Thursday, October 23, 2014

These are not instruction manuals

Somewhere I recall someone making the point that modern governments are acting is if George Orwell's 1984 was less of a warning than an instruction manual.

Now it seems like Silicon Valley is using Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as an instruction manual.

What does it say that the two greatest dystopias of twentieth-century fiction have been the most reliable guides to life in the twenty-first?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Peak Oil Derp

Paul Krugman (remember him?) has been taking about what he called  inflation “derp,” meaning an opinion held in contravention of all evidence, and posts this handy chart:

As I recall, runaway inflation has been a standard prediction of much of the Peak Oil blogosphere over the past several years as well. This was also combined with warnings of the imminent collapse of the U.S. dollar and a default on the federal debt. Many Peak Oil commentators also called for eliminating the Federal Reserve, and a return to the gold standard.

My question, and I ask it in all sincerity, is, why? These economic ideas come directly from the right-wing “Austrian School” of economics. Why were these obscure, right-wing economic doctrines embraced by so much of the Peak Oil commentariat? You know who these people are, so I’m not going to name names.

What’s exceptionally bizarre to me about this is that Peak Oil, rightly or wrongly (in my opinion wrongly), has been associated with the political Left. Yet so many people in the Peak Oil sphere enthusiastically embraced the narrative being promoted by right-wing Libertarians that the Federal Reserve is the (exclusive) source of all our economic woes, that gold is the only “real” money, and that “money printing” will lead to runaway inflation and a “debasement” of the currency. If you read many peak oil sites, you would also hear constant scorn being heaped on the likes of Krugman and Ben Bernanake (like Krugman, Bernanke seemed to inspire a bilious, visceral hatred in the angry white males of the blogosphere that Janet Yellen simply can’t match. Must be something about bearded Jewish Princeton economists)

Again, why? Why did so much of the Peak Oil movement embrace these narratives promoted by people like the Koch Brothers and Ron Paul? It’s strange bedfellows indeed – you had libertarian  free-market fundamentalists espousing the exact same economic ideas as people who believed that the very substance that underpins modern industrial capitalism was irretrievably running out. How did they end up espousing the exact same economic philosophy? Why did so many Peak Oil people align themselves politically with extreme free-market fundamentalists like Ron Paul, who believes that a nineteenth century economic regime with no central banking, regulations or worker protections is the key to prosperity for all?

And many in the movement have been doubling down on this. If you point out that inflation is low, you get conspiracy theories about how inflation numbers are secretly being manipulated. Oil prices are going up, but of course Peak Oil people should know that has nothing to do with money printing but rather the increased costs of going after harder-to-get oil sources. College and medical costs have been rising, but that’s because these industries are predatory and fuelled by federal subsidies. Housing costs have been rising, but this is due to a housing bubble, scarcity (in urban areas) and extreme income inequality. These aren't caused by “money printing.”

I think maybe the idea is that if the authorities were not talking about Peak Oil, than they were not talking honestly about other things, and conspiratorial anti-government ideologies were embraced. And the biggest ones on offer ready to go was the ones being stoked and kept alive by anti-government libertarians and the John Birch Society. So, many peak oilers encountered these ideologies and signed on board, thinking that these ideas were another “suppressed" ideology just like peak oil. If the authorities were lying and keeping peak oil a secret, then they must be lying about the Federal Reserve and money printing and all of that as well. And economists like Krugman were in on the scam!

I think there’s also an element of nostalgia. Ron Paul and his libertarians portray an idealized world before the Progressive movement and central banking destroyed a land of plucky individualists and striving entrepreneurs. The fact that the people themselves who lived in this time period (1880s-1920s) fought to end the rapacious rule of Robber Baron elites, the impoverishment (and sometimes outright murder) of the working classes and the complete immiseration of people who had no social safety net to fall back on (no “private charity” was not better) is not mentioned. America’s expansion took place before central banking and during the days of the gold standard (or bimetallism), and there fore if we go back to those days we will go back to economic expansion. Correlation does not equal causation, however. The nineteenth century expansion was caused by a wide-open frontier (the Homestead Act, land speculation), plentiful raw materials, and new technologies (telegraphs, railroads, electricity). Not to mention constant booms and busts occurred during that time ruining millions of people and plunging them into desperate poverty much worse than today. All of this is ignored by Libertarians.

Finally, there is a general anti-centralization, anti-government vibe in much of the movement that was amenable to the anti-government message of libertarianism. But the anti-government message of libertarianism has always been self-serving. It’s all about eliminating the regulations that hold back and restrict the power of the wealthy while maintaining and strengthening the powers of the wealth and corporations. The people who sign onto that agenda are “useful idiots” for the plutocrats. Many peak oil commentators (Kunstler specially) are openly nostalgic for the Horatio Alger days of nineteenth century America and believe that they can magically be recreated by shrinking the government. Peak Oil feeds into this nostalgia and distorts their views, causing them to embrace this libertarian idealization of the Robber Baron era.

But by embracing these fringe economic ideologies, hasn’t the peak oil movement done tremendous damage to their credibility? By throwing their lot in with these obscure schools of economics and constantly predicting things that haven’t happened (derp), the Peak Oil movement risks undermining the message of very real and imminent dangers of Peak Oil that threaten our civilization and our economy. It doesn’t help matters when people like Kunstler consistently predict a stock market collapse and that all 315+ million Americans will become dirt farmers staring at the backside of a horse all day and living like Amish in the next twenty years when the U.S. oil output is a actually increasing. Yes, its is temporary and these are wells that will deplete very quickly, but rather than examine the implications of that, he just doubles down on his earlier predictions.

