Open Thread

Conversations about this site have broken out at Keith Kloor’s and Lucia Liljegren’s. They might as well happen here. Let’s talk about aspirations for this site and the community.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Topics? What do you want from this site, and from the sustainability community at large? What can you offer?

We are very much interested in PhD ecologists, biologists, and agronomists in particular volunteering to round out our editorial staff. We’d also be thrilled to see some economics expertise on the board.

(So far we are five for five in having spent substantial fractions of our lives in Canada and substantial fractions elsewhere! I am not sure why this commonality exists, and even total non-Canadians are welcome.)

We also encourage contributions. Longer, in depth and referenced pieces are especially welcome.

 Photo via FlickrSome rights reserved by ToastyKen

 

Comments:

  1. The reaction seems to be almost entirely about comment policy. Many sites have a policy similar to this one, of requiring moderator approval before they appear. Tamino's always done it that way (and I ran my blog that way too back when I was actively posting... maybe someday again). Andy Revkin's Dot Earth has always had a delay awaiting moderator approval - but he seems to approve anything non-spam. Romm's is the opposite - almost no comments approved unless they're clearly supportive (and nothing posts immediately there either). And then there's places like Pielke Sr. with no comments at all.

    Even those blogs that nominally post comments immediately send a large fraction of posts to moderation queues - especially if you provide supporting links for your statements. I've had comments held up at Kloor's site before, and many people have reported delays at Lucia's. In the end comment policy has a strong impact on the culture that builds up around a site so it's something to think carefully about, but I think that's clearly been done here. We'll see how it all turns out!

  2. Well, you know what I want from the sustainability community at large: to continuously stress the link between the various problems and the dominant economic concept of infinite growth.

    You definitely want economists on board (maybe contact these guys).

    ----

    Ceterum censeo conceptum infiniti incrementi esse delendam

  3. Within the community of those who believe that anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem (and only one among many), there is plenty of interesting disagreement on many issues. But - as anyone knows who spends time looking at any site on the internet that discusses climate change - if you don't agree there's a problem, there's no common ground to discuss solutions (or even to intelligently discuss the nuances of the problem).

    A lot of serious people won't participate in online discussions because the signal to noise ratio is too low. Planet 3.0 will be successful if attracts participants whose disagreements are interesting.

    I know my own views as a fairly radical egalitarian are by no means universally shared among the current and intended P3.0 community. But I expect that the premise that the recognition of limits requires some kind of redistribution of rights will receive the serious attention it deserves.

  4. paulbaer,

    You are right that the signal to noise ratio is a big problem, disinclining many scholars and scientists to participation.

    Arthur,
    I'm in favor of blogs that require moderation of every comment. I think it generally encourages many to modulate their tone and perhaps treat their comments more seriously. (Not all, obviously, but many, I suspect.) I don't do it at my blog because it's too time consuming, given the amount of comments I get on some posts. And yes, those comments that have two or more links require moderation, which I normally approve within the hour they show up (unless I'm traveling).

  5. Moderation policy also affects who reads a blog. I have no interest in reading a blog that does not allow a discussion where opponents and supporters of the views presented can hash things out. This back and forth also requires minimal delay for any moderator approval.

    For these reasons, I will read Bart's blog but not Tamino. Or Keith Kloor's blog but not Revkin.

    IOW: blogs with no noise have no signal.

  6. This looks like a worthwhile endeavor.

    My main comment is that it's not really clear to me what you're after here. The title says "Beyond Sustainability". What does this mean? (I would have thought that just getting *to* a sustainable condition would be an enormous enough goal for mankind...). Moreover, what definition of, and aspects of, sustainability, are you after here? Sustainability of what? It's a big, ill-defined concept, and whenever you engage the public in discussions on such, it almost universally devolves to useless arguments born of vagueness and differing concepts of what terms mean, goals are, background prejudices are, etc. Also, there are some good sustainability websites and blogs already in existence. What is this site going to bring that those don't?

    Is the site supposed to be primarily philosophical/imaginative or nuts and bolts science, or some combination of those (and others)? Do you want practicing scientists in on these discussions? I think if you don't very exactly state exactly what kinds of topics you want to discuss here, it really won't be very helpful. There are tons of blogs already.

    I'm not criticizing; just offering my views based on first impressions and experience with the blog world.

  7. As Jim said, there's probably a fair bit of confusion about what this blog intends to do. In many ways, that's fine, it's probably an error to be too prescriptive at this stage. It wouldn't be interesting if we knew exactly where the discussion would go. However, you do need to be a little more clear on how you expect this blog to be distinctive.

    I'm guessing that some people who have already objected elsewhere are mainly concerned about the invitation-only policy, which would appear to skeptics as a rather elitist position. Comments about moderated comments may look like censorship to outsiders, whereas it's just a necessary policy to maintain a productive conversation.

    As someone who does not have a PhD, I'm just a little put off by the request in the post here for PhD ecologists, biologists, and agronomists in particular volunteering and the credentials prominently displayed for the "Scientific Review Panel". What's often most interesting on blogs--or late night drinking sessions--is commentary by intelligent and well-informed people discussing issues that are largely outside their silo of speciality.

    Nevertheless, based on the quality of posts and comments on OIIFTG and Dan's blogs I'm looking forward to reading and participating.

  8. Jim's question/comment re what "beyond sustainability" means ("I would have thought that just getting *to* a sustainable condition would be an enormous enough goal for mankind") was my initial reaction too, but I'm willing to see where this goes.

    If I had to guess what the "beyond" means, and this may not be at all what M.T. etc. mean, I'd guess that it's a reaction to most discussion of sustainability being confined to one silo - sustainable agriculture, sustainable fisheries, sustainable energy, etc. In order to make those things happen, we need to get beyond them to sustainable democracy ... and further to a "total sustainability framework".

    Hmm, a sustainable way of thinking about sustainability?

  9. Ah, real skepticism. Me like.

    First of all, regarding the "beyond sustainability" slogan for this site.

    I liked what Gareth had to say about it:

    "That can be taken two ways: as a statement of the fact that we are living well beyond the planet’s means, eating natural capital; and as a pointer to where we need to go – -beyond traditional ideas of sustainability to design ourselves a system that will enable the survival of our civilisation."

    The second meaning is the one I mean, and it traces back to Bruce Sterling:

    Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities, neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just "sustainable," but enhances the world. The natural world should be better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It's not too much to ask.

    You and I will never live to see a future world with those advanced characteristics. The people who will be living in it will pretty much take it for granted, anyway. But that is a worthy vision for today's technologists: because that is wise governance for a digitally conquered world. That is is not tyranny. That is legitimacy.

    Without vision, the people perish. So we need our shimmering, prizes, goals to motivate ourselves, but the life is never in the prize. The living part, the fun part, is all in the wrangling. Those dark cliffs looming ahead -- that is the height of your achievement.

    We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don't need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

    It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.

    Survival is not something you can sell before people are dying in the street. What you can sell is a better world. This crisis is an opportunity. The hundredth year from now will be a different world. It might just as well be a better one.

  10. The primary purpose of this site is to provide the more scientifically literate segment of the public with subsrtantive information about the set of topics normally considered under the rubric of "sustainability". An exact definition of the word is not provided as yet; we simply use the "sustainability" to refer to a widely understood cluster of concepts and issues with a minimum of ideological prejudice.

    Futurism must go beyond extrapolation of the world's future, and provide a basis for comparing options and choosing strategies to optimize the planetary trajectory. This can best be achieved in the light of human values informed by the best present day scientific, engineering, and social science knowledge.

    Making this attempt seems both necessary and oddly impossible.

    As conventional journalistic outlets decline and as individuals become stressed, the market seems even less willing to support slow-moving science reporting than ever before. What little survives is shabby gee-whiz bafflegab from institutional PR offices.

    Yet every scientifically literate person I know with hardly an exception expresses himself or herself as immensely frustrated with the flow of information from corners of science other than their own, particularly those touching on large scale political decisions.

    It is pointless of us to expect the press to fill the gap.

    The potential audience for such materials may be a niche audience, but it is not so small as to be commercially insignificant. Yet with the dumbing-down and increasing sensationalism of the main science magazines, the quality of the information available in the English language has been in steady and palpable decline for some time.

    The obvious response is to use the lower production costs of the web to try to fill the gap in science reporting, and particularly the sorts of science reporting that ought to be on the front page of the main dailies on a regular basis.

    And it's also clear that we have an opportunity for crowd-sourcing here. Nobody has all the expertise needed to think about the immensity of our entangled problems. Surely if there is a good way out of here it involves some sort of human/machine collaboration. So this site is an effort to start experimenting with better ways to communicate about our substantive and quantitative problems.

    In short, we aim to:

    1) Provide on our front page the information on sustainability-related topics that is most egregiously missing from the mainstream media's front page

    2) Build a community to develop that information and in-depth support for it

    3) Provide a venue for unconstrained but informed and quantitative conversation about the future and discussion of long-view policies

    Finally, we intend to somehow build a modestly financially sustainable operation around these and like services, and eventually to pay our contributors.

