Mutually Assured Economic Destruction: the strongest weapon in the arsenal of the masses

I just understood something profound (to me, very likely not to most others) about Brexit and other supposedly “irrational” decisions by less well off voters.

The standard middle-class liberal critique of these decisions almost inevitably includes wonderment why the voters would choose to shoot themselves on the foot, given that the economic policies and realities of voting for Brexit or for right-wing populists will cause more, not less, hardship for the poor. I’ve wondered about this as well in the past.

This critique shows that people have forgotten the most potent weapon in the negotiation arsenal of the poor: the threat that the masses will wreck and burn everything. Sure, they will lose; but someone else could lose much more.

A credible threat (in the sense of negotiation theory) of mutually assured destruction is one of the very few trump cards (pun intended) the poor masses can hold. True, they will suffer if they burn their rented homes; but in a situation where many people conclude that they couldn’t be much worse off, threatening to burn someone else’s property can be a completely rational if desperate negotiating ploy. In such a situation, the opponent might have more to lose, or less stomach for losses, and therefore agree to e.g. distribute wealth more equally than otherwise.

To be credible, the threat must be occasionally carried out. This is the one positive thing that could come from Brexit: a reminder for both the poor and the rich that burning everything is indeed an option, and that it could be a completely rational course of action in desperate circumstances. I’m not saying that the pro-Brexit voters were doing detailed cost-benefit analyses (I don’t think anyone ever really does), nor that Brexit was a project by the poor; but I’ve concluded that Brexit happened largely because people who had concluded they couldn’t lose much more decided to get at least the emotional satisfaction of showing the finger to the well-off liberals. This time, sadly, this anger was harvested for the purposes of bigotry and isolation – but it suggests that the progressives could perhaps also use the threat of mutually assured economic destruction more often to improve the lot of the common people.

This is also the reason why I strongly believe that the European welfare states were only possible because a very credible threat of communism lurked behind the Iron Curtain. This in no way absolves the totalitarian regimes for their crimes, but it seems to me extremely unlikely that the rich would’ve agreed to such distributive schemes absent a credible threat that the poor masses, if pushed to desperation, might really invite the Red Army in, and refuse to fight against it.

This also suggests why standard critiques of socialist economic policy proposals, that is, critiques of (supposed) “inefficiency”, tend to miss the point.

The entire reason for radical socialist proposals, like nationalisation of industries, can be to threaten the capitalists and well-off liberals: unless the poor get more, they will happily take over everything, and even if the end result is less wealth in total, it’s the rich who are going to lose more. Arguably, these strategies produced the best societies on the planet today, so deriding the 1960s and 70s Left for their “failure” is somewhat … misguided.

And I suspect that in the 1970s, people wouldn’t wonder, like they do today, if the poor threaten to show some teeth and wreck everything. That’s one thing we lost when the Marxist analysis of power relations went out of fashion after 1990.

Finally, all this suggests that for a healthy societal balance between the poor and the rich, the poor need a pro-poor policy that can threaten the interests of the rich in a credible enough manner. In the long run, this will be better for the rich capitalists as well: even though short-term gains can be had by trampling the poor, the music may stop quite suddenly and some capitalist could find themselves without a chair – or standing on a chair with a noose around his neck. It would be better for everyone if there exists a healthy balance of power, and a credible alternative for current economic liberalism.

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Flesh may be weak. Savotta is strong.

In a break from my tradition of complaining about things, a positive post and a recommendation – and about a corporation, no less!

Savotta of Finland is one of my favorite companies these days. They make my life better, easier and less stressful by taking away one of the worries of traveling: the fear that I’m in some foreign country and my backpack gives up the ghost. Since I go to great lengths to travel with carry-on backpack only (another habit that makes travel much more enjoyable; heartily recommended), whether my backpack holds up to the stresses of travel is of major concern to me. And considering my luck, should a backpack fail, it would most likely do so just when I’m rushing to the airport or otherwise in a desperate need to move. (This is actually the likely scenario: when we’re in a hurry and stressed out, we tend to make all sorts of stupid mistakes and abuse our equipment.)

There are many good travel backpacks I’ve tried over the years, and I have mostly positive things to say about the MEI Voyageur, for example. But after two decades of backpacking, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you absolutely, positively do not want to live in a fear of failure, you buy Savotta.

This small company has been making ridiculously durable, well-designed outdoors gear in a small village in the middle of nowhere Finland since 1955. Their forte is in backpacks of all sizes: while the ergonomics and the looks are sometimes couple of decades behind the latest crazes (although both are always good enough) their products are cleverly designed for serious use and built to last. The TL;DR version of this post is that Savotta is to backpacks what Nokia 3310 is to mobile phones: the one thing you just can’t seem to be able to break. In fact, Savotta’s marketing slogan could well be “the user will always fail first.”

