so much before we fight back.” The 2024 election, he adds, may well be the trigger… [link]
OK, back to where I’d started. I will soon be 76. The U.S. population has doubled across my lifetime. Global population has tripled. What seemed to me—the young kid of his early 1950’s childhood, to be a world of essentially infinite resources there for the opportunistic taking, has revealed itself to be—well—um, otherwise.
Properly, I now have to consider the likely futures of other young kids—both within and beyond my personal orbit. Our offspring will face a world of resource scarcities and maldistributions at every turn, with all of the acute and chronic conflicts such inequities foment.
No, there’s no justification for claiming “boredom.”
If all goes well, human history is just beginning. Humanity is about two hundred thousand years old. But the Earth will remain habitable for hundreds of millions more — enough time for millions of future generations; enough to end disease, poverty and injustice forever; enough to create heights of flourishing unimaginable today. And if we could learn to reach out further into the cosmos, we could have more time yet: trillions of years, to explore billions of worlds. Such a lifespan places present-day humanity in its earliest infancy. A vast and extraordinary adulthood awaits.
Our view of this potential is easily obscured. The latest scandal draws our outrage; the latest tragedy, our sympathy. Time and space shrink. We forget the scale of the story in which we take part. But there are moments when we remember — when our vision shifts, and our priorities realign. We see a species precariously close to self-destruction, with a future of immense promise hanging in the balance. And which way that balance tips becomes our most urgent public concern.
This book argues that safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time. For we stand at a crucial moment in the history of our species. Fueled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves — severing our entire future and everything we could become.
Yet humanity’s wisdom has grown only falteringly, if at all, and lags dangerously behind. Humanity lacks the maturity, coordination and foresight necessary to avoid making mistakes from which we could never recover. As the gap between our power and our wisdom grows, our future is subject to an ever-increasing level of risk. This situation is unsustainable. So over the next few centuries, humanity will be tested: it will either act decisively to protect itself and its longterm potential, or, in all likelihood, this will be lost forever.
To survive these challenges and secure our future, we must act now: managing the risks of today, averting those of tomorrow, and becoming the kind of society that will never pose such risks to itself again.
It is only in the last century that humanity’s power to threaten its entire future became apparent…
Ord, Toby. The Precipice (pp. 3–4). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
ANTHROPOCENE GLOBAL WARMING, SOME STARTER THOUGHTS:
Perhaps I’m wrong about that.
Beyond direct photovoltaics (PV), wind and wave energies are proxy, non-CO2 solar. Hydroelectric dams are non-CO2 solar, but come with their own environmental footprint baggage. (And fossil fuels are, yeah, technically “solar,” but bound up in the problematic carbon of buried ancient biomass.) We’d have to know the total solar energy striking our planet necessarily consumed by the aggregate contemporary biomass (regarding which, humans reportedly comprise ~0.01%—,0.0001), and what proportion just dissipates entropically, trickling back out to the cold of space.
Nuclear fission is also non-CO2, but requires environmentally onerous mining and the effective “nuclear security state” comprised of often contentious “nuclear club” nations, as well as safe and secure nuke fuel waste disposal. Then there’s stuff like “Three Mile Island,” “Chernobyl,” and “Fukushima.” I started my white collar career in Oak Ridge, working as a programmer and QC analyst in a forensic-level environmental radiation lab. My residual reservations remain. “Bridge Technology?” Dunno. Maybe.
Can we get to ~100% direct solar? Are there sufficient PV cell raw materials for the manufacturing? What about the lithium etc necessary for the requisite large capacity batteries?
A lot of experts remain skeptical. But, some substantial fraction less than 100% will benefit us materially nonetheless.
apropos: Read up on Saul Griffith. I just got onto him.
In this book I approach the climate emergency from a new angle. I look for solutions, not barriers. Solving climate change should taste at least as good as carrots, at best ice cream, but it should not be painful. Instead, I’d like to offer a no-regrets pathway to success.
All too many people in climate advocacy or climate work are beginning with the question of “what is politically possible?” That could be a result of the frustration that drives many people, including our children, to march and protest for more rigorous climate action. But aiming only for what is politically possible is the art of limiting ambition before you begin.
This book doesn’t start with the question of what is politically possible, but asks what is technically necessary to reach a climate solution that is also a great economic pathway for a country. After we realize what is technically necessary, America needs nothing short of a concerted mobilization of technology, industry, labor, regulatory reform, and, critically, finance. Every stakeholder needs to coordinate their efforts to create the lowest-cost, zero-carbon energy system for all citizens.
The book provides details about one probable pathway to total decarbonization. Because I am trying to paint a picture of the future that is complete and compelling, some readers might think I am “picking winners” among clean-energy solutions. This book attempts to be technology agnostic — but not at the expense of exploring the likely technological outcomes. Fusion would be great, and nearly free carbon capture would be useful, but I’m not here to champion specific ideas; instead, I support technologies that pass the “Is it ready and does it work?” test.
