Posted by Big Gav
Peter Garrett has an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on the danger of relying on nuclear power to solve the global warming problem.
John Howard's hand-picked pro-nuclear panel, led by Ziggy Switkowski, has released a report that says Australia can meet a third of its electricity generating needs by 2050 by building 25 nuclear reactors. Howard has hailed the report by saying it proves nuclear power is "clean and green" and "increasingly economic". He has been repeating this mantra for some time, believing that repetition will make it true. But the mantra has as much credibility as his other claim, that he and his neighbours on Sydney's North Shore would be happy to have a nuclear reactor close by - it would destroy their property values.
It's important to put Howard's claims into proper perspective.
They certainly don't stack up environmentally. In reality, electricity generation accounts for only about 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we accepted the far-fetched scenario that up to 25 reactors could be built, nuclear power potentially addresses a maximum of only 17 per cent of Australia's contribution to the heating of our planet. Clearly, nuclear power cannot take the place of serious effort to reduce our greenhouse emissions.
But even this 17 per cent is based on a set of heroic and implausible assumptions that fail to include a number of important calculations relating to nuclear waste disposal and the decommissioning of nuclear plants, making the risk much greater and the cost much higher than we're being led to believe.
They assume the viability of a cheaper and safer so-called new generation of nuclear power plants and enrichment technologies that are at present nothing more than theoretical. History tells us that new-generation reactors, such as the failed "fast breeder" reactors, fail to live up to their promise.
They assume it will be possible to achieve economies of scale by building 25 reactors, starting just a decade from now, despite our lack of existing nuclear skills and infrastructure.
And, most recklessly of all, they canvass the removal of legal and regulatory "impediments" that protect the environment and affect the nuclear industry's economic viability. We can take this as code for taxpayer subsidies and protection. The spectre of public subsidies hangs over the Switkowski report, and this explains the reluctance of Peter Costello and the Treasury to make a submission to it.
In fact, as the British House of Commons audit committee on the environment reported last year, half a century of failed predictions from the nuclear industry inspire little confidence in claims of affordability and efficiency.
How strange, then, that a government led by a supposedly devout believer in the free market is pushing hard for a nuclear power industry that will only stand up if subsidised. What we need is a fair system in which cleaner energy alternatives are allowed to compete within an international market for carbon emissions. Surely it's economically smarter to allow investment in clean technologies to be determined by the market and not a bias for any particular industry.
Australia needs to act now, not 20 years from now, and we have the technologies to do it. We need to improve our use of gas, which is far cleaner than coal. We also need to raise the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target to encourage investment in wind, geothermal, wave and solar technologies.
It's easy to forget that until recently Australia was a world leader in solar power. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing industry sectors in the world, making it, not nuclear power, the logical place to start. And we need fair dinkum energy efficiency measures that would in themselves make the sort of savings the Switkowski report says are possible through the creation of a nuclear industry. All this would avoid making us a repository for much of the world's radioactive nuclear waste, another part of Howard's dream to make Australia an energy superpower.
Once people read the Switkowski report and see that it is based on little more than rubbery figures and superhuman assumptions, they will see through the Prime Minister's claim that nuclear power is clean, green, affordable and futuristic. In reality, nuclear power is an old, dirty and vulnerable technology that will require massive subsidies and come online only when it will be too late. Nuclear isn't the way of the future; it's the way of the past. It's the lazy, risky alternative to real energy reform.
Combating climate change is one of the biggest environmental, economic and political challenges we have ever faced, so it is vital that we get the answer right.
Tom Konrad has a post on his "Top Ten Technologies for an Alternative Energy Future". This looks like a pretty good list to me - although I remain a little dubious about solar towers for now - I think I'd put in wind, tidal or geothermal power instead of that one - or maybe combine LEDs and CFLs as "efficient lighting" and put 2 of them in. (In reality, I suspect that wind will be the most important alternative energy source a decade from now, with solar slowly catching up). Thin film solar is also a contender for a spot in the list.
10. Combined Heat and Power
9. Solar Chimneys
8. Molten salt thermal storage
7. Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
6. Vehicle to Grid
5 & 4. Cellulosic Ethanol and Biodiesel from Algae
3. Time of Use pricing and Demand Side Management.
2. Terra Preta
1. Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs
Edge magazine has a wonderful special on What are you optimistic about in 2007 ? Why ? which manages to touch on a large number of my favourite topics.
Most of tonight's post will be snippets from the most relevant articles - though there is tons more stuff in there which I hope to find time to read at some point.
As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.
What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!
First up - The Climate Optimist by William Calvin.
Mention global warming at a seasonal social gathering and see what happens, now that skepticism has turned into concern and sorrow. They will assume that you're a pessimist about our prospects. "Not really," I protest. That earns me a quizzical look.
"Wait a minute," she says. "If you're an optimist, why do you look so worried?"
"So you think it's easy, being an optimist?"
Many scientists look worried these days. We've had a steady diet of bad news coming from climate scientists and biologists. To become even a guarded optimist, you have to think hard.
First, I reflected, the history of science and medicine shows that, once you mechanistically understand what's what, you can approach all sorts of seemingly unsolvable problems. I'm optimistic that we will learn how to stabilize climate.