I’m not affiiated with them in any way, except having been a satisfied user for 17 years now. I bought my first Savotta rucksack, the venerable classic 906, for a serious need. The reconnaissance platoon I was assigned to had lost all the long range patrol rucksacks we were supposed to be issued with, as they had been needed by troops deployed to Kosovo. As a consequence, we were instructed to bring our own rucksacks instead. The 80-liter, external frame rucksack I eventually bought held up admirably throughout the reconnaissance/ranger training, even after being run over by an armored personnel carrier. This durability was no wonder, as the 906 is close cousin to the military issue “LJK” long range patrol pack, also designed and built by Savotta. The rumor is that in testing, the prototype pack was accidentally airdropped without a parachute; even though the contents were somewhat battered, the pack survived in perfectly usable condition. When Savotta brought out the latest iteration, it was, of course, tested in this fashion. The pack survived 350 meters of freefall without issue, as can be seen in this video.

In this world where most things just aren’t built to last, any exceptions to the rule are heart-warming. That bruised and battered but still surprisingly good-looking 906 is with me still, and I won’t be giving it up before I’m terminally ill and too weak to walk. There are more modern backpacks, and there are lighter backpacks (the 906 weighs about 2.8 kg, which isn’t that bad, all things considered), but there are none that could beat the 906 in durability and versatility. Even though it gets little use these days, as I somehow seem to be too busy to take longer hikes and its 80 liters are overkill for shorter jaunts, the fact that it’s there in the basement storage gives me a sense of freedom: if need be, I could carry everything I need to wherever I have to. They say it’s foolish to own more than you can carry, because then the things you own end up owning you, but with my 906, I can carry more than without.

However, for some time now my go-to pack has been a slightly smaller pack, Rajapartio (Border Patrol). This pack was originally designed for the Finnish Border Guard officers, who patrol the 1300-kilometer long border with Russia. It’s small and simple enough to serve admirably as a carry-on backpack as well (provided one doesn’t go overboard when packing), yet its suspension system is superb and the internal aluminium frame gives it rigidity most other similarly sized packs lack. (Note: I had to hammer the frame a bit to make it fit me better.) In its job as a travel backpack, it could have more pockets, and I’ve added some for extra ease of use, but the basic design is very sound. Now I have a carry-on pack that can truly serve as a serious hiking backpack as well – and take on whatever outrages and indignities the life of traveling academic can possibly throw at it.

Savotta Paras

My Savotta Rajapartio, with some modifications visible.

Besides making great backpacks, including some truly classic items (where else could you buy a classic Bergen like Savotta 323, or that simple yet excruciatingly useful daypack Savotta 123?), another thing in favor of Savotta is their customer service. In fact, this post was inspired by their recent Facebook update, where they recalled a batch of backpacks with a possible hidden manufacturing flaw that had slipped through quality control. The post is in Finnish, but for those who can read it – this is how you do customer service. Savotta is also known for supporting the users with spare parts when they are (rarely) needed: combined with the fact that the company is already more than half a century old and looks set to continue being in business (they still make most of the Finnish Defence Forces load-bearing gear, for example), Savotta could well be the last backpack you need to buy.

Sadly, there is one thing I need to mention: even though whatever Savotta manufactures in Finland or in its subsidiary in Estonia simply will refuse to fail, the company has outsourced some cheaper items to China. These are at best of variable and often of poor quality, and best avoided altogether. I hope the company has learned its lesson, and focuses on what makes it the company I and many, many others love: the quality that gives its users one thing less to worry about. (Here might be another marketing slogan in the making.)

Savotta packs are not cheap, but as so often in this world, you gets what you pays for. It’s telling something that the main problem for many long-time users is that it’s so very hard to justify shelling out cash for that shiny, new backpack, since that 20-year old Savotta is still going so strong…

For those outside Finland in particular, Savotta products might be easiest and cheapest to obtain through Varusteleka – another Finnish company whose service is stellar and fees very reasonable. Again, I’m not affiliated with either, except as someone who is happy with the service received.

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I’m no longer advocating for clean energy; here’s why.

My Finnish readers will already know that I announced some time ago that I’m done with energy/climate change discussions. I’ve been following the debate actively since about 2007 and have been writing about it since late 2010. I’ve written two books about the topic, one of which is translated to five languages, and blogged fairly regularly. But now it’s time to do something else.