The pathway that works is best summarized as “electrify everything.”
The book leans on real data, much of which was assembled in an unprecedented analysis of the US energy economy that I undertook under contract with the US Department of Energy. These details provide a story that is less about abstract concepts than about the recognizable technologies that define our world. This book provides a high-resolution picture of the consequences of electrifying everything. Will our lives change? The surprising answer is, not radically. Those things that will change are for the better: cleaner air and water, better health, cheaper energy, and a more robust grid. Our citizens can keep pretty much all of the complexity and variety promised by the American dream, with the same-sized homes and vehicles, while using less than half the energy we currently use. This is a success story that casts aside the 1970s-era narrative of trying to “efficiency” our way to zero emissions. Our country faces a challenge of transformation, not of deprivation.
How do we ensure the lowest cost of energy while electrifying everything? First, policymakers have to rewrite the federal, state, and local rules and regulations that were created for the fossil-fueled world and which prevent the US from having the cheapest electricity ever. Our country needs to massively scale up the industrial production of technological solutions, just as we did to win World War II. We cannot take our foot off the innovation gas — although I’ll argue that we don’t need any major breakthroughs, as thousands of little inventions and cost reductions are the key to achieving our end goal. Finally, we must have cheap financing for our transition to a zero-carbon energy system with low-interest “climate loans.” Climate change will not be solved if only the richest 10% can afford it; we need mechanisms to bring everyone along for the ride. In our nation’s history, there are precedents for doing this: the US pioneered public-private financing in the past. Innovative versions of this can help us get the job done today.
The consequence of getting the technology, financing, and regulations right is that every family in the US can save thousands of dollars each year.
We need to triple the amount of electricity delivered in the US. What is required is a moonshot engineering project to deliver a new energy grid with new rules — a grid that operates more like the internet. To do this, I argue that we must have “grid neutrality.”
The industrial mobilization required to hit the climate targets that our children deserve will require an effort similar to World War II’s “Arsenal of Democracy” in size, speed, and scope.
For a world desperate to rebound from a pandemic and economic crisis, there is no other project that would create this many jobs. I’ve worked with an economist to include an analysis that projects the creation of as many as 25 million good-paying jobs, spread across every zip code, suburb, and rural town in the country, should we choose to address climate aggressively.
This will not be easy, and people will tell you it is politically impossible. But, as I argue in this book, it is still possible. The earth is bigger than politics, and to meet our challenge, politics as usual must change…
Griffith, Saul (2021–10–11T23:58:59.000). Electrify . MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
SOLAR HYDROGEN PRODUCTION?
US Dept of Energy: “Hydrogen can be produced using a number of different processes. Thermochemical processes use heat and chemical reactions to release hydrogen from organic materials, such as fossil fuels and biomass, or from materials like water. Water (H2O) can also be split into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) using electrolysis or solar energy. Microorganisms such as bacteria and algae can produce hydrogen through biological processes.”
You ignite H2 gas, you get energy and water vapor, full stop. No carbon greenhouse gas compounds. Were you to produce H2 without using fossil fuels and/or biomass, your waste material is nil. Yeah, H2 does not exist on earth in pure molecular form, it has to be produced. Do it.
THREATS TO DEMOCRACIES, RAMPANT CORRUPTION
No shortage of timely reading on these interrelated topics. Below, yet another:
If the 20th century was the story of slow, uneven progress toward the victory of liberal democracy over other ideologies — communism, fascism, virulent nationalism — the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse…
…Nowadays, autocracies are run not by one bad guy, but by sophisticated networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services (military, police, paramilitary groups, surveillance), and professional propagandists. The members of these networks are connected not only within a given country, but among many countries. The corrupt, state-controlled companies in one dictatorship do business with corrupt, state-controlled companies in another. The police in one country can arm, equip, and train the police in another. The propagandists share resources — the troll farms that promote one dictator’s propaganda can also be used to promote the propaganda of another — and themes, pounding home the same messages about the weakness of democracy and the evil of America…
This is not to say that there is some supersecret room where bad guys meet, as in a James Bond movie. Nor does the new autocratic alliance have a unifying ideology. Among modern autocrats are people who call themselves communists, nationalists, and theocrats. No one country leads this group. Washington likes to talk about Chinese influence, but what really bonds the members of this club is a common desire to preserve and enhance their personal power and wealth. Unlike military or political alliances from other times and places, the members of this group don’t operate like a bloc, but rather like an agglomeration of companies — call it Autocracy Inc. Their links are cemented not by ideals but by deals — deals designed to take the edge off Western economic boycotts, or to make them personally rich — which is why they can operate across geographical and historical lines…
UPDATE: FINISHED CASEY MICHEL’S BOOK
A great read. I know a good bit about Gresham’s Dynamic financial malfeasance, but Casey’s book illuminates a whole ‘nuther orders-of-magnitude greater level.
