UPPING OUR GAME
I was discussing the ambitions for Planet3.0 a few weeks ago with a friend (who asked me to mock him if he had no article submitted to P3 by last Thursday. Silly person!)
The friend is mighty busy with some complicated startup that I barely understand, along with his interest in Rotundaville aka Occupy Madison. I really need said slacker friend for his advice on making P3 a viable proposition, and despite being overwhelmed, I am still convinced he intends to help at some point. This is because of something he said in encouraging me to take this on:
If we don’t up our game pretty soon, none of this is going to matter very much.
Yep. That’s the point.
Planet3.org has no axe to grind besides planet earth, and the necessity of us “upping our game”.
The game we are playing here is to discuss our collective predicament and try to design a way out of it. I’d be thrilled if such a strategy emerges in whole or in part as a result of the efforts of Planet3.0, but really, almost as thrilled if somebody else does it. The point is, we haven’t got a lot of venues that are buckling down to try.
There are 1001 green websites, energy websites, climate websites, though our blogroll claims some of the pioneers. Why one more? Because most of them aren’t ambitious enough to even see the whole problem.
The site P3 is closest to in spirit, Worldchanging, is winding down as Alex Steffen takes on new projects. But even Worldchanging didn’t succeed in building a robust, informed conversation. What we want more than anything else here, more than making a living, more than delivering you the news, what we want is to build a platform for intelligent conversation, a place where constructive ideas thrive and grow, all the while taking all of the real-word constraints that most folks seem to care nothing for, into account.
So let me talk about those two things: real-world constraints first, and constructive ideas second.
The problem we are facing is that it is nobody’s job to speak for the whole world.
I’m going to chance it that Larry Marder, the author of the remarkable Tales of the Beanworld graphic novels, will not object to me displaying a map of the Known Beanworld (known, that is, to the beans themselves). (Image lifted from Cracked.com on a pure EAFTP basis.)
Beanworld is a peculiar series of books that would most appeal to the geek ecologist with an imagination, which is to say I absolutely adore these comics. And the reason Beanworld comes up when I start to think about our predicament is that the beans, too, are embedded in a peculiar, flat, black and white, and whimsical ecology, and are forced to figure things out as best as they can to maintain a place for themselves in a peculiar world, one filled both with providence and with mystery. So the beans are like ourselves.
But our universe, though perhaps as whimsical and mysterious, is vastly more complex and terrifying and subtle. And when we attempt to diagram its parts, it doesn’t separate quite so nicely into hoops and slats. Still, drawing maps often helps.
We start, then, not with a map of the universe or our place in it, but with a schematic of what the problem looks like. An impressive group led by Johann Rockström produced this view of our foreseeable sustainability issues:
Now there’s a little bit of chartjunk here: not only is the map a distraction, but so is the circular shape. I imagine the circular shape was chosen so as deliberately not to emphasize any of the categories, “planetary boundaries” Rockström et al call them. And why nitrogen and phosophorus only get one wedge between them after all that is surely absurd.
But being all info-graphically purist is just a distraction piled on another distraction. The point is that ten existential technical issues have been identified, of which two are already far beyond sustainable limits and the third (climate) is threatening to do as well.
- Change in land use: tolerable
- Biodiversity loss: unsustainable
- Atmospheric aerosol loading: uncharacterized
- Chemical pollution: uncharacterized
- Climate change: verging on unsustainable
- Ocean acidification: tolerable
- Ozone depletion: controlled
- Nitrogen cycle: unsustainable
- Phosphorus cycle: tolerable
- Freshwater use: tolerable
These, note, are existential threats of a certain kind, and I think are not an exhaustive list. Key examples that one also has reason to worry about in a crowded, newly technological world are:
- Emerging (or engineered) contagious diseases
- Rogue artifacts (artificial intelligence/bioengineering/self-replicating nanomaterials)
We don’t get to get 12/14 or 13/14 right. The only passing grade is perfection. We have to manage all of these risks. And they begin to couple with one another. Implicit under most of the above are the key underlying issues:
- energy constraints
- resource constraints
- population constraints
- demand for decent living conditions
As those start to chafe, the problems start to interact. Who knows at what point they become insurmountable? And yet we have entered an era in which one suspects that one can search the world over in a futile quest to find a well-informed, competent and adequate national government, never mind a global regime that does much more that grease the wheels of commerce.
Still, there are a lot of well-intentioned people thinking about these things. And there seems to be no technical reason why we could not fulfill all of them, even at the current population of 7 billion, or somewhat (but probably not drastically) more. Why, then, are some of these problems out of control?
Let’s look at the best-understood of the problems to see why we have failed to get a grip on it.
A CONCEPT MAP OF THE CARBON PROBLEM
The climate problem is by far the best-understood of the problems, because it is the one where the disruption is most physical (as opposed to more complex geochemical or biological disruptions). Deep and rich scientific traditions of oceanography, meteorology, glaciology and radiative transfer combine to create an absolutely fascinating intellectual endeavor which attracted many fine minds before the time the issues associated with the science gained their peculiarly controversial aspects.