Unfortunately the window of opportunity is closing. Fifty years have now passed since the first unequivocal scientific warnings of an insulating blanket of CO2 forming around the planet. Politicians apparently decided to wait until something big went wrong.
It has. We have already entered the period of consequences. Climate scientists have long been worried about their children's future. Now they are also worried about their own.
Our Faustian bargain over fossil fuels has come due. Dr. Faustus had 24 years of party-now, pay-later—and indeed, it's exactly 24 years since Ronald Reagan axed the U.S. budget for exploring alternative fuels. This led to doubling our use of cheap coal, the worst of the fossil fuels. They're planning, under business as usual, to re-double coal burning by 2030—even though we can now see the high cost of low price.
The devil's helpers may not have come to take us away, but killer heat waves have started, along with some major complications from global warming. We're already seeing droughts that just won't quit. Deserts keep expanding. Oceans keep acidifying. Greenland keeps melting. Dwindling resources keep triggering genocidal wars with neighbors (think Darfur). Extreme weather keeps trashing the place.
All of them will get worse before they get better.
Worse, tipping points can lead to irreversible demolition derbies. Should another big El Niño occur and last twice as long as in 1983 or 1998, the profound drought could burn down the rain forests in Southeast Asia and the Amazon—and half of all species could go extinct, just within a year or two.
Time has become so short that we must turn around the CO2 situation within a decade to avoid saddling our children with the irreversible consequences of a runaway warming. That means not waiting for a better deal on some post-Kyoto treaty. It means immediately scaling up technologies that we know will work, not waiting for something better that could take decades to debug.
This isn't optional. It is something that we simply have to do. The time for talk is past.
"I see why you're worried," she says. "But what's your optimistic scenario for dealing with this fossil fuel fiasco?"
For starters, I think it likely that the leaders of the major religious groups will soon come to see climate change as a serious failure of stewardship. And once they see our present fossil fuel use as a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations, their arguments will trump the talk-endlessly-to-buy-time business objections— just as such moral arguments did when ending slavery in the 19th century.
Second, the developed nations are fully capable of kick-starting our response to global warming with present technology—enough to achieve, within ten years, a substantial reduction in their own fossil fuel uses. How?
Wind farmers will prosper as pastures grow modern windmills to keep the cows company.
Giant parking lots, already denuded of trees, are perfect places for acres of solar paneling. Drivers will love the shaded parking spaces they create.
The Carbon Tax will replace most of those deducted from paychecks and create a big wave of retrofitting homes and businesses.
Big brightly lit grocery stores with giant parking lots will compete poorly with warehouses that deliver web and phone orders within the hour, like pizza. Smaller neighborhood grocery stores will once again do a big walk-in business and they will compete with the warehouses by offering "green bicycle" delivery.
High-speed toll gates will become the norm on commuter highways. (Yes, I know, but remember that the paycheck was just enriched by eliminating withholding for income tax.)
Speed limits will be lowered to 50 mph (80 kmh) for fuel efficiency and, as in 1973, drivers will marvel at how smoothly the traffic flows. Double taxes will apply to vehicles with worse-than-average fossil fuel consumption, reducing the number of oversized vehicles with poor streamlining. Hybrids and all-electric cars will begin to dominate new car sales.
A firm, fast schedule will be established for retiring or retrofitting existing coal plants. My bet is that adding nuclear power plants—France gets 78% of its electricity that way, New Jersey 52%—will prove safer, cheaper, and faster than fixing coal.
On the quarter-century time scale, let us assume that the new rapid transit systems will reduce car commuting by half. The transition to electric and hydrogen vehicles will shift transportation's energy demands to greener sources, including biofuels, geothermal, tidal, and wave generation.
The highly efficient binding energy extractors (BEEs, the fourth-generation nuclear power plants) will be running on the spent fuel of the earlier generations.
The low-loss DC transmission lines will allow, via cables under the Bering Strait, solar-generated electricity to flow from the bright side to the dark side of the earth.
And in this 25-year time frame, we ought to see some important new technology making a difference, not just improvements in what we already use. For example, we might encourage rapid adaptation of the whale's favorite food, the tiny phytoplankton which provide half of the oxygen we breathe as they separate the C from the CO2.
Since the shell-forming plankton sink to the ocean bottom when they die, their carbon is taken out of circulation for millions of years. Forests can burn down, releasing their stored carbon in a week, but limestone is forever. If shell-forming plankton could thrive in warmer waters with some selective breeding or a genetic tweak, their numbers might double and start taking our excess CO2 out of circulation.
But even if we invent—and debug—such things tomorrow, it can take several decades before an invention makes a dent in our urgent problem. And all this assumes no bad surprises, such as the next supersized El Niño killing off the Amazon and, once we lack all those trees, increasing the rate of warming by half.
By mid-century, let us suppose that we have begun extracting more CO2 from the atmosphere than we add.
This will only happen if the technology of the developed world has become good enough to compensate for what's still going on in the overstressed nations that are too disorganized to get their energy act together.
When CO2 levels fall enough to counter the delayed warming from past excesses, we will begin to see a reversal of droughts and violent weather— though the rise in sea level will likely continue, a reminder to future generations of our 20th-century Faustian bargain.
