Garbage Out, Garbage In

About that floating plastic? You can spend a half hour of your life learning little more than that someone is studying it.

(Medium is promoting this breathless and thin report to me.)

But the one actual substantive utterance by an expert in the article does give pause.

“Nobody knows how dangerous they are,” he said of the garbage patches. “We have very little data. And we simply don’t know how to clean the ocean. We are dealing with perhaps the mother of all problems. I think the ocean is totally infected.”Curtis Ebbesmeyer

There I’ve saved you 28 minutes and scared you anyway. I hope you are pleased with the service here.


  1. If you think that's a scary idea, what about this?

    "...The baseline scenario results in more than half of the world population living under extreme water scarcity by the end of the 21st century..."

    from here:, the paper being: "Integrated assessment of global water scarcity over the 21st century under multiple climate change mitigation policies"...

    Loads of caveats attached to this, but chilling if read in isolation...

  2. I simply don't believe that the assumptions behind that type of projection make sense. If water is needed for survival, I believe that water can be had. If there is a failure to provide water it will be the same sort that deprives Egyptians and Haitians of food today.

    A lot of agriculture will move and a lot of regions will be disrupted. We'd better prepare to think globally if we refuse to address the CO2 problem. The ethical problems are with us now and will not go away. But this is a problem of ethics and governance, not of capacity.

  3. The idea of universal instant distribution of goods, which I am convinced by you all are sufficient to the world's needs, ignores a whole lot of geographical reality.

    If I can get lost in the woods in a relatively small location, what's a few thousand miles to transport food and water, especially if there is unrest? Yes, there are major ethical issues, but the idea that we can wave a magic wand and stop the escalating violence and develop a perfect and fair distribution seems a more than a bit optimistic to me.

  4. Well, no, I didn't know that precisely, but I was aware that it was a false analogy, and of course the ditty was seriously off topic, meant to be a humorous note. I was trying to indicate the immensity of even our limited planet in a direct and personal way. (It's something fake skeptics can play on, as we all know of vast expanses of relatively unsettled and/or impenetrable areas). I certainly hope we can all stop hating each other so much, but the news lately has not been good. I agree that we could so better, and optimistic is a great way to be, that's one of the reasons I persist here.

    Today's radio feature on the Simpsons (god forbid) had a comment about how eager we are to be offended, which is part of the problem. Something to work on.

  5. Well, it said

    One reason water receives less attention is that, unlike global warming, there is no such thing as a global water crisis. Instead, there are a series of regional predicaments in a world where the distribution of fresh water is so lopsided that 60 per cent of it is found in just nine countries, including Brazil, the US and Canada, according to the UN.

    Another reason the problem persists, insists Mr Brabeck, is that water is so undervalued that it is typically used inefficiently – and there is not enough investment to boost supplies.

    which I think is what I think... This is a matter of resource allocation and not of availability on a global scale.

    If we start to allocate our resources sensibly, there will be much less of these water-intensive industries in the first place, which is after all what a capitalist means by "too expensive" - it means a signal has been successfully passed to the enterprise that we would just as soon it not exist at all. It is time we stopped treating such an outcome as a threat.

  6. MT: "I simply don't believe that the assumptions behind that type of projection make sense. If water is needed for survival, I believe that water can be had. If there is a failure to provide water it will be the same sort that deprives Egyptians and Haitians of food today."

    I'm probably misunderstanding this, but... projections don't make sense unless we assume some future perfect socialist/cybernetic global system of resource distribution able to get water and food to anyone as needs it? I'm not sure that's a very sensible way of making projections! Again, I'm sure I must be misreading (I promise I'm not wilfully doing so!)

  7. I like the graphic of the gyres at the bottom of the article, while I agree about the fabulist tone being overdone. There's plenty of good practical info out there, including the excellent US public television feature ( But I need only go a block and a half to get a picture of today's batch of plastic and toxic borderage to our tiny patch of city ocean, which I can also find anywhere else I go as well. I once removed three garbage bags full from Porth Nanven, near Cape Cornwall (UK), but that was only a day's haul. Our addiction to bottled water is a prime culprit in the more rarefied areas. I don't need the news to tell me about it. This reminds me of the argument I had with mt about my observation that there's a lot more dark green and black algae on these shores (North Shore Massachusetts and west country England were my hangouts at the time, and both were greasier and darker, and we proved my color vision is fine).

    Anyway, having revisited the original article, I return the informative Financial Times article on water. I cede to mt's opinion that it is possible to distribute sufficient supplies in a perfect world. There are practical as well as political and ethical problems, but the ideal is not in question by me.

    The quote you provide is offset by a good deal of the rest of the article, which I excerpt in more depressing fashion here:

    By 2030, the global population is expected to have increased from today’s 7bn to 8bn. The global middle class, meanwhile, is likely to have surged from nearly 2bn to 5bn, according to the OECD, largely in fast-growing Asian economies. Like their predecessors in developed countries, they are likely to want a hamburger, not just a bowl of vegetables, and the UN has calculated it takes 2,400 litres of water to produce a hamburger compared with less than 30 litres for a potato or a tomato. They will also want air-conditioning, televisions and other devices requiring electricity, on top of family cars and overseas holidays, all of which require more energy.

    Water is needed for almost every aspect of energy production, from digging up fossil fuels to refining oil and generating power, and the amount of water consumed by the sector is on track to double within the next 25 years, according to the International Energy Agency.
    The hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process used to extract shale gas and oil typically requires about 2m gallons of water or more at each well. That has prompted concern among groups such as Ceres, a sustainable investor group, which says nearly half the US wells drilled since 2011 are in areas of high or extremely high water stress.