  11. This is not a blog, though it emerges from a science blogger community. This is a news magazine. At present, web-only, but other media may follow. The distinction is meaningful in some contexts. For instance, Wikipedia will not accept a blog as a citation. Some countries have laws protecting journalists which do not extend to bloggers. The category distinction probably should not be salient in the bset of possible worlds, but that is not where we live.

    Regarding Andy Skuce's question, the presence of PhDs on the masthead is not meant as a warrantee of correctness. Indeed, as Paul Baer points out, if we do not replace the boring disagreements on most climate blogs with interesting disagreements here, we will not be fulfilling our potential. Nor should it be taken as a claim of authority on any given matter. There is certainly an abundance of technical issues where I defer to Andy Skuce in particular.

    So why is there a masthead listing some Ph.D.s?

    The primary reason for this is that formal peer review may facilitate the participation of academics in the site.

    Our hope is to provide a class of outreach article that actually passes peer review. (These will be clearly noted as such.) Of course, such peer review can be more than adequate if conducted by non-academics and can be less than adequate if conducted by academics. Why, then, the emphasis on the credential in the review board?

    It's because insofar as recognition within academia is concerned, the credential is a necessity. With academic-level peer review, the academic participant can then put the publication to double duty as an outreach effort AND as a peer reviewed publication.

    The article, in turn, is more likely to be included in classroom teaching. Finally, we hope to achieve recognition as a legitimate publication for purposes of quoting in Wikipedia.

    The more competent a scientist is, the busier he is and the less motivated to do outreach beyond the minimum required. By providing the innovation of the peer-reviewed outreach article, we hope to overcome some of the inevitable reticence of the best scientists to provide an entree into their work to a broad public.

  12. Over at Lucia's, Steve Mosher made a good point about positioning (http://rankexploits.com/musings/2011/michael-tobis-new-blog/#comment-83393):

    "please do not position yourself negatively. You want to differentiate, that is the key to positioning, but put it in positive terms rather than… COKE SUCKS. Pepsi never says COKE SUCKS."

    Paul Baer makes a good point upthread about one thing of many that we'd like to achieve here:

    "Planet 3.0 will be successful if attracts participants whose disagreements are interesting."

    The moderation policy is very instrumental in achieving that goal. Ideally we'd have distinct discussions: Some for more specialized topics, where we could maybe invite topical scholars to participate, tightly moderated for relevance, and others for more broad topics.

    The pitfall of too much noise and too little signal is widely acknowledged here. But there are more pitfalls, one of which is the echo-chamber. Or discussions that derail quickly into someone or the other's little pet pieve.

    Sometimes strong disagreements, even those that most of us here consider ill-informed, can offer a good springboard for a teaching moment, or a sharpening-one's-argument moment. Just some things to consider.

    As for the relative unclarity of where this all is going: It's a work in progress. A live document. We will learn and P3 will change as we go along. We will try to be the change that we'd like to see in the media landscape.

  13. I'd like to echo Michael's reference to "the dumbing-down and increasing sensationalism of the main science magazines". I've been a subscriber to Scientific American since I was a teenager. It's been my main source of out-of-my-expertise in-depth information on the broad expanse of science for over 30 years. I cherished the articles by real scientists describing their work, explaining things for a broad audience; also there were some wonderful regular columns, Martin Gardener's on mathematics for instance, which I learned so much from.

    Last month was my last issue, and I haven't renewed. The magazine has just been a disappointment to read the last couple of years. The scientists seem to have been largely replaced by science writers - not that I have a strong objection to them, but the writing seems to have become much more "rah-rah" sensationalism, almost the press-release style, rather than the thoughtful and cautious style of real scientists I had been accustomed to. It's not what I expected, not what I'm interested in reading any more. The trust I had in the writing there has largely evaporated.

    I had noticed my disappointment in the magazine increasing in recent years; I had hopes that the recent transfer of ownership to Nature would improve the situation, but it's only gotten worse. So, after 30+ years it's goodbye, at least for now. I have been thinking of writing them an explanatory letter but really haven't had the patience to put something down (other than this) - well, Sci Am, if you're reading this, know that's what's going on. Sorry.

    I'm not sure Michael's project here will succeed in presenting (a limited range of) science in a more accurate light than what the old magazines did - but it's something new, and at least worth trying. We need to do something different, I know that!

  14. MT you might want to check out The Conversation
    http://theconversation.edu.au/
    (subtitled "Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair")
    which is a site that seems to have some common aims to Planet 3.0 started up by Australian Unis and research institutions. It covers a wider range of topics that Planet 3.0 but it does have an active "energy and environment" section. It combines research news with opinion/commentary articles from suitably qualified writers.

  15. TimG: “IOW: blogs with no noise have no signal.”

    MT: A peculiar formulation indeed. I guess one person’s signal is another’s noise.

    I expect it’s a most peculiar formulation that automatically presupposes that a degree of moderation is a… bad thing. Poster TimG offers a personal value assessment by qualifying his willingness to read some of his referenced blogs over others, apparently, based on his measure of interpreted censorship. It’s a well traveled canard; one, of course, thrown quite liberally at RealClimate by the usual suspects. The TimG types will not accept your statement on moderation – that it is intended to, as stated, “keep the quality of conversation high while the friction of conversation low for regular participants”. And that will be fine because, quite obviously, your moderation policy, your new site and the planet at large does not, should not, cater to contrarian noise over pertinent signal.

  16. I would like to make it clear that this site has a very minimal ideology. Specifically

    1) It is unethical to substantially reduce the viability of the planet.

    2) The most immediate corrolary is that net carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced, as quickly as is possible, to zero or below in a few decades, so as to avoid a very high risk of very substantially reducing the viability of the planet.

    I have lots of other beliefs and will feel free to advocate them, but I'm not speaking for Planet3.0 when I do. I hope we have interesting disagreements on those.

    We are interested in (civilized, respectful, open-minded) debate, but mostly in debate given the above premises. Want to argue those premises? There are plenty of other places to do that.

    Again, the site's ideology is simple and not particularly onerous. Paraphrasing:

    Don't injure the biosphere. Therefore, leave the carbon in the ground.

    ==
    10/12 13:15 PST- updated to include the word "net"

  17. Sustainability and economics are something I would like to tie together in my studies, which is in the field business administration. By opening the eyes of business corporations for sustainability I would think that one can have an influence on the future sustainable behavior of firms (and consumers). I would like to learn more about sustainability (and beyond) in the future and have begun thinking about how I can link sustainability to my studies in some way.

    I could possibly offer to contribute by writing about my quest for linking my studies to the sustainable future in business administration - that's at least a possibility...

    I don't have clear goal of how to get there, but that's not the most important part in my eyes yet. As is my view of how one can define "sustainability and beyond" - it shouldn't be any one definition or one clear goal yet, but a moving definition which can be formed as the site develops, as Andy put it, it would "probably [be] an error to be too prescriptive at this stage" - which I fully agree with.

  18. Cross-posted from KK's:

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to Tom Fuller’s suggestions in 64, though within the boundaries as outlined by Michael Tobis in 67.

    Tom Fuller:
    “First, a minority report where an invited person outside the consensus posts on a topic. Second, a regular debate feature (no comments allowed) between 2 people with differing views on certain topics.”

    As an example, a discussion solely between Gavin and RPSr (as now occurring at RC) on a well defined topic, perhaps facilitated by a capable, uh, facilitator, could be very informative and interesting.

    A little bit like Keith has occasionally done: Providing a forum to different scientists (eg Gavin and Judith), or transcribing a live discussion between bloggers (eg Lucia and me).

    However, a debate between say Lindzen and a mainstream scientist on whether there is a climate crisis at all is perhaps interesting to some, but most definitely not informative anymore. That would be the kind of stuff about which mt rightly says: “Want to argue those premises? There are plenty of other places to do that.“

  19. Riffing off Fuller-via-Bart's suggestion of "a minority report where an invited person outside the consensus posts on a topic", something I'd very much like to see on P3 is a "distribution report", from experts spanning the "most informed opinion" hump of the (ahem) Tobis distribution - bit.ly/tobisdist
    (Looking ahead to when I start producing content for local radio station, I would love to have these peoples' views (& the distribution thereof) to work off of.)

    (Earth to NASA, NSF etc: please fund this.)

    [Maybe it's sour grapes, but I am not sure I want institutional support anymore. -mt]

  20. Thanks to everyone who helped fill in the blanks regarding my questions above as to what this site is aiming at. They were all helpful and the effort is appreciated.

    It seems fairly clear that the site is going to be addressing the connections between economic and social policy, and earth system science, in altering human impacts on the planet. This is one hell of a challenge and I hope it can be done well.

    A couple more thoughts:

    First, un-sustainability is *not* just an issue driven by climate change, as I'm sure most are aware. There are many other human-induced environmental changes that are equal to, or greater than, the effects from climate change, operating in the past and present, and potentially the future. The balance between them will likely change over time, because their causes, dominant scales of operation, and system ramifications, are all different. But one thing I have observed at other climate change sites is a narrowing of focus that induces people to assume that all negative environmental effects are--or soon will be--the direct result of climate change. They're not. What we badly need are evaluations and attributions that integrate the effects of climate change with other, ongoing, human-induced environmental changes. Climate change is only one of the biophysical drivers of unsustainability. This will seem obvious to some, but it needs to be said.