And that leads me to another rant. Why is Ron Paul-style Libertarianism portrayed the only possible option for those opposed to the drug war and military industrial complex? This article got quite a bit of attention recently: Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived? (New York Times)
Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position, while the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders has led to the wondrous spectacle of Rick Perry — the governor of Texas, where more inmates are executed than in any other state — telling a Washington audience: “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money.” The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb, with calls by Republicans to rein in federal profligacy now increasingly extending to the once-sacrosanct military budget. And deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington, which is somewhat unanticipated given that the surveiller in chief, the former constitutional-law professor Barack Obama, had been described in a 2008 Times Op-Ed by the legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen as potentially “our first president who is a civil libertarian.”
So, according to the article, the reasons for the “Libertarian moment” are:

1.) Opposition to the failed drug war.
2.) Opposition to the military-industrial complex and persistent foreign wars.
3.) Opposition to the prison-industrial complex
4.) Support for gay marriage.
5.) Decriminalizing victimless crimes like drug use, prostitution, and abortion.
6.) Opposition to the banking and corporate bailouts (not mentioned, but also true)

How did these views become associated with the right-wing? It’s a stunning piece of co-opting. In the 1960’s the people protesting the war and dropping acid weren’t right-wing libertarians, they were left-wing hippies. Many were even Marxists! In fact, the left has always supported every single one of the above points. Yet we’re not told the country is moving to the left, or having a “Marxist moment,” instead it’s a “libertarian moment.” And then we’re given all this evidence that Libertarianism is “young,” “hip,” and “cool.” Gee, why is that?
Meanwhile, the age group most responsible for delivering Obama his two terms may well become a political wild card over time, in large part because of its libertarian leanings. Raised on the ad hoc communalism of the Internet, disenchanted by the Iraq War, reflexively tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them, the millennials can no longer be regarded as faithful Democrats — and a recent poll confirmed that fully half of voters between ages 18 and 29 are unwedded to either party. Obama has profoundly disappointed many of these voters by shying away from marijuana decriminalization, by leading from behind on same-sex marriage, by trumping the Bush administration on illegal-immigrant deportations and by expanding Bush’s N.S.A. surveillance program. As one 30-year-old libertarian senior staff member on the Hill told me: “I think we expected this sort of thing from Bush. But Obama seemed to be hip and in touch with my generation, and then he goes and reads our emails.”
How did the left become associated with big, oppressive government? When did it become associated with absolute statism? Do people on the left support any of the above things? WTF? The (real) left has opposed these things forever! But there is not “leftist” or “socialist” moment. Socialism isn’t “young, hip and cool." It doesn’t have fancy conferences and media personalities (generously funded by corporate elites as the article points out). Hmmm, I wonder why.

Moreover, if you oppose all of the above things (and I do), why must you also embrace the libertarian principles of no regulations for Wall Street, no unions, no worker protections, and no interference whatsoever in the “free” market? If you oppose the above, then apparently “Libertarianism” is your only option. Gee, isn’t that convenient that this anti-military, anti-drug war ideology also embraces eliminating all taxes and regulations on corporations and worker protections? Yet many who would consider themselves leftist have embraced this movement with open arms. As I remarked to KMO, the drug war has served as the best recruiting tool libertarians could ask for. But are libertarians the only people opposed to the drug war? I seem to recall that the people smoking joints in the sixties weren't exactly right-wingers. What happened?

Here’s what I think – the corporate elites see the writing on the wall with the failure of the drug war, the authoritarianism of the religious right agenda, and the frustration with an out-of control military/police/incarceration complex. These ideas were associated with the left in the 1960's, but a true leftist movement would threaten corporate power and extreme wealth  inequality as well. What to do? The answer: Embrace these obscure right-wing libertarian doctrines of free market fundamentalism and heavily subsidize them to co-opt the left. Voila, you have Libertarianism! Because if the corporate elites can co-opt this social shift and channel into Libertarianism (which they can control), they can ride the social changes without any threat to their wealth and power. In fact, they can even expand it! And that’s exactly what they have done; wealth inequality is back to where it was before the Great Depression, and yet people are fighting for a smaller social safety net, less worker protections, less regulation for Wall Street, and lower taxes on the wealthy thanks to Libertarianism. Genius!

And that ties in to my first point. Because the right-wing libertarian ideas are heavily subsidized, I think a lot of the Peak Oil commentariat jumped onboard, not realizing they were secretly backing the power of the wealthy and corporations. And that’s too bad. Because if you care about the implications of peak oil, you can’t help but be saddened by this ongoing display of peak oil derp. If peak oil wants to be taken seriously (and it should), it needs to start dealing with the real world and real facts, and not embrace these ridiculous fringe ideologies and conspiracy theories.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Collapse, 1177 Edition

From the "collapse is the norm, not the exception," files:
The Late Bronze Age that [George Washington University professor Eric H.] Cline is interested in stretches from about 1500 B.C. to 1100 B.C. The Bronze Age itself, as opposed to the Stone Age before it, begins somewhere around 3000 B.C. At that point, people developed sophisticated metallurgy techniques allowing them to mix copper and tin into an alloy — bronze — strong enough for serious sword blades and other goods. It is in the Bronze Age that city building, and the sprawling kingdoms they engendered, begins in earnest. Egypt of the pharaohs was a Bronze Age civilization as was the Babylonian empire.

It was the transport of copper and tin for bronze that helped establish complex trade networks. Grain and manufactured goods also became part of that transportation web. Alliances between city-states followed. In this way, the Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians became the economic powerhouses of the ancient world — what Cline calls the "Group of 8." Together they built the first version of a "global" culture using long-distance economic and military partnerships that required advanced — for its day — technologies.

The evidence that a prolonged shift in climate was a factor in bringing down the Mediterranean Bronze Age comes from a number of studies...showing that cooling sea surface temperatures led to lower rainfall over inland farming areas. Pollen analysis ...also indicates a fairly rapid transition to a drier climate during this period that includes the Late Bronze Age collapse. What followed were drought, scarcity and desperation...And with famine came migration and wars. The scourge of the era was the mysterious "Sea Peoples" who had swept across the region... it is likely that the marauding Sea Peoples came from the western Mediterranean and "were probably fleeing their island homes because of the drought and famine ... moving across the Mediterranean as both refugees and conquerors."

For Cline, climate change — along with the famines and migration it brought — comprised a "perfect storm" of cataclysms that weakened the great Bronze Age "global" culture. But the final blow, the deepest reason for the collapse, may have come from within the very structure of that society.

The world of the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians was complex, in the technical meaning of the word. It was a system with many agents and many overlapping connections. That complexity was both a strength and weakness. Cline points to recent research in the study of so-called complex systems that shows how susceptible they can be to cascades of disruption and failure from even small perturbations. Perhaps, Cline says, the Bronze Age societies exhibited the property called "hypercoherence" where interdependencies are so complex that stability becomes ever harder to maintain.