As Samuel Johnson said in 1777, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." ...
Next - Brian Goodwin on Our Ability As a Species to Respond To the Challenge Presented By Peak Oil.
The primary factor in scientific insight that is producing a major shift of awareness is the recognition that our dependence on cheap fossil fuel to satisfy our needs and desires has now entered the phase of disruption of the complex web of relationships on which the life of our planet depends. This has come from an understanding of the ways in which climate change due to the heating of the planet is causing average temperatures to rise, a consequence of releasing carbon dioxide from its buried condition in oil deposits into the atmosphere. Among the many consequences are the disturbed weather patterns due to the excess energy that gets dissipated through increasingly destructive hurricanes and the rise in sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, threatening all coastal habitation, in particular the majority of cities. This awareness is becoming more and more widespread, leading to both global action as in the Kyoto agreement and in various forms of carbon trading, and in local initiatives to shift our energy source from oil to renewables. There is no guarantee that we will survive this learning process. Every species throughout evolution has had to make hard choices in learning to live the path of sustainable relationships with others, or has gone extinct. We face the same alternative possibilities. We are special in our own way, as is every species, but not different regarding this fundamental dichotomy of life or death.
A shift has also begun within the culture of science itself, where it is becoming clear why our separation of nature from culture has been a useful but dangerous assumption. Although this distinction was made in modern science in order to separate the 'objective' from the 'subjective', reliable knowledge of nature from idiosyncratic expression of human creativity, it has now exceeded its usefulness and encourages us to see nature as a separate reality outside us that is ours to use for our own cultural purposes. However, we are nature, and nature is culture. That is, we are embedded in and reflective of the principles that govern the rest of reality, not separate as a result of our evolutionary gifts such as consciousness and language. So we are all participants in the same evolutionary adventure. This insight came first in physics when quantum mechanics showed us that nature is holistic, not causally separable into independent, objective elements, while 'subjective' observers are contributors to this reality. And now in biology we are learning that it is not the genome that makes the organism but the networks of molecular elements in and between cells that selectively read and make sense of the information in the genes, creating organisms of specific form. The nature of this creative agency is what we are currently trying to understand. As I read the evidence this is leading us to the realisation that organisms use language as part of their creativity, as we do. Networking is also the principle of Gaia, the complex pattern of relationships between living organisms and the earth, the seas and the atmosphere that results in the remarkable properties of our planet as a place fit for continuously evolving life. We are not passengers on the planet but participants in this evolution.
Finally, what encourages me to believe that we have a chance of getting through the most difficult transition that we have ever faced as a species is the proliferation of new technologies, and experiments in trading and monetary systems, that could result in robust local communities that are self-sufficient and sustainable in energy, food production, and other human needs. The key here is again inter-relatedness and networking. Whatever renewable, sustainable energy process is used, whether solar or wind or water or biofuels or other (the combination will vary with geographic location and bioregion) will become the basis of a trading system that naturally links together the components of the community into a coherent, holistic pattern of relationships that is responsive to local conditions and responsible in its actions toward the natural world. These local communities will also trade with one another, but will preserve their distinctness so that diversity is both inherent and valued, unlike the homogenisation of current global relationships. Whatever the population size that emerges in such organic human networks will necessarily be within the carrying capacity of the bioregions that support them. Life will be comfortable but not indulgent, and there will be a great capacity to celebrate the life of quality that emerges. The deep expression of our capacity to make this transition is evident in powerful expressions of public awareness, as in this insight from 'A Book of Miracles':
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is not our darkness but our light that frightens us most".
We do indeed have the power and are equipped to make the transition, though it requires a fundamental shift in what drives our power, from fear of nature to a deep sense of connection with her.
Alun Anderson on The Sunlight-Powered Future.
I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.
Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there.
Can it be done? I'm lucky that as a writer I get to meet some of the world's brightest scientists each year, and I know that out there are plenty of radical new ideas for a future in which sunlight is turned straight into the forms of energy we need. Here are just three of my favourites out of scores of great ideas. First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce useable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bioethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials.
Next from Edge - George Dyson on The Return of Commercial Sail.
I am optimistic about the return of commercial sail. Hybrid sail/electric vessels will proliferate by harvesting energy from the wind.
Two near-inexhaustible energy sources—sunlight and the angular momentum of the rotating earth—combine, via the atmosphere, to produce the energy flux we know as wind. We have two well-proven methods of capturing this energy: windmills and sailing ships. Windmills are real-estate limited, since most available land surface is already spoken for, and distribution-limited since wind-swept areas tend to be far from where large concentrations of people live. Sailing ships turn wind energy directly into long-distance transport, but the practice was abandoned in an era of cheap fuel. The prospects deserve a second look. It is possible to not only conserve, but even accumulate, fuel reserves by sailing around the world.
Modern sailing vessel design, so far, has been constrained by two imperatives: racing (for sport or against commercial competition) and ability to sail upwind. Under favorable conditions sails produce far more horsepower than is needed to drive a ship. At marginal sacrifice in speed, by running the auxiliary propulsion system in reverse, this energy can be stored for later use. Hybrid vessels, able to store large amounts of energy—in conventional batteries, in flywheels, or by disassociation of seawater—would be free to roam the world.
