Sunday, April 26, 2009

Does understanding complexity beget a tragic view of life?

Sheer exuberance is often enough to carry the young into the most daunting and dangerous of endeavors. But as we age, experience can make us more hesitant. Many people discover that the universe can sometimes be arbitrary, that completely unforeseen events can ruin careers and even end lives, that, in short, life is tragic.

But paradoxically the tragic view of life doesn't beget mere glumness. Instead, it teaches prudence which can be a good thing and occasionally a lifesaver. It actually inculcates a more profound appreciation of those moments of happiness and bliss, for the tragic view of life cautions us that these are not the products of will and planning, but rather mostly the result of serendipity. Those with the tragic view do not believe that everything must end in tragedy; rather, they believe that tragic endings are an ever present possibility.

As we mature we are ushered into the complexities of life. But when the willingness to accept these complexities is blunted or eliminated, maturity never arrives. Many remain in an adolescent state preferring an optimistic gloss on a simple-minded model of the world. As Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote recently:

Collectively we have been behaving like adolescents – believing we're invulnerable, living for today while ignoring tomorrow, and sneering at anything that smacks of prudence.

And, we have behaved this way when it comes to the financial legerdemain which has brought the world economy to its knees. The high priests of finance had the adolescent exuberance for trading and making money, but none of the appreciation for the hazards embedded in the complex financial instruments they were selling.

The tragic view of life teaches humility in the face of complexity. That humility is notably lacking in the world of neoclassically trained economists, the ones who run the houses of finance and public policy in nearly every Western economy. The levers and pulleys of the economy seem plainly obvious to them. And, the idea that we could fail to understand the risks we are taking with our financial system or find ourselves dangerously short of critical commodities needed to run modern society is labeled preposterous. (These economists sound a little like the adolescents Homer-Dixon describes above.)

But a deeper understanding of the complexities of a world society embedded in a vastly complex biogeochemical system called the Earth requires a more sober assessment. Homer-Dixon says in his book, "The Upside of Down," that the emphasis on efficiency over resilience in our various human systems has left us vulnerable to the multiple threats of climate change, energy depletion and biodiversity destruction.

Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies," posits that increasing complexity in society eventually leads to diminishing and then negative returns and results in a society more vulnerable to collapse.

Jared Diamond, author of "Collapse", focuses on the environmental damage which led to the disappearance of previous societies including Greenland Norse settlements, Easter Island, the Anasazi in what is now called the American southwest, and the Mayans. Our complex relations with and dependence on the natural world give Diamond concern about the future of modern industrial civilization.

Tainter warns that previous collapses were visited on discreet societies separated by vast distances from others that continued to thrive. The next collapse, he believes, must be worldwide since we have now essentially created one planetary society tightly linked by finance, commerce, technology, and travel.

By contrast the careless optimism of the technologists and the economists is predicated on simple-minded models of society and its relationship to the natural world. We often hear the following: "We've always found substitutes for critical materials which were running out. Prices rise for the scarce commodity, and substitutes are developed and introduced." Jared Diamond would beg to differ that this is always the case. But economists' thinking doesn't include the complication of history.

And, for the technologists the focus is on the idea that the natural world can be engineered both to help it regain its equilibrium--geoengineering the climate is just one example--and to provide ever increasing resources from its lowest grade deposits--seawater is often invoked as a source for important minerals such as uranium.

The fact that there is currently no method of extracting uranium from seawater that gives us more energy than we expend doesn't phase the technologists. "We will figure it out," they say. "It is inevitable." Well, very few things are inevitable. In addition, the notion that we could make a mistake in trying to engineer something as complex and poorly understood as world climate and thereby create worse problems barely enters their heads. It is hubris borne of simplistic thinking.

It is not the role of those who adopt the tragic view of life merely to predict tragedy. Tragedies, by definition, will continue to occur no matter what we do. Instead, these prudent thinkers are busy identifying trends that could possibly be forestalled and reversed so as to prevent tragic consequences.

But it takes a tragic view of life to imagine such scenarios in the first place. The simpleminded optimists can dazzle us only so long as they are lucky and skirt tragic failures. Their triumphs--at least so far as population and economic growth are concerned--have gone on for a very long time. But the debt that is building up in the natural world in the form of resource depletion, climate change, pollution and destruction of biodiversity and also in society in the form of overoptimized systems vulnerable to breakdown, can only be appreciated by those who seek to understand complex systems. Also required is the humility to accept that we will never fully understand such systems and must therefore act with a very wide margin of safety.

