The Conversation We Ought to be Having – A Report from SXSW Eco 2012

This is our official first anniversary. We launched at the South-by-Southwest (“SXSW”) Eco conference last October, and so a full year has come around. While the site has been a boit more blog-like than we anted, we are pleased with some of the conversations we have started and have some ideas as to how we can do more. More than anything, this post is about that aspect of our effort, about conversation.

It’s been sort of quiet on the site lately, but we’ve been busy behind the scenes. Dan came down to Austin for our second SXSW Eco; we handed out a few business cards and met some kindred spirits, but we spent most of the week huddled together and scheming about adding new technologies to the site. We did succeed in a few difficult preliminaries – Dan has started coding in Python, I have revived my capability to work with Django, and we succeeded in getting Python to get the session cookie from WordPress, read the database, and identify user attributes. (Yeah, I know, yawn.)

I also joined in for a while at an Open Data hackathon, mostly with the excuse of forcing myself through the Django activation barrier yet again. There I learned from a young fellow on the White House staff (who amazingly had picked up an unmistakable Obama accent; those short clauses… with emphasis on the last word… which we have come to expect… from Obama) about the open data initiative. And it’s true, the Feds have exposed an enormous amount of data on the web, with here and there a half-baked API. But it’s not easy to identify exactly what the data means, or figure out useful ways to parse it. My partner in crime, one “banderkat”, set the goals – given a building’s location size and cost, to compare its energy usage to comparable buildings from a detailed database of about 6000 supposedly representative commercial sites. What a mess! It made climate data look pretty.

I also watched what will probably be remembered as the high point of the meeting, a panel with Bill McKibben, Bill Nordhaus, and WWF chairman Larry Schweiger. Here’s a barely watchable bootleg video of a particularly salient moment.

My sense of the Breakthrough group and their fundamental flaw is reinforced, and my tendencies to be Nordhaus-like suppressed, but more on that at a later date.

The dominant theme of the week for me, besides coding, was Mike Mann, from whom I caught a science lecture, two versions of his book talk, a panel appearance, and a brief conversation over coffee. If I have any credibility with you let me assert unequivocally that Mike is a mensch. Any doubts I may have had that he is a scholar and a gentleman are quite gone. What to make of this in the larger context (given that I would like to have some participation on this site of the more reasonable and competent skeptics and “lukewarmers”) is confusing enough. It’s really hard to forgive their behavior toward this eminently reasonable and decent fellow.

It’s a phrase that Mike used more than once that I’d like to use as my one-liner take-away from the whole meeting.

Mike says he is accused of having “an agenda”, but insists that he has no agenda beyond “making sure that the necessary information reaches the public so we can have the conversation we ought to be having” about climate. This is commendable. It’s is the right way for most prominent scientists to construe their roles.

The intended role of Planet 3.0 can be understood in a related way in exactly this context. We want to be a locus on the internet where the conversation we ought to be having actually occurs. Our goal is not journalism as such (and fortunately the situation is improving on that front for people who take the time to look). Our goal is intelligent public conversation.

Now that you’ve seen the site for a year, (you can look at the archives if you are new) you have some sense of the sorts of topics we want to discuss. The vision, though, has always been of a community-based site. We are looking for technical ideas to facilitate this, but we understand that the important aspect is not the technology. The important aspect is the community.

So please don’t be shy. Come on in. Set a spell. Let us know what you like about us and what you dislike, how we can change, and what we can offer to move the conversation beyond the endless global-warming-yes-or-no babble and on to a real discussion about our collective future.


  1. I like that the site (and you in particular Michael) grapple honestly with the complexity of the science and the complexity of the politics, both.

    It would be valuable indeed to have 'lukewarmers' here, and I'd love to see it happen. I'd love to see Planet3 serve as a well moderated, respectful, scientifically rigorous place where all sides can hash out the science and the issues.

    Unfortunately, I think Planet3 may not be at the scale where it can make such things happen. I'd love to see more content and a greater audience for these valuable discussions, but it feels like Planet3 hasn't "tipped" into a self-sustaining mode yet.

    It sounds like the management here is doing a good job of evangelizing at things like SxSW Eco, and I'm glad that you are doing the behind the scene work to facilitate a greater scale of effort here.

    I don't know that I can do anything significant for the expert outreach that y'all are doing, but I do know the technological stuff pretty well, if you guys could use a hand with any of it. I'd be happy to volunteer some time.

  2. Because there is so much misinformation, disinformation and outright lies disseminated by outrageously enriched 'talking heads' via the mass media, discovering what is real can be a difficult task. Even so, how on Earth can our children begin to prepare for the future their elders are creating for them if the kids are not told what is actually happening now? Never in the course of human events have so few elders in a single generation taken so much for themselves and left so little for so many children.

  3. Excellent, thanks.

    Re "lukewarmers" and "honest" skeptics, I'd suggest a willingness to belittle the abuse heaped on Mike Mann, Katherine Hayhoe, Kerry Emanuel, and their families is a symptom of bias and a reasonable person should look at that particular evidence and get nauseous without further ado. This is not about data or supposed lies, it is about the golden rule, and if people are ethical about their agenda, whether or not we agree, they should not find this kind of thing acceptable in any reasonable world. Otherwise, next step Joe McCarthy et al.

    If a person is honestly doubtful in the face of the complexity of evidence now available, surely threats to families should open their minds to the possibility that there are other forms of abuse out there.

  4. "We are looking for technical ideas to facilitate this, but we understand that the important aspect is not the technology. The important aspect is the community."