The main reason why I’m refocusing is because I think the debate is going nowhere, and I don’t want to waste my time on a futile project. We are not going to get a decarbonized energy system by 2050. We are going to fail the climate targets, probably by a large margin, and I suspect that a warming of about 3 degrees centigrade is going to be almost inevitable. It’s perfectly possible that self-amplifying feedback mechanisms under way will amplify this change even more. What this will mean for humans is difficult to assess, but I doubt it’s going to be anything good for the vast majority. The global poor will suffer the most, while we here in the rich North may be able – at least in the short term – to insulate ourselves from the worst effects and retreat to our own virtual bubbles to avoid hearing the cries of the others.

The reason why we’re going to fail is because we’re lulled into optimistic complacency. An occasional follower of the energy and climate news will inevitably conclude that climate change is as good as solved: page after page gushes about the relentless, inevitable progress of renewables and the just about imminent downfall of fossil fuel behemoths.

The reality, of course, is quite different from these uncritical pronouncements.

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Share of low-carbon energy as a share of total energy supply. Graph from our book Climate Gamble.

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Actually achieved build rates for different energy sources in history, and the required rate for 2°C target. Picture by Carl Hellesen.

Despite the very real advances of low-carbon energy sources in the recent decades, fossil fuels are still – relatively speaking – just as dominant as they were in 1980s. Since the global energy use has increased from those days, the problem of replacing practically all fossil fuel and most of the biomass use by 2050 (which would be required to stay at accepted climate targets) is hideously difficult.

However, nothing about this urgency is communicated to the broader audience. In general, people want to hear happy stories that fit their preconceptions; and the looming Ultimate Victory of renewable energy fits perfectly to the preconceptions of almost all environmentalists (who are also the only ones really concerned about the climate change). The people want to hear that the new energy messiah will deliver us from the evil; and scores of people around the world deliver. Very vocal groups argue that accomplishing 100% renewable energy system by 2050 is going to be easy and cheap; I can’t but keep on thinking how long it will take for the optimist groups to begin asserting that THEIR plan can do it by 2049 while giving everyone a pony as well.

Because we’ve been here before. In the 1960s nuclear energy was supposed to be THE energy source for the 2000s. Oil drilling was supposed to become unprofitable by the turn of the millennium, and the only real question was exactly how many nuclear power plants we’d ultimately end up building. The gushing, completely uncritical rhetoric that totally ignored any and all concerns about technical, economic and political issues inherent in such grand, technocratic schemes is almost word to word identical to the rhetoric employed today in 100% RE circles, as I’ve documented in several essays (e.g. here, here, here and here).

I and many others have tried to point out that there are still unsolved issues and potential pitfalls between the rhetoric and the ultimate, total victory of renewable energy. I at least have done this because I’d like to see renewable energy prosper: most if not all of us really are concerned about issues such as RE growth curve being logistic, integration costs, hidden environmental issues and local resistance to massive projects such as wind parks and power lines. We think that these issues have been downplayed or ignored entirely in the optimistic discussion, and that in order for renewable energy industry to avoid making the mistakes the nuclear industry made in the 1970s and 1980s, these issues would need to be addressed – soon. And, yes, we’ve been saying that a prudent climate mitigation strategy should include nuclear power as well, at least for as long as it is ACTUALLY DEMONSTRATED IN PRACTICE – not just in theoretical modeling – that major nations can get most of their energy from renewable sources alone.

All this has been to no avail. Realism never makes for a good copy, as long as there are people who make a living from selling a dream instead. No matter what we do, critical discussion of problems that are likely to crop up when renewable energy use increases has been confined to the blogs and discussions between a small group of like-minded people. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising: after all, this is also exactly what happened with nuclear energy as well. Critics of the nuclear dream were ignored, downplayed and vilified – until at some point, with enough experience, the actual techical, economic and political challenges became too large to ignore.

And that brings me to the last reason why I’m quitting. It’s bad enough that people who claim to be critical thinkers for the environment have swallowed the renewable advocacy hook, line and sinker (to the extent that it is environmentalists who most vocally deny that renewable energy could possibly have inadvertent environmental impacts) and are actively trying to undermine other low carbon energy, such as nuclear. However, the last straw to me is to keep on hearing that those who don’t uncritically buy the wildest renewable energy dreams and have some good questions about the research and thinking behind the dreams are shills for fossil fuels or nuclear power, and therefore the enemies of “proper” environmentalists. (See e.g. this piece.)

The fact that James Hansen, probably the most prominent climate researcher ever, is one of those critics (as are many other climate researchers around the world) makes no difference to these accusations.

I’ve been involved in environmental issues for a very long time now. I was a founding partner of the first eco-design consultancy in Finland in 2007, and I’m one of the founding members of the most recent environmental organization in Finland – the Finnish ecomodernist society. I’ve made major life choices to reduce my personal environmental impact, and have lectured for nearly a decade on how to design products that are less bad for the environment. (I always tell my students that if they want real change, they need to be more active politically – that designing “greener” products is good but a bit like rearranging deck chairs on board the Titanic.) I’m going to continue doing so, and I’m going to continue to advocate for climate change mitigation and clean energy in my own circles if the topic crops up. I may also comment every now and then if I feel like it, but I’m not going to follow the debate closely any longer.

temperature rise and its effects

My reasons to support almost all solutions that can reduce our carbon footprint, in one image.

