The Big Big Picture

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.

A DIAGNOSTIC

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:

  • War
  • Famine
  • 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.

Debunking is not our business. News is not our business, though it is an important means to an end.

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.

photograph of #ows dude: David Shankbone (CC-BY-2.0)

 

Comments:

  1. I'd like to request a noise-free conversation on a particular topic: nuclear (fission) energy.

    I'm fairly confident about my position on most of the issues around climate change and it would take strong evidence or argument to shift me much on many of these, but not on nuclear. There are voices I trust who argue strongly on both sides of the nuclear debate, but there is far too much noise injected for me to have come to any strong conclusions (yet).

    The one thing that makes me instantly sceptical of anyone on this topic is if they assert that the issue is obvious, so that's the only rule I'd apply to the conversation - don't assume that because it seems obvious to you it must be to everyone else, it's more likely that you simply aren't counting as important considerations that are important to others.

    I think this could be a test case for how effective Planet3.0 could be - if we manage a constructive conversation on this then we can do it on anything.

    • +1

      Discussion on energy technology is very much on topic here. I don't know as I am qualified to lead it, especially insofar as nuclear power is concerned. But as you say, it's hard finding a neutral voice.

      A fellow called Jerry Mander, who is pretty much an old school grumpy red/green, nevertheless made an excellent observation perhaps 20 years ago, which is that the first people to know anything about a technology are always its advocates. Often the technology is deployed before anyone has a chance to consider its implications.

      This leads to an unbalanced situation, and opponents of the technology arise second. And in the broken discourse of our time, there it sits, with nobody qualified and motivated to judge on a rational basis.

      As I understand it in this particular case, thorium reactors show considerable promise. My guess is that they will not be cheaper than burning coal without some market intervention, but I haven't seen any effort to discuss this anywhere.

      Does anyone have someone they'd care to nominate to write about this subject for us?

    • Is it too tired a format to have a pro- and con- on the issue discuss their views? Barry Brook, for instance, on the pro-nuclear side, maybe we could get Joe Romm to engage on the con (primarily cost) side?

      But it would have to be a format with back and forth and where there was some sort of referee to ensure goalposts aren't moved, maybe allow questions from other people to try to get specific points addressed.

      I agree that the answer on nuclear doesn't seem obvious to me right now. Nuclear fission's present costs are well understood and seem high relative to the projected cost curves on other alternatives; it's not clear to me how much technological or policy changes could improve that so I'd love to see an in-depth discussion that could actually figure out the central issues and reach some common truths.

    • This might be a little Pollyanna-ish (and those who know me know that's extremely uncharacteristic) but nuclear power is something that I feel will be handled correctly *if* we can get the one main prerequisite for avoiding the worst climate disruption - namely a price on carbon emissions commensurate with their true costs.

      If we don't get that price, we're pretty much screwed on agricultural impacts, ocean acidification, and eventually sea level rise. If we do get that price, the demand for non-carbon based energy will pour capital into renewables and into nuclear - in whatever ratio makes competitive sense. If the ramp-up in solar that would follow a carbon tax drives prices down in a Moore's law fashion, then nuclear just won't stand a chance. Conversely if renewables hit a cost floor, and there's value in an always-available don't-need-surplus-capacity-or-storage energy source, then nuclear will have its market. Within nuclear, I again would hope that competitive pressure would result in the "right" decisions regarding technology - IFR, thorium, other...

    • Gwellman,

      I go back and forth on nuclear, but here are three reasons why "let the market decide" may not be right for nuclear.

      1. Nuclear always has significant government involvement regardless of who's paying. This is as it should be. Build nuclear or don't, but please for the love of God don't let Libertarians build nuclear.

      2. Getting private sector money for a risky multi-million dollar project isn't too hard. But building an experimental nuclear plant is a billion dollar proposition, and the first plant is likely to be the most expensive. It is hard to take billion dollar risks in the private sector, but that doesn't mean the risk isn't worth taking.

      3. Many next generation nuclear plants are designed to run on the waste of current plants and leave behind waste that is far less dangerous after a century. They may be a better solution to the waste problem of current plants than burying it, so there is reason to develop them even if they aren't the most practical way to generate power.

