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.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

It's Time for Some Anti-Science Fiction

The sponsors of your new Utopia. Be afraid.
It's Time for Some Anti-Science Fiction
Why must positive depictions of the future always be dependent upon some sort of new technology?

Neal Stephenson is a very successful and well-known science fiction writer. He's also very upset that the pace of technological innovation has seemingly slowed down and we seem to be unable to come up with truly transformative  "big ideas" anymore. He believes this is the reason why we are so glum and pessimistic nowadays. Indeed, the science fiction genre, once identified with space exploration and utopias of post-scarcity and abundant leisure time, has come to be dominated by depictions of the future as a hellhole of extreme inequality, toxic environmental pollution, overcrowded cities, oppressive totalitarian governments, and overall political and social breakdown. Think of movies like The Hunger Games, Elysium, The Giver, and Snowpiercer.

This pessimism is destructive and corrosive, believes Stephenson. According to the BBC:
Acclaimed science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson saw this bleak trend in his own work, but didn't give it much thought until he attended a conference on the future a couple years ago. At the time, Stephenson said that science fiction guides innovation because young readers later grow up to be scientists and engineers.

But fellow attendee Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (ASU), "took a more sort of provocative stance, that science fiction actually needed to supply ideas that scientists and engineers could actually implement", Stephenson says. "[He] basically told me that I needed to get off my duff and start writing science fiction in a more constructive and optimistic vein."

"We want to create a more open, optimistic, ambitious and engaged conversation about the future," project director Ed Finn says. According to his argument, negative visions of the future as perpetuated in pop culture are limiting people's abilities to dream big or think outside the box. Science fiction, he says, should do more. "A good science fiction story can be very powerful," Finn says. "It can inspire hundreds, thousands, millions of people to rally around something that they want to do."
Basically, Stephenson wants to bring back the kind of science fiction that made us actually long for the future rather than dread it. Stephenson means to counter this techno-pessimism by inviting a number of well-known science fiction writers to come up with more positive, even utopian, visions of the future, where we once again come up with "big ideas" that inspire the scientists and engineers in their white labcoats. He apparently believes that it is the duty of science fiction authors to act as, in the words of one commentator, "the first draft of the future. " Indeed, much of modern technology and space exploration was presaged by authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. From the BBC article above, here are some of the positive future scenarios depicted in the book:
  •     Environmentalists fight to stop entrepreneurs from building the first extreme tourism destination hotel in Antarctica.
  •     People vie for citizenship on a near-zero-gravity moon of Mars, which has become a hub for innovation.
  •     Animal activists use drones to track elephant poachers.
  •     A crew crowd-funds a mission to the Moon to set up an autonomous 3D printing robot to create new building materials.
  •     A 20km tall tower spurs the US steel industry, sparks new methods of generating renewable energy and houses The First Bar in Space.
The whole idea behind Project Hieroglyph, as I understand it, is to depict more positive futures than the ones being depicted in current science fiction and media. That seems like a good idea. But my question is - why must these positive futures always involve more intensive application of technology? Why are we unable to envision a better future in any other way besides more technology, more machines, more inventions, more people, more economic growth, etc. Haven't we already been down that road?

Or to put it another way, why must science fiction writers assume that more technological innovation will produce a better society when our modern society is the result of previous technological innovations, and is seen by many people as a dystopia (with many non-scientifically-minded people actually longing for a collapse of some sort)? Perhaps, to paraphrase former president Reagan, in the context of our current crisis, technology is not the solution to the problem, technology is the problem.


It's worth pointing out that many of the increasingly dystopian elements of our present circumstances have been brought about by the application of technology.