“…the hip bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the knee bone…” So much for the prevailing “Just In Time” global supply chain tight-coupling efficiency. Markets don’t play nice with a serious viral pandemic.
Imagine my surprise.
Moreover, given the worrisome new “Omicron” Cov-2 variant now spreading from South Africa (?), recent tentative economic “recoveries” around the world may well hit more bumps in the roads—with all the political adversity they beget.
There’s plenty of good reading on the ECON repercussions of COVID-19. Here’s a particularly nice book.
Tragedy of the Commons
Government is charged with preventing tragedies of the commons, so to speak. As I write this in August 2020, the immediate responsibility of government is to steer us through and out of the pandemic. I doubt that mission will have changed by the time this book goes to press. The history of missteps and chances lost in this pandemic is depressingly long, but the blame game is for historians, not serious leaders. We are facing an economic catastrophe, and we’ve already wasted the better part of $3 trillion not fixing it.
We need to protect people, not companies. My choice would have been to follow the German model. Under their “Kurzarbeit” program, employers can furlough workers during the pandemic, while the government takes responsibility for two thirds of the worker’s salary. Workers stay technically employed, so they can easily return to their job once there is work to be done, but are under no pressure to work while it is unsafe. In effect, the government says, You don’t need to worry about food. You are in a position where you can distance safely without putting your family at risk. You don’t have to make bad decisions to feed your family. And there’s no fear.43 Happiness is not only a function of what you have, but what you don’t have. Specifically, an absence of fear. Absence from the fear that you won’t be able to feed your family or that serious illness might mean bankruptcy…
Galloway, Scott. Post Corona (pp. 200–201). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
And, for a sweeping historical contextual view I could not recommend Kyle Harper’s new book more highly.
MICROORGANISMS AND MACROHISTORY
ONE OF THE CHIEF BLESSINGS of living in the modern world is supposed to be that the risk of dying from an infectious disease has become vanishingly small. The nuisances of modern civilization are a small price to pay for the good fortune of being alive at a time when our germs have been brought to heel. We can grudgingly resign ourselves to the inevitability that cancers, chronic diseases, or degenerative disorders will catch up to us someday. We moderns die of old age, of overabundance, of cellular malfunction … but not plagues and poxes. Until, that is, a new pestilence has the temerity to disrupt our daily lives, here and now. More than we are apt to remember, even in the shadow of a pandemic, the world we inhabit thoroughly presupposes the subjugation of infectious disease…
Harper, Kyle. Plagues upon the Earth (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
THE EDUCATIONAL SECTOR
Problems in academia long predate the latest pandemic episode. Rampant cost increases, crushing student debt, questionable value propositions, prioritization of the big revenue sports, using non-profit status to venture into real estate and other commercial initiatives (while depriving local governments of tax revenue)…
I was fortunate as a (late bloomer) student. Very little undergrad debt (now long paid off), and I paid cash for my Master’s. I even got to subsequently do an interesting Adjunct stint teaching “Critical Thinking” and “Argument Analysis” at UNLV for a number of years while working as a bank credit risk analyst.
60% of our classroom faculty were adjuncts; the regular faculty mostly hated to teach (particularly undergrads), preferring their research and publication interests. Given that ~60% of our incoming freshmen were really not ready for college, one can perhaps have some sympathy. I recall looking out over a class and thinking “man, 2/3rds of you need to re-take high school.”
Couple of interesting books:
COVID-19 has served to make things acutely worse across the board. The unsustainable “business model” has been laid bare for all to see. We’ll see what shakes out eventually.
January 2022 update. Just saw news reporting that U.S. college admissions declined by nearly a half million students last year. What will be the broad ripple effects of that?
CIVILIAN FIREARMS VIOLENCE?
Not much to say here, other than,
The civil law tort principle of “inherently dangerous instrumentality” is what finally brought Big Tobacco to regulatory and compensatory damages heel. Habitually used as intended, tobacco products disproportionately sicken or kill those who partake of them. They are inherently dangerous, and, as such — while still not outlawed — they are heavily regulated in reflection of the threat they pose (however inadequately).
A firearm, absent its fitted calibre projectile, is just an expensive piece of pipe. The intended function of the bullet, however, is to damage or destroy that which it impacts — be it a beer bottle or can, a paper target, or an animal or human. There is no other purpose.
And yes, firearms can be “used safely.“ That is not in dispute. But neither can there be any rational dispute about the purpose of bullets. People who buy them intend to use them to hit things.
It’s not a perfect analogy. Tobacco products are not protected by the constitution. But it’s damn close enough functionally to justify rational firearms restriction (I am not arguing prohibition here). The relative risk associated with the smoking of a single cigarette pales in comparison with that posed by the firing of a single bullet.
Let’s get real.
I am now 76. I have never owned a firearm.