The trade winds constitute an enormous engine waiting to be put to use. When oil becomes expensive enough, we will.
Stewart Brand on Cities — Global Population Shrinkage And Economic Growth (which is a nice book end with his "4 environmental heresies" article I quoted from yesterday).
Proviso: If climate change shifts from gradual to "abrupt" during the next 20 years, that bad news will obliterate the good news I otherwise expect in the realms of global population shrinkage and economic growth.
Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban.
The rate of urbanization is currently about 1.3 million new city dwellers a week, 70 million a year, still apparently accelerating. The world was 3% urban in 1800, 14% urban in 1900, 50% urban this year, and probably headed in the next few decades to around 80% urban, which has been the stabilization point for developed countries since the mid-20th-century.
Almost all the rush to the cities is occurring in the developing world (though the countryside continues to empty out in developed nations). The developing world is where the greatest poverty is, and where the highest birthrates have driven world population past 6.5 billion.
Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down--- perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.
Geoffrey Carr from the Economist, who says "Malthus was wrong".
When I was growing up, the problem at the heart of every environmental question was human population growth. If there aren't many people around, what they do matters little. If there are lots, even careful living is likely to have bad environmental consequences. At that time, the Earth's population was about three billion. It has now doubled to six. Not, on the face of things, great grounds for optimism.
The population curves in the newspapers and television programmes of my youth went relentlessly upwards. That was because they had only one, exponential, term. A real population curve, however, is logistic, not exponential. It does not rise indefinitely. Eventually, it reaches an inflection point and starts to level off. That is because a second term in the form of lack of space, lack of resources, disease or direct conflict between individuals stabilises it by matching the birth and death rates. And that was the fate the environmentalists of the 1970s predicted for humanity.
Such pessimism, however, failed to take account of the demographic shift that all populations (so far) have undergone as they have enriched themselves. For the negative exponent is starting to show up, and its cause is not lack of space or resources, nor yet is it conflict or disease (even AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis make only a small difference in global terms). Instead, it is the thing that the doomsters feared most after population growth — economic growth.
As a quondam evolutionary biologist, I find the demographic transition in response to higher living standards hard to explain. On the face of things, better conditions should lead to larger families, not smaller ones. However, it is impossible to argue with the facts, and the facts are that the rate of population increase is dropping, and that the drop is correlated with increases in personal economic well-being.
Perhaps the answer lies in the old idea of r and K selection. Indeed, the terms r and K come from variables in two-term logistic equation that describes real population dynamics. K-selected species, people may remember from their college ecology classes, have few offspring but nurture them lovingly. Those that are r-selected have lots, but display a Devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to their issue's survival. The crucial point is that K-selected species live in safe, predictable environments, while r-selected ones live in unsafe, unpredictable ones. If the individuals of a species were able to shift opportunistically between r and K strategies in response to shifts in the environment, then something like the demographic transition in response to wealth might be the result.
None of this means that the eventual human population of, say, ten billion will be easy for the planet to support. But such support will not be impossible, particularly as it is also the case that economic growth in rich countries is less demanding of natural resources for each additional unit of output than is the case for growth in poor countries.
Malthus was wrong to observe that population increases geometrically while the resources available to support it increase arithmetically. It was an understandable mistake. It flies in the face of common sense that population growth will actually slow down in the face of better resources. But that is what happens, and it might yet save humanity from the fate predicted for it by the Club of Rome.
Scott Sampson on A New, Environmentally Sustainable Worldview.
Given the current array of critical environmental woes—global warming, habitat loss, and species extinctions, among others—one might assume that there is little room for optimism. Nevertheless, I am optimistic, albeit cautiously so, about a profound shift in human attitudes toward the environment.
The current worldview in the Western world is a reductionist perspective that has been dominant for over 300 years. Founded by scientists such as Descartes, Newton, Galileo, and Bacon, reductionism regards the natural world as a series of machines best understood by ever-more detailed examination of constituent parts. This mechanistic approach has generated a plethora of scientific breakthroughs—quantum theory, genetics, high-speed computers, and the germ theory of disease, to name a few—with each intoxicating success fueling ever-more intense investigation of nature's components. Yet it has also fostered a fundamental division between humans and the natural world, with the former envisioned as dominating the latter.
Moreover, the Cartesian perspective on nature has proven to have severe limitations within science. In particular, because of a myopic focus on the parts, little attention has been given to connections and relationships, let alone wholes. In response to this perceived gap in understanding, many disciplines have recently turned to a 'systems' approach that often unites once separate disciplines. Thus, there has been an ever-growing emphasis on interdisciplinary research, with, for example, geobiology and biocomplexity becoming legitimate fields of study. Simultaneously, many educators have begun to direct their efforts toward revealing the "web of life," including the myriad connections that link the living and non-living aspects of nature.
The underlying themes of the outdated, mechanistic perspective are isolation and permanence, with objects perceived as relatively permanent and distinct from one another. In contrast, the new worldview celebrates the opposite concepts: connections and change. And once again there is a firm grounding in science, which has demonstrated that natural systems are inextricably interconnected and continually undergoing change (particularly if one's perspective includes deep time).
