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).


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.


[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.

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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

Why I support almost all measures to reduce CO2 emissions – in one graph

temperature rise and its effects

(Click here for a larger version of the image. Feel free to re-use as well.)

Climate change is not the only environmental problem we’re facing, but it’s the most critical. Many people agree, but as we’ve tried to explain in our book, Climate Gamble, not many countries are taking the danger seriously. After all, the best successes in the fight against climate change have been achieved entirely accidentally – by countries that didn’t even think about reducing CO2 emissions. These countries achieved the feat already in the 1980s by building nuclear power. Even more remarkably, unlike plans that require drastic decreases in energy use, multiple countries (France and Sweden foremost among them) were able to significantly cut CO2 emissions by building nuclear power, despite not even trying to reduce CO2 emissions and while energy use increased.

It’s too early to say with any certainty what a future low-carbon energy system will look like. However, given what’s at stake, it would be far too early to dismiss the most scalable source of low-carbon energy humanity has ever tried.

Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, Infographics, Nuclear energy & weapons, What they aren't telling you about nuclear power | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

2017 edition of Climate Gamble!

Exciting news!IMG_20170323_091747.jpg

We have just finished up work on our updated, improved and expanded 2017 edition of Climate Gamble! One might even call it the definitive edition!

It includes:

  • The foreword by the late Sir David MacKay (previously available only on our Paris COP21 special edition of the book, and on the book’s website). We owe David so much, both for his own excellent work that also was a big inspiration for us to write this book and for providing the foreword. Our condolences to family and friends.
  • Key takeaways for each chapter (also available on Paris COP21 edition).
  • Latest data for the graphs.
  • Some minor fixes to grammar.
  • Some extra paragraphs to better elaborate some points we make, based on reader feedback.
  • A few extra footnotes and citations on our claims.
  • A discount on the price of both the paperback and Kindle-edition. That’s right, you get more book for less money!
  • And last but not the least: a proper index to help you use the book more efficiently as a reference! (paperback only)

Our special thanks go to Bruce and Martin for their excellent feedback and support that made this edition, along with a professionally made index, possible.

Some notes: We have pulled the current paperback from Amazon (although it is still available through some sellers), and the new edition should appear in a few days, certainly by the first of April, 2017 (no, this is not an April Fools joke 😉 ). The title has 2017 edition on it, to make it stand out.

The new versions are now online and available here:

Kindle edition


We also updated the new edition on top of the old Kindle edition, so you can get the new version for free (we think, not totally sure how this works but you should be able to update your kindle-book by enabling updates on your Amazon-account).

Finally, thanks for everyone involved in helping out spread the message of evidence based climate policy!


See also our book pages: 2017 edition of Climate Gamble!

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