  8. No, you're not misunderstanding, though your paraphrase is perhaps a bit harsh. My point is, as always, that our problems are social and not primarily technical or scientific.

    Which calls into question the competence of democracy in the world of the future. I am not willing to let the idea of democracy go, but it has to change somehow.

    There is little we can do on the mitigation side that will affect the next half century. These water issues are happening. The question is how we cope. The old systems don't seem likely to work. We can't afford to slid back into hostility and warfare and force on a crowded planet. The problems we face are daunting. But snark aside, yes we definitely need to reconsider who gets to allocate resources for what purposes in a way that is suitable for the 21st century and not the 19th.

    As for the snarky bits, "perfect"? No. "socialist"? Not really. "Cybernetic"? Depends what you mean by that word. In its original sense as proposed by Norbert Wiener, only loosely connected to computation, yes, certainly, that is exactly the perspective I advocate.

  9. We normally see eye-to-eye in many ways, but there are unresolveds here.

    Whilst we agree in many ways on the issue of food supply and distribution, in the case of water the situation may be different. First, it is not clear that the deficiency in some regions is likely to be compensated by an excess in others - it may not be a balanced system. Second, supplies which are shared by multiple (nation) recipients are often controlled by a single dominant 'resource holder'. Example here might be the secondary contractees of the Hoover Dam, who stand to have their supply defaulted on if the dam dries up any further, in favour of California, which has contractual 'first dibs' on the supply.

    Point accepted about transition in usage over time helping to alleviate possible problems, but in a system where we don't even share our excess effectively, the idea that, in times of need, we wouldn't let someone down 'down the line' might be unrealistic.

    I agree that solutions can be found by socio-political means, but to do so where need may be greatest requires that other mitigation/adaptation efforts be sacrificed along the way, thus increasing already existing inequity. Which brings us neatly back to the foundational issue, which is (put in one melodramatic way), how to avoid the untimely or unnecessary deaths of 2-4 billion people. That these people might, viewing from the other side, consider their abandonment to fate as being comparable to the consequences of a conscious policy of eugenics, said people might be a bit more than pissed off, with the implications for global security which that implies...

    In short, I still think its a big enough problem to justify short-term, radical intervention and reconsideration of the apparent conflict between the ethics of justice and equity vs the underlying credo of capital (market-based) democracy of TANSTAAFL. There, more than you asked for, or deserve...

  10. "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" for anybody else who needed to look it up.

    Anyway, continuing with the shortcuts, wrt water and distribution, afaik, Nestle is looking at monetizing water, some evil stuff there. California people who have enough water are afraid to share it because if they do later on they might lose their exclusive use of it. And this:

    California Has Given Out Rights To Five Times More Water Than It Actually Has

  11. As an aside, I loved the Heinlein novel where that expression originated ("The Moon is a Harsh Mistress") as a teenager and had no trouble recognizing the explicit and implicit meanings.

    My efforts to re-read Heinlein as an adult have rewarded me with little else but embarrassment, though. Unlike, say, Bradbury or Clarke or Vonnegut or Sheckley or Spinrad or many other science fiction writers of the time that I was enjoying. I can't believe I was taken in by this stuff. But Heinlein may be more influential than Ayn Rand in the minds of present day libertarian geekdom.

  12. I don't think a global food deficit is imminent. The world will find water for agriculture in the aggregate for a much longer time than these scary articles indicate. Desalinization is already used on a large scale in some places.

    But will we have the capacity to not turn the trends into gross injustice? Well, under business as usual scenarios, assuming the climate prognoses aren't totally off base, it's hard to see how.

    Can we get around our traditional limitations? That's immensely speculative. Perhaps we simply need a better class of oligarchs. There are some indications that one is emerging.

    I'm not trying to dismiss the problems you are mentioning - anything but. I just don't like the way they are presented as implying certain doom. What they certainly imply is change, change far larger than the present generation is used to. And they may yet amount to disaster. But disaster is not inevitable yet, even though ground water depletion and drought probably is.

  13. Ah, Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land, Friday... is he really a champion of libertarian values? Anarchism, possibly, but the other? Yup, as a youngster educated in boy's only boarding, the ideal to strive for was Jubal's autonomy, wealth, women friends, liberty. That was a LngTimeAgo...

    I'm horrified to think that you think my tone is doomist - not at all intended - and not a reflection of my thoughts. Clearly I need to sharpen up the communication pencil and write more accurately. No, you and I share very similar views of the problems, prognosis and potential.

    None of my future scenarios as yet lead to total extinction. OTOH, none of them avoid nasty stuff, either. It depends in part what you want to call disaster, and whether the context is global or more localised.

    As you say, changes, big changes. The challenge in part is to be prepared, or if possible to manage some of the impacts up front, where it can be achieved. Another challenge is to get societies in general to be a bit less infantile and a bit more grown up in their personalities - not so far it produces a backlash, as in Japan in the late 20th century, but at least a better balanced view of responsibility, at the least.

    The problem with the oligarchs scenario is it can easily start to look like a platonic ideal state, or even a Randian one...

  14. Sorry, O/T:

    MT: "As for the snarky bits, "perfect"? No. "socialist"? Not really. "Cybernetic"? Depends what you mean by that word. In its original sense as proposed by Norbert Wiener, only loosely connected to computation, yes, certainly, that is exactly the perspective I advocate."

    Hum - if ever you have time to write more about your specific perspective on cybernetics (and the future) it'd be awesome to read. Was noting this slashdot story on NSF funding to "enable academic researchers to advance cloud computing architectures that can support a new generation of innovative applications, including real-time and safety-critical applications like those used in medical devices, power grids, and transportation systems", prompted some chin-stroking on this topic.

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