Thanks in part to a global economy and the World Wide Web, the mantra of this new movement—"It is all connected"—has even made its way into the popular media. At a slow but increasing pace, people are becoming aware that their everyday decisions can have far-reaching, even global, effects. Surely there is hope and optimism to be found in the many recent movements toward sustainability, even if most of these efforts remain on a small scale.
Nevertheless, any optimism with regard to a growing environmental consciousness must be tempered with a double dose of reality. First, environmental changes are occurring at rates that are entirely unknown in human experience. To give just one case in point, the rate of species extinctions is about 1000 times greater than has been typical in earth history. Indeed the current human-induced mass extinction is on track to obliterate on the order of one half of all species on earth by the close of this century, with unpredictable (and perhaps unimaginable) ecological consequences. Thus, we have little time to make this transformational leap. The next few decades will be pivotal.
Daniel Goleman notes that Transparency is Inevitable (I think I could have not bothered writing half my posts over the past month and just let this group of articles say everything for me).
I live in a bowl-shaped valley on the edge of the Berkshire hills in New England. The prevailing winds come from the southwest. As it happens, a coal-burning electric plant sits in the dip next to the Holyoke Range at the southern edge of the valley, perfectly placed to fill the air with its unsavory mix of particulates — the plant is a dinosaur, one that due to various regulatory loopholes has been able to dodge costly upgrades that would make its emissions less toxic.
Nobody seems to mind. True, the head of pulmonary medicine at the local medical center bemoans the toll of the plants' particulates on the respiratory tracts of those who live in the valley, particularly its children. But those who operate the Mt. Tom power plant blithely buy carbon-pollution credits that let it avoid the expense of upgrading its scrubbers.
The indifference of those of us whose respiratory systems routinely become inflamed, I'm convinced, is due in large part to a failure in collective awareness. As we join the throngs in the waiting room of the local asthma specialist, we make no connection between our being there and that smokestack, nor between our own use of electricity and the rate at which that smokestack belches its toxins.
I'm optimistic that, one day, the people in my valley will make the connections between the source of our electric power and its role in the inflammations in our lungs — and more especially our children's lungs. More generally, I believe that inexorably the world of commerce will surface the invisible toll our collective habits of consumption wreak on our environment and our health.
My optimism does not hinge on the promise of some new technological fix or scientific breakthrough. Rather my hope stems from the convergence of market forces with off-the-shelf possibilities from an oft-ignored field that has already reshaped our lives: information science.
"Ultimately, everybody will find out everything," as a saying at the Googleplex has it – Google's corporate headquarters harboring perhaps the world's densest aggregate of specialists in data mining and other applications of information science. Information science, the systematic organization and meta-knowing of all we know, has been steadily increasing the sheer quantity of what each of us can find out.
Lisa Randall says that People Will Increasingly Value Truth (Over Truthiness).
Optimism is an "ism" like any other. People reading these pages should recognize the responses as the hopeful beliefs that they are. With this caveat, I'm optimistic that people will increasingly value truth (over truthiness). After recent digressions into beliefs and images dominating current thought, I'm anticipating that society will increasingly recognize and understand the value of knowledge. People will want to make their own critical judgments, know more facts, and stop deferring to questionable authorities or visual media for their education. I don't necessarily think everyone will do so. But I'm optimistic that the ones who do won't remain a silent minority.
And to close this series from Edge (and like I said, its all worth reading), Rudy Rucker has a (slightly off-topic) post on A Knowable Gaian Mind.
There will be an amazing new discovery in physics on a par with the discovery of radio waves or the discovery of nuclear reactions. This new discovery will involve a fuller understanding of the level of reality that lies "below" the haze of quantum mechanics—suppose we call this new level the domain of the subdimensions.
Endless free energy will flow from the subdimensions. And, by using subdimensional shortcuts akin to what is now called quantum entanglement, we'll become able to send information over great distances with no energy cost. In effect the whole world can become linked like a wireless network, simply by tapping into the subdimensional channel.
This universal telepathy will not be limited to humans; it will extend to animals, plants, and even ordinary objects. Via the subdimensions you'll be able to see every object in the world. Conversely, every object in the world will be in some limited sense conscious, in that it will be aware of all the other objects in the world.
A useful corollary is that any piece of brute matter will be a computer just as it is. That is, once we can reach into the inner self of an object, we'll become able to program the behavior of things like rocks or log—without our having to attach any kind of microprocessor as an intermediary.
Humans will communicate at a vastly enhanced level. Presently I communicate an idea by broadcasting a string of words that serves as a program for reconstructing one of my thoughts. Once we enjoy subdimensional telepathy, I can simply send you a link to the location of some particular idea in my head.
Machines will fade away and, in particular, digital computers will be no more. The emerging interactions of Earth's telepathically communicating beings will become a real and knowable Gaian mind. And then we will become aware of the other higher minds in our cosmos.
Forbes has an article on the world's most congested cities.
Having the worst traffic can mean the worst accidents, worst pollution, worst crowding, worst commutes and a host of other ugly conditions and experiences.