    To this end I would highly recommend that one of the first orders of business here be an attempt to develop some type of hierarchical, system level understanding of how climate change will interact with these other problems. This is admittedly a gargantuan goal, but if you're going to shoot, shoot high, and it is necessary in order to keep a proper, holistic perspective on causes and effects, and hence, solutions, to sustainability problems. It will also strengthen credibility with those who do not come primarily from a climate change interest or background.

    My other recommendation would be to go out of the way to get a global perspective here, by actively seeking participants from countries and continents not typically seen on blogs, the second and third worlds in particular. Get some folks from the Southern Hemisphere interested and contributing, for example.

  21. Ray Pierrehumbert's book came up in another thread, with the suggestion to host a sort of study discussion of a text like that, maybe one chapter or section at a time. I've been wondering if maybe a "journal club" section where recent papers are highlighted and discussed would be of interest. Certainly some of what we do here is going to be a reaction to "news" which often involves new papers with their press releases and publicity - but the vast majority of climate or sustainability-relevant papers slide through with little notice or discussion at all, and it would be nice to have somewhere that at least gives a bit of perspective on that enormous "silent" majority of scientific work.

  22. "...but the vast majority of climate or sustainability-relevant papers slide through with little notice or discussion at all, and it would be nice to have somewhere that at least gives a bit of perspective on that enormous “silent” majority of scientific work."

    So very true Arthur. Let the focus be on truly quality pieces of science, not the "latest and (presumably) greatest".

  23. I fervently hope you achieve your goals with this site. I look forward to reading genuine debate about real disagreements, not the false disagreements that dominate most sites - there is an Overton-window type of effect whereby the really interesting areas of discussion are so squeezed by the subterfuge that it's difficult to see the strata within them.

    I'm interested for example in what Jim Bouldin says above: "many other human-induced environmental changes that are equal to, or greater than, the effects from climate change". My very non-expert opinion is that climate change is probably the dominant issue facing us in the short, medium and long terms (years, decades and centuries), with the possible exception of ocean acidification - but it's difficult to uncouple that from climate. I'd be interested to see discussion of this between people who both accept the concerns about sustainability and actually know what they are talking about.

    On the question of defining sustainability, don't. It's a complex and nebulous concept, but no less real for that. I don't believe people don't understand what is meant by it well enough to engage and the demand for a definition is just an invitation to unconstructive dispute. A better understanding of sustainability should emerge from discussions around the topic, rather than an attempt to limit discussions to a preconceived notion. (Jim Bouldin - I've just looked up the thread and seen your comment about clarifying the definitions of sustainability. I'm really not trying to pick a fight with you, honest!)

  24. OPatrick, I think Jim may be right on this.

    Climate is just the best understood of the sustainability problems. Even so we seem incapable of addressing it.

    I would really like to see us broaden the set of questions and the class of answers we are considering here.

    The other horsemen:

    - habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, extinction
    - potable water, soil depletion, and food security
    - energy security
    - overpopulation and vulnerability to new diseases
    - accumulation of long-lived pollutants
    - ocean acidification
    - disrupted geochemistry

    and our old friend

    - war

    Did I miss any?

  25. Michael, thanks for the response. As I said earlier I'm very much a non-expert on this so everything in this comment should be read with implicit questions mark.

    It's clear, I think, that sustainability, or rather unsustainability, is the underlying problem we face and that climate change and all the other horsemen you list are in some form or other facets of this. Even if we turn out to be lucky enough that climate sensitivity is at the extreme lower end of predictions and impacts mild, we will just be waiting for the next civilisation threatening issue to come along and there's no reason to expect we would be so lucky again. But I still feel that climate change stands out now, both because it feeds into so many of the other problems and because we seem to have so little prospect of getting to grips with it.

    Habititat destruction, biodiversity loss and extinction are all problems that are recognised and which we have mechanisms in place, however inadequate, to address them. The rate of extinction may be many times higher than the expected background rate, but even so it will take many centuries before we experience a direct impact from it. Also, of course, climate change will directly impact on all of these problems. If we want to stop the loss of biota then dealing with climate change should be a priority on that basis alone.

    Food and water security are both greatly exacerbated by changes in climate. We know how to deal with soil depletion and whilst we aren't doing so, we could.

    Energy security is important, but if we don't care about carbon emissions we have more time to make the transition, and probably enough time to let technology develop without too much extra pushing.

    Overpopulation is of course a problem, but one which is more or less sorting itself out - relatively speaking. If we work really hard we could cut peak population by maybe a billion, worth doing, but too rapid a change in demographics brings its own problems. Population is a reality we need to live with (but maybe so is climate change).

    Pollutants - clearly problematic, but on the same scale as the worst effects of climate change?

    Ocean acidification worries me, but the solution is coupled with that to climate change.

    Disrupted geochemistry - I don't know about. Tell me more.

    War, very much more likely with stresses from climate change surely.

    I remember seeing an attempt at a graphic showing the interconnectedness of these issues, I can't find it immediately, but it also, I thought, underplayed climate change.

  26. I'm not sure if this was the exact graphic I remember, but it's certainly similar:
    http://www.rff.org/wv/archive/2011/01/28/interconnectedness-of-risk-lessons-in-global-governance.aspx

    I will be staying tuned.

  27. I would like to make it clear that this site has a very minimal ideology. Specifically

    The most immediate corrolary is that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced, as quickly as is possible, to zero or below in a few decades, so as to avoid a very high risk of very substantially reducing the viability of the planet.

    Don’t injure the biosphere. Therefore, leave the carbon in the ground.

    You've built all sorts of hidden assumptions into that "minimal ideology". Clearly by "emissions" you mean any emissions, not just net emissions. Thus you've started out by ruling out any solution that depends primarily on remediation/sequestration. That, in turn, implies putting a stop to growth.

    My impression here is that, under the banner of free discussion, you're created a vehicle for your own prejudices and social ideology. I'd like to be proven wrong, since it appears nobody wants to discuss solutions on Climate, etc. But...

    What do you think about Space Solar Power?

  28. No, we are very much looking for solutions.

    Note that sequestration methods do in fact leave the carbon, albeit transformed, in the ground.

    Speaking for myself rather than the site, I for one am indeed very doubtful about "growth", though.

    That is very much an issue on the table here. I think the quantity that is growing is no longer actually useful (in the advanced countries). But even capping per capita impact at present day European levels we have a lot of problems to address. But that's one of the questions we ought to be discussing. Is "growth" necessary, and if so, what exactly is the quantity that is growing and how can it be sustained? Many of us think the infinite hamster problem will do you in one way or the other.

  29. Well, Michael, having grown up reading science fiction, I can't say I agree with you. There may be limits to growth, but potentially they involve surface areas many orders of magnitude larger than Earth's.

    AFAIK current projections suggest a population leveling at below 20 billion. (Well below, but let's give it some slop room.) OK, if all our power is coming from space, and all the farming is done on converted oceans surface, we could find living room for all those people, while allowing most of the land currently used for agriculture to return to "nature".

    Inspired by Stuart Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion I've been thinking about deriving a "purpose for Humanity", based on extending the evolution of life from its beginnings to today. A possible "purpose" might be to extend the amount of surface (planetary or pseudo-planetary) given over to terrestrial-derived ecologies by several orders of magnitude. Quite an engineering problem, but AFAIK not requiring the discovery of any new scientific principles.

    BTW, you really need a preview button.

  30. I'm willing to bet I have read more SF than you.

    I make no claims about limits to growth in space. There nevertheless remain limits to growth on earth, and that's what we're talking about.

    Even in a spacefaring civilization, the homeworld, being at the bottom of a gravity well has little to trade besides its biological wealth, its historical riches, and the viability of its outdoors. These are objects of preservation, not of growth. Viable space colonies otherwise will have no use for the earth or its billions of miserable wretches. ("Keep Triton Up and Out!" -Delaney's _Triton_) But if we fall into decay before the colonies are spun off, we leave the galaxy empty for the next candidate species, if any, to evolve. A sad fate for us, a Galaxy taken over by creatures that don't understand rock and roll.

    Optimism is great. Please let's not be stupid about it though. Our future is ours to decide, and we currently seem to be set about to ruining it.

    Preview button added to endlessly growing to-do list.

  31. Optimism is great. Please let’s not be stupid about it though. Our future is ours to decide, and we currently seem to be set about to ruining it.

    I'd say the biggest problem right now is trying to stop growth. If we could find a way to continue growing while substantially reducing our planetary footprint, IMO it would be much easier to sell. Certainly to me, I can visualize all sorts of ways the problem could be solved (phrased that way), so I'd be totally against any solution that involved an immediate end to growth. (Defining growth as improved life-style.)

