Sunday, February 26, 2012

Planetary Emergencies, Santorum, & Science

The American Association for the Advancement of Science had its annual meeting in Vancouver from February 16 to 20. A few revealing quotes from the meeting seem to have gone largely overlooked in the American press. According to James Hansen, a US climate scientist at NASA, "We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognize that (emphasis added)." According to Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University, "It's about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing number's don't." Both statements are remarkable. The public's decreasing belief that climate change is real evidences Petter's claim.

Even if we ignore casualty, climate change is real. Polar ice caps are melting; species are becoming extinct; and the pH of the oceans is falling. As it is, the scientific consensus, at least embodied in the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and among other research entities, is that human activities quite likely cause climate change. (According to NASA's reading of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, the probability that human activities over the last 250 years have warmed our planet exceeds 90%.)

AAAS president Nina Fedoroff also made an interesting point: "Belief systems, especially when tinged with fear, are not easily dispersed with facts." The implication here is that people who reject science may reject it further as climate science presents them with scary facts. And the simple truth is that we should have fear - not paralyzing fear but healthy, natural fear. For instance, an upcoming article by Pierre Rampal, a researcher at the Department of Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, suggests that the IPCC estimates, which are themselves provocative, are actually too conservative.

Enter Santorum. I hesitate to single him out from other candidates but his recent statements are quite relevant. The former Senator and Republic presidential candidate recently in eastern Ohio said that "I refer to global warming as not climate science but political science." Another quote implied that President Obama maintains a "world view that elevates the earth above man." Elsewhere he has said: this "idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth - I think that is a phony ideal." Ignoring his use of language, he overlooks a) the idea that humans might have a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth and, more importantly, b) we aren't 'husbanding' earth resources.

If Santorum had any scientific training, he might step back and ask himself a few questions: Is man (or woman) above the earth? How can we be greater than that which makes us - at least on a physical level? Could it be that the very attitude that we are greater than the Earth is why we are in such trouble. These are not trivial questions; and I don't pretend to have definitive answers. But I wonder if Santorum has the ability to handle them with substance.

I believe in God. And I even believe that evil is probably getting stronger in the world (as is ignorance).* However, I also believe in science; and I know decisively that climate change and other environmental issues could soon define the 21st century just as science and technology defined the 20th century. Furthermore, I don't necessarily believe we need to look to administrative and state solutions to climate change as much as innovation-based and market solutions. It is also worth noting that just as people seem to ignore climate science, many ignore the evolving scientific knowledge of macroeconomics and financial economics when it comes to setting policy - a subject I will leave for another day.

Post Script: One of the concepts I do advocate with the option3 project is ability to look beyond rationality. There are many reasons why one might do this. I'll leave that subject for another day except to share this link, which sheds light on one set of conditions where rationality can break down.

* Post Script (November 2013): If evil is getting stronger so is its antithesis.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Future is Now: Political Activation

UPDATE: This entry was reformatted for presentation on 12/31/14 and the Hawken quote has been added.  And the subtitle was added on 7/4/17.

For a long time, I have found valuable ideas missing (or perhaps still developing) from many economic and policy dialogues. As much as I see well-intentioned people in public policy and elsewhere, I find that our priorities, as Americans and Westerners in general, seem off.

How and why we have reached this point in history is not obvious. But clearly, inequality and instability are becoming the hallmarks of today. Furthermore, whether or not people in the United States want to admit it, the balance of power in the world is somewhat in play. It is not clear what the new pattern will look like; it's not even clear that nation-states themselves will come out on top.

Political Activation and the Information War

For the first time in history almost all of humanity is politically activism is generating a surge in the quest for cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination.
        Zbigniew Brzezinskiformer US National Security Advisor2008

Last March Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave testimony before the US Foreign Policy Priorities Committee in the US Senate. The aim of the testimony was in part to secure funding for media outreach. She quickly made a number of points: i) the US needs to portray a more unified narrative, ii) alternative English-language news channels and websites have increasing readership and influence in the world, and iii) these sources focus on 'real news' rather than talking heads and pseudo-analysis. She also said in frank terms that we are losing a supposed information war. (It is worth noting that perhaps all governments are losing this war - not only the US.)  

Brzezinski's quotes affirm this thinking.  He is no Leftist.  This is Brzezinski.  In short, the jig is up; people increasingly understand how narratives and social construction have been used to manage and manipulate people throughout history.  The question of the future is not only political but also and more importantly economic. 

Economic Retool

The question today is whether democracies can thrive with financial systems that are out of control, that are capable of generating selfishly beneficial consequences only for the few, without any effective framework that gives us a larger, more ambitious sense of purpose.
        Brzezinskiformer US National Security Advisor2012

This is not an OWS protester speaking. Again, Brzezinski.  He goes on to say that we are living "without any larger conception about which direction our societies as a whole should be heading". I am not here to advocate central planning; hopefully neither is Brzezinski.  But we are in unfamiliar territory: no Cold War, a poorly delineated perpetual War on Terror, a collapsing middle class, fewer and fewer medium and high wage jobs, a weakening infrastructure, struggling education system, and an environmental situation which is misunderstood by all but a growing minority. While we need to balance our budgets over the long term and stay committed to real freedom and liberty, we are toying with calamity by not addressing big-picture questions. Top among those questions are the health of the economy and the environment.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to re-tool our economic future by realigning the physical economy with the environment. Becoming a service economy serves only a minority of Americans. Physical production serves all Americans. Manufacturing 2.0, if you will, is the re-design and re-engineering of cars, buildings, and energy systems. Physical production generates income and jobs for average people, wealth for managers and owners of capital, and research institutions for the benefit of society.  Physical production is the very core and nature of development (as opposed to growth alone*), which will ultimately provide the resources to re-design how markets create and distribute food and medicine. Utopia is not possible. Aiming for greater stability and equality (of opportunity) are possible.

Unfortunately, we are not likely to make such changes with ease and certainly not soon. Introducing change in a system always creates new economic losers even if the net benefit is positive. The people who benefit from the existing order have so much to loose and so much influence on the people who live under them that change will produce enormous economic pain - subjective or not. Furthermore, change will alter the conveniences we all experience, which is hard for people today. We are not the sturdy people we were 500 years ago.


A New Operating System

[Y]ou are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation... but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. 
        Paul Hawken, 2009

The rigidities of industrial food, fossil fuel, and conventional medicine along with the nexus of property taxes, public education funding, and institutional discrimination all together make significant policy change difficult.  As such, it may well remain that inequality will persist and worsen into future. But the environment is a very different issue. The environment that we all live in today distinguishes us from that of people living as recently as a 100 years ago in that the pace of environmental change is now possibly orders of magnitude faster than before; that claim is not based on climate change but rather on biodiversity, which is a key measure of environmental health. And some speculate that non-linearities in environmental systems may further hasten the speed of environmental change. From an abstract modeling perspective, the picture of chaos is not unreasonable.

Rationally speaking, I do not think we, as a race, will go much further without significant alterations to our numbers, our lifestyles, or our production strategies. We are due for change of some sort either within five years or 25 years. I doubt either our nation and our planet will make behavioral changes until serious suffering has begun at every level of society. However, when I resist the impulse to rely on rationality, I remember, that up to a certain unknown point, we always have options. If people choose food, construction processes, energy, medicines, and transportation goods and services that are clean, healthy and produced in less centralized fashion, anything can happen.

For more info visit my website option3.

* Innovation in the goods and services within the loanable funds market is a form of economic development. But such development is second in importance to development in physical production. In other words, in the super-long run, I value food and health over stocks and bonds. But I digress.