Thus complexity itself may have been the greatest threat to late Bronze Age civilization once the pressures began. And it is that fact, more than anything else, that speaks to the dangers we face today....
 Lessons From The Last Time Civilization Collapsed (NPR)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Progress and Happiness

(This short post turned into a long one again. Apologies.)
Here is an excellent and provocative article in the UK Guardian, Were we happier in the stone age? Does modern life make us happy? We have gained much but we have lost a great deal too. Are humans better suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

The article takes us through "The Whig View of History" In America we might call this the Conservative or conventional view:
One common preconception – often termed "the Whig view of history" – sees history as the triumphal march of progress. Each passing millennium witnessed new discoveries: agriculture, the wheel, writing, print, steam engines, antibiotics. Humans generally use newly found powers to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations. It follows that the exponential growth in human power must have resulted in an exponential growth in happiness. Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people.

But this progressive view is highly controversial. Though few would dispute the fact that human power has been growing since the dawn of history, it is far less clear that power correlates with happiness. The advent of agriculture, for example, increased the collective power of humankind by several orders of magnitude. Yet it did not necessarily improve the lot of the individual. For millions of years, human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms. Peasant life, in contrast, included long hours of agricultural drudgery: ploughing, weeding, harvesting and carrying water buckets from the river. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and numbing to the human mind.

In return for all this hard work, peasants usually had a worse diet than hunter-gatherers, and suffered more from malnutrition and starvation. Their crowded settlements became hotbeds for new infectious diseases, most of which originated in domesticated farm animals. Agriculture also opened the way for social stratification, exploitation and possibly patriarchy. From the viewpoint of individual happiness, the "agricultural revolution" was, in the words of the scientist Jared Diamond, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race".
It wasn't just the transition to agriculture, however. Much of human history has consisted of the immiseration of the masses and increasing control by sociopathic elites. The conventional view that 'progress' is good continues despite the fact that it has been so thoroughly discredited by modern scholars:
The case of the agricultural revolution is not a single aberration, however. The march of progress from the first Sumerian city-states to the empires of Assyria and Babylonia was accompanied by a steady deterioration in the social status and economic freedom of women. The European Renaissance, for all its marvellous discoveries and inventions, benefited few people outside the circle of male elites. The spread of European empires fostered the exchange of technologies, ideas and products, yet this was hardly good news for millions of Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians.

The point need not be elaborated further. Scholars have thrashed the Whig view of history so thoroughly, that the only question left is: why do so many people still believe in it?
They believe it because that's what they are taught to believe. Elites require us to believe it so that we will continue to throw away their lives in service of 'growth' and 'progress', which as the above illustrates, benefits predominantly elites at the top of the pyramid. Economics is the bible and economists are the high priests of this cult and must promote it at all opportunities.

Why else do they believe it? Well, the modern world after the Industrial Revolution, with its automobiles, airplanes, washing machines and iPhones is given as the evidence. But note that nowhere in this narrative do fossil fuels occur. The Industrial Revolution is the one time in history where living standards advanced for the majority of the population. But I contend that this has nothing to do with increasing growth or population, or even some wooly notion of 'progress.' It was entirely due to the surplus resources and energy brought about by the plundering of the colonial world and the harnessing of a massive and unprecedented surplus of energy in the form of half a billion years of stored sunlight. Now that those resources are in decline, I contend, increasing growth will only lead to poverty and immiseration for most of us, despite the panacea of "technological innovation," which as the article out more more often leads to lower living standards rather than higher ones. As we'll see below the Industrial Revolution has been a very short period of time in human history, one which we take for granted as lasting forever without evidence, and one with significant drawbacks of its own.

The author contrasts the Whig view of history with the views articulated by people like, well, me (and Christopher Ryan).
There is an equally common but completely opposite preconception, which might be dubbed the "romantic view of history". This argues that there is a reverse correlation between power and happiness. As humankind gained more power, it created a cold mechanistic world, which is ill-suited to our real needs.

Romantics never tire of finding the dark side of every discovery. Writing gave rise to extortionate taxation. Printing begot mass propaganda and brainwashing. Computers turn us into zombies. The harshest criticism of all is reserved for the unholy trinity of industrialism, capitalism and consumerism. These three bugbears have alienated people from their natural surroundings, from their human communities, and even from their daily activities. The factory worker is nothing but a mechanical cog, a slave to the requirements of machines and the interests of money. The middle class may enjoy better working conditions and many material comforts, but it pays for them dearly with social disintegration and spiritual emptiness. From a romantic perspective, the lives of medieval peasants were preferable to those of modern factory-hands and office clerks, and the lives of stone-age foragers were the best of all.

Yet the romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of every novelty is as dogmatic as the Whig belief in progress. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has beaten back the army of diseases that prey on humankind, from tuberculosis and measles to cholera and diphtheria. Average life expectancy has soared, and global child mortality has dropped from roughly 33% to less than 5%. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who might otherwise be dead, but also of their parents, siblings and friends?
However, the author himself mentions above that these diseases only became prevalent after the rise of agriculture and sedentism. Here's Spencer Wells in Pandora's Seed: "Most of the worst scourges of human health until the advent of vaccination in the eighteenth century were imports from our farm animals, including measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and influenza...As far as we can tell from the archaeological record, none of these so-called zoonotic diseases...afflicted our Paleolithic ancestors--all seem to have arisen in the Neolithic with the spread of farming. [William H.] McNeill suggests that many of the plagues described in the Bible may coincide with the explosion of zoonotic diseases during the emergence of the urban civilizations of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages."

And here's anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen:
Many major vector-borne infections may also have been less important among prehistoric hunter-gatherers than they are in the modern world. The habits of vectors of such major diseases as malaria, schistosomiasis, and bubonic plague suggest that among relatively small human groups without transportation other than walking these diseases are unlikely to have provided anything like the burden of morbidity and mortality that they inflicted on historic and contemporary populations...The increase in the transportation of people and exogenous diseases seems likely to have had far more profound effects on health than the small burden of traveler's diarrhea imposed by the small-scale movements of hunter-gatherers...There is also evidence, primarily from ethnographic sources, that primitive populations suffer relatively low rates of many degenerative diseases compared, at least, to the more affluent of modern societies, even after corrections are made for the different distribution of adult ages.