There are still opportunities to prevent societal collapse, the complexity theorists believe. But without swift and thoroughgoing changes in our current practices and priorities, we may all too soon suffer the fate of many societies before us, but on a scale never before seen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Does Rick Perry see the future?

Not long after the end of the First World War Germans, now able to cross the border with Switzerland freely, began showing up at the office of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. They described dreams that he believed foretold a great social and political upheaval in Germany. He later wrote of his frustrations whenever he related this information to others since for them there seemed to be not a cloud in the sky.

Fast forward to today. We recently heard the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, speak openly of the possibility of secession from the United States, something that might be classified as a waking dream or fantasy. History records the woeful consequences last time anyone took that idea to its logical conclusion in the United States, and so, not surprisingly, few people are taking it seriously for the moment. The immediate reason behind the mention--made while addressing a group participating in the recent April 15th tax protests--was probably that Perry faces a primary next year against fellow Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

As it turns out, Perry may be doing more than positioning himself further to the political right in preparation for a primary battle; he may be channeling a sentiment that is more widespread than people believe. Texas has a long history of secession movements. One was active there in the early 1980s when I lived in the state. The beef then was that Texas's oil wealth was being expropriated through the windfall profits tax and sent to Washington. But the rest of the country is not immune. Wikipedia lists 17 groups working for some sort of secession across the United States.

The Rachel Maddow Show reported that besides Texas, legislators in six other states have introduced bills meant to affirm their states' "sovereignty." Oklahoma has already passed its resolution. Just in case you wondered, the other states are Arizona, Montana, Michigan, Missouri and Washington.

All of this might be regarded as so much posturing among politicians eager to draw attention to themselves--or simply tin-foil-hat thinking among members of the secessionist movements. But once you push aside the racially-tinged states' rights arguments and realize that 1) the movement has a foothold (however tenuous) beyond the South and 2) that at least one group, the Second Vermont Republic, can be considered progressive in its principles, the idea of secession yields to a more nuanced interpretation.

The social and political upheaval which the dreams of Jung's German patients presaged eventually expressed itself in the rise of the Nazi Party. Secession, however, is a more fitting kind of upheaval in the United States, a society for whom rebellion is a more dominant trait. I am reminded of a class of American college juniors and seniors to whom I showed Adolf Hitler's speech to the Nazi youth during the Nuremberg rally of 1934. Remember, I told them, this is before World War II, before the concentration camps, and before the Kristallnacht. No one knows anything about these things because they haven't yet happened. The speech did come after the Reichstag fire and the granting by the German legislature to Hitler the right to rule by decree. While controversial and outspokenly anti-Semitic, Hitler in the fall of 1934 was still widely seen as more and less just another politician who, in this case, was making just another speech to the nation's youth.

Hitler covered the usual shibboleths: be thrifty, stay physically fit, study hard, get involved in your community and work for the betterment of the nation. Nothing remarkable here. Was there anything he said, I asked the class, that any American politician wouldn't say to American youth today? A flurry of hands went up. The students said it almost in unison: "Be obedient." No American politician would invoke such a sentiment whether he believed it important or not.

Many of my acquaintances kept telling me during the Bush Administration that America was on the verge of becoming a fascist state and that (according to a few) President George W. Bush would not step down when his term ended. I, on the other hand, have long feared the anarchical tendencies in American life: the states' rights ideology, the vigilantism often seen in the pre-civil rights South, the secessionist movements and every kind of centrifugal political force pursued in the name of localism, but really a pretext for 1) undermining the rights of unionized workers, women, ethnic and racial minorities, and gays and lesbians and 2) destroying the environment in contravention of federal law.

The need for relocalization of the economy in the wake of peak oil and climate change is forcing me to re-examine my views. I am of the belief, however, that should relocalization become a widespread adaptation strategy or simply be forced upon us, the locale where one lives in the United States will become of increasing importance--not only because the availability of basic resources needed for human survival differs from place to place, but also because retrograde notions of human rights, governance and education are likely to be reinstituted (probably gradually) in some areas of the country, particularly the South and West.

It is no surprise, then, that relocalization of economic activity implies relocalization of governmental power. In fact, a kind of precursor to secession, nullification, has already appeared in the form of city councils resolving not to cooperate with federal officials in enforcing the so-called Patriot Act. It has also manifested itself in cities and states proceeding with climate change initiatives when the federal government's official policy was that climate change was not a problem. My previous piece, "The New Nullification," details several other examples.