But, since I’m so concerned about climate change that I favor keeping the options open until very high penetration of renewable energy is demonstrated in practice, I’m not welcome to the climate or environmental community, where opposition to nuclear power is a foundational precept of their beliefs and takes priority over practically all other considerations. I have no doubt that if, and probably when, the current wonder energy stalls in a manner very reminiscent of the stall of the nuclear power in the 1980s, I will be one of those people who are going to be blamed for the outcome. The explanation (that is already being practiced as renewable expansion is encountering the first signs of real trouble) will be that naysayers and the fossil fuel industry were in cahoots to stop the perfect energy source of the future. After all, this is the explanation the most ardent supporters of nuclear power have concocted: since they’ve convinced themselves that the technology was already very nearly perfect, the only possible reason for its demise has to be a conspiracy of critics and fossil fuel interests.

This attitude where the echo chambers of the faithful convince the participants to simply ignore the very real limitations of renewable energy, and the complacent optimism bred into the broader public by absolutely uncritical coverage of renewable energy claims and the renewable energy industry (which, by the way, is vastly larger, more profitable and more powerful than “big bad” nuclear industry), are the prime reasons we’re going to fail. We’d need much more effort to climate mitigation, but how on Earth can we persuade the people to vote for more effort and more hardships, when every environmental organization shouts out loud that the victory of renewable energy is just around the corner?

Perhaps we’d be losing even if this wasn’t the case. Fossil fuel interests and the logic of current capitalism are so powerful and they have such a grip on world’s economy (and hence politics) that this may have been a losing battle regardless. Nevertheless, these divisions within the environmental movement critically diminish our influence just when we all ought to be advocating for more clean energy – not less, as many “green” organizations are de facto doing. We ought to fight and defeat the Great Enemy first, and then – only then – resume the old fight between nuclear and renewables. But that’s not going to happen. Some blame for this lies within nuclear advocates, too – too many are nothing but mirror images of the individuals and organizations they claim are anti-science or unwilling to change their outdated thinking. That said, it is only from the ranks of the 100% RE advocates where I keep on hearing that we should exclude some potential solutions just on principle; there is nothing close to similar attitude within pro-nuclear environmentalist circles, few zealots excepted.

Yet nothing changes; we’ve had all these discussions at least a decade ago, and if my stash of old books is any indication, since the 1970s at least. Feel free to continue with this fruitless debate if you want; I’m going to direct my energy elsewhere.

(For those interested, my day job these days is researching the implications of blockchain technologies, the building of trust networks and digital identities, and in place of following the neverending energy/climate debate I’ve recently studied the criticisms of prevailing economic system, and the possibilities of radical left politics that would make “Star Trek socialism” – or Fully Automated Luxury Communism – a topic of serious political debate. Yes, I’m going over to utopianism; after all, based on my experiences in the energy debates, the more outrageous a plan is the more it seems to sell. And maybe it’s also more fun proposing endless pies from the sky, rather than toiling on the details and problems. So many people are doing it in energy discussions, and they must have their reasons.)

 

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Confidence in 100% RE plans is poorly justified and may be dangerous

The recent publication of an unprecedented critique against the so-called “WWS” 100% renewable energy (RE) scenario has re-ignited the debate about the feasibility of renewable only energy scenarios in the United States and abroad. This is a long-overdue debate the world sorely needs, and everyone who has the slightest interest in climate change mitigation should pay careful attention. At stake is nothing less than whether or not our climate policy measures are based on sound science or pie-in-the-sky optimism.

As many of the critics of 100% RE plans – myself included – have repeatedly pointed out, the problem here is not that 100% RE plans are being developed. We definitively need research that tries to solve the issues related to large-scale deployment of renewable energy sources, and it is a very good thing that such plans are made. Even if the plans themselves never come to fruition, their existence serves to increase the ambition level of other plans and policy proposals; and if it turns out that we can power the planet with nothing else but renewable energy yet limit the environmental and social damages to an acceptable level, I believe we should do so.

But the burden of proof lies with those who assert that we definitely do not need certain solutions, usually nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. At this moment, no country on Earth has managed to decarbonize its economy even close to the extent required by climate science. Despite encouraging progress of renewable energy sources, the “new” renewables that would have to shoulder most of the burden in renewable-only decarbonization plans are still a minor fraction of the world’s total energy supply. And the fact is that no combination of renewable energy sources and ambitious climate policies has ever been able to reduce emissions even to the levels that the rapid roll-out of nuclear energy was repeatedly able to do – entirely by accident.