    This. I think I've probably said this before, but I feel like there needs to be more work done to engage others - the editorship needs to be more active. It might be that it is active, just in places I can't see. I'm annoyed at myself for not contributing more but, like a lot of others, we're all stuck too much with our day-jobs. P3's goals are still vital and it's a unique international focal point (though with an understandable North American bias.) There was an incredible bunch of people early on expressing enthusiasm; I'm not sure how that enthusiasm can be transmogrified into output.

    I went to two very different workshops over the past couple of months that, on the surface, appear to address the same problem: the fact that we're merrily rowing towards the abyss. One, run and hosted by the Centre for Alternative Technology called 'physics vs politics: can we close the gap?'. It was the first time I've been in a room with a bunch of other people that get it. Hanging around blogs and P3 has been the only other source of that; many projects in academia have a 'low carbon' remit but... how to put this diplomatically? No, can't think of a way, I'll let you fill in the blank.

    CAT wanted policymakers there, and Chatham House rules to give us a chance to really dig into it: physics is going to win unless we do something radical. So what are we going to do? With one notable (and very excellent) exception, none came.

    The other: the Fourth meeting of the low carbon society research network. This was set up in 2009 by the G8 environment ministers as a focal point for researchers and international policymakers (an event that I felt most out of place at, but listened intently.) While the same tinge of dismay was there (regarding e.g. the 2 degree target), it very clearly showed how the politics of carbon still loves percentages, while of course the physics is going to talk back to us in cumulative amounts only.

    So it isn't just physical infrastructure that gets embedded for years or decades: political discourse does too, and it's perhaps equally hard to retrofit. There's a stack more to write about those two conferences but this is exactly where P3 has such a strong role to play. We need to find ways to show what's happening so it's inescapably clear.

    A random thought just popped up from the recent BBC4 programme 'how it works', this one looking at ceramics and glass. It talks about the moment lenses transformed the way we see - in fact, what we see. In the process, of course, the human view of our place in the universe was completely overturned. I think some while ago, MT, one of your bylines was 'make the invisible visible'. If we don't find some way to do that, we're in trouble. These new machines present us with an ability to turn data into something human minds can plug into existing cognitive structures; that might be what we need.

    I've just had a strong coffee so an even more waffly comment than usual. Happy birthday P3!

    Also: "a boit more blog-like than we anted"?

    Also also, from the video: "we're spending about $150 billion building new gas-fired power plants..." Oh good.

  5. There's not obvious article to attach this to, so I thought a meta one about what should be being discussed was the closest. The Psychologist (the magazine for the British Psychological Society) recently had an edition devoted to transport - mainly cars - that included two articles that have some relevance to the subjects discussed here. I've posted a link to the toc:

    There's the obvious article on sustainable transport, but the interview about vulnerable road users is also interesting and relevant. The discussions are a bit high level, but they provide references and names to follow up on, and for those of us new to the field, a good introduction.


    The Untold Story of the Ecological Science of Human Population Dynamics, presented at the following link,

    There is one issue that is not being given the attention it deserves. I want to ask you to focus on human exceptionalism as it relates to population dynamics of the human species. How are we to grasp the gravity of the human predicament, much less gain consensus about how to go forward, if we cannot share an adequate, scientific understanding of the ‘placement’ of the human species within the order of living things. Specifically, is the population dynamics of the human species essentially similar to, or different from the population dynamics of other species? In terms of our population dynamics are human beings actually exceptional? If so, where is the science for an assertion of human exceptionalism vis a vis its population dynamics. The population dynamics of non-human species are routinely and immediately understood. Food is the independent variable and population numbers is the dependent variable. More food equals more organisms; less food equals less organisms; and no food, no organisms. But the minute our focus shifts to human organisms, everything we know from well established scientific research about population dynamics is turned upside down. We widely share, consensually validate and automatically broadcast via the mass media the notion that the human species must grow food in order to meet the needs of growing human population. All of sudden human population numbers is the independent variable and food is the dependent variable. Where is the scientific research for this distinctly human exceptionalism with regard to the population dynamics of humankind? I cannot find sufficient scientific support for such exceptionalism.

  7. I do think it worth noting that 'the emperor has no clothes' when it is so very evident. Allow me to offer an examples from Guy Mc's blog where bloggers willingly acknowledge rather than willfully deny or silently condone what our lights and best available science indicate regarding human exceptionalism as it relates to the population dynamics of the human species,

    "SES : I cannot find sufficient scientific support for such exceptionalism.

    I don’t think that there is any, is there ? It’s just people clinging to a comforting myth. As far as I know, we are subject to the same ecological laws as the reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Except that we found coal and oil. Which can be thought of as a handy ship arriving every winter with an enormous quantity of a hay… until one winter, it does not arrive anymore...

    October 25th, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Thank you for summarizing the issue in such clear terms.

    At the moment, as we are still in the thralls of the growth and progress delusion, any discussion of depopulation is verboten. The big, ugly questions surrounding depopulation are who decides?, who lives?, who dies? and by what means would depopulation be carried out? The issues are especially thorny since we are running out of time.

    The likelihood of a near term managed population and economic contraction (short of some science-fictionesque engineered pathogen) seem pretty slim......

    October 25th, 2012 at 9:18 am
    SES you are of course exactly right. The problem is that the population is now so large that no restriction of births can help soon enough. As I think I have shown, restriction of all births only gets us to 4 billion in 60 years. So what is the point of talking about population as if it was a problem we could address. It will be addressed by other means – nature through famine, disease, or by humans through war, or germ warfare. But increasingly it looks like climate change will just solve the whole thing by wiping us out. There is nothing more to be done about population other than each individual thinking about what kind of world they would bring a child into and hopefully taking advantage of permanent sterilization before all birth control is gone.

    [ It baffles me that anyone with this sort of opinion bothers to share it. To what conceivable end?

    I don't think this qualifies as constructive. Please take it somewhere else.


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