    If we assume a slowing in population growth, and we assume that the lifestyle of the reasonably well-off in developed cultures has pretty much topped out its energy requirements (leaving plenty of room for energy-neutral improvements), then AFAIK solar power drawn from concentrating installations floating on sterile parts of the tropical ocean would probably meet the medium-term needs. Combine that with a longer-term plan to offload solar power collection (and some/much industry) to NEO, and transfer farming to floating installations with 100-200 levels (stories) of farmland (say at 3-meter heights), and you've ended up substantially lightening the human footprint, especially on terrestrial ecologies.

  32. No need to get so exotic. Technology is not the problem.

    H-J ("John") Schellnhuber notes that Europe can be run off African solar to the benefit of both, in principle but not in practice. "All the technical problems have been solved," he says, "but it cannot be done."

    I have no objection to discussing technologies here. If you want to come up with a reasonably in-depth article about one of them, we'll run it. But it's at the interface between science and technological prowess, especially the incompetent political scene, and I would venture the very weak state of economic theory, that is the where the issue lies. Technically we could bag this thing, if not exactly easily, at least with resources to spare.

  33. You certainly got a lot of them. If I were making the list I would add:

    1) alteration of natural disturbance regimes, especially wrt fire
    2) altered hydrology, especially streamflow regimes and aquifer states
    3) land cover changes
    4) long distance biotic transfers/invasions
    5) changes in ecological community structure and resilience
    6) changing agricultural production practices

    and of course that long standing favorite that got the ball rolling long ago...
    7) over-harvesting of biological resources

    More as time allows.

  34. I hate to do it but I have to disagree yet again.

    This is an instance of the tradeoff between precision and accessibility.

    I'll go with "net emissions" here and treat sequestration as a negative emission. "Flux" is not a word that the general readership is comfortable with, and "net emissions" is clear enough. You knew what I meant; the precision takes less damage in this case than the accessibility would.

  35. If you want to come up with a reasonably in-depth article about one of them, we’ll run it.

    Maybe after I finish the post on ocean acidification I promised somebody on Climate Etc.

    I agree that the major problems are social/political. But IMO part of the problem is that you're pushing against very strong aspirations. Have you studied Judo? One of the key principles is not to oppose your force to your opponent's, but to steer your opponent in the way you want them to go.

    People want better lifestyles, and that means growth (in today's technology). So we need solutions that allow full growth for a decade or three, while reducing our carbon footprint. Solutions that involve reduced or stopped growth have the "deck stacked against them".

    Thus my concentration on remediation/sequestration. Don't try to stop people digging up fossil fuels and burning them, plant the seed (metaphorically speaking) of technology that can grow exponentially to drag the CO2 back out of the air and do something useful with it. Come up with a handful of different feasible technical approaches based on applying an analog of Moore's law to the appropriate technology.

    Now, use those as the core of your political solution. The oceans offer tremendous opportunity, because they mostly haven't been developed. Floating power stations and agricultural islands might be a bigger technical problem, but it's my guess it would be a much lighter political problem. Most of the ocean is unused (except perhaps for shipping, which can be channeled into lanes), and much of it is sterile (AFAIK). Changes in international law needed for establishing usage patterns of empty ocean would be much smaller than those needed for putting solar power technology in the Sahara, where the people who live there have their own agenda. (And it's my guess the technology for floating platforms isn't really all that harder than to handle sandstorms.)

    If the Algerians (or whoever) don't want to participate in growth, that's fine.

  36. Michael, first of all, I was replying to AK's use of the term, not yours. But since you agree with that useage, I'm sorry but I have to quite strongly disagree with you, and this point is important because it gets *exactly* to the point I made earlier about the importance of proper definition of terms and agreement about what we're talking about.

    Flux is not a hard concept--it just means change. The carbon cycle people describe carbon fluxes as just that: fluxes. Sequestration is a positive flux (in most useages) and emission is a negative flux, with negative taken to represent transfers into the atmosphere. If you want to make up your own definitions of things, then we are going to have all the typical problems of blog discussions here, because you want to discuss an issue--sustainability--which unlike the very simple concept of flux, is much more amorphous.

    This is exactly why these discussions immediately go off the rails--people want to be nebulous about things.

  37. Here's the near-term solution I currently like best:

    Develop a GM'ed crop, probably based on sugar cane, that uses all the sunlight it receives to fix CO2. Modify it also (if necessary) to grow from stolens like Bermuda grass. Also to withstand occasional saline inundations.

    Now, grow it on large, mass-produced floating islands, perhaps along with an appropriate legume. These islands can be built with embedded tracks for harvesting and other agricultural equipment, or perhaps be small enough that the islands themselves are dragged through giant buildings with equipment hanging from suspending roof structures.

    Sugar cane from this could be harvested, pressed to remove the sap, and the remainder weighted and sunk somewhere anoxic (trench). Sap could be bio-processed to alcohol, or even short-chain fatty acids which could be vat processed to light oil (gasoline).

    Meanwhile, coal-fired plants are built and fueled for power. A light tax on fossil carbon is used to fund a heavy subsidy on non-fossil energy, including coal that's offset by sequestered plant matter. The fossil carbon tax is slowly rising, while all of the collected funds are distributed to non-fossil energy (by KWHr). The subsidy would start out very high, as the actual amount of energy so produced would be small. As the ratios change, the subsidy per KWHr decreases. However, a rising component of the fossil carbon tax would delay the shrinkage of the subsidy somewhat. AFAIK the numbers would work, although a more thorough study should be done.

    Of course, even here the major problems would be political and social.

  38. "Develop a GM’ed crop, probably based on sugar cane, that uses all the sunlight it receives to fix CO2. Modify it also (if necessary) to grow from stolens like Bermuda grass. Also to withstand occasional saline inundations."

    Do you have any idea what you are talking about here? This is 100% impossibility. Utterly divorced from reality. If it were possible to harvest more than a small percentage of the light energy in photosynthesis, evolution would have come up with it a looooooooong time ago. Among other issues.

  39. OK. Stop. You are daydreaming. Let's see the EIS, the EROEI, how you would handle trace nutrients. You say "coal fired plants are built" and "offset by sequestered plant matter" as if you know how to do this!

    This is the actual world, not a science fiction story. The chances of making up a scenario like this out of whole cloth and having it work are pretty much zero. Do you have any engineering experience at all?

  40. To me, it's clear that some moderation is absolutely essential. In fact when I first started I had a very open comment policy (I only used the moderation queue to keep out spam). But after the ten thousandth repetition of clearly false and often angry and/or insulting arguments, I decided I just didn't want to be a host site for that sort of thing.

    Now I moderate with a heavy hand. Some find fault with this, and I understand. I might even "lighten up" in the future but at present I'm satisfied with things. As for P3.0, I'm guessing that the current moderation methodology is a good approach, and it will probably evolve as time goes on to be even better.

    I have noticed that it's foolish to court popularity. In fact, the most "popular" posts (and blogs) are often those with the most idiotic argumentation, the highest level of ad hominem, etc. I've noticed on my own blog that posts which are heavily critical of the "other side" tend to be more popular than those which just address scientific issues. If I dismantle a faulty argument from WUWT, I can pretty well guarantee lots of views and comments -- but if I post on a purely scientific topic, one which to me is both fascinating and relevant but has no controversy (although it may spawn disagreements!) its viewership may be lackluster by comparison. I'm OK with that too.

    Last but by no means least, a blog (or online newsmagazine, or whatever) is a heckuva lot more than its discussion threads, it's also the content. Yes, the discussion threads draw people in -- but I'm usually happier when my posts are referred to by others (often well after the fact, which is most satisfying). I might even claim that they have a more significant, and longer-lasting impact.

  41. MT,

    Meeting Delany (please spell it right) was one of the highlights of my academic life ( next to Derrida of course). Read some of what he wrote ...as a semiotician. We have a different conception of conversation and dialogue FWIW

    "Though I am black and gay, I am as much a racist, a sexist, an anti-Semite and a homophobe as any right-wing Christian bigot: I must be; it's desperately important that I be; if I am ever to be able to talk to such people and effect some change in their beliefs and behavior, I have to be. To be what I would hastily call a civilized man with a civilized sense of democratic fairness is something you do on top of that. It's a refinement of that, if you like. It only gets to seem, with the blindness to basic processes that comes from practice, something you do in place of it. But the other is always there. I've always talked with such people whenever I've had a chance. Even more so I listen to them—long and carefully, about their feelings and experiences, as well as many other topics—whenever I've found myself next to them in bars and on Greyhound busses or I have one as a seatmate on some air-bus to Detroit or Denver or San José, or when they're taking out their kids in the park. But I will never be able to effect any meaningful change other than one or another form of terrorism by fooling myself into thinking I can do anything by "standing outside" some hegemony."