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History of per capita CO2 emissions in four countries, and their best 10-year CO2 emission reduction achievements. Data from CDIAC Carbon Project, figure from our book Climate Gamble.

In short, it is far too early to state with any confidence that the “best” climate strategy is to use only renewable energy sources. We really don’t know yet whether it is even possible to make the transition to 100% RE sources in time to stave off dangerous climate change, and whether, if it is possible, we can amass the political capital required to do so. These uncertainties can only be resolved through experience and simply cannot be eliminated by energy systems modeling, no matter how detailed and scrupulous – and certainly not by modeling that contains as many dubious assumptions as most 100% RE plans currently do. And even if the current critique results to better models in the future, which I hope it will, the uncertainties remain uncomfortably large. Modeling energy system futures is very different from, say, climate modeling: while the climate can be modeled based on invariant laws of physics, energy system models are essentially predictions (or educated guesses) about how human beings make decisions, how technology develops, and how the economy functions.

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One reason for doubt: the required sustained new energy build rates and efficiency increase rates in 100% RE scenarios are far in excess of both historical records and those demanded in technology neutral mitigation scenarios. Source: Loftus et al. (2015), graphic from our book Climate Gamble.

We all know, or at least should know, that reliable predictions of future technologies or future economy are very hard, if not fundamentally impossible. As a rule, we should treat all such predictions with considerable skepticism. After all, we have plentiful examples of failed predictions in the energy sector as well: as a historian of technology, I cannot but be amazed by how the 100% RE promoters of today re-enact almost word-to-word the confident assertions and other rhetorical strategies (like framing the debate to be between the forces of progress and the luddites) originally used by nuclear energy promoters in the 1960s. Back then, serious scientists told us that by the year 2000, all the legacy energy companies would be bankrupt and even oil wouldn’t be profitable to pump from the ground, thanks to relentless and inevitable progress of cheap atomic energy. There were only some minor technical details to be worked out, and some irritating but uninformed critics to silence. Just as RE advocates of today, these technocrats were also almost totally ignorant of the political and social aspects of their proposed solutions.

city of future

A vision of a “City of the Future” from the 1960s. All the energy used in the city comes from a single nuclear power station at the center, and the daily life is re-arranged accordingly. Can you spot the conceptual similarities to current ambitious energy plans? Picture from Finnish Seura magazine, with thanks to Esko Pettay.

In another striking resemblance to renewable plans of today, nuclear proponents could not think that people might have any reasons to resist the nuclear buildup – after all, it was not only the embodiment of “progress” but also the cleaner and safer energy source that promised considerable economic benefits. (A concrete example of how local opposition is derailing ambitious RE plans comes from Germany, where grid expansion plans have been delayed by a decade by strong and almost entirely unforeseen local opposition. The expansion underway is very modest compared to what 100% RE plans absolutely require.) Another striking similarity is how the methods for dealing with the opposition are again from the “ridicule it” playbook; at one extreme, a Harvard professor whose expertise in energy systems came entirely from the now-criticized WWS study called those who support not only renewable energy but nuclear as well “climate denialists!”

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One reason why large-scale RE plans may be uniquely vulnerable to local opposition: harvesting a dilute energy resource puts many more people within sight of the energy infrastructure. The graphic shows the land use for ca. 27 terawatt hours of annual electricity generation, in scale and based on actual projects. Graphic from our book Climate Gamble.

Being usually rather ignorant of the history of their own discipline, the promoters of 100% RE scenarios nevertheless very rarely if ever even admit that there may be some uncertainties or unknowables in their models. After a decade of following the energy discussions, I’m hard pressed to remember a single instance of a 100% RE promoter publicly discussing the caveats of their plans, or the assumptions required to make 100% RE scenarios work. On some rare occasions, the promoters have admitted (usually as a response to criticism) that the plans, while possible in a sense that they do not break any known physical laws, may not be very realistic (see one such case here). More often, though, the promoters seem to be entirely unburdened by doubts and confidently assert that the 100% RE scenarios “prove” that 100% RE future is “possible”, and as a consequence, we should only use renewable energy sources in the climate fight. (The phenomenon where the most confident tend to get the most airtime has been discussed in e.g. Dan Gardner’s book about predictions, “Future Babble.” Gardner also notes that as a rule, the confidence someone has about his – almost always his – prediction unfortunately tends to correlate negatively with the accuracy of the said prediction.) This transition from “possible” to the “only possible” is often subtle, and the difference seems to be lost to many listeners, politicians in particular.