My sense is that the United States will not undergo a sudden, sharp devolution of power to states and municipalities. In fact, for now with the money flowing freely from the federal government--borrowed and printed though it may be--states and cities are unlikely to pull away from the central government in any meaningful way. Even the Texas legislature, controlled by Gov. Rick Perry's party, the Republicans, thinks it's a bad idea to refuse federal aid and go it alone.

But as it becomes impractical or impossible to provide such massive federal aid on a continuous basis--and I believe this will prove difficult during what I expect to be a lengthy economic downturn similar to the 1930s--the necessity to find local solutions to a persistent crisis may become more acute. For this reason an ongoing economic slump may end up feeding continued calls for secession as well as create receptivity to genuinely useful relocalization efforts.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Until all the evidence is in

Nobody actually waits until all the evidence is in. The simple reason is that all the evidence will never be in. For that to occur one would have to know about everything going on in the universe right now and where those things would lead in the future. For Earth-bound residents, perhaps it would be sufficiently rigorous to know everything that is going on in the solar system and its future.

What do people mean when they say they want to wait until all the evidence is in? Most often they mean they want to wait for more information. But, sometimes they mean nothing of the sort. Sometimes they mean they want you to wait until all the evidence is in before you proceed to do something they don't like. In other words it's a stalling technique, one used quite effectively by the fossil fuel industry to prevent meaningful action to control greenhouse gasses.

The implication behind this ruse is that public policy is made based on all the evidence. But this has never been the case and never will be the case. Public policy is made based on incomplete information and perceived probabilities of gains and threats. (It's also made based on the influence of powerful interest groups; but that would require a discussion all by itself.) This is why modeling has become such an important tool for those involved in climate and energy supply research. If we had all the information, we wouldn't need models that announce possible outcomes based on incomplete information.

So, if we can't wait until all the evidence is in, what standards should we use to guide our decision-making, both in public policy and in our daily lives? I would propose two that we already use. First, unlike the standard for criminal court cases which rightly requires jurors to judge someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, civil cases require only a preponderance of evidence for a party to prevail. When it comes to the issue of climate change, the preponderance of evidence is clearly on the side of those advocating for a swift and dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Are there bits of information which are inconclusive when it comes to the dangers of climate change? Certainly, there are. But the vast bulk of the information, the preponderance of the evidence we now have, points to huge risks ahead.

This leads me to my second principle for decision-making: the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is actually a very conservative principle in the original meaning of the word "conservative." The main thrust of this principle is that actions which have the potential to pose severe risks or irreversible harm to society should be prohibited or seriously restricted until evidence accumulates that suggests that the risks are below a threshold acceptable to society. This is a slippery principle. But its usefulness rests on the same foundation as the first principle: an evaluation of risks and uncertainties. It is axiomatic that the more uncertainty there is associated with a given policy or course of action, the greater the risk. And, so the burden is on those proposing a policy or action to show that the risks and uncertainties are at acceptable levels.

Now you might think that the second principle contradicts the first. After all, those advocating for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are suggesting a radical departure from current practice. But this is where the severity of the risks of two courses of action must be weighed against one another. Those advocating for severe curbs on greenhouse gasses have complex models suggesting risks to the very foundations of civilization: to food and water supplies; to public health because of the possible spread of diseases formerly restricted to the tropics and because of a significant increase in heat-related deaths; to public order as refugees flee low-lying regions inundated by rising sea levels; to peace as nations vie over increasingly scarce water and agricultural resources. The list goes on. On the other side of the argument is the threat to economic growth posed by expenditures needed to move away from fossil fuels. There is also the possibility of reduced opportunities for a better standard of living for the poor. (This argument cleverly avoids all mention of redistribution or enhanced public services as a means to assist the poor.)

The problem is that the decision to put the world on a fossil-fuel diet took place more than two centuries ago with no understanding of where it would lead. The initial levels of fossil fuel combustion might not have posed much of a threat at all for a very long time. But fossil fuel consumption and population have been moving targets (mostly up) since the dawn of the industrial revolution. And, that means our threat assessment needs to move with it. Not only is all the evidence never going to be in, but the evidence is actually changing over time as population rises, as technology and infrastructure change and expand, and as the biogeochemical processes of the Earth react to that change. Witness the increasingly rapid melting of the world's major ice sheets.