Economists have pinpointed technology as a key driver of inequality thanks to the hollowing out of the middle class due to the automation of routine tasks that underpinned the  industrial/service economy leaving only high-end and low-end jobs remaining, as well as the "superstar effect" where a few well-paid superstars capture all the gains because technology allows them to everywhere at once. Fast supercomputers have allowed the rich to game the stock market casino where the average stock is now held for just fractions of a second, while global telecommunications has led to reassigning jobs anywhere in the world where the very cheapest workers can be found. America's manufacturing  jobs are now done by Chinese workers and its service jobs by Indian workers half a world away even as the old Industrial heartland looks suspiciously like what is depicted in The Hunger Games. Rather than a world of abundant leisure, stressed out workers take their laptops to the beach, fearful of losing their jobs if they don't, while millions have given up even looking for work anymore. A permanently underemployed underclass distracts itself with Netflix, smartphones and computer games, and takes expensive drugs promoted by pharmaceutical companies to deal with their depression.

Global supply chains, supertankers, the "warehouse and wheels," and online shopping have hollowed out local main street economies and led to monopolies in every industry across the board. Small family farmers have been kicked off the land worldwide and replaced by gargantuan, fossil-fuel powered agricultural factories owned by agribusinesses churning out  bland processed food based around wheat, corn and soy causing soaring obesity rates worldwide and runaway population growth.

Banks have merged into just a handful of entities that are "too-big-to-fail" and send trillions around the world at the speed of light. Gains are privatized while loses and risk are socialized, and the public sphere is sold off to profiteers at fire sale prices. A small financial aristocracy controls the system and hamstrings the world with debt. Just eighty people control as much wealth as half of the planet's population, and in the world's biggest economy just three people gain as much income as half the workforce. There are now more prisoners in America than farmers.

A now global trans-national elite of owner-oligarchs criss-crosses the world in Gulfsteam jets and million-dollar yachts and  hides their money in offshore accounts beyond the reach of increasingly impotent national governments, while smaller local governments can't keep potholes filled, streets plowed and streetlights on for ordinary citizens. Many of the world's great cities have become "elite citadels" making it impossible for regular citizens to live there. This elite controls bond markets, funds political campaigns and owns and controls a monopolized media that normalizes this state of affairs using sophisticated propaganda tools enhanced by cutting-edge psychological research enabled by MRI scanners. The media is controlled by a small handful of corporations and panders to the lowest common demonstrator while keeping people in a constant state of fear and panic. Advertising preys on our insecurities and desire for status to make us buy more, enabled by abundant credit. The Internet, once the hope for a more democratic future, has ended up as shopping mall, entertainment delivery system and spying/tracking system rather than a force for democracy and revolution.

Security cameras peer at us from every streetcorner and store counter and shocking revelations about the power and reach of the national security state that are as fantastic as anything dreamed up by dystopian science fiction writers have become so commonplace that people hardly notice anymore. Anonymous people in gridded glass office towers read our every email, listen to our every phone call and track our every move using our cell phones. New technology promises "facial recognition" and "smart" technology promoted by corporations promises to track and permanently record literally every move you make.

Remote-control drones patrol the skies of global conflict zones and vaporize people half a world away without their pilots ever seeing their faces. High-tech fighter jets allow us to "cleanly" drop bombs without the messiness of a real war. Private mercenaries are a burgeoning industry and global arms sales continue to increase even in a stagnant global economy with arms companies often selling to both sides. By some accounts one in ten Americans is employed in some sort of "guard labor," that is, keeping their fellow citizens in line. The number of failed states continues to increase in the Middle East and Africa and citizens in democracies are marching in the streets.

Not that there's nothing for the national security state to fear after all - technology has enabled individual terrorists and non-state actors to produce devastating weapons capable of destroying economies and killing thousands as 9-11 demonstrated. A single "superempowered" individual can kill millions with a nuclear bomb the size of a suitcase or an engineered virus or other bioterrorism weapon. The latest concern is "cyberwarfare" which could destroy the technological infrastructure we are now utterly dependent upon and kill millions. "Non-state actors" can wreak as much havoc as armies thanks to modern technology, and there are a lot of disgruntled people out there.