It is absolutely fascinating, given the fascination with the validity and maturity of climate science, to see how its putative control is embedded into a vast and unwieldy feedback loop. Here, we simplify the greenhouse problem to carbon alone (it is fairly certain that absent controls over carbon the climate will not stabilize to a tolerable configuration), which means that the entire loop focuses on what is essentially a single number, the mean global CO2 concentration. Yet, even with this simplification, we are left facing a great deal of complexity.
(And a proper cybernetic analysis would include time constants and frequency responses. We neglect the former and throw our hands up in desperation at the latter. The system is probably too non-linear to have a meaningful frequency spectrum.) All those simplifications in mind, we end up with something like this:
(Thanks to Steve Easterbrook for the legible reworking.)
What you will see is both a phenomenology and a distribution of professionals. Each oval blob (roughly categorized as a conceptual and professional grouping) plays a part in understanding and controlling the control variable, the concentration, at the center of the diagram in an orange octagon.
This is a very coarse map, of course.
When Ken Green of the American Enterprise Institute (a right wing think tank, I think it is fair to say) saw this, his objection was that NGOs were not represented as part of the information flow to the public and policy sector. But neither are right wing think tanks! Indeed, neither are public policy departments and universities. All of them are subsumed under “journalism” which we define very broadly as the channel by which information about the world is conveyed to the public.
A couple of other things are worth noting. Most real-world engineering feedback diagrams have explicit information paths for noise injection. But most of them do not actually have to cope with deliberate injection of noise. And while we will find noise at all points in this vast, unwieldy circuit, we’ll find the most deliberate injection of noise in the journalism bubble. This is the introduction of red herrings, false controversies, overblown accusations built on trivial transgressions, and simpleminded misdirection into the public perception of the problem.
Is it deliberate malfeasance? It’s hard to know anymore. Maybe people have tricked themselves by now. But when the Western Fuels Association first started taking ads out in glossy magazines in the 1990s, to say they were negligent of the facts as known at the time is generous indeed.
The other thing is that, of all the blobs, the one labeled “climatology” is almost certainly the one with the most complete, adequate and rigorous theory, and the best handle on their part of the problem. Many of the criticisms that are aimed at “climate science” indeed point willy-nilly at other parts of the diagram. But much of it is aimed squarely at the best-understood piece of the puzzle.
Why is this? Here I confess that while I have some guesses I have no real idea. despite considerable effort at precision and clarity of its confidence in various claims, the field is constantly accused of claiming too much certainty.
Now, once you look in detail at the impacts world, you will see that a fixed mean result costs more the greater the uncertainty about it. Accordingly, the less you believe in climate science’s precision, the more you should want to avoid exploring the excursions of the system under large change. This seems pretty obvious to me.
Indeed, it is because of massive uncertainty in the other loops that I, for one, am concerned about the shifts in the climate. Do we know how much impact climate change will have on ecosystems? On infrastructure? On carbon feedback? If I had comparable uncertainty about climate, my concern would be all the greater.
This seems to me to suffice as proof that many of the criticisms of climate science are either incompetent or disingenuous. When these are used as an excuse to delay implementing control of the system, rather than hastening to control it, I am convinced that there is little to be gained form considering the merits of the remainder of the argument, since it goes quite backwards.
BEING CONSTRUCTIVE: WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE NOISE INJECTION
Much of the climate blogosphere exists in reaction to the noise injection. This is good, and is as it should be. Nonsense needs to be countered as well as possible, despite the fact that generating sense is much harder than generating nonsense, and defending sense is harder than defending nonsense:
Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …
“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.
– David Mamet in “Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood”, Harper’s, June 2005.
So there are two big questions associated with the content of this site.
The first, whether or not to include politics, was decided by the extraordinary contemporaneous events happening as we debut. As people in other spheres attempt to find a new consensus, it would be foolish to try to draw a line around those efforts. They reflect on what we need to do, because it seems that without a global consensus there can be no progress.
The second is what to do about the noise. The attempts to derail the conversation here with noise have so far been very modest. But many people think we should be talking about and responding to the noise. I think if we nucleate a large enough community here a little of that will be unavoidable, but I think that purpose is well served elsewhere, notably at John Cook’s Skeptical Science, and by John Abraham and Scott Mandia’s Climate Science Rapid Response Team.
Of course, when things get excessive, like harassment of polar bear experts etc., that belongs on the front page. But that is reporting on obviously relevant politics, not responding to the purported content of pseudoscience. Our only interest in pseudoscience is as comic relief.
WE ARE YOU
Our front page endeavors to produce the news we think is missing from everybody else’s front page.
But that is not what Planet3.0 aspires to be. The community is not the visible page.
Planet3.0 aspires to be the community that keeps the front page as fresh, as accurate, as responsible, as thought-provoking, as interesting and as true as possible under the difficult circumstances.
What we are up to is shared understanding. And by “we” I don’t mean me and him and her. I mean me and him and her and you.
Please help. Comment. Submit. Argue. Criticize. Link. Teach. Learn. Bare your teeth. Let’s all get smarter together.
Pitch in. Send anything. Art, video, essays, audio tracks. Just make sense.