      I would be very interested in seeing a nuclear discussion too. One thing I would point out is that Barry is not just a nuclear advocate but an advocate specifically of IFR reactors. I'd be interested in seeing a discussion that also involved advocates for thorium, traveling wave reactors, and fission-fusion hybrids. The great thing about such a discussion is they'll know so much about the downsides of each other's approaches that you won't need a nuclear opponent.

      • Eric, your comments on the market are very interesting. It makes me wonder if there isn't some maximum scale beyond which "let the market decide" becomes somewhat meaningless.

        The "market" has certainly decided on fracking with a vengeance, for instance. But the hands-off attitude of regulators may have just a little bit to do with that. How externalities are assigned is exactly what the marketplace cannot do, after all, by definition.

        As for the alternative nuclear technologies, such a debate would be very germane here. At present it would be difficult for me to round up appropriate participants as I am not yet free of my old occupation and not deeply versed in the subject. P3.0 would be very interested if someone else were willing to step up to the plate to organize such a series.

  2. "click image for higher resolution." only partly works. The resolution may be slightly higher but the image is still hard to make out. Perhaps it is not intended to be useful elsewhere.

    The diagrammed inputs to policy leave out big money and politics, leaving policy itself hard to explain.

    • I'll try to dig up the original, or redraw it. No intent to obfuscate.

      Of course, numerous variants on the idea are more or less equally valid.

    • I drew my own version of this after seeing one of Michael's talks a while back:
      http://www.cs.toronto.edu/~sme/presentations/A_Systemic_Problem.jpg
      Apart from playing with the presentation, I added one more bubble, for "lobbyists" who try to steer policy, usually (but not exclusively) based on arguments about the current state of the economy, but often with their own ideological or self-interest biases. This would include all those think tanks, NGOs, etc.

      I also used two different colours for "things that are relatively well understood" and "things that are poorly understood" (I'll let you figure out which colour is which).

      I now like to use it in any talk I give on climate change, because the big picture thinking is essential (and rare).

      (BTW Thanks - excellent post, MT!)

    • Replaced my version with Steve's more legible one. His extra bubble may go some way toward satisfying Peter's concern.

  3. MT:

    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.

    My surmise is that, well, climate science may be quite well-understood, but climate scientists are have little political clout and aren't organized into any sort of union or league, and this makes them an easy target for attack.

    Consider: if one can intimidate, harass, inconvenience, and thereby manipulate climate scientists, then one can also manipulate their climate science output, and thereby manipulate the very basis behind the case for climate action.

    (If I'm right, this'll also explain why pretty much every inactivist criticism of climate science must be premised on some wacky conspiracy theory that climatologists are being deliberate 'frauds', instead of being merely a friendly disagreement.)

    -- frank

  4. I see all of this as a fuzzy binary problem. One leg is the identification of hazards which humans are really, really good at. We can see the various issues with climate change, ocean acidification, energy flows, soil depletion and so on with a fair degree of accuracy.

    The tougher issue is implementing solutions. Not 'how are we going to talk about this' but what are we going to do about it. This is the tricky bit that we are having the most trouble with. It involves nasty things we don't want to talk about like human needs, desires and status consciousness.

    I envision that second part as all about identifying services provided by our economy and meeting them in the least damaging way. Housing is a service package of thermal regulation, sleeping area, hygiene, storage, security, food preparation areas and not the least important status signaling. As everybody who's been backpacking knows most of those services can be met adequately (excluding storage) in a 15 to 35 kilogram, portable package. Provided there are functional social/economic support networks.

    If we're going to get anywhere we need to change the conversation from austerity.....turn down the heat to functionality...easy to make storm windows can increase inside temperatures by x degrees on average.

    People understand solar panels.... pay ten years and then free electricity; what's not to like. That's the conversation we need to find, discuss, promote, refine and implement on everything. Every single wedge, niche, pocket, trick and tactic of efficiency. If that means pretty-girl bicycle porn like Copenhagen Cycle Chic then so be it. It gets the job done.

    It's about changing the conversation. Then the conversion will happen by virtue of demand.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>