And then there is the environmental devastation, of which climate change is the most overwhelming, but includes everything from burned down Amazonian rainforest, to polluted mangroves in Thailand, to collapased fish stocks, dissolving coral reefs and oceans full of jellyfish. Half the  world's terrestrial biodiversity has been eliminated in the past fifty years and we've lost so much polar ice that earth's gravity is measurably affected. In China, the world's economic success story, the haze is so thick that people can't see the tops of the skyscrapers they already have and there are "cancer villages." The skies may be a bit clearer in America thanks to deindustrialization, but things like drought in the Southwest and increasinginly powerful hurricanes are reminders that no one is immune. Entire countries and major cities look to be submerged under rising oceans and the first climate refugees are already on the move from places like Africa and Southeast Asia leading to anti-immigrant backlash in developed countries.

This is not some future dystopia, by the way, this is where technology has us led right now. Today. Current headlines. Maybe the reason that dystopias are so popular is because that seems to be where technology had led us here in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I'm skeptical that Project Hieroglyph and it's fostering of "big ideas" will do much to change that.

Thus my fundamental question is, given the above, why is it always assumed that the path to utopia goes through a widespread deployment of even more innovation and technology? Is it realistic to believe that colonies on Mars, drones, intelligent robots, skyscrapers and space elevators will solve any of this?

I've written before about the fact that the technology we already have in our possession today was expected to deliver a utopia by numerous writers and thinkers of the past. "The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous," declared Marconi in 1912. HG Wells, a committed socialist who lived during perhaps the greatest period of invention before or since (railroads, harnessing of electricity, radio communication, internal combustion engines, powered flight, antibiotics),  very frequently depicted utopian societies brought about through the applications of greater technology. Science fiction authors still seem to conceive utopias as being exclusively brought about by "technological progress." But given hindsight, is that realistic anymore?

Maybe it's time for some anti-science fiction.


The classic example of this is William Morris' utopian novel News From Nowhere.

Morris was a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, which was a reaction to the factory-based mass production and subsequent deskilling of the workforce. People no longer collectively made the world of goods and buildings around them, rather they were now made by a small amount of people using deskilled, alienated labor in giant factories with the profits accruing to a tiny handful of capitalist owners. Morris wanted another way.

In Morris' future London there are very little in the way of centralized institutions.  People work when they want to and do what they want to. Money is not used. Life is lived leisurely pace. Writing during the transformative changes of the Industrial Revolution, Morris' London looks less like a World's Fair and more like a lost bucolic pastoral London that had long since vanished under the smoke of factories. Technology plays a very small role yet people are much happier.

Morris' work was written partially in response to a book entitled Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, which was extraordinarily popular in the late nineteenth century, but almost forgotten today. Bellamy's year 2000 utopia had the means of production brought under centralized control, with people serving time in an "industrial army" for twenty years and then retiring to a life of leisure and  material abundance brought about by production for use rather than capitalist profit.

Morris still felt that this subordinated workers to machines rather than depicting a society for the maximization of human well-being, including work. Here is Morris in a speech:
"Before I leave this matter of the surroundings of life, I wish to meet a possible objection. I have spoken of machinery being used freely for releasing people from the more mechanical and repulsive part of necessary labour; it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays. And, again, that leads me to my last claim, which is that the material surroundings of my life should be pleasant, generous, and beautiful; that I know is a large claim, but this I will say about it, that if it cannot be satisfied, if every civilised community cannot provide such surroundings for all its members, I do not want the world to go on."
Morris' book shows that utopias need not be high-tech. It also shows that real utopias are brought about by the underlying philosophy of a society and its corresponding social relations. It seems to me like Stephenson's utopias are all predicated on the continuation of the philosophy and social relations of our current society - more growth, more technology, faster innovation, more debt, corporate control, trickle-down economics, private property, absentee ownership, anarchic markets, autonomous utility-maximizing consumers, etc. It is yoked to our ideas of "progress" as simply an application of more and faster technology.

By contrast, Morris' utopia has the technological level we would  associate with a "dystopian" post collapse society, yet everyone seems a whole lot happier.