The list of the worst world cities for traffic is skewed by the growing impact of transportation revolutions in developing countries. It takes time to build a road infrastructure. It takes time to install and maintain a traffic system. Traffic lights have to be coordinated and their power source has to have redundancy. It takes time to train and educate drivers.
The list of the world's most congested cities centers on many Asian and a few African and Latin American cities that for the most part are playing catch up or trying to. For the moment, at least, their growth is defeating them. Moreover, "traffic is only one of the side effects of growth," says Roy Barnes, the author and former Georgia governor, who had to contend with his own problems of congestion and growth.
The inner cities in developing countries normally don’t have underground transportation, and that means street traffic, and that means congestion. Even the presence of a new subway as in Cairo has not really relieved the pressure of ever more vehicles on Cairo’s roads.
Cities with the highest density of population per square kilometer are the logical candidates for becoming the most congested, because congestion increases as the growth in their wealth increases the number of cars versus the less expensive alternatives of bicycles, motor scooters or motorcycles. Cars take up more room whether they are in motion or when parked--if they can be parked. U.S. and European cities have often chosen to place garages in new buildings, while older nonindustrialized cities often lack such amenities. Cars may therefore be parked everywhere, legally or illegally.
The cities with the highest level of population congestion are: Manila, the Philippines; Cairo, Egypt; Lagos, Nigeria; Macau, off the Chinese coast; Seoul, South Korea; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. To drive a car in any of them might be the ultimate challenge.
Well over 50 million cars are being manufactured in the world each year, and they have to go someplace. There are over 240 million vehicles in the U.S. alone, while the world estimate is over 750 million vehicles and counting. The tilt is toward more vehicles for those places least able to cope with them. It is estimated that by 2030 the number of vehicles in the world will double.
The number of vehicles will only double if they get a lot more fuel efficient (or go electric) - one of the many benefits of peak oil.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a documentary on the global warming Denial Machine.
In the past few years, a hurricane has engulfed the debate about global warming. This scientific issue has become a rhetorical firestorm with science pitted against spin and inflammatory words on both sides.
How could scientific fact, which many believe could determine the very future of the planet, become a political battleground, pitting left versus right, environmentalist versus climate change sceptic?
Global warming: potential costs?
A recent British report [The Stern Report] estimates that the projected costs of global warming to be as costly as both world wars and the Great Depression added together. Yet, with such consequences, some scientists still insist that climate change, if it is happening at all, could be a good thing.
The Denial Machine investigates the roots of the campaign to negate the science and the threat of global warming. It tracks the activities of a group of scientists, some of whom previously consulted for for Big Tobacco, and who are now receiving donations from major coal and oil companies.
Who is keeping the debate of global warming alive?
The documentary shows how fossil fuel corporations have kept the global warming debate alive long after most scientists believed that global warming was real and had potentially catastrophic consequences. It shows that companies such as Exxon Mobil are working with top public relations firms and using many of the same tactics and personnel as those employed by Phillip Morris and RJ Reynolds to dispute the cigarette-cancer link in the 1990s. Exxon Mobil sought out those willing to question the science behind climate change, providing funding for some of them, their organizations and their studies.
The Denial Machine also explores how the arguments supported by oil companies were adopted by policy makers in both Canada and the U.S. and helped form government policy.
Turning from the machinations of the lysenkoists to matters spiritual, Newsweek has an article by ex Bishop John Shelby Spong on why Human Definitions of God Need Revision. This article is a lot like a conversation I had with my brother-in-law over Christmas, in which he noted that Anglican traditionalists like him couldn't care less about atheists (ie. me) - what they really can't stand is the fundamentalists - something we were happy to agree on.
I welcome the attention that serious atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are offering the world at this moment through their books. They are bringing what I regard as a deserved criticism and a necessary correction to what Christianity has become in our generation.
I, for one, have no desire to worship a God who is thought to favor the war in the Middle East in order to accomplish some obscure prediction found in the late first century book of Revelation, who suppresses women in the name of ancient patriarchy, or who is so deeply homophobic that oppressing homosexuals becomes the defining issue of church life.
Such an irrational, superstitious deity has no appeal to me and the attack of atheists against this kind of God is welcome. I also do not want to be told that the “true God” can be found either in the inerrancy of the Bible or in the infallibility of a Pope. Both are absurd religious claims designed not to discover truth but to enforce religious authority and conformity.
I believe, therefore, that atheism as a challenge to organized religion has a worthy vocation to fulfill. The real atheists are saying that the God they have encountered inside the life of the church is too small and too compromised to be God for their lives. If the church is dedicated to such an unbelievable, magical and miracle-working deity that it cannot admit to any genuine probing of the divine, then the atheist speaks a powerful truth.
Atheism, technically, does not mean a denial of the existence of God. It means literally a denial of the theistic definition of God. That is to say, theism is not what God is; it is what human beings have decided that God is. Human definitions of God can die without God dying. Theism means that we perceive of God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to this world (usually conceived of as above the sky), who periodically invades this world in miraculous ways.”
This is the God who split the Red Sea to rescue the chosen people and who invaded the world in the person of Jesus to rescue the fallen creation. This is also the deity displaced by Galileo, made impotent by Isaac Newton, ridiculed by Freud and relativized by Einstein.