Contrary to assumptions once widely held, the slow growth of prehistoric populations need not imply exceedingly high rates of mortality. Evidence of low fertility and/or the use of birth control by small-scale groups suggests (if we use modern life tables) that average rates of population growth very near zero could have been maintained by groups suffering only historically moderate mortality (life expectancy of 25 to 30 years at birth with 50 to 60 percent of infants reaching adulthood figures that appear to match those observed in ethnographic and archaeological samples) that would have balanced fertility, which was probably below the averages of more sedentary modern populations. The prehistoric acceleration of population growth after the adoption of sedentism and farming, if it is not an artifact of archaeological reconstruction, could be explained by an increase in fertility or altered birth control decisions that appear to accompany sedentism and agriculture. This explanation fits the available data better than any competing hypothesis.
And of course lowered infant mortality leads to increased population pressure causing competition for limited resources and a sicker population overall. And besides, there is a very realistic chance we will lose the use of antibiotics in the near future. So the author could have picked some better examples. Anyway,
A more nuanced stance agrees with the romantics that, up until the modern age, there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. But the romantics are wrong in their harsh judgment of modernity. In the last few centuries we have not only gained immense powers, but more importantly, new humanist ideologies have finally harnessed our collective power in the service of individual happiness. Despite some catastrophes such as the Holocaust and the Atlantic slave trade (so the story goes), we have at long last turned the corner and begun increasing global happiness systematically. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example. Other unprecedented achievements include the decline of international wars; the dramatic drop in domestic violence; and the elimination of mass-scale famines. (See Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature.)

Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. We can congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modern Homo sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the wealth that shields humans from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Tens of billions of them have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.

Secondly, the time frame we are talking about is extremely short. Even if we focus only on the fate of humans, it is hard to argue that the life of the ordinary Welsh coalminer or Chinese peasant in 1800 was better than that of the ordinary forager 20,000 years ago. Most humans began to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850. Mass famines and major wars continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the 20th century. Even though the last few decades have proven to be a relative golden age for humanity in the developed world, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history, or an ephemeral wave of good fortune: 50 years is simply not enough time on which to base sweeping generalisations.

Indeed, the contemporary golden age may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades we have been disturbing the ecologic equilibrium of our planet in myriad ways, and nobody knows what the consequences will be. We may be destroying the groundwork of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.
Indeed, as we saw, for even the bulk of population in wealthy, industrialized countries, living standards only began to rise about 1870! Before 1850, people living in the industrialized countries actually lived worse lives than their ancestors. They had to be forced into factories by the elites:
[D]espite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?…

Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support…

This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:

    "The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness."
Daniel Defoe, the novelist and trader, noted that in the Scottish Highlands “people were extremely well furnished with provisions. … venison exceedingly plentiful, and at all seasons, young or old, which they kill with their guns whenever they find it.’’
That point about how short the timeframes are cannot be overemphasized. In the history of the human race, industrialism is a blip. One of the things I've pointed out repeatedly is that the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution are very tenuous things. We see the Enlightenment under siege from a million directions. Creationists in the heartland want to suppress teaching evolution and eliminate the separation of Church and state, encouraged by opportunist politicians. Large parts of the Middle East are governed by religious ideologies like Wahabbism and Sharia law, and these are very recent- go back to Libya or Iran or Syria or Afghanistan as late as the 1970's and they are tolerant secular societies. Not any more.

There are more slaves now than ever before in history. There are more black men in the penal system than there were slaves in 1850, and prisoners are forced to work for corporations (in prison, slavery is totally legal). I've argued that modern-day college is essentially indistinguishable now from the indentured servitude of the nineteenth century. Democratic governance has been replaced by an oligarchy of money and unitary individuals control more wealth than entire cities and decide how it is used based on nothing more than their own whims. By some measures, inequality is higher now than ever before in history, as is the power of elites. I could go on, but you get the idea.

So to people like Pinker, I would say that the Enlightenment may not be a turning point after all. It may turn out to be a fluke, an aberration. Enlightenment and scientific modes of thought are very alien to our "natural" modes of thinking, which are based on nepotism, raw emotion, status-seeking, self-serving biases, and so forth.

The author then makes a point I make often, that we have paid a terrible price with modern society for the things that actually give us joy and happiness - our relationships to other human beings:
Even if we take into account solely the citizens of today's affluent societies, Romantics may point out that our comfort and security have their price. Homo sapiens evolved as a social animal, and our wellbeing is usually influenced by the quality of our relationships more than by our household amenities, the size of our bank accounts or even our health. Unfortunately, the immense improvement in material conditions that affluent westerners have enjoyed over the last century was coupled with the collapse of most intimate communities.

People in the developed world rely on the state and the market for almost everything they need: food, shelter, education, health, security. Therefore it has become possible to survive without having extended families or any real friends...friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths. You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want. Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples. Replacing such precarious tribal networks with the security of modern economies and states obviously has enormous advantages. But the quality and depth of intimate relationships are likely to have suffered.

In addition to shallower relationships, contemporary people also suffer from a much poorer sensory world. Ancient foragers lived in the present moment, acutely aware of every sound, taste and smell. Their survival depended on it....Varied and constant use of their bodies gave them physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or tai chi.

Today we can go to the supermarket and choose to eat a thousand different dishes. But whatever we choose, we might eat it in haste in front of the TV, not really paying attention to the taste. We can go on vacation to a thousand amazing locations. But wherever we go, we might play with our smartphone instead of really seeing the place. We have more choice than ever before, but what good is this choice, when we have lost the ability really to pay attention?
George Monbiot recently made many of these same points in another recent article in The Guardian, The age of loneliness is killing us:
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is now no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.

British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses, more than a fifth now say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed. A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?
The author then points out the biological impossibility of growth raising happiness levels:
Evolutionary biologists offer a complementary explanation for the hedonic treadmill. They contend that both our expectations and our happiness are not really determined by political, social or cultural factors, but rather by our biochemical system....Evolution has no interest in happiness per se: it is interested only in survival and reproduction, and it uses happiness and misery as mere goads. Evolution makes sure that no matter what we achieve, we remain dissatisfied, forever grasping for more. Happiness is thus a homeostatic system. Just as our biochemical system maintains our body temperature and sugar levels within narrow boundaries, it also prevents our happiness levels from rising beyond certain thresholds...If happiness really is determined by our biochemical system, then further economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions will not make our world a much happier place.
Here's Monbiot again:
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation...This self-medication aggravates the disease. Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration. It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them.

Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction. You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth, the pervasive sense, in watching it, that life is somewhere other than where you are, to see why this might be.

So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Figures published this week show that, while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year. The bosses earn – sorry, I mean take – 120 times more than the average full-time worker. (In 2000, it was 47 times). And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.

The top 1% own 48% of global wealth, but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too were assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness. Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1bn in the bank.