And here lays the greatest drawback of 100% RE scenarios: taking them too seriously. For a politician, the allure of 100% RE can be overwhelming. Almost every single one of the prominent 100% RE scenarios promises that we can lick the climate change easily with nothing else but clever new technologies – and even profit at the same time. Such a plan is bound to attract political attention: promises of free lunches usually do. By following the 100% RE promoters, the politicians are also saved from having to do unpleasant decisions and released from the burden of having to champion deeply unpopular solutions, such as nuclear energy or carbon rationing. Most pleasingly for the politicians, the risks of promoting 100% RE strategies are small: the politicians can always say that they only followed scientific advice, and the long timelines all but ensure that if it becomes undeniable that the plan did not pan out, the politicians of today are likely to be safely retired already. (Furthermore, many politicians sincerely believe that we should use only renewable energy sources, and it is easy to listen to studies that confirm one’s pre-existing beliefs.)

And if all else fails, scapegoats can be found: witness how many nuclear advocates are still claiming that the ambitious nuclear plans of the 1960s were perfectly fine, if only the sinister cabal of pesky environmentalists and fossil fuel interests hadn’t colluded in stopping nuclear expansion. I have no doubt that I for one will be indicted in the future as one of the reasons why 100% RE plans didn’t come to fruition, as one of those “negative thinkers” who now “sow doubts” whether the plans are really feasible. After all, finding people to blame will always be easier than admitting that one’s favored political plan had some inherent technical or political limitations.

What all this translates to is that the aggressive, almost certainly overconfident promotion of 100% RE scenarios and the conflation of “possible” with “the only possible” threatens to shut down support for what may very well be necessary components of effective climate policy. Many towns, countries and political parties are now making commitments to back only renewable energy sources; while quitting fossil fuels is commendable, there is a real risk that such plans exclude e.g. nuclear power and lead to premature closure of what still remains the second most important low carbon energy source in the world. In the U.S. for example, right now the greatest climate risk is in the premature shutdowns of nuclear plants. Committing to renewables only also undermines desperately needed support for research into new energy technologies and climate mitigation tools (e.g. carbon capture and solar radiation management), leaving us to only hope that the Ultimate Victory of renewable energy really is looming just around the corner this time.

US RE shares of primary energy and projections

Some renewable energy predictions and actual share of RE in the United States. But this time they must be correct, right?

Given the history of failed energy predictions, I would not be holding my breath. But if the techno-optimists are wrong this time as well, the problem is that we really don’t have the time to try again. We have one shot and one shot only at decarbonization, and being overly confident we can do it easily with only some of the possible tools is just as dangerous as pooh-pooing the dangers of climate change.

 

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, History of technology, Nuclear energy & weapons | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Critique of econometric models in Thinking in Systems: a Primer

Donella Meadows’s book Thinking in Systems: A Primer (pp. 89-90) contains a rather interesting critique of econometric models and their limitations in explaining and predicting what happens in the world. While Meadows acknowledges that econometric models are more useful than what she calls “event-event analysis” (e.g. explaining event A, such as stocks going up, with event B, such as U.S. dollar falling), but notes that the fundamental limitation of models that strive to uncover statistical links between different types of flows (e.g. income, savings, investment, government spending, interest rates, output, etc.) is that, first, econometrics overemphasizes flows (because that’s where the most variation happens) and underestimate stocks (e.g. total physical capital), and second, there is no fundamental reason to expect that any flow bears a stable relationship to any other flow. While a statistical correlation can be detectable for a brief period of time, feedbacks and changes in the underlying system’s structure would make the econometric model worthless.

The example Meadows uses is trying to predict a temperature of a room based on correlations of heat flows in and out of the room, without knowing anything at all about how thermostats operate. One could probably easily find an equation that tells how the in- and outflows of heat have varied together in the past, because thermostat means that they are being governed by the same stock (temperature of the room). However, the equation would hold only as long as system’s structure changes. If someone opens a window or improves the insulation, or forgets to pay the heating bills, the equation would be worthless.

What’s more, the econometric result would tell little about how to change the system. It would only tell about system’s behavior and how they used to correlate with each other, but very little about the underlying structure.

Hence, Meadows asserts, such “behavior-based econometric models are pretty good at predicting the near-term performance of the economy, quite bad at predicting the longer-term performance, and terrible at telling one how to improve the performance of the economy” (p. 90).

References

Meadows, D. H. (2009). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. London: Earthscan.

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Never use the word “consumer”. Here’s why.

A public service announcement to everybody concerned about environmental and social issues: when writing or talking, refrain from the use of the word “consumer” if at all possible.