The theological question that needs to be explored in both church and state is this: Can God be understood in some way other than through these infantile and tribal images? Can Jesus be seen in some way other than as the divinely appointed sacrificial victim who paid the price owed to God for our sinfulness? Because I believe that both God and Jesus are so much more than these distorting images suggest, I am confident that a dialogue with those who call themselves “atheists” would not only be good for the church but it would also allow deep and profound truth to emerge.
Among the issues for discussion between atheists and believers would be: What leads human beings to seek to define God in the first place? Is it the human experience of transcendence? Otherness? Divinity? How then do we conceptualize that experience? If the worship of our God leads us to justify our killing religious prejudices that have throughout history created such things as the Inquisition, the Crusades, religious wars and even the current ecclesiastical attack on homosexual persons, can this God really be anything other than a creature of our own making? Will we remain deluded enough to call this creature God? Since that is what the theistic God has so regularly given us, would not the world be better off without such a deity?
The choice between the theism of the church and the atheism of those who reject the God of the church is to me a sterile and lifeless choice. Such a meeting between believers and atheists might lead us to examine what Paul Tillich called “the God beyond the gods of men and women.” If believers cannot have that conversation because it compromises their God definition, then that is a tip-off that the God they serve is in fact an idol and atheism is always a proper response to idolatry.
This goes quite well with another article from Edge (not in the "optimism" series) on "reinventing the sacred" which looks at how religion might be evolved to become more compatible with science and the environment (though Jaron Lanier notes in the comments that the last thing we need is a single universal religion - diversity being a source of strength, after all).
A great divide splits contemporary society between those who believe in a transcendent God, and those, including myself, who do not. In the West, and now throughout the world, the massive advances of science since Galileo and Newton have given birth to secular society. In the Christian and Jewish segments of the Abrahamic religions, the theistic God who intervened in the affairs of the world gave way in the Enlightenment to a Deistic God who wound up the universe, set the initial conditions, and allowed Newton's laws to carry on. This God no longer entered into the affairs of man. In the theistic tradition, God became either the God of the gaps, where science had yet to hold sway, or, contrary to science, God intervened in the running of the cosmos.
In the West, those who hold to a view of a theistic God, including the Christian fundamentalists of such power in the United States, find themselves in a cultural war with those who do not believe in a transcendent God, whether agnostic or atheistic. This war is evidenced by the fierce battle over Intelligent Design being waged politically and in the court systems of the United States. While the battleground is Darwinism, the deeply emotional issues are more fundamental. These include the belief of many religious people that without God's authority, morality has no basis. Literally, for those in the West who hold to these views, part of the passion underlying religious conviction is the fear that the very foundations of Western society will tumble if faith in a transcendent God is not upheld.
The majority of the Abrahamic peoples are Muslims. I know the Islamic world poorly, but believe that their fundamentalism again in part lies in these moral issues.
Beyond that, reductionism, wrought by the successes of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Planck, and Schrodinger, and all that has followed, preeminently in physics, has, as I will expand upon in a moment, left us in world of fact — cold fact with no scientific place for value. "The more we know of the cosmos, the more meaningless it appears", said Stephen Weinberg in Dreams of a Final Theory. For example, Wolfgang Kohler, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, wrote a mid 20th century book entitled hopefully: The Place of Value in a World of Fact. And just a few days ago, a conversation with a humanist professor at the University of Pennsylvania astonished me with her account of how we are again a meaningless world in the post modern world view rampant in the North American humanities.
On the other side of this vast divide than those who hold to a transcendent God and His authority for meaning and values, are the innumerable secular humanists, children of the enlightenment and contemporary science, who hold firmly to reality as revealed by science, find values in their love for their families and friends, a general sense of fairness and a morality that needs no basis in God's word. Yet we secular humanists have paid an unspoken price for our firm sense that (reductionist) science tells us what is real.
First, we have no well wrought scientific basis for our humanity — despite the interesting fact that quantum mechanics on the Copenhagen interpretation assumes free willed physicists who choose what quantum features to measure and thereby change the physical world. The two cultures, science and humanities, remain firmly un-united. And equally important, we have been subtly robbed of our deep capacity for spiritualism. We have come to believe that spirituality is inherently co-localized with a belief in God, and that without such a belief, spirituality is inherently foolish, questionable, without foundation, wishful thinking, silly.
In turn, we lack a global ethic to constitute the transnational mythic value structure that can sustain the emerging global civilization. We tend to believe in the value of democracy and the free market. We are largely reduced to consumers. Here it is telling that Kenneth Arrow, brilliant Nobel Laureate in economics and friend, took part in a commission to "place a value" on preservation of National Parks and was stymied in his attempt to find a way to calculate that value based on utility to citizens. Thus, even in our enjoyment of the wild, we are reduced to consumers in our currant Weltanschauung.
Two fine authors, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, have written recent books, The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell arguing against religion. Their views are based on contemporary science. But the largest convictions of contemporary science remain based on reductionism.