For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.
And the conclusion of this article seems to be an endorsement of E.F. Schumacher's Buddhist economics:
Thousands of years ago Buddhist monks reached the surprising conclusion that pursuing pleasant sensations is in fact the root of suffering, and that happiness lies in the opposite direction. Pleasant sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. If five minutes ago I felt joyful or peaceful, that feeling is now gone, and I may well feel angry or bored. If I identify happiness with pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but constantly to pursue them, and even if I get them, they immediately disappear, and I have to start all over again. This pursuit brings no lasting achievement. On the contrary: the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I become. However, if I learn to see my sensations for what they really are – ephemeral and meaningless vibrations – I lose interest in pursuing them, and can be content with whatever I experience. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises? For Buddhism, then, happiness isn't pleasant sensations, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.
Taken in total, the above serves as a good summary of the ideas of those of us skeptical of the expansionist productivist philosophy of the capitalist modern world and why we believe that continuing to follow it like a secular religion will not only not lead to human flourishing, but rather to increasing social  misery, destruction of the natural world, and loss of human freedom. We must change course soon, or else.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Krugman versus Economic Growth

LED's are energy efficient, so let's cover a whole fucking bridge in 'em!
Paul Krugman has been making the rounds on Peak Oil sites lately, mainly for the reason of actually acknowledging that there are people and movements out there dedicated to actually questioning whether economic growth is compatible with environmental concerns. What was notable is that Krugman even mentioned the Post Carbon institute at all. Typically the economics priesthood does not recognize dissenters except in a very limited context. The attitudes toward any narrative that does not confirm the a priori conclusions of expansionist productivist corporate monopoly capitalism is pretty much equivalent to the Catholic Church's attitudes towards people like Galileo and Martin Luther.

Professor Krugman really seems to inspire intense, visceral hatred in a lot of people for some reason  which I've never understood. Of all elite economists, Krugman seems the most human to me. He accepted his Bank of Sweden prize by posting a lolcat on his blog, has pretty good taste in music (I stole the concept of Saturday Night music from him), is a science-fiction fan and a bona-fide nerd, and seems like less of an asshole than most economists of his stature. He was unafraid to buck conventional wisdom like questioning the Bush administration's rush to war and whether or not there was a housing bubble. He supports a more humane capitalism than most of the economics profession today, and is not dedicated to fostering free-market fundamentalism. He seems to generally believe in the usefulness of economics as a discipline to tell us things about the world and is not just a sock puppet for the plutocratic overclass (well, all economists are, but at least not intentionally)`. My guess is, in a time where we've lost faith in government and institutions, Krugman's wonkiness seems hopelessly naive and pointless. And the relentless campaigns against government debt waged by the plutocrats (tip: they are not afraid of debt) mean that Krugman's advocacy of government spending inspires derision and horror from both the left and the right.

Nevertheless, he is still an economist, after all, and that means hewing to the party line - economic growth is desirable and is compatible with resource limits and environmental protection. There have been some back-and-forths between Krugman and Richard Heinberg, as well as Mark Buchanan, a physicist who wrote a column for Bloomberg entitled Economists Are Blind to the Limits of Growth:
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, for example, chides natural scientists for thinking of growth as a “crude, physical thing, a matter simply of producing more stuff.” They fail to appreciate, he suggests, that growth is about innovation and deciding which technologies and resources to use...There's just one crucial exception: energy. Data from more than 200 nations from 1980 to 2003 fit a consistent pattern: On average, energy use increases about 70 percent every time economic output doubles. This is consistent with other things we know from biology. Bigger organisms as a rule use energy more efficiently than small ones do, yet they use more energy overall. The same goes for cities. Efficiencies of scale are never powerful enough to make bigger things use less energy.

I have yet to see an economist present a coherent argument as to how humans will somehow break free from such physical constraints. Standard economics doesn't even discuss how energy is tied into growth, which it sees as the outcome of interactions between capital and labor.
Krugman offered a rebuttal using steamships as an example of doing more with less energy (read the Readers' Picks comments). Buchanan's response is below:
History is full of technological advances or just clever ways of using things differently which let us do more with less energy; there are many more to come in the future. We now have better light bulbs and LEDs, more fuel-efficient engines, etc. We could, conceivably, produce more of lots of things while actually reducing our use of energy. Could.

But what “could, conceivably” happen in an ideal theoretical world isn’t the issue. When we look at our world, and the way economic growth has always worked in the past, we find that increases in energy efficiency don’t ultimately lead to less energy being used, but to more...We’re getting ever more efficient in using energy, but we’re still using more and more of it.

There’s a well known relationship in biology known as Kleiber’s Law which describes an empirical (and now theoretically understood) relationship between an organism’s metabolic rate and total mass. It turns out that for a huge number of organisms, total energy use scales as mass raised to the ¾ power—virtually identical to the pattern noted above for total energy use and GDP for nations. A fluke? Maybe.

But something like this pattern doesn’t hold only for nations of various sizes, it extends down to individual cities as well. You can look at how various quantities scale with city size—length of transport networks, speed of individual movement, total energy use, etc.—and the results are quite regular across a huge range of scales and cities in different geographical settings and nations. From this (now somewhat old) talk by Luis Bettencourt, a leader in this field, you find that Metropolitan GDP grows as city population to about the 1.1–1.3 power, while total use of electrical energy and petroleum grows more slowly, roughly in direct proportion to population. Put them together and you get—very crudely, I admit—a similar trend: as cities grow they get ever more efficient at generating GDP, but also increase their use of energy (more slowly).

So, I can’t PROVE that higher GDP will always necessarily mean more energy used, but that’s the way it’s been so far, and even in the very recent past...
Steaming slowly toward the limits of growth (Medium)

Lloyd Alter has written about this in the past - cheap LED lights just mean that we'll find frivolous uses for them instead of using them to gain overall energy savings. It's called the Jevons (or rebound) effect, and Lloyd wades in to the fray:
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger ...are in the New York Times, complaining about the Nobel Prize for the inventors of the blue LED, and in particular, the statement from the Nobel Committee that “Replacing light bulbs and fluorescent tubes with LEDs will lead to a drastic reduction of electricity requirements for lighting.” and “With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent.”

Without calling it Jevons Paradox, they note that the LED might well increase consumption of electricity.

The growing evidence that low-cost efficiency often leads to faster energy growth was recently considered by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency. They concluded that energy savings associated with new, more energy efficient technologies were likely to result in significant “rebounds,” or increases, in energy consumption. This means that very significant percentages of energy savings will be lost to increased energy consumption.

