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.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.001

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

14947747_10154783178612728_7588800298934503291_n

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.)

 

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

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.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.010

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.

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.006

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!”

150521_Climate_Gamble_image.008

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 , , , | 2 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.

Posted in Economy and the Environment, Notes in process | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Ecomodernism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in SETI, Aliens & Space | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What the Finnish municipal elections tell, and don’t tell, about nuclear power?

Thanks to an article in Forbes, a growing number of energy enthusiasts now knows that there have been pro-nuclear Green candidates in the recent (9th April) Finnish municipal elections. However, some background may be helpful.

First, as some commentators have already noted, the election shouldn’t be overplayed. The municipal elections are local affairs, and due to Finnish election system, parties have an incentive to gather as many candidates as they can to their lists. This results to a large and diverse group of candidates: in total, 33 318 candidates were registered in a country of 5.5 million people to compete for 7316 available seats. All sorts of opinions were represented, and the fact that a hundred candidates signed a petition of some sorts doesn’t by itself prove anything.

Second, most of the candidates who signed the nuclear district heating petition were not elected. Only 11 signatories were ultimately elected, and of those, only two (Atte Harjanne and Petrus Pennanen in Helsinki) have even theoretical possibility to influence energy policies so that nuclear district heating is actually adopted.

Third, it is a fact that traditionally anti-nuclear Greens were the biggest winners of the elections, overall. Energy policy in general is not a topic that motivates people that much, and these elections were not energy elections by any measure. The voters expressed disapproval of the government policies (the three right-wing and center-right parties in the government were among the losers of these elections) and most were motivated by local issues. In general, these elections by themselves provide precious little information – either way – about energy policies of Finland, or of the prospects of nuclear energy. For now, Finland’s nuclear program is unlikely to be expanded: two reactors are under construction, the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 being scheduled (for now) to go online in 2018, and the new Fennovoima plant in 2025. There is a possibility of a seventh plant to be built, most probably by Fortum as a replacement for aging Loviisa reactors, but at the same time, the four old reactors at Loviisa and Olkiluoto (two each) are nearing the end of their economic lifetimes and are to be shut down in the 2030s. The electricity prices in the Nordic market (Nordpool) are so depressed that new projects are unlikely to be financially viable, unless more aggressive carbon policies are enacted. This seems unlikely, as the country is still run by a government composed of right-wing or center right parties, and the next national elections are not due until 2019. Even though the current government is generally favorable to new nuclear, it therefore seems unlikely (although not impossible) that anyone will make an official request for permit by that time. In a way, nothing has changed, and this is a storyline the traditional Greens and the traditional environmental movement is likely to stick to in case someone asks.

However, in several ways these elections were nevertheless remarkable. I don’t know of any other European elections where Green party members could openly campaign on an openly pro-nuclear platform, and in any other country, I wouldn’t want to try: disapproval would be certain, disavowal probable, expulsion likely. This year in Finland, several Green candidates, some of them long-time party members and established environmentalists, were very open about their support for nuclear power, and from what I hear, were not censured at all for their opinion. That alone is a major first. Even though the Finnish Green party has for years harboured a sizeable minority (according to one estimate by a party veteran Osmo Soininvaara, up to 30 percent) that could accept nuclear power at least under some circumstances, to my knowledge this minority has not campaigned openly for more nuclear power.

As I mentioned in a previous post, perhaps the most interesting item is the strong showing of Green party member Mr. Atte Harjanne. His vote tally, 937 votes, is close to phenomenal for a relatively unknown first-time candidate, and it may be that we’re witnessing a political star being born. Atte has many other qualities and was not elected because of his nuclear stance, and being openly pro-nuclear, even openly pro-Fennovoima, probably even cost him some votes. However, I nevertheless suspect that being a pro-nuclear Green did ultimately favor him a bit in balance, even though it alone wouldn’t been close to enough to carry the election. Several other pro-nuclear Green candidates came close to being elected, some gathering quite considerable vote counts, and many were elected as vice-councilors, a position of some importance in most places.

That said, all this is but a handful of politicians and some thousands of voters at most. However, all change starts small, and this might be a weak signal the futurists are looking for. We now have a serious environmental organization, the Finnish Ecomodernist Society, that favors using all the tools – nuclear power included – against climate change; and now we have politicians who are genuinely pro-environment while also being genuinely pro-nuclear. This also reflects the fact that the Finnish Greens are becoming a generalist party and a viable alternative for traditional major parties: a generalist party cannot afford to have a strict stance in a matter as important as nuclear power is for Finland, even though a small environmentalist party might get away with it. (It should be noted that the Finnish Green party jettisoned long ago its old demand for an immediate closure of Finnish nuclear power plants, and that its official program now admits that closures should be avoided if that leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions. It is still solidly against any new-builds, however, and officially still pretends that vastly increased biomass use, despite mounting evidence of environmental hazards, is one solution for Finland’s energy worries.)