Now I don't mean to suggest that any utopia should necessarily be a place where we have reverted to some sort pre-industrial level of technology. We don't need to depict utopias as living like the Amish (although that would be an interesting avenue of exploration). I merely wish to point out that a future utopia need not be exclusively the domain of science fiction authors, and need not be predicated by some sort of new wonder technology or space exploration. For example, in an article entitled Is It Possible to Imagine Utopia Anymore? the author writes:
Recently, though, we may have finally hit Peak Dystopia...All of which suggests there might be an opening for a return to Utopian novels — if such a thing as “Utopian novels” actually existed anymore...In college, as part of a history class, I read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, a Utopian science-fiction novel published in 1888. The book — an enormous success in its time, nearly as big as Uncle Tom’s Cabin — is interesting now less as literature than as a historical document, and it’s certainly telling that, in the midst of the industrial revolution, a novel promising a future socialist landscape of increased equality and reduced labor so gripped the popular imagination. We might compare Bellamy’s book to current visions of Utopia if I could recall even a single Utopian novel or film from the past five years. Or ten years. Or 20. Wikipedia lists dozens of contemporary dystopian films and novels, yet the most recent entry in its rather sparse “List of Utopian Novels” is Island by Aldous Huxley, published in 1962*. The closest thing to a recent Utopian film I can think of is Spike Jonze’s Her, though that vision of the future — one in which human attachment to sentient computers might become something close to meaningful — hardly seems like a fate we should collectively strive for, but rather one we might all be resigned to placidly accept

Many serious contemporary authors have tackled dystopia: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and so on. But the closest thing we have to a contemporary Utopian novel is what we could call the retropia: books like Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (about a funky throwback Oakland record store) or Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (about 1970s Brooklyn) that fondly recall a bygone era, by way of illustrating what we’ve lost since —  “the lost glories of a vanished world,” as Chabon puts it. Lethem’s more recent Dissident Gardens is also concerned with utopia, but mostly in so far as it gently needles the revolutionaries of yesteryear.
Indeed, the closest things we have to utopias on TV today are shows like Mad Men which take place during the era when Star Trek was on TV rather than a utopia inspired by Star Trek itself. For many Americans, their version of utopia is not in the future but in the past - the 1950's era of widespread prosperity, full employment, single-earner households, more leisure, guaranteed pensions, social mobility, inexpensive housing, wide open roads and spaces, and increasing living standards. As this article points out:
When I first heard about the project, my cynical heart responded skeptically. After all, much of the Golden Age science fiction Stephenson fondly remembers was written in an era when, for all its substantial problems, the U.S. enjoyed a greater degree of democratic consensus. Today, Congress can barely pass a budget, let alone agree on collective investments.
If someone asked me to depict a more positive future than the one we have, deploying more technology is just about the last thing I would do to bring it about. In fact, the future I would depict would almost certainly include less technology, or rather technology playing a smaller role in our lives. I would focus more on social relations that would make us be happy to be alive, where we eat good food, spend time doing what we want instead of what we're forced to, and don't have to be medicated just to make it through another day in our high-pressure classrooms and cubicles. I might even depict a future with no television inspired by Jerry Mander's 1978 treatise Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (hey, remember this is fiction after all!)

Rather it would depict different political, economic and social relations first, with new technology playing only a supporting, not a starring role. Organizing society around the needs of productive enterprise, growth and profits (and nothing else) is the reason, I believe, why we are feeling so depressed about the future that dystopias resonate more with a demoralized general public who rolls their collective eyes at the exhortations of science fiction writers with an agenda**. The problem of science fiction is it's single-minded conflagration of technology with progress.

Personally my utopia would be something more like life on the Greek island of Ikaria*** according to this article from The New York Times (which reads an awful lot like News from Nowhere):
Seeking to learn more about the island’s reputation for long-lived residents, I called on Dr. Ilias Leriadis, one of Ikaria’s few physicians, in 2009. On an outdoor patio at his weekend house, he set a table with Kalamata olives, hummus, heavy Ikarian bread and wine. “People stay up late here,” Leriadis said. “We wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then.” He took a sip of his wine. “Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here? No clock is working correctly. When you invite someone to lunch, they might come at 10 a.m. or 6 p.m. We simply don’t care about the clock here.”