I used to disagree with this position, and argued the point with Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor, suggesting that rising energy prices would solve the problem. It is a smackdown between Adam Smith and William Jevons; when stuff is expensive, people use less of it. And prices are going to rise, whether we tax them or not.

I was wrong, and Martin was right. Every day there are new ways that LEDs are put to use, all of which consume energy where they never did before. I see it every time I go to a public washroom or a Timmy's, where the conventional menu boards have been replaced by a line of huge LED monitors.

On every highway, we now have digital billboards pumping out pixels day and night, probably killing people in the process. Cycling down the street, I have to share the road with a moving LED ad.

In fact, the proof is in the data, which show that even though houses and appliances are more efficient, our average household energy consumption has gone up in the last ten years, notwithstanding our more efficient light bulbs, because our houses are 30% larger. Appliances, electronics and lighting have gone up 18%. Even snowboarders are getting into the game; see Jevons Paradox in Action: An LED Covered Snowsuit

In fact, without a dramatic rise in energy prices (not happening right now) or a dramatic reduction in personal income (recession? what recession?) it appears that Stanley Jevons, Martin Holladay and yes, even Shellenberger and Nordhaus, are probably right. Cheap, efficient LEDs might well lead to greater consumption of energy, not less.
Jevons Paradox and the Nobel Prize: Will LEDs really lead to a drastic reduction in electricity use? (Treehugger)

Here's George Monbiot a few months back on the same question:
Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in ten years. The trade body Forest Industries tell us that “global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow.” If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we were miraculously to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90% we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.
The impossibility of growth (George Monbiot)

And speaking of the "digital economy" that will supposedly save us all this energy and material:
Which uses more electricity: the iPhone in your pocket, or the refrigerator humming in your kitchen? Hard as it might be to believe, the answer is probably the iPhone. As you can read in a post on a new report by Mark Mills — the CEO of the Digital Power Group, a tech- and investment-advisory firm — a medium-size refrigerator that qualifies for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating will use about 322 kW-h a year. The average iPhone, according to Mills’ calculations, uses about 361 kW-h a year once the wireless connections, data usage and battery charging are tallied up. And the iPhone — even the latest iteration — doesn’t even keep your beer cold. (Hat tip to the Breakthrough Institute for noting the report first.)

The iPhone is just one reason why the information-communications-technologies (ICT) ecosystem, otherwise known as the digital economy, demands such a large and growing amount of energy. The global ICT system includes everything from smartphones to laptops to digital TVs to — especially — the vast and electron-thirsty computer-server farms that make up the backbone of what we call “the cloud.” In his report, Mills estimates that the ICT system now uses 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation. No wonder your smartphone’s battery juice constantly seems on the verge of running out.
The Surprisingly Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy (Time)

Nice to see not only acknowledgment of the Limits to Growth community, but pushback from them in the mainstream media.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy Columbus Day

 Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts

Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress (Howard Zinn)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Planned Obsolescence Smoking Light Bulb

Some of you may have heard of the "Lightbulb Conspiracy," and even seen it referenced in the film Pyramids of Waste. The Lightbulb Conspiracy was a legendary example of planned obsolescence - the idea that products can not make sufficient profits under capitalism if they work too well - and so capitalism has a built-in incentive to creative shoddy goods that need to be replaced. Thus, capitalism also has an incentive to turn raw materials to waste as quickly as possible, and thus production for short-term profit alone is also inherently destructive.

Economists and libertarians always dismiss this, of course, since they must defend this system. That is their job, after all. So you'll inevitably see a "debunking" of planned obsolescence whenever and wherever the issue is raised. It's "too hard to do" or "competition will always win out," are some of the more common arguments, along with demanding absolute "proof" (that better designs sit on the drawing board is apparently not proof enough). After all, aren't most products today somewhat better than we were using in _insert date here_ (but as quality and long-lasting as they could be is? the real question)

That why this article from IEEE spectrum is a must-read. It is an in-depth accounting of the lightbulb conspiracy. Oh, it's real, all right. The lightbulb manufacturers got together and realized that competition was eating into their profits. So they created something called the Phoebus cartel, an organization whose sole aim was to make sure a lightbulb did not last too long:
The Phoebus cartel [was] a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.
How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat? It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anybody could have done that. But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.
The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy (IEEE Spectrum)

The "Conversable Economist" supplies a good anecdote from Hollywood history:
The old 1951 movie "The Man in the White Suit," starring Alec Guinness, is both an entertaining adventure/comedy and a meditation on technology and planned obsolescence. The Alec Guinness character invents a wonderful new fabric that will never get dirty and never wear out. He sees a future where ordinary people will save money on clothes and cleaning expenses. People marvel at the invention at first, but soon everyone is against him: the textile and clothing companies fear his cloth will put them out of business, the workers in those companies fear losing their jobs, and those who do the washing fear losing work, too. Near the end of the movie, one character notes wryly that markets won't function if the products work too well. He says: “What do you think happened to all the other things? The razor blade that doesn’t get blunt? The car that runs on water with a pinch of something else?”
"Tucker: A Man and His Dream" is another movie deals with this same concept - the entrenched powers of the automobile industry deliberately crush the man who made a better car and keep it from consumers (but eventually copy and introduce Tucker's innovations parceled out over a sufficiently long period of time).

This, of course, an "obvious" example complete with smoking gun lightbulb. But I'm pretty sure there are a lot more examples that are less blatant where all the participants tacitly agree not to compete too hard since most markets are dominated by a small handful of players. No "official" cartel with its own office, signed documents, or smoke-filled back room is required. Thorstein Veblen wrote about this back in the 1920's and his followers started the Technocracy Movement which pointed this out along with the folly of the financial system (this was during the Great Depression) and unemployment caused by automation and efficiency gains. Today, the Zeitgeist Movement is the heir to that tradition.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Everyone Gets a Pony!

Here's a heaping helping of techno-optimism to brighten your day. No comment:
In places such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the Southwest United States, residential-scale solar production has already reached “grid parity” with average residential electricity prices.  In other words, it costs no more in the long term to install solar panels than to buy electricity from utility companies.  The prices of solar panels have fallen 75 percent in the past five years alone and will fall much further as the technologies to create them improve and scale of production increases.  By 2020, solar energy will be price-competitive with energy generated from fossil fuels on an unsubsidized basis in most parts of the world.  Within the next decade, it will cost a fraction of what fossil-fuel-based alternatives do.