There is considerable empirical evidence that merely using the word, instead of words like “citizen” or “individual” will cause readers and listeners to feel less personal responsibility to take action and trust others less. The word seems to trigger self-regarding behavior and attitudes that prioritize wealth, status and success. As such, the mere use of the word makes it harder – slightly, but nevertheless harder – to promote behaviors and attitudes that are almost certainly required if the humanity is to live within the means of our single homeworld.

On a philosophical level, labeling people “consumers” instead of “citizens” circumscribes the actions available to the individual: as Justin Lewis [1] has explained, whereas citizens can express themselves in every aspect of cultural, social and economic life, consumers are by definition expressing themselves only in the market place.

Some examples of the behavior changes triggered by word change include the experimental study by [2], where university students who were invited to take part in a “Consumer Reaction Study” identified more strongly with notions of wealth, status and success than those who were participating in otherwise identical “Citizen Reaction Study.” Another survey reported in [2] asked participants to imagine themselves as one of four households facing a water shortage due to a drought. Half of the participants were given a survey that described the scenario in terms of “consumers,” while another half were referred to as “individuals.” The first group reported feeling less personal responsibility to take action, and less trust in others to take action as well.

Considering all the problems in the world, this might seem like a minor issue. But it is an issue that everyone can help with, simply by refusing to use the ideologically loaded term “consumer”- and in a longer term, such small changes in attitudes and behaviors can add up.

It certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the use of the word “consumer” slowly but surely replaced the word “citizen” in English texts at about the same time as our current, very probably unsustainable and certainly unjust economic system rose to prominence.[3] If we want to change the world, we must convince people to act, and it seems counterproductive to reduce our powers of conviction simply by choosing to use words that can make people more passive.

google ngram consumer-citizen

Google Ngram: prevalence of “consumer” vs. “citizen” over the years in English texts.

The examples and my motivation for writing this PSA are from a book Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017), which I believe makes for an excellent reading for everyone interested in creating a better, more just world for all living things.

Sources

[1] Lewis, J. et al. (2005). Citizens or Consumers? What the media tell us about political participation.

[2] Bauer, M. et al. (2012) “Cuing consumerism: situational materialism undermines personal and social well-being.” Psychological Science 23, pp. 517-523.

[3] Shrubsole, G. (2012). “Consumers outstrip citizens in British media.” Open Democracy UK, 5 March 2012.

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A “strong” AI might be impossible – otherwise we’d seen one by now

A recent critical essay by Kevin Kelly on the prospects of “strong” artificial intelligence (AI) has sparked some debate between those who believe that the emergence of a superhuman artificial intelligence is only a matter of time, and between those – like myself – who are somewhat more skeptical. Kelly’s essay touches many salient points I’ve been pondering about for quite some time now, and makes the case far more elegantly than I have been able to: the AI myth rests on what is likely a false premise (that intelligence is something that can be both disembodied and measured on a single scale), and because everything ink nature involves trade-offs, there is no actual reason to believe that humans aren’t already quite close to the maximum for human-like intelligence. The essay covers many other important points that tend to get ignored in the techno-optimistic (or pessimistic? I guess it depends on the point of view) discourse about artificial intelligences, and I heartily suggest you read the whole essay.

However, there seems to be one further piece of evidence suggesting that strong general-purpose artificial (machine) intelligence may be extremely difficult if not impossible to construct. As far as I know, this evidence has not been widely discussed, but it might be useful nevertheless, so here goes:

If strong AIs are almost inevitable (as many futurists claim), why haven’t we seen an alien one yet?

This is, of course, a variation of the classic Fermi Paradox: if intelligent aliens exist, where are they?

I’m not going to wade very deeply into the voluminous debate this seemingly innocent question has sparked. It only needs to be said that even when using very conservative assumptions about the emergence of spacefaring species, the speed of space travel and colonization of star systems, then the Milky Way ought to be positively brimming with alien civilizations. The galaxy is old, and in a cosmic blink of an eye, an ambitious species could conceivably have colonized all the star systems it desired.

Recently, we’ve come to learn that starfaring might not be as easy as we once assumed, however. As Kim Stanley Robinson put it in his excellent fictional treatise of the subject, Aurora, it is quite possible that (complex) life is for all intents and purposes a planetary phenomenon, fundamentally unsuited for the demands of living and thriving in worlds it hadn’t co-evolved with. Fleshy meat-sacks like use are just not very well suited for the rigors of vacuum, zero gravity and hard radiation. What’s more, even if these fairly straightforward and linear hazards can be mitigated, it seems extremely, profoundly difficult to construct self-contained miniature ecosystems that can keep humans healthy and happy for almost infinite periods of time. Complexity theory in fact suggests that while constructing such habitats might be possible (only very hard), making them self-sustaining to the extent required for subluminal travel between the stars may be forever out of our reach. (I suggest you to read what Kim Stanley Robinson has to say about the topic here.)