We need to recognize the phrase "until all the evidence is in" for what it really is: 1) a stalling technique, 2) a reflection of the ignorance of the speaker about the limits of our knowledge or 3) a colloquialism signaling the desire to wait for more information. Having sorted that out, we can move on to more prudent and efficacious ways of making public policy and personal decisions.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The unbearable lightness of information

This decade was the one that was supposed to usher in the era when bits and bytes would replace tons and barrels as the measure of what an economy does. The information economy would eclipse the economy of blast furnaces and railcars.

The allure of such an economy is that it was said to be less resource intense, less driven by the high-amplitude economic cycles of the industrial economy, and more driven by the need for and efficient use of information, something that is always in demand. It turned out not to be so. The tech bust of the early part of this decade highlighted the vulnerability of the so-called information economy to cyclical forces and also the reliance of that economy on the more substantial physical economy.

We mistake the lightness of electrons and the vaporous nature of the information that rides on them for the lightness of the entire economy behind them. Every person who works in the so-called information sector of the economy must be housed, clothed, schooled, provided transportation, provisioned with household goods, given opportunities for entertainment and recreation, supplied with a wide array of public services, and...well, you get the idea. And, much of the manufacturing economy which previously provided employment in the United States and other industrialized nations has simply shifted to China and other low-cost locales. As it turns out, one of the main tasks of the information economy is to direct and manage the resulting global logistical system, a system that continues to bear down with its ever increasing weight on the landscape and the environment.

Howard Odum, the great pioneer in understanding energy flows in nature and society, understood that information, far from being a feathery presence in society, is actually its most resource- and energy-intensive output except for the natural process of species formation.

To read the chart below one must know that Odum turned all measurements into equivalent calories of solar energy which he dubbed solar emcalories. Concentration of emcalories leads to their greater and greater usefulness to human society. Diffuse sunlight on a field only warms a person for as long as the sun shines. But the energy concentrated in field crops can be stored until needed for food or fuel. Such is the role of what Odum calls transformities, that is, the transformation of previously concentrated energy into more concentrated, more energy-intense forms. Transforming fossil fuels into electricity is another example.


Adapted from "A Prosperous Way Down" by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum

Solar Emcalories Needed Per Calorie Produced
Sunlight energy
Wind energy
Organic matter, wood, soil
Potential of elevated rainwater
Chemical energy of rainwater
Mechanical energy
Large river energy
Fossil fuels
Electric power
Protein foods
Human services
1 X 1011
Species Formation
1 X 1015

Odum is not trying to discount the usefulness of information. In fact, energy embodied in the various products of nature and of human societies generally becomes more useful, the more concentrated it gets. Energy that is more concentrated is more easily transported and used. And, energy which becomes the above-mentioned weightless information may be the most potent of all. It was Archimedes who said, "Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth." He was, of course, talking about the power of the lever to move things. The key element, however, is a piece of information, namely, where to stand.

Far from being costless or weightless or light on resource use, information comes to us at very great expense. Today, we talk about the vast volume of information that is being produced. But is this the case? Aren't we really talking about the vast quantity of copies of information flowing through the information system? Aren't we also talking about the vast quantity of gossip that moves through that system? As anyone who sifts through the information on the Internet on a regular basis knows, a good piece of solid, actionable information is not always easy to find. In proportion to the chatter and clutter on the Internet, there simply isn't that much good information. Perhaps one reason is that genuinely useful new information is so very hard to produce.

The idea that ours is a new age when people first began to grasp the importance of information is patent nonsense. When someone tells you that we are moving into an information society, you can retort that we have always been an information society: information about how the forest works and where one might find food, about how to grow crops and which ones grow best, about how to cut and stack stone upon stone to make buildings that will last for the ages, about how to float vessels on water, about nearly everything human societies value past and present. We are now copying and disseminating what information we have on a grander scale and at a faster pace than ever before. And, we certainly have a lot of information about how to make the earth, the sky, and the sea give us whatever we want. In truth, much of the modern "information revolution" is nothing more than this.

What we are lacking is the widespread understanding of how to live within the limits prescribed by the planet. Putting to rest the idea that so-called information-based industries somehow have a negligible impact on the biosphere might be a good first step in focusing us on the kind of information that we will need to become partners with nature rather than its adversaries.