It isn’t just solar production that is advancing at a rapid rate; there are also technologies to harness the power of wind, biomass, thermal, tidal, and waste-breakdown energy, and research projects all over the world are working on improving their efficiency and effectiveness.  Wind power, for example, has also come down sharply in price and is now competitive with the cost of new coal-burning power plants in the United States.  It will, without doubt, give solar energy a run for its money.  There will be breakthroughs in many different technologies, and these will accelerate overall progress.

Despite the skepticism of experts and criticism by naysayers, there is little doubt that we are heading into an era of unlimited and almost free clean energy.  This has profound implications....

The environment will surely benefit from the elimination of fossil fuels, which will also boost most sectors of the economy.  Electric cars will become cheaper to operate than fossil-fuel-burning ones, for example.  We will be able to create unlimited clean water — by boiling ocean water and condensing it.  With inexpensive energy, our farmers can also grow hydroponic fruits and vegetables in vertical farms located near consumers.  Imagine skyscrapers located in cities that grow food in glass buildings without the need for pesticides, and that recycle nutrients and materials to ensure there is no ecological impact.  We will have the energy needed to 3D-print our everyday goods and to heat our homes.

We are surely heading into the era of abundance that Peter Diamandis has written about — the era when the basic needs of humanity are met through advancing technologies. The challenge for mankind will be to share this abundance, ensuring that these technologies make the world a better place.
The coming era of unlimited — and free — clean energy (Washington Post)
First, the plunge in renewable prices continues, and over the last 5 years, wind has resumed its plunge as well. Their numbers show an average price decline over the last 5 years of 78% for utility scale solar and 58% for wind.

Second, unsubsidized prices are cost competitive with grid wholesale prices.  Solar, which delivers power during the daytime and afternoon, heavily overlapping with the late afternoon and early evening peak, is well below the wholesale price of peak power (provided by ‘peaker’ natural gas plants that only operate during those few hours of the day). Solar is even closing in on the wholesale cost of 24/7 operated coal and natural gas plants that provide ‘baseload’ power overnight (and as the underlying power throughout the day.)

Third, It’s all about storage now. (Or soon, at any rate.)  Inside of a decade, in most of the US and most of the world, solar or wind will be cheaper than coal or natural gas on an instantaneous, non-stored basis. This trend appears inexorable. And so long as there is demand for more energy at the hours at which solar and wind are delivering (which is the case right now), then the situation is great.
Solar and Wind Plunging Below Fossil Fuel Prices (Ramez Naam)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Even the Winners are Losers

If I were to ask you who the "winners" in our society are, who would you pick? We have a fairly good idea of what kind of people are losers in this system, but who are the winners? Who are the people this system works for? Doctors? The people who found computer tech startups? Graduates of elite universities like Cambridge? Certainly society sees this type of "achievement" as the pinnacle of success. But what is the reality? The reality is that in our present society, even the winners are miserable! Can this system be said to work for anyone anymore?

The fact is that I am by no means unique. Suffering from an eating disorder and depression made me hardly more special among the Oxbridge student population than the A-levels that got me there. Last year a survey by student newspaper The Tab revealed that 21% of Cambridge students have been diagnosed with depression, while a further 25% think they may be depressed. At my all-girls’ college, Murray Edwards, 28% of students have experienced eating disorders. The numbers are reflected more widely – the National Union of Students surveyed 1,200 students and found that 20% believe they have a mental health problem, while 1 in 10 experience suicidal thoughts. Welfare teams at Cambridge alone anticipate 50 to 60 suicide attempts per year.
How Cambridge University almost killed me (The Guardian)
Depression is hardly exclusive to tech. The disorder is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and costs employers billions of dollars a year in lost revenue. Multiple people I talked to for this story pointed out that entertainers are also known for melancholy. For writers and artists, neuroses are practically required.
Yet certain elements of startup life and culture may make people particularly susceptible to depression. Stress, uncertainty, youth and isolation—the virtual cornerstones of today’s startup—have all been shown to increase likelihood of developing the disorder. Irregular work hours and constant high stress levels can lead to both social isolation and sleep disturbances, which can aggravate depression and make people even more volatile. It’s almost a perfect storm, says Maurice Ohayon, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Any psychiatrist can tell you that this population is particularly exposed,” he told me.
Tech Has a Depression Problem (The Atlantic)
Graduating from medical school and starting residency training should be one of the most exciting times in a physician’s career. Instead, for two newly-minted New York City doctors, who ended their lives within a week of each other this summer, this period marked a morbid end. They represent a tragic and rarely discussed phenomenon in the medical profession: Doctors commit suicide at a rate more than twice the national average. Every year approximately 400 physicians take their own lives. That is roughly one per day, or the equivalent of two entire graduating medical classes each year.
Suicide and the Young Physician (The Atlantic)

Work hard, spend all your time studying, get good grades, get into an elite university, become a doctor, found a million dollar startup company in Silicon Valley. That's what everyone is told to do, right? To be like them. What for? Are you happy? If even the biggest successes in our society are increasingly miserable, who exactly is this system working for, anyways? Even the winners are losers.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Techno-Paleo Retro Utopias

I wanted to make a few follow-up points on my previous post, and illustrate a little where it came from.

I got this idea in my head when I visited Los Angeles earlier this year (and where I will be again this week and next). I was really taken with the beauty of the land and climate, but the things that make Los Angeles unlivable in spite of its climate and beaches are 1.) the crushing population, 2.)The expense of paying for things like housing and transportation, and 3.) the difficulty of getting anywhere. All of these are interrelated of course. Topanga, where I stayed, was once a place where you could build a home with your own two hands and raise some chickens and goats away from the city. Now there are houses worth over two million dollars there. When I was walking around Venice, I saw a lot of places for sale, but it’s impossible to buy anything in the area for under a few million dollars. That also hit home with this article in the Times:
This was the state that embodied the middle-class American dream: Move west, acquire a small slice of property, perhaps with a palm tree or two.

For decades, comfortable suburbs like this one just south of Los Angeles boomed with new housing tracts designed to attract the latest arrivals. When space started to come at a premium, developers moved inland, building more homes for people who could not afford the more expensive coastal areas.

But now, cities across the state are grappling with a dwindling stock of housing that can be considered affordable for anyone but the wealthiest. In much of the state, a two-bedroom apartment or home is virtually impossible to acquire with anything less than a six-figure salary.