What is perhaps an obvious solution, therefore, is to engineer an intelligence that is better adapted to the interstellar void. I remain agnostic about whether that might be feasible at some point in the future: there seems to be no fundamental reasons to think it will be impossible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath while waiting regardless. My suspicion is that such an intelligence would in effect be an engineered version of baseline Earth-human, adapted to life in space but still essentially biological.

However, in theory, space would be the perfect environment for a true machine intelligence. A machine intelligence should not care overmuch about those pesky biological limitations that may forever doom (or bless) the baseline humanity to inhabit this one world only. Vacuum and low gravity might in fact be the preferable environment for such a being: outside corrosive atmosphere, with abundant sunlight to capture for energy and the vast wealth of the asteroid belt to mine, what limitations a machine intelligence would have to suffer from? It seems quite straightforward to assume that if machine intelligences arise at all, they would sooner or later make their way to space – the final frontier. A machine intelligence in space would be free to expand almost exponentially, building automated factories or true self-replicating von Neumann machines. And for a machine intelligence, the vast gulf between the stars might be tolerable to cross – if only to seed the another star system with von Neumann machines. That, by the way, is the most cost-effective and the fastest way to explore the whole galaxy, and it would only require the AI to successfully launch one self-replicating starprobe – hardly a task beyond the capabilities of projected superhuman AIs.

In fact, many knowledgeable observers believe that if humanity is to ever contact intelligent aliens, the actual contact is most likely to happen through intelligent machines. There is even a possibility that such machines already exist in our solar system, but for some reason or another they haven’t chosen to make themselves visible to us. A machine intelligence might be watching – but it might also be deeply uninterested about the comings and goings of “biologicals” deep within the gravity well and corrosive, unpredictable atmosphere of one of the planets. But how long would it remain uninterested? Remember, if even one alien super-AI would’ve become interested in space exploration with inexpensive von Neumann probes, it could seed all the star systems in the galaxy within half a million years – provided that it takes 500 years for the self-replicator to construct a copy of itself.

Remember also that it’s totally believable that alien civilizations just as capable as us have risen at least one billion years before our time.

There is, of course, another possibility. The simplest explanation for the fact that we haven’t seen even one alien AI is that truly strong artificial intelligence that transcends the drawbacks of its biological originators is for all intents and purposes impossible to construct. After all, as Fermi originally noted, the galaxy (not to mention the universe) is both vast and old, and there seems to be little reason to assume humans have been its first species to seriously think about building an artificial intelligence. (This hunch seems to find quite a bit of support from the recent discoveries of extrasolar planetary systems.) And an AI-driven self-replicating von Neumann probe should have been able to reach every planet in the galaxy in practically no time flat, even if travel between the stars takes thousands of years.

Practical impossibility of a superhuman AI would explain why we haven’t noticed any signs an artificial intelligence. It would also explain why we haven’t seen any signs of a runaway AI, for instance: as far as we know, in the admittedly tiny sphere of the universe we’re practically able to observe in sufficient detail, there are no megaprojects such a demented AI might construct – as many AI enthusiasts caution. (I believe a person who is obsessed about the dangers of a strong AI is as much an AI enthusiast as the one who believes such an AI would usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and even eternal life.)

It might well be that the continuing absence of either human-built or alien AI eventually validates much of Kevin Kelly’s criticism in the essay mentioned in the introduction: a priori, it seems just as believable to assume that humans are already fairly high up on the general intelligence ladder and hence difficult to improve upon, if we use human intelligence as a measuring stick (which we probably shouldn’t, but that’s a different discussion). It may well be that constructing an intelligence that is significantly more intelligent than we are will be fundamentally impossible, because of unavoidable trade-offs and drawbacks that are likely to be inherent in such a complex system. And it is entirely possible that the current computational paradigm is fundamentally incapable of even replicating human thought processes, except in speeds that are far slower than what actually happens in the human brains – and, hence, it is very possible that more transistors and faster computation, which many blithely assume will eventually overtake human brains, will never in actuality produce an emulation that will outcompete a human.

It may well be that not just complex life but human-like intelligence are essentially planetary or at least biological phenomena, and as long as we don’t see an alien AI probe bearing towards us, this conclusion is just as likely as other conclusions made about artificial intelligence – a concept of significant, even religious power, but which does not exist.

And, as far as the Fermi paradox goes, my hunch is that the combination of two things explains most of the question: complex life is difficult to sustain outside the ecosystem it co-evolved with, and we aren’t observing von Neumann messengers or machine civilizations because the necessary general purpose toolmaking intelligence is also very hard thing to sustain outside the fundamentally biological substrate that is the only medium we know it can reside in. Of course, we haven’t been looking up in sufficient detail for very long, and I may be proven very wrong.

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