  42. I think Delany's words are to a large extent fine and admirable, although I'm not sure most of us would posess his seemingly superhuman levels of patience and tolerance.
    But as much as it may be right to put ourselves in the shoes of people who have such views and try to understand what motivates them, it is wrong to ignore the wider consequences that such views have in the real world and to remain non-judgemental where the consequences are obviously damaging. The prevalence of racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-semitic views has a damaging effect on the stability of our society in general and obviously on people who are black, gay, female or Jewish in particular and it's right that people who hold such prejudices, and especially those who actually act on them, are held accountable for their actions.
    I would also add that I think it's genuinely admirable if Delany as a gay black man can show understanding towards racists and homophobes, but as a straight white man I'm not sure I have the right to do so on his behalf.
    As for conversation and dialog, I am all in favour of this but if people have repeatedly demonstrated that they are capable of engaging in neither with honesty and in good faith then there is no reason why others should make any further attempt to try.

  43. @Jim Bouldin...

    I'm perfectly willing to use whatever nomenclature is standard for the venue. The point I was making, which MT disputed, was that his approach seemed to be ruling out sequestration. "Therefore, leave the carbon in the ground."

    According to your nomenclature, he actually was ruling out sequestration, according to his interpretation, he was including it as a negative emission.

    It isn't really very important to me, since my focus is primarily on sequestration, and in any discussion of mitigation and remediation I would probably interpret with everyday language.

  44. @Michael Tobis...

    Do you have any engineering experience at all?

    Mostly software engineering. I've done some small-scale amateur non-software projects. In software, I've had some experience architecting and managing large projects that many coworkers didn't believe could be done.

    The chances of making up a scenario like this out of whole cloth and having it work are pretty much zero.

    Let me refer you to a post at Climate Etc. where I discussed the previous 2 decades. Making up the current situation WRT our social networking technology out of whole cloth would have seemed just as "science fictiony".

    Let’s see the EIS, the EROEI, how you would handle trace nutrients.

    The concept's not to that point yet. As for environmental impact, manufactured farmland could potentially be much more effective than natural terrestrial farmland at containing outflow to the environment. As for EROEI, that depends on the design and manufacturing methods of the artificial farmland. I'm convinced that if we could just get the right people thinking about how to optimize that design and manufacture, we could get to some pretty good returns.

    You say “coal fired plants are built” and “offset by sequestered plant matter” as if you know how to do this!

    We do know how to build coal fired plants, don't we. Sequestering organic material is pretty much a matter of bundling it up, wrapping it appropriately, and dumping it in an anoxic trench. Or do you mean offsetting: I would envision that as working pretty much like cap-and-trade: so much carbon sequestered translates into so many carbon credits that can be sold to a fossil fuel user who can then treat an equivalent amount of fossil carbon as non-fossil energy and both avoid the tax and collect the subsidy.

    I'll grant I was summarizing in a science fictiony manner, assuming (and I guess I found out what that does) that you'd give me the benefit of the doubt maybe I had some idea what I was talking about. I suppose I'll have to write up any ideas with much more detail and references before anybody here will listen, if somebody who claims to have read more science fiction than I have won't.

  45. @Jim Bouldin

    Do you have any idea what you are talking about here?

    Yes. I've never posted on photosynthesis, but I'm familiar with the biochemistry, including some digging into photorespiration and C3/C4 photosynthesis.

    This is 100% impossibility. Utterly divorced from reality. If it were possible to harvest more than a small percentage of the light energy in photosynthesis, evolution would have come up with it a looooooooong time ago. Among other issues.

    OK I probably should have included more detail, see my comment to MT above. But I suspect motivated reasoning here: you start by deciding it's impossible then find reasons. Why do you want an approach like this to be impossible?

    When I said "all the sunlight it receives to fix CO2" perhaps I wasn't as clear as I should have been. I was referring to the fact (AFAIK) that most plants don't make as much use as they already could of sunlight they receive. The photosynthesis process potentially absorbs a certain amount of energy from sunlight in the form of ATP and NADH. AFAIK there are mechanisms to reduce the amount of energy actually captured and used when the plant doesn't need everything sunlight supplies. This works together with closing the stomata to reduce water loss. What I'm talking about here is GM'ing a C4 grass, and growing it under circumstances, so that it will, in effect, run at full tilt all day every day. The density of growth, combined with the levels of chlorophyll, will allow it to capture the full amount of energy the C4 system is capable of, and translate the maximum amount of energy into carbon fixation.

    Given how abbreviated my explanations have been, I'm expecting that you'll have other questions regarding this proposal, but I hope you'll provide a little more benefit of the doubt, that perhaps I have some small idea what I'm talking about.

  46. Look, one of our missions here is to improve the quality of conversation and limit the presence of tedious bullshit.

    This is much unlike the Watts vision of the world, where tendentious nonsense in the comments is actually encouraged, because "everybody is entitled to their opinion in a democracy", which is equivalent to saying "any shred of truth is to be buried in bullshit". And I have to say that Curry is aligned with Watts at least on this regard. If you have something original to say, please say it in a way that is proportionate to the amount of development the idea has. ("Sometimes it occurs to me that maybe" is a far less irritating start, for instance.)

    "Making up the current situation WRT our social networking technology out of whole cloth would have seemed just as “science fictiony”." is about as sloppy a piece of thinking as I have seen in a while, and coming from someone who has claims to be a software developer is downright shocking. Suppose, as an example, we have an extremely precise thermometer that reads the temperature outside as 78.40337 F. What is the likelihood that this could have been predicted a week ago? Vanishingly small. Yet the temperature is exactly 78.40337 F nonetheless. Stop the presses!

    In short, hindsight is 20/20.

    As for the rest of it, you are painting a crude picture of a happy future. I have no objection to that. I think that it is exactly our job here to say both 1) we are in big trouble and 2) there are ways out of the trouble. Then we can discuss which of the ways out is most likely to work. But the tone of overconfidence and arrogance does not belong here. Unlike on the big climate blogs, we are trying very hard to attract a competent audience. You should, in everything you say, presume that people more knowledgeable than you may be reading. And you should be terrified of wasting their time, as much as you would be in real life.

    "As for EROEI, that depends on the design and manufacturing methods of the artificial farmland." Well, right. Which is to say, you are waving your hands.

    "Sequestering organic material is pretty much a matter of bundling it up, wrapping it appropriately, and dumping it in an anoxic trench." Well, yes, but now you are waving your hands frantically. How much land needs to be used? How much in the way of trace nutrients would be lost? Most of all, how do you constrain the energy spent in this process to leave any profit in digging up the coal? Do you think you're the only person ever to have entertained this idea?

    There is no presumption of free speech in science or engineering. If you continue to repeat these things without backing them up you will be wasting our time. There are other sites that welcome timewasting nonsense. It appears you already participate in one of them.

    "I suppose I’ll have to write up any ideas with much more detail and references before anybody here will listen,"

    Yep. You betcha.

    More than that. You'll have to come up with more details and references, or else your comments will get purged.

    "if somebody who claims to have read more science fiction than I have won’t."

    I think many of our readers will be SF types. It offers an analogy: we are hard futurism; other sites are soft futurism.

    If you have a case that something is possible, make it, don't just allude to it. Also I suggest you pick up one thing at a time rather than trying to defend a half dozen radical technologies in the same posting, which is pretty much a showstopper right there.

  47. AK and MT - this is an "open thread" so I suppose can be more flexible than most. But - AK - just a pointer on why people will look very doubtfully at a comment like this:

    For a solution to our carbon/energy problem to work it must (1) actually contribute to reducing carbon in the surface cycle relative to availability of energy and (2) have a chance of being less costly than alternatives, once all costs are considered. The criterion is dollars per ton of CO2, for example under conditions of constant energy availability. So, plug in some estimates for your idea first to see if it's at all feasible, compared for example to nuclear power (about $30/ton - see this summary - http://world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.html) or other alternatives.

    And in particular for your example, why would people continue burning coal when they could burn the bio-mass produced by these floating farms to generate electricity? The cost of electricity from your scheme = Cost(mining and transporting coal) + cost(running coal generators) + cost(floating farms) + cost(bundling, transporting and sequestering farm output). But surely Cost(transporting farm output) + cost(running bio-mass generator) + cost(floating farms) would be less, as it leaves out the coal mining and bio-mass sequestering components?

    That's just one indicator you don't seem to have thought this through very carefully - or if you have, it requires a great deal more presentation and argument than you can provide in a blog comment. Write it up thoroughly with cost estimates and people will be much happier to talk about it more.

  48. No, I'm sorry but I'm not looking for a reason to find your scheme impossible. There's too much to go into here.

    That's why I simply summarized it as I did: The conversion and storage of light energy as chemical energy, and hence biomass, is under such ENORMOUS selection pressure, over such an ENORMOUS length of time, that if it were biophysically possible to substantially increase that conversion rate, plant would have done it millions of years ago. The best they've been able to do is come up with C4 and CAM photosynthesis during that time. The problems with Rubisco's activity as an unavoidable oxygenase as well as a carboxylase--hence inducing photorespiration--has been intractable. There are biophysical limits to carboxylation, and energy capture and transfer in general, that evolution cannot overcome.

    Even if you could develop the designer enzymes you apparently have in mind, you would then face an enormous suite of problems in trying to "GM", as you call it, any plant to drastically improve it's fundamental physiological efficiency. These are multigenic, quantitative traits we're talking about, with highly complex, coordinated gene regulation. It's a very complex system. Breeders and mobio folks are nowhere even remotely close to accomplishing anything like it.

