Eleven Key Sustainability Questions

1) Do we have to give up on fossil fuels entirely, or can sequestration of some sort work? Does solar suffice?

2) Do we have to give up on aviation entirely, or can biofuels work at scale?

3) How fast can carbon be sequestered in soil? Is there a maximum soil inventory? What is it? (This is Dyson’s question.)

4) Can climate models be advanced to the point where deliberate climate modification (“geoengineering”) makes sense?

5) Is there a practical end run around the international “diplomacy” tangle regarding the atmosphere and oceans commons?

6) Given that newly proposed nuclear technologies can process most existing waste for energy, when do we start? How can resistance to this necessary step be overcome?

7) In general how do we prevent new technologies from being introduced before their global implications are understood?

8) Can water shortages be solved by solar-powered desalinization, noting that demand can be scaled to supply and that this is a good use of solar?

9) How urgent is abandoning the idea of perpetual growth? How urgent is abandoning the idea of full employment? Can we avoid the social trauma of these dramatic shifts for a few decades while solving the other problems, or do we need to undertake radical changes right away?

10) Can ocean acidification be reversed at scale? What is the economic substitute good for sushi?

11) How can we facilitate decision making on global questions so that the existence of sound answers to these questions turns into a workable future?

Did I miss any?

Comments:

  1. Those look like good questions --

    On the communications front, a lot of ideas here from a new report from the RSA in Britain:

    http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/learning,-cognition-and-creativity/social-brain/reports/a-new-agenda-on-climate-change

  2. I think that technological progress occurs to erratically for such speculation. If nothing new comes on the horizon (unlikely) the chance of any rapid transition is unlikely. If next week someone invents a battery that holds 10 times as much energy the whole ball game changes. And fast!

    • Good point. So we can add "will energy storage at scale become available" and "how does such a prospect affect the other questions" specifically.

      Your general idea, if I read it right, that this difficulty of prediction lets us off the hook for any planning goes against the central premise of this site and of the sustainability movement, which is that we have the power to foreclose options for future generations and the obligation to choose not to do. Many of the mistakes of the past directly tie to a failure to account for these effects.

      Have you seen any monarch butterflies this year? Did you enjoy them as a child? Do you think a company angling for position in the animal feed business has the right to remove this pleasure as well as the awesome story that goes with it from all future generations of children?

  3. Butterflies rang a bell, as I've filmed the thousands of monarchs that land on the Saugus River here near Boston not so long ago. Here's the story this summer:

    http://wgbhnews.org/post/summer-without-monarch-butterflies

    Nice list and agree on addition about energy storage. Saw something about that recently too - goodish news, but one local actor so probably not scalable. Perhaps something about integrating local and wider delivery and storage with good sources, being lazy and sloppy here but hopefully the drift is clear. There was something about hydro from smaller sources in New England being quite effective, for example.

  4. A1) Fossil fuels + 200% sequestration still net energy gain - we can and we will use up all fossil fuels

    A2) Aviation will continue, biofuels will scale, because sunlight so plentiful, and only thing holding us back from biofuels is artificial political/oligarchical carbon-polluting-fossil-fuel-interests

    A3) Trees are lousy for carbon storage. No choice but to put in pressurized bubble of liquid carbon dioxide at the bottom of ocean and/or sea-weed mega-reefs

    A4) Geoengineering makes no sense, no expectation that climate models could account for massive rapid atmosphere interventions of the kind proposed that could adequately account for possible human suffering from the resulting climate disruption - but the children love to run with scissors, and geoengineering will be tried by the usual gang of idiots, and geoengineering will harm/kill millions before it is banned - in the final analysis it will be considered just another mechanism of genocide. Those who have not learned from history are doomed to doom those who _have_ learned from history, unfortunately.

    A5) Our only hope to manage the atmosphere and oceans commons is if we all become students of Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize winning economist who studied rational management of the commons that avoid the "tragedy of the commons" - these do exist, she searched them out, and studied them for patterns.

    A6) Nuclear needs distance from human populations - we need a bit more efficiency in electricity transmission before going whole hog on nuclear. Nuclear has nasty failure modes and has no business being near the growing bones of children.