“It’s hard to imagine how all of California doesn’t become like New York City and San Francisco, where you have very rich people and poor people but nothing in between,” said Richard K. Green, an economist and director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California. “That’s socially unhealthy and unsustainable, but it’s where we are going right now — affordability is its worst ever, and we’re seeing a hollowing-out of the middle class here.”

“I talk a lot of buyers out of sticker shock,” said Linda Ginex, a real estate agent in Orange County. She routinely steers clients to suburbs they might not have initially considered or, for people who insist on living in the most desirable cities, into condominiums instead of houses. “A lot of people who grow up here think they can afford what their parents had, but that’s not always realistic,” she said.
A California Dream: Not Having to Settle for Just One Bedroom (New York Times)

Now imagine Los Angeles with only a quarter as many people. I ran across this on a good post worth reading in full about Ponzi schemes:
My family moved from Maine to California - literally - in 1961 and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the East Bay. At that time there was still some open land between towns, and you could still see a little of what California might once have been like. The population was about to overtake New York's , but at 18 million, it was only half of today's. My guesstimation is that the perfect time to have lived in California was right after World War II, when personal mobility was good, real estate prices were sane, and even Los Angeles was pretty livable (although its first serious smog episode came in 1943). The population in 1945 was about 9 million, a quarter the present size.

I don’t know about you, but it sure fills me full of nostalgia. Whenever I am there I can’t help but imagine what it was like back then.

This got me thinking about a mostly depopulated Los Angeles, and what would happen if you were one of the survivors. The reason doesn’t matter. Everyone could have a house on Venice Beach! Everyone could have a house in Malibu! No traffic on the freeways. No smog. No beggars. Plentiful housing. Vacant estates just ready for you to move in. In a post-apocalyptic scenario, things like electricity and food in stores might be touch-and-go, but remember, you don’t need to keep up with such huge population so there’s more to go around. I would imagine in California solar panels would quickly be deployed and people would head into the Central Valley for produce. Trawlers might even head back out to sea for fish.

To me it feels like a permanent vacation, or perhaps for those of you in the Midwest, like a “snow day” that never ends. There’s probably no reason to work, since growth would no longer be a possibility. People would just be focused on meeting their needs from day-to-day, which would probably not include cubicle work, office politics, Excel spreadsheets or development deals. People would probably spend a lot of time camping out on the beach and surfing once the 40-hour grind goes the way of the dodo. Now only the rich can afford to do that.

So to me, this would be a utopia! And that got me to thinking that the utopias promoted by Neal Stephenson and his fellow science fiction authors of more population, more technology, more growth, etc. would also lead to more competition, more work, more stratification, more pollution, more stress, more struggling to keep up as everything gets bigger and more expensive. In contrast, that doesn't sound very utopian to me. The elites would be able to exercise even more control over our lives and monitor us even more than they already do (I wonder if employee tracking plays into any of the stories?). It’s getting to the point where I see every new technology as hammering down a dystopia even further rather than solving it. Sure, they always say technology is neither good nor bad, but we’ve seen the reality with our own eyes.

Those of you with historical savvy will recognize the historical precedent – the Black Death in Europe. The lucky survivors experienced a rise in living standards as there was more to go around. Inheritances went uncollected as the rich fell as well as the poor, and the ill-gotten gains of the rich were apportioned among the survivors rather than passed down in perpetuity. The poor ate like the rich of a generation earlier and were more mobile. Serfdom fell by the wayside and wages rose as landowners fought over labor. You could even say it laid the grounds for the Renaissance, humanism, scientific inquiry and the Enlightenment.

So, is the road to utopia paved with robots and space technology? Or rather does it look like a world with less people and a more laid-back lifestyle, while still holding on to the best of modern technology and scientific knowledge?

And then I began to wonder what such a story would look like in novel form, and how this could contrast with Stephenson’s views. And the precedent that came to mind was William Morris’ News From Nowhere as a template for the “different” kind of utopian novel than what we’re used to.

What fascinates me about NFN is how different it is from most modern utopian scenarios. NFN paints a world of handcrafts, laid-back lifestyles, no money, and ivy crawling up abandoned buildings. But mostly it’s a utopian scenario of less technology and more autonomy at a time when technology was almost universally seen as the salvation of the human race. That was pretty easy to believe in 1880 or 1900, or even 1960. No doubt the World's Fairs did much to reinforce this. But today it’s looking pretty tarnished. China is full of empty cities and there are hundred-mile long traffic jams in Brazil.

But mostly, I notice that the people who are promoting these techno-utopian narrative are the people on the pinnacle of society. The Elon Musks, the Peter Thiels, the Richard Bransons, the Peter Diamandises, the Matt Ridleys, and the entirety of the economics profession. These people are richer than ever before, but why do we listen to any of them? The World's Fairs are gone, but TED talks keep the faith, and it's worth noting that TED is a shmoozefest for the rich and powerful.

Another example of the idea that the post-apocalyptic world of less population and no growth might not be such a horrible place is this Japanese example that Ran Prieur noted a few years back (ironically, Stephenson is also referenced on that page):
March 4. It's been about four years since I read a piece of fiction I loved so much that I didn't want it to end. The last one was Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series, and this one is a Japanese comic, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. That link goes to the Wikipedia page, and here are links to read it online and download it. If you've never read any Japanese comics, you need to know that the panels are read from right to left.

The setting is decades or centuries in the future. The oceans have risen, there are overgrown ruins everywhere, and the human population is greatly reduced. The central character is Alpha, a human-like robot who runs an isolated coffee shop, and gradually explores more of her world. What sets this world apart, not only from other postapocalypse fiction, but almost all other fiction, is that there is no conflict! The characters are all nice people, and nothing really bad happens. It's all just beautiful and dreamy, and a bit sad. There's a popular idea that a world without evil would be boring, but clearly we just weren't imagining it well enough. The only thing I've read that's at all comparable is Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. Also of interest to transhumanists: the "robots" are not like machines but more like spiritual beings.

I’m intrigued by this concept, and I think it might be a good idea to write a utopian novel not with more technology, or a dystopia where all technology goes away and we are reduced to living at some “primitive” level of existence and fighting each other, but one in which a dramatically reduced population partitions out the ruins of the industrial economy (everyone gets a Hollywood mansion!) and lives happily in the ruins with a laid-back leisure culture centered around a Paleo lifestyle, Permaculture gardening, outdoor adventure sports, peer-to-peer networks, and with just enough technology (electricity, running water, communications, medicine, trains, bicycles) to be comfortable but not restrictive or numbing. That would be something I’d love to see authors explore rather than more spaceflight or robots.