    It's completely pie in the sky.

  49. OPatrick probably the main point is that I agree with your fundamental point at the top: our environmental issues are the result of an unsustainable approach to human life on this planet, and it manifests itself in many different effects. Recognizing that your questions get exactly at what (I think) this site is supposed to be about, the answers required would be long indeed. I hope that exactly that discussion occurs here.

    One of the reasons I said what I did is to try to put some breaks on at this place before any sort of bandwagon climate change thing gets started here. I am not alone when I express some serious concern at seeing this happen in various places, including in the scientific literature. As an ecologist, my primary concern is not the climate, it is rather the suite of interacting issues that affect ecosystems, whatever they be. Similarly, policy makers and planners have to integrate the many issues that affect society; they cannot afford to be single minded on any one issue (if they are conscientious).

    The fundamental issue regarding the importance of different problems, I think, boils down to issues of scale, hierarchy, and tempo. Around these topics much work and discussion needs to occur, and there is some of that happening, though not enough IMO. There are some problems in doing such work however.

    Let's take biodiversity loss as an example. We want to know how much climate change is affecting, and going to affect in the future, biological diversity. We have a suite of problems that immediately confront us. First, how do we determine what elements of biodiversity are most important? Species richness, species even-ness, alpha or beta diversity, intraspecific genetic diversity, (all of which are taxonomically oriented), or rather some measure of functional diversity, or some combination of these--what exactly? And at what spatio-temporal scales? This question has no easy answer, as it depends on many value-laden and/or subjective decisions. Second, how do we measure any possible losses? Are we going to rely strictly on models, such as those that spring from island biogeography principles that predict equilibrium species numbers as a function of area? If so, are those models valid? Or rather, develop an extensive, global monitoring system, far beyond anything now extant. Exactly how are we going to get a handle on rates of change? We don't have good answers to these questions. If we cannot accurately estimate the rates of change, then we have no chance of attributing the causes of them. So, how are we going to partition the losses due to habitat destruction and over-harvesting, which are far and away the leading causes historically, from those of climate change, in the future? We aren't very close to being able to answer questions like these in any but a very hand waving kind of way.

    Let's use fire regime changes as another. There is evidence that climate change is altering fire regimes in the western USA and Canada over the last few decades, via earlier arrival of spring and earlier snowmelt dates. Fires have gotten bigger and more frequent in response. But fire size, and fire frequency, depend critically on fuel loads, which have increased enormously in many places, due to very large disruptions of the historic natural fire cycle over the last century and a half, approximately, as well as changes in ignition sources and patterns. Conversely there is a greatly increased number of roads (artifical fire breaks) now, which help limit fire sizes. All of these are completely independent of climate change. So how are we going to attribute changes in fire regimes given these confounding factors. And if we aren't attributing causes, carefully and correctly, then we aren't really doing science, because that is what science is all about. Everything else is just guessing.

    I'm out of time and will close. I will just say that what worries me a lot is that we are applying a very slowly acting, but very widespread and momentous, environmental change factor (AGW) to a planetary system that we are ill equipped to evaluate the effects on, because in many cases we don't have the observational systems, and/or the historical data, we need to do so.

  50. @Jim:

    I find the argument that "if it were possible evolution would have come up with it already" to be rather problematic (which is not to say wrong). But kind of sounds like the old joke about economists - there can't be any 20 dollar bills on the ground, because someone would have picked it up already. How can there still be evolution if everything substantially "better" (in terms of some performance metric) must have already been tried?

    There is, if nothing else, the matter of path dependence... Photosynthesis presumably evolved out of a bunch of chemical precursors which constrained the options... we have a C3 and a C4 pathway, why couldn't there be others? Why just two?

    Of course, I have no domain expertise here. Are the arguments you're making considered well-established within the field?

  51. @Jim:

    I find the argument that “if it were possible evolution would have come up with it already” to be rather problematic (which is not to say wrong). But kind of sounds like the old joke about economists – there can’t be any 20 dollar bills on the ground, because someone would have picked it up already. How can there still be evolution if everything substantially “better” (in terms of some performance metric) must have already been tried?

    There is, if nothing else, the matter of path dependence… Photosynthesis presumably evolved out of a bunch of chemical precursors which constrained the options… we have a C3 and a C4 pathway, why couldn’t there be others? Why just two?

    Of course, I have no domain expertise here. Are the arguments you’re making considered well-established within the field?

    This gets into some pretty deep evolutionary and genetic issues and biochemistry pretty quickly.

    Yes, evolution is *always* constrained by the material it has to work with, of course. If you're arguing that these canalizations drive the photosynthetic efficiency limitation, which could therefore theoretically be worked around by somehow going back to some hypothetical square one, and re-designing the photosynthetic machinery somehow, this I would like to see. How are you going to do that--even in the wildly broadest outlines? You do understand how gargantuan a task this is right?

    There are 3 main photosynthetic systems, if we refer only to the carbon fixation strategies used in the light-independent reactions: C3, C4 and CAM. There are a whole number of other approaches for the light dependent reactions, involving pigment structures, photosystem architectures, electron transport schemes, etc. None of these existing systems extract more than a small fraction of the light energy they absorb--they are not even close to the 100% level imagined above. Of all the traits that are selected for in plants and algae, light use efficiency would be at the very top, or very near it, because this increased energy capture would translate immediately to faster growth, better competitive advantage, and increased fitness, which is the bottom line. Selection on this trait has been going in uncountably large numbers of generations of uncountable number of individuals of millions of species, for hundreds of million years. And they still can't extract more than a small percentage of the total energy in the light.

    Now what is the chance that biotechnology, or breeding, is going to suddenly and drastically increase that LUE in any species? Do I really need to say more? It's just positively laughable that someone would make a statement that you could just snap your fingers and genetically modify a C4 plant to drastically increase its LUE. It's a fantasy.

    To answer your more evolutionary theoretic question, evolution proceeds when there is a gap between the biophysical limit of the trait in question, positive and strong selection for that trait leading to measurable increases in fitness, and the necessary genetic variation on which to select. You need all of them. There are plenty of highly conserved genes and gene families in the world--they're not evolving. And the ones involved in all aspects of metabolism--especially the photosystem proteins, those in the electron transport chain, and carbon fixation pathways, are some of the most highly conserved of all. There is a reason for that.

  52. Jim, thanks for the detailed reply, though each answer leads to many more questions and as you say hopefully this site will provide discussions around these questions.

    "The fundamental issue regarding the importance of different problems, I think, boils down to issues of scale, hierarchy, and tempo." I'd agree and my original question was really about where climate change was on this hierarchy - very roughly speaking my instincts are that it lies somewhere between the overarching issues of sustainability and many of those 'horsemen' Michael identified and you added to. Climate change feeds into so many of these other problems but there is a lesser degree of feedback from them into climate. This is mental handwaving, I don't have the expertise to justify it. I will though take some convincing otherwise. Bart's brief post on the delay between actions and consequences with climate change also seems to make it stand out more as an issue. This is an aspect of some of the other problems identified, but not I think all of them and perhaps none to the same extent.

    "And if we aren’t attributing causes, carefully and correctly, then we aren’t really doing science, because that is what science is all about. Everything else is just guessing." I wonder if this is too strong? Is there a danger that we end up relying too much on what we can get hard evidence for and neglect the broader understanding of expert judgement? I think, for example, of the question of whether climate change will lead to an increase in wars. It's very difficult to establish hard evidence on this, or imagine what would represent such hard evidence, and what evidence is available may not be useful as there has never been an historical situation like that we now face. Relying only on the narrow snapshot of scientifically rigorous evidence and ignoring professional judgement might lead to an underplaying of the threats.

    I'm not trying to deny the importance or even pre-eminence of scientific evidence, and the urgency to build this evidence and our understanding based on it, but can good-faith discussions not take place even when we have a paucity of such evidence?

    I'm not sure this bears directly on what I'm saying, but you bring up the question of measuring functional diversity. I did some study, a while back, into the objectivity of the concept of species and what struck me then was that there was very little disagreement on the details of the evidence. The vigorous disagreements all seemed to stem from attempts to impose an objective structure to the science (essentially, I suppose, a taxonomy).

  53. "Climate change feeds into so many of these other problems but there is a lesser degree of feedback from them into climate. This is mental handwaving, I don’t have the expertise to justify it. I will though take some convincing otherwise."

    Climate change exacerbates a lot of existing problems, or will soon, no question. There are some cause --> effects that do go the other way. Land cover change is probably the best example through its effects on albedo, evapotranspiration and cloud cover, and GHG concentrations, all of which affect the climate, but at different spatio-temporal scales. It's this spatio-temporal issue that causes a lot of the attribution problems at smaller spatial scales--you start to lose discrimination ability between the larger vs smaller scale drivers. This relates to Bart's comment that you mention and which I much agree with. That was much of my point in the last comment. A good example of a non-climatic "horseman" exhibiting the same delay issue would be the long term fire suppression example that I mentioned. You build up fuels for decade upon decade, and everything looks just fine until you get a year when the ignition and weather patterns exceed the ability of the fire prevention system to handle it, and you get a lot of large, destructive fires. Land cover change effects might qualify also, and biodiversity loss as well. These are slow, widespread, and potentially momentous and with nonlinear threshold effects.