At the same time, mounting evidence suggests that the energy tribalists have been wrong all along: despite promising progress of renewable energy, we are more likely than not to need nuclear energy as well, if we wish to limit climate change to a level where it is not an existential threat to our civilization. On the other hand, it is also clear that absent major change in the way we can build nuclear power, we are definitely going to need a lot of renewables and more effective Green policies as well.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Pro-nuclear environmentalists gain in Finnish elections

I wrote earlier about two interesting developments in Finnish politics. First, four municipal election candidates from the traditionally strongly anti-nuclear Green party published an opinion piece where they clearly stated that humanity no longer has the luxury of opposing nuclear energy. Second, well over hundred election candidates from all the major parties – the Greens included – signed a petition calling for feasibility studies for nuclear district heating to provide heat for Finnish cities.

The election was held last Sunday, and the results are now clear. A major winner of the elections was the Green party. The Greens took 12.4 percent of the total vote, the largest share of votes in their history, and they are now the largest party in Jyväskylä, a medium-sized university city, while being close seconds in Helsinki and Turku and the third in Tampere. The Greens were also, remarkably, able to gain seats and in a few cases even majorities in municipal councils of many smaller localities. This is a significant achievement that so far had eluded the mostly city-centric party, and the Greens can now honestly claim to be a nation-wide political movement now.

Even though the results reflect politics well beyond environmentalism (the major issues motivating people to vote Green were likely education, strong urban policies, and opposition to right-populist Finns party), and even though the Green party line is still solidly anti-nuclear, the results are encouraging for an environmentalist. The Green victory should cause at least some reassessment in other parties, and environmental issues are almost certain to gain at least a little bit in the future. While many important environmental policies are decided in Brussels and on a national level, municipalities in Finland have considerable power to help or hinder environmental efforts through e.g. zoning and decisions about energy sources used by municipal energy companies.

For a growing number of pro-nuclear environmentalists, the results are even more interesting: it seems that being even quite strongly pro-nuclear did not prevent anyone from being elected, and in some cases being pro-nuclear might have actually gained the candidate some votes. While the four explicitly pro-nuclear Greens mentioned above gained “only” enough votes for vice-councilors (that is, they provide the backup in case the officeholder isn’t available; however, vice-councilors often serve in various committees nevertheless, and the vote tallies of the four were quite respectable), eleven signatories of the nuclear district heating proposal were elected as full members of their respective city or municipal councils. Among them was the primus motor of the proposal, the Pirate Party member and physics PhD Petrus Pennanen, who also gained some publicity by explicitly proposing to use nuclear heat to replace coal and biomass in Helsinki’s heating. While other factors were at play, at a minimum it can be said that being strongly pro-nuclear and favoring strong climate policies did not prevent Petrus from increasing his catch by a staggering 1099 votes from the last municipal elections, and making him one of the two first elected Pirate Party members in Finland.

Another very interesting case was the extremely good showing of Green party member Mr. Atte Harjanne, a 32-year old PhD researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (where he studies climate mitigation). Atte has become known as a strong proponent of all emission-reduction alternatives, made an official proposal to end nuclear opposition in the Green party convention, and even wrote an opinion piece supporting the controversial Fennovoima nuclear plant project just before the elections. Despite such stances, which are still an anathema to many traditional Greens, and in spite of being a relatively unknown first-time candidate, Atte gained 937 votes in Helsinki, more than enough to comfortably secure a seat in the city council. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the people who provided a recommendation for Atte.)

The elections and their results are therefore an encouraging sign: the importance and potential of nuclear energy to help in the climate fight is beginning to spread even to the traditional bastions of anti-nuclear movement, and it is totally feasible to be elected into the city council of Finland’s capital while being Green and pro-nuclear. (It needs to be said, though, that the outgoing Green party leader, Mr. Ville Niinistö, did declare before the elections that he would use a Green victory to withdraw major municipal energy companies from the Fennovoima nuclear project, thus depriving Finland of 50% more low-carbon electricity than outlawing wind power altogether. However, the fact that the Greens came only second in Helsinki and Turku is likely to derail such populist proposals, which would be infeasible due to contractual obligations anyway.) At the same time, the strong showing of the Green party as a whole tells that at a minimum, demanding strong climate policies does not prevent a success in the elections – and may even help politicians to get elected.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Nuclear energy & weapons | Tagged , | 4 Comments