Pointing across the Aegean toward the neighboring island of Samos, he said: “Just 15 kilometers over there is a completely different world. There they are much more developed. There are high-rises and resorts and homes worth a million euros. In Samos, they care about money. Here, we don’t. For the many religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. If there is money left over, they give it to the poor. It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”

 Ikaria’s unusual past may explain its communal inclinations. The strong winds that buffet the island — mentioned in the “Iliad” — and the lack of natural harbors kept it outside the main shipping lanes for most of its history. This forced Ikaria to be self-sufficient. Then in the late 1940s, after the Greek Civil War, the government exiled thousands of Communists and radicals to the island. Nearly 40 percent of adults, many of them disillusioned with the high unemployment rate and the dwindling trickle of resources from Athens, still vote for the local Communist Party. About 75 percent of the population on Ikaria is under 65. The youngest adults, many of whom come home after college, often live in their parents’ home. They typically have to cobble together a living through small jobs and family support.

Leriadis also talked about local “mountain tea,” made from dried herbs endemic to the island, which is enjoyed as an end-of-the-day cocktail. He mentioned wild marjoram, sage (flaskomilia), a type of mint tea (fliskouni), rosemary and a drink made from boiling dandelion leaves and adding a little lemon. “People here think they’re drinking a comforting beverage, but they all double as medicine,” Leriadis said. Honey, too, is treated as a panacea. “They have types of honey here you won’t see anyplace else in the world,” he said. “They use it for everything from treating wounds to curing hangovers, or for treating influenza. Old people here will start their day with a spoonful of honey. They take it like medicine.”

Over the span of the next three days, I met some of Leriadis’s patients. In the area known as Raches, I met 20 people over 90 and one who claimed to be 104. I spoke to a 95-year-old man who still played the violin and a 98-year-old woman who ran a small hotel and played poker for money on the weekend.

On a trip the year before, I visited a slate-roofed house built into the slope at the top of a hill. I had come here after hearing of a couple who had been married for more than 75 years. Thanasis and Eirini Karimalis both came to the door, clapped their hands at the thrill of having a visitor and waved me in. They each stood maybe five feet tall. He wore a shapeless cotton shirt and a battered baseball cap, and she wore a housedress with her hair in a bun. Inside, there was a table, a medieval-looking fireplace heating a blackened pot, a nook of a closet that held one woolen suit coat, and fading black-and-white photographs of forebears on a soot-stained wall. The place was warm and cozy. “Sit down,” Eirini commanded. She hadn’t even asked my name or business but was already setting out teacups and a plate of cookies. Meanwhile, Thanasis scooted back and forth across the house with nervous energy, tidying up.

The couple were born in a nearby village, they told me. They married in their early 20s and raised five children on Thanasis’s pay as a lumberjack. Like that of almost all of Ikaria’s traditional folk, their daily routine unfolded much the way Leriadis had described it: Wake naturally, work in the garden, have a late lunch, take a nap. At sunset, they either visited neighbors or neighbors visited them. Their diet was also typical: a breakfast of goat’s milk, wine, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread. Lunch was almost always beans (lentils, garbanzos), potatoes, greens (fennel, dandelion or a spinachlike green called horta) and whatever seasonal vegetables their garden produced; dinner was bread and goat’s milk. At Christmas and Easter, they would slaughter the family pig and enjoy small portions of larded pork for the next several months.

During a tour of their property, Thanasis and Eirini introduced their pigs to me by name. Just after sunset, after we returned to their home to have some tea, another old couple walked in, carrying a glass amphora of homemade wine. The four nonagenarians cheek-kissed one another heartily and settled in around the table. They gossiped, drank wine and occasionally erupted into laughter.
No robot babysitters or mile-high skyscrapers required.

* No mention of Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia published in 1975?

** ASU is steeped in Department of Defense funding and DARPA (The Defense Research Projects Agency) was present at a conference about the book entitled “Can We Imagine Our Way to a Better Future?” held in Washington D.C. I'm guessing the event did not take place in the more run-down parts of the city. Cui Bono?

***Ironically, Icaria was used as the name of a utopian science fiction novel, Voyage to Icaria, and inspired an actual utopian community.