    "I wonder if this is too strong? Is there a danger that we end up relying too much on what we can get hard evidence for and neglect the broader understanding of expert judgement?"

    I think it's a very good point. When I talk about attribution, I include very wide ranging and/or hand waving discussions that occur as a first step that prescribes and defines the bounds of the possible explanations, and which (hopefully) then sets in motion a focused and rigorous approach to quantitative attribution analysis, with all the techniques of science. You need both for sure.

    "Relying only on the narrow snapshot of scientifically rigorous evidence and ignoring professional judgement might lead to an underplaying of the threats."

    Yes I agree. This may be exactly what is going on wrt increases in extreme climatic events. We're at the stage where wide ranging discussion among experts is absolutely essential.

    "I did some study, a while back, into the objectivity of the concept of species and what struck me then was that there was very little disagreement on the details of the evidence. The vigorous disagreements all seemed to stem from attempts to impose an objective structure to the science (essentially, I suppose, a taxonomy)."

    Yes, I can imagine. That would be interesting to hear about. I think Mayr's species concept is conceptually straightforward, however difficult to apply in practice (often, very!).

  54. Jim, the problem with Mayr's species concept is that very few, if any, organisms fit into it, particularly when we introduce a time element or hypothetical interventions, which are now less hypothetical with the advent of GM.

    This brings us back to a previous comment I made about not trying to define sustainability because it's a nebulous concept (actually, I think all concepts are nebulous). The concept 'species' is useful, and most people invovled in biological sciences can use species effectively without having a strict defnition of it. Trying to define it strictly makes it less useful.

  55. "Jim, the problem with Mayr’s species concept is that very few, if any, organisms fit into it, particularly when we introduce a time element or hypothetical interventions, which are now less hypothetical with the advent of GM."

    You lost me there. What do you mean? All organisms can theoretically be evaluated as to whether or not they can produce fertile offspring with potential conspecifics, the essence of Mayr's concept. It's practically challenging, but not conceptually. And GM doesn't change the critical criterion of whether that can happen or not. GM just transfers genes between disparate genomes. Reproductive barriers are unaffected.

    "This brings us back to a previous comment I made about not trying to define sustainability because it’s a nebulous concept (actually, I think all concepts are nebulous). The concept ‘species’ is useful, and most people invovled in biological sciences can use species effectively without having a strict defnition of it. Trying to define it strictly makes it less useful."

    I can't imagine *any* scenario in which a nebulous definition of something is more useful than a more precise one. I'd say that a large part of the communication problems among humans results from assuming that everybody has the same concept of something. The beauty of mathemtatics (one of them) is that it is very precise and leaves little wiggle room. I'd like to hear your viewpoint.

  56. The problem is that the potential to interbreed has a very blurred line. Many plant species in particular are shockingly promiscuous - and if we start getting involved we can make these lines even more blurred, I'm not sure that reproductive barriers can't be overcome.

    There are also all sorts of other hypothetical (but not fanciful) situations:

    For example if a can breed successfully with b, and b can breed with c but a can't breed with c are a and c the same species?

    Are two populations of animals on isolated islands different species if they could interbreed? (Most, I think would argue no to this.) But is there anything special about a particular set of genetic variations that mean that two individuals can't successfully interbreed? This is in some, and I think important, ways the same as having isolating islands. This particular genetic combination isolates two populations which might otherwise share more genetic similarities than a different pair of populations which could still interbreed successfully.

    Consider dogs - if we wiped out all varieties of dog other than great danes and chihuahuas would we have created a new species? Is there a theoretical point when one individual dies and a new species is created?

    Then we can start thinking about time. Is a population of animals now the same species as a genetically identical population from 100 000 years ago? They clearly can't interbreed, but...

    It's easier, and much more importantly a better reflection of reality, to accept that there isn't a single defining feature that makes a population of organisms a 'species'.

    Mathematics is a wonderfully useful (and just wonderful) way of modelling the world, but in reality there is nothing in the world that ever corresponds in an infintely sharply defined way to the concept one.

    Getting back to the concept of sustainability though I'm not advocating that we never attempt to define aspects of what we mean by 'sustainability' in a particular context, for example sustainability of energy supplies. I agree with you, I suspect, that effective communication about specific issues requires an explicit and agreed definition of the terms being used. But we should always bear in mind that this definition is to an extent artificial, that the concepts we are engaging with are in reality infinitely nuanced.

  57. "The problem is that the potential to interbreed has a very blurred line. Many plant species in particular are shockingly promiscuous – and if we start getting involved we can make these lines even more blurred, I’m not sure that reproductive barriers can’t be overcome."

    Yes, but interbreeding itself is not the sole criterion. They have to produce *fertile* offspring--that's the bridge that allows gene flow between the two. Donkeys and horses aren't the same species, because mules are sterile.

    "...For example if a can breed successfully with b, and b can breed with c but a can’t breed with c are a and c the same species?"

    According to Mayr's definition, yes, as long as the offspring of both crosses are fertile. The three would be subspecies, varieties or races of one species, because gene flow can occur between all three.

    "Are two populations of animals on isolated islands different species if they could interbreed? (Most, I think would argue no to this.)"

    No, not according to the biological species concept. That's why it says "actually or potentially"--the latter to account for geographic but not reproductive isolation.

    "But is there anything special about a particular set of genetic variations that mean that two individuals can’t successfully interbreed? This is in some, and I think important, ways the same as having isolating islands. This particular genetic combination isolates two populations which might otherwise share more genetic similarities than a different pair of populations which could still interbreed successfully."

    That's irrelevant. You can have very large differences in phenotype, of high heritability, between individuals/populations, but still not be reproductively isolated. There are many example of this, particularly under domestication (your dog example for example), but also in the wild, such as the Hawaiian silverswords for example, and also some of the oaks and manzanitas, and a whole lot more.

    And conversely, you can also have two individuals or groups which are virtually identical in all heritable phenotypic characteristics, and yet they absolutely cannot interbreed. There are many many examples of this in the plant world because of the frequency of instantaneous doubling of the genome (autopolyploidy) and self fertilization, which instantly creates a new species due to the chromosome pairing problems which instantly arise between it and the two parental species. Sometimes there is some limited ability with one of the parents, depending on how different the two parental species were from each other.

    "Consider dogs – if we wiped out all varieties of dog other than great danes and chihuahuas would we have created a new species?"

    No, as per the above.

    "Is there a theoretical point when one individual dies and a new species is created?"

    There's no "theoretical point" that I know of, but there are definite practical ones. It mostly boils down to chromosome pairing issues during meiosis. If you have a high frequency of mis- or failed pairings, you'll have a very low or non-existent fertility of the offspring, i.e. sterility.

    "Then we can start thinking about time. Is a population of animals now the same species as a genetically identical population from 100 000 years ago? They clearly can’t interbreed, but…"

    That's an unanswerable question and Mayr's concept isn't meant to be applied to it, as far as I know. It's meant to be useful as a criterion for existing populations. You have to use phenetic approaches whenever you deal with comparisons to the paleo.

    "It’s easier, and much more importantly a better reflection of reality, to accept that there isn’t a single defining feature that makes a population of organisms a ‘species’.

    No, I strongly disagree. There *is* one feature that is more genetically and evolutionarily defensible than others--and it is exactly why Mayr proposed his concept. If you have two populations that cannot produce fertile offspring, you have then created a separation between them that will lead them to diverge, phenotypically, due to selection and drift. This is very important. It reflects the potential for genetic diversity; for biodiversity.

    What you have in mind, I think, relates to more to ecological than evolutionary concerns, and that is, functional or phenotypic diversity. Then you can legitimately ask the question of "how different is different" that I hear you asking here.

    "Mathematics is a wonderfully useful (and just wonderful) way of modelling the world, but in reality there is nothing in the world that ever corresponds in an infintely sharply defined way to the concept one."

    That doesn't negate the importance of defining things as precisely as you can, and making discriminatory rules and guides between things. Is that not what knowledge is all about?

    "Getting back to the concept of sustainability though I’m not advocating that we never attempt to define aspects of what we mean by ‘sustainability’ in a particular context, for example sustainability of energy supplies. I agree with you, I suspect, that effective communication about specific issues requires an explicit and agreed definition of the terms being used. But we should always bear in mind that this definition is to an extent artificial, that the concepts we are engaging with are in reality infinitely nuanced."

    Isn't that part and parcel of creating a symbolic representation of the world? It's always an approximation. The key is to make the approximation as accurate, useful and least confusing as possible, I would say.

  58. Correction:
    To your question: “Are two populations of animals on isolated islands different species if they could interbreed? (Most, I think would argue no to this.)”

    My reply should have read:

    Yes, according to Mayr's biological species concept. That’s why it says “actually or potentially”–the latter to account for geographic but not reproductive isolation.