    A7) New technologies must kill many before being regulated out of existence, folly to imagine a rational intervention that avoids a sickening body count. Twas ever thus.

    A8) Water shortages are political and genocidal - a powerful minority trying to prevent demography of the majority from wiping the powerful minority out. No exception to this rule.

    A9) Buckminster Fuller wrote about treating the earth as a spaceship, and rationally piloting and managing the spaceship. Epicurus gave a blueprint for groups of humans to experience fulfillment and freedom from fear and suffering. We can be students of these men, perhaps we must.

    A10) The Anthropocene will be marked by acidic oceans. No human intervention can avoid this - the die is cast. Squid sushi is delicious, and we will learn to develop a taste.

    A11) There is a fantasy that moral responsibility can be delegated to leaders of sufficient power to take moral action. There is no law of conservation of moral responsibility - of moral responsibility, any act of transferal or delegation or appeal-to-economy-of-scale only multiplies responsibility and leaves _all_ parties with a share of the larger pool of responsibility. Until this is universally understood, heaven have mercy on us all.

    The only thing I would add is that ecological sustainability is equivalent to our love for future generations, and, of course, this is the standard by which we will be judged. If this is insufficient to spur moral action, we have our answer.

    • Moe, thanks for your thoughtful responses. This is exactly the sort of conversation we ought to see happening hereabouts. Will respond, I hope, soon. Meanwhile, Feliz Navidad to you and yours!

      • You are too kind to my bloviating. I am excited to read more Tobis in 2014. Nobody communicates the intersection between science, morality, policy, advocacy better. Cheers!

    • Elinor Ostrom is wonderful. Thanks for the reminder. and for this:

      "ecological sustainability is equivalent to our love for future generations, and, of course, this is the standard by which we will be judged. If this is insufficient to spur moral action, we have our answer."

  5. Where I currently stand on my own questions.

    1) Do we have to give up on fossil fuels entirely, or can sequestration of some sort work? Does solar suffice?

    There are various forms of sequestration, and all should be actively pursued. My sense is they can't operate fast enough to avoid considerable disruption, but that if we stop emitting and start sequestering, we will eventually get things to be able to settle down.

    A pure 100% solar energy system is possible but is unnecessary. Also, new nuclear technologies must come online because they can solve the existing nuclear waste problem.

    2) Do we have to give up on aviation entirely, or can biofuels work at scale?

    Continued aviation should present no problems, but it may be more expensive for a while. Biofuels in general are a bad idea but aviation presents an exception.

    3) How fast can carbon be sequestered in soil? Is there a maximum soil inventory? What is it? (This is Dyson's question.)

    Not fast enough to save us from disruption, but possibly fast enough to save us from catastrophe. I have not encountered a credible answer to the question of what the maximum soil carbon inventory can be.

    4) Can climate models be advanced to the point where deliberate climate modification ("geoengineering") makes sense?

    I really, really doubt that climate modeling will advance to that point ever, never mind soon.

    5) Is there a practical end run around the international "diplomacy" tangle regarding the atmosphere and oceans commons?

    I don't know of any.

    6) Given that newly proposed nuclear technologies can process most existing nuclear waste for energy, when do we start? How can resistance to this necessary step be overcome?

    Immediately if I had my way, but there is something of a perception problem.

    7) In general how do we prevent new technologies from being introduced before their global implications are understood?

    This is really hard.

    8) Can water shortages be solved by solar-powered desalinization, noting that demand can be scaled to supply and that this is a good use of solar?

    I think so.

    9) How urgent is abandoning the idea of perpetual growth? How urgent is abandoning the idea of full employment? Can we avoid the social trauma of these dramatic shifts for a few decades while solving the other problems, or do we need to undertake radical changes right away?

    I think we can put it off a bit while focusing on immediate crises, but not forever.

    10) Can ocean acidification be reversed at scale? What is the economic substitute good for sushi?

    Probably not. Probably nothing. Hard luck if you are a fish, a fisherman, or a sushi eater. I am not convinced that the surface processes will notice a near-dead ocean for a long time. Extra stress on food supplies due to ocean decline is likely already unavoidable,

    11) How can we facilitate decision making on global questions so that the existence of sound answers to these questions turns into a workable future?

    I wish I knew.


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