I would like to begin a discussion about the first glimmerings of a new scientific world view — beyond reductionism to emergence and radical creativity in the biosphere and human world. This emerging view finds a natural scientific place for value and ethics, and places us as co-creators of the enormous web of emerging complexity that is the evolving biosphere and human economics and culture. In this scientific world view, we can ask: Is it more astonishing that a God created all that exists in six days, or that the natural processes of the creative universe have yielded galaxies, chemistry, life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, culture without a Creator. In my mind and heart, the overwhelming answer is that the truth as best we know it, that all arose with no Creator agent, all on its wondrous own, is so awesome and stunning that it is God enough for me and I hope much of humankind.
Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself. This God brings with it a sense of oneness, unity, with all of life, and our planet — it expands our consciousness and naturally seems to lead to an enhanced potential global ethic of wonder, awe, responsibility within the bounded limits of our capacity, for all of life and its home, the Earth, and beyond as we explore the Solar System.
The story concerns engineers trying to invent the tractor. They would need a massive engine block. They tried it on chasse after chasse, all of which broke. Finally one of the engineers said, "The engine block itself is so massive and rigid that we can use the engine block itself as the chasse." And that is how tractors are made. Now the rigidity of the tractor was a Darwinian preadaptation, a causal feature useful for a new function. Its discovery was a true invention. But this means that the technological evolution of the econosphere is also not finitely prestatable, nor presumably algorithmic. It too is ceaselessly creative, expanding from some 1000 goods and services say 50,000 years ago to perhaps 10 billion today.
And human culture, in general, is ceaselessly creative as the biosphere and culture expand into what I call the Adjacent Possible. Here the point is that, at levels of complexity above the atom, the universe has not had time to make all possible complex objects, such as all proteins length 200. The universe, at these levels of complexity, is on a unique trajectory. So when my friend Gertrude flew, she changed the material and behavioral features of the evolving universe. So did Picasso.
In short, in wondrous ways, these our universe, biosphere, econosphere, and culture are ceaselessly creative and emergent. The two cultures, science and humanities, stand united in this world view. Meaning and value have a scientific base. And ethics? At a recent meeting on science and religion on Star Island, we heard more than one lecture on animal emotions and the sense of fairness in chimpanzees. Group selection, we were told, is now making its way into evolutionary biology. With it, natural selection can get its grip on behaviors that are advantageous to the group, like fairness, so it emerges. Far from evolution being anathema to ethics, evolution is the first source of human morality. But not the last, for we can argue whether we should want what we want.
God and a Global Ethic
God is the most powerful symbol we have created. The Spaniards in the New World built their churches on the holy sites of those they vanquished. Notre Dame sits on a Druid holy site. Shall we use the God word? It is our choice. Mine is a tentative "yes". I want God to mean the vast ceaseless creativity of the only universe we know of, ours. What do we gain by using the God word? I suspect a great deal, for the word carries with it awe and reverence. If we can transfer that awe and reverence, not to the transcendental Abrahamic God of my Israelite tribe long ago, but to the stunning reality that confronts us, we will grant permission for a renewed spirituality, and awe, reverence and responsibility for all that lives, for the planet.
Does one know that such a transformation of human sensibilities will happen? Of course not. But the sense of justice matured in the Abrahamic tradition from 10 eyes for an eye, to an eye for an eye, to love thine enemy as thyself. Then can a heightened consciousness bring about a global ethic? I believe so. I believe, I hope correctly, that what I have sketched above is true, points to a new vision of our co-creating reality, that it invites precisely an enhancement of our sense of spirituality, reverence, wonder, and responsibility, and can form the basis of a trans-national mythic structure for an emerging global civilization.
To ever succeed, this new view needs to be soft spoken. You see, we can say, here is reality, is it not worthy of stunned wonder? What more could we want of a God? Yes, we give up a God who intervenes on our behalf. We give up heaven and hell. But we gain ourselves, responsibility, and maturity of spirit. I know that saying that ethics derives from evolution undercuts the authority of God as its source. But do we need such a God now? I think not. Nor do we need the spiritual wasteland that post-modernism has brought us. Beyond my admired friend Kenneth Arrow, natural parks are valuable because life is valuable on its own, a wonder of emergence, evolution and creativity. Reality is truly stunning. So if you find this useful, let us go forth, as was said long ago, and invite consideration by others of this new vision of reality. With it, let us recreate spiritual community and membership. Let us go forth. Civilization needs to be changed.
On a semi related note, I listened to a good Neofiles podcast today which had an interview with Charles Ostman that contained all sorts of interesting bits of information - some relevant to the religion topic, some just straight out technology (though verging on the mystical at times) and some on global transformation and the 2012 meme.
I'll close with a group of French people resisting change - in this case demonstrating against the dawn of 2007 - having failed to stop its advance they are now opposing 2008.
Hundreds of protesters in France have rung in the New Year by holding a light-hearted march against it.
Parodying the French readiness to say "non", the demonstrators in the western city of Nantes waved banners reading: "No to 2007" and "Now is better!"
The marchers called on governments and the UN to stop time's "mad race" and declare a moratorium on the future.
The protest was held in the rain and organisers joked that even the weather was against the New Year.
The tension mounted as the minutes ticked away towards midnight - but the arrival of 2007 did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm.
The protesters began to chant: "No to 2008!"