  59. Jim, I think you dismiss the issue of interbreeding between species too easily. I'm no expert on this and am reduced to Wikipedia-level information, but I think there is enough evidence of successful, by which I mean producing fertile offspring, hybridisation to make my point - that if we use the strict Mayrian definition of species we end up not applying the term 'species' to some groups of population that it would otherwise be useful and sensible to do so. The use of sub-species I suppose partly addresses this, but it's like adding more epicycles when accepting an ellipse would be so much easier!

    My point with the great dane / chihuahua example was that the two groups would be effectively isolated from each other by virtue of simple sexual mechanics. Is the ability to sexually reproduce a theoretical (potential?) or practical requirement? I don't think there is, or should be, a definite answer to this. On the other hand I certainly don't think that Mayr's definition isn't important, just not definitive....

    "That’s [is a population that is identical to a population from thousands of years ago members of the same species] an unanswerable question and Mayr’s concept isn’t meant to be applied to it".

    But doesn't that make my point? We have a concept of species here that is useful but not finally definitive. There are ways we would want to talk about species that doesn't fit into this particular concept. We could create new words, or add new prefixes, but we would need to do so indefinitely.

    "That doesn’t negate the importance of defining things as precisely as you can, and making discriminatory rules and guides between things. Is that not what knowledge is all about?"

    No, I think knowledge is about more than that, though I agree with the importance of defining things as precisely as you can - just not its pre-eminence. Rules are useful. Guides are useful. But if we think they describe the world as it really is we will be missing something from it.

    I don't disagree with much in your last paragraph, but I don't see how that can't be done on one level, and overwhelming this will be the level we function on practically, whilst acknowledging and accepting that at a different level that approximation is never going to capture the complexity, or nebulosity, of the world.

    I'm rushing this and probably not expressing myself well, I hope you can tease out my points from what I've said here.

    Michael (if you chance to see this) - I think the way commenting had been set up here makes extended sub-discussions within a thread quite difficult. I have to keep scrolling up and down to check what I am responding to. I don't know what alternative would work better though.

  60. I'm skimming.

    I am not at all sure why this question is so engaging for you two. On the one hand I'm gratified to have kicked off what is obviously an intelligent conversation. On the other hand, I am starting to suspect that the overt topic is some sort of proxy for some other question in some way that I don't understand...

    As for the flat vs nested vs nested-one-layer, it's sort of a historical accident that we are on the latter, but I think it is a good compromise. There are respective situations where any of them is better. Experimenting with commenting is actually something we hope to do a lot of, if we achieve a certain critical mass. But unless/until that happens, we'll have to live with some sort of compromise. I'm inclined to keep it the way it is but as always (except on the whether it is OK to destroy the world question) am open to counter-arguments.

  61. OPatrick I believe I understand your main issues, though not 100% sure. Basically you are, I think, misunderstanding the point and purpose of Mayr's concept relative to others, especially those used in constructing taxonomies. Mayr's concept is useless for most taxonomic work, for practical reasons, and he well knew that. It serves a different purpose--more evolutionary/cladistic in nature. And it was never meant to be some "definitive", end all definition. If I get some time I will try to elaborate.

    Michael, we are way off on a tangent. The larger subject is whether precise definitions of concepts help things. OPatrick seems to believe they don't, I think, whereas I argue that they are 100% essential. This gets to the whole issue of how precisely to define sustainability. I argue again, that it's absolutely essential to keep the discussions productive. OPatrick believes otherwise.

  62. I don't know. To the best of my understanding language is acquired by an informal process. Then people try to lay a patina of precision on top of it, but they define words in terms of words. The whole exercise is hopelessly circular. I find the dictionary definitions of particularly basic words like "a" and "of" to be quite amusing exercises in futility.

    Aside. possibly, from pure mathematics, all we can do is try to ascertain whether our ideas and those we are communicating with are sufficiently closely alogned for the purposes at hand.

    As for domains where imprecision is actually better, it is probably not better for both parties but sometimes it can be better for one. Consider this story:

    "In many instances [the landholder] had received a first-rate skinning when his land was leased. For example, after an agreement had been reached on the terms of a lease, I may have switched the papers upon him while he put on his glasses. But the principal racket, and one it will do well to remember if you own an acre of land, is this.

    "A wildcat (a shot-in-the-dark or blue-sky exploratory well) is being drilled within a mile or so of your land. I have timed my trip within a week or so of the completion of the exploratory well. You'd already been offered a dollar an acre, think it worth five, so you ask me ten.

    "I try, for the window dressing, to beat you down on the price. But finally, though you are scared stiff that I am going to back away from the trade entirely, I let you have your way. I write something on a piece of paper binding both of us to the trade, contingent, of course, on the validity of your title. To that you, as a fair-minded person, agree. And I've got you stretched over a barrel.

    "A flaw can be found in any Texas land title. The acceptance or rejection of any particular one is almost a matter of taste. If the wildcat makes a producing well, your lease is worth fifty dollars an acre and up, and I take it for the agreed-upon ten. If the well fails, I don't like your title, and would like to see the color of the man's eyes that can make me pay for it."

    From "Texas: A World in Itself" by George Perry (1942)

  63. Micahel, as Jim says the wider question here is about whether or not to seek a precise definition for the terms we are discussing. I'd put my position slightly differently from Jim's brief characterisation of it in that I agree with the benefits of giving precise definitions at a functional level, when discussing a restricted area of a subject. For example when discussing sustainable energy 'sustainable' can mean very different things to different people and without agreeing a definition discussion may not be productive. However I think at another level all such defnitions are artificial and insisting on a definition can result in losing some essential sense of understanding the concept (ironically I was going to say that definitions can cloud our understanding of a concept, but this is both what I meant and the opposite of what I meant because in reality I think the concept is a nebulous one). With respect to sustainability I think it important not to seek (or, perhaps better, not to expect) an over-riding definition. Rather our understanding of this complex and nuanced concept can emerge more completely from engagement in discussion about it. We can understand what a term means without being able to express it in a defnitive way and, if we are in good faith, we can develop trust that others share our understanding of the term.

    Jim, I'm on very thin ice when it comes to the details of biological science, though I do recognise, I think, the importance of Mayr's concept of species as an evolutionary unit. But that "it was never meant to be some “definitive”, end all definition" is the important part. Would you accept that any single definition of what is meant by 'species' will fail to capture what is understood by use of the term in some contexts? In reality there isn't a Platonic essence 'species' for the term to represent. (I just googled 'platonic essence' and 'species' and got this http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5f5kg_w2dJ4C&pg=PA346&lpg=PA346&dq=platonic+essence+species&source=bl&ots=ZlJiby7TtH&sig=9yh1c-q7xfGdXzeIssmwIglpe88&hl=en&ei=XGCeTtCvOsz48QOmstG4CQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=platonic%20essence%20species&f=false - "Towards a new philosophy of biology" by Ernst Mayr - as the first hit. I'm tempted to invest in this and improve my understanding of his position.)

  64. Michael, your Texas story touches, I think, on the 'good faith' issue. I hope here we can assume the good faith of those we are in discussion with. Is that what you are hoping to achieve with Planet3?

  65. Yes, of course, not just good faith but competent engagement and a willingness to re-examine our own prejudices.

    I just like telling that story!

    My point is that precision isn't all there is to communication.

    Jim's criticizing me for saying "net emissions" rather than the formal FCCC language "net emissions and removals" seems to me a clear case where too much precision counts against communication. Not everybody has the patience for legalistic language, and yet legal fights are all about ambiguities and interpretations. As for the even more stringent goal of mathematical precision, frankly there have been very few attempts, and it would guarantee putting the vast majority of the audience to sleep.

    At one point in my life I felt determined to read Whitehead and Russell's Principia, and for a while I owned a copy. I never got to page three, but in retrospect I forgive myself. It turns out that I have better things to do.

    So I would say that precision is important, but only when dealing with edge cases. Perhaps, in ecology, everything is an edge case in the sense that I mean. But oftentimes a shared cluster of ideas suffices even if your and my edge cases don't correspond exactly.

  66. "“Towards a new philosophy of biology” by Ernst Mayr – as the first hit. I’m tempted to invest in this and improve my understanding of his position."

    Do it! I'm tempted to dig out my old copy and re-read it, but I don't have time. Everything I've said here wrt his positions has been off the top of my head, based on memory, which could be wrong. Mayr is one of the leading evo biologists of the 20th C and a good writer.

    Shorter Michael:
    I'll make up my own terms for things, even though such terms are well defined in the literature and conceptually extremely simple, because, well, it's just easier for me that way.

  67. Sorry, Jim, that's pretty over the top in the case at hand. Just Google "net emissions".

    More relevant, check out the "words have two meanings" thread. Permalink: http://planet3.org/2011/10/18/you-know-sometimes-words-have-two-meanings/

    The main point is getting a close-enough agreement on meanings for the purpose at hand. It is quite possible to get excessive on this, and one of the chief consequences in a democracy is that most people will get nothing at all out of the conversation.

    Also I would argue that as a matter of philosophy, perfect precision is not actually possible.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.