August 31, 2011

Agnotology and future developments

Not to belabor these religious matters, but the inability of anyone from a skeptical viewpoint ever to close the difference between hermself and the community of believers is instructive in other areas as well. I was thinking, in particular, about the reflexive habit of Christians to refer to the Bible as proof of the Bible, and, in general, to the primacy of strong feeling over a more austere, scientific approach.

My thoughts led me to a slightly ghoulish train of thought which I'll reproduce here, the ghoulishness at least having the advantage of being memorable. It starts with this observation: if I trust the formulas in a physics textbook, for example, it is because I sense pretty strongly that the formulas have been experimentally validated in the real world. Most rational people would not argue that the formula for a falling body above Earth (d=1/2gt^2, where g is the terrestrial constant for gravity, d is distance, and t is time) is true because this formula is written down in a physics book; it's the other way around. It's in the book because it was experimentally validated first.

I performed one such validation a few years ago when I was writing a novel which had a scene set on the Golden Gate Bridge. Given my penchant for gathering essentially useless facts, I researched and found that the bridge at the center is about 225 feet above the water. This gave me, roughly, d. The question germane to my book was: if a person stepped off into space from the center of the bridge, how long till splashdown? I had a lousy high school physics teacher (discussed at length recently with faithful reader W, who suffered the same fate), a teacher who thought physics, in some sense, could be taught non-quantitatively, so I'm always at pains to fill in this gap with some real number crunching. Rearranging the formula above, I came to a result of around 3 seconds, with maximum speed at about 80 miles per hour.

Around this time, the haunting documentary "The Bridge" was released, and I watched it on dvd. This movie actually films a number of bridge suicides over the course of one year by means of a camera constantly trained on the span. Ergo, of course, I used the stopwatch function on my phone to time one particularly well-filmed jumper (who cooperated by falling backwards off the bridge rather than jumping, which confounds the calculation). It was shown, naturally, several times, both in slow-mo and in real time. My stopwatch reading was consistently 4 seconds for the real time sequences. Well, of course: air resistance, wind, et cetera. Close enough, however, for some sort of Newtonian validation.

Biblical proof is circular because it has no real-world cognates or referents. It's a completely sterile exercise in reading something and declaring it's true because you just read it. We're asked to believe what's in the Book because it's in the Book. I've often thought this circularity does not need to be so. An actual god could show up at Times Square at noon on Sunday and put on a magic show which would eliminate all doubt. Believers have various answers for this curious resistance of the deity to clearing up the mystery, none of them particularly convincing to me. Most of the excuses, in fact, sound a little smug, as if believers actually prefer the mystery as a way of enhancing the In-Crowd nature of being among the saved.

Anyway, this word "agnotology" has arisen recently as a word applicable to what is becoming known, in America, as the "Alternative Reality Right (ARR)." Essentially, agnotology is the study of culturally-induced ignorance. To run for President as a Republican these days, it is almost mandatory (why do I say "almost?") that a person voice certain culturally-required professions of profound ignorance, such as Rick Perry's idea that evolution "is a theory with some holes in it." Why stop there? Maybe that gravitational theory up above has some holes in it too. (I've never understood how Strict Creationists deal with the ability of bacteria to develop immunity to antibiotics. Is it the Creationist position that bacteria just "figure it out?") And although 97% of the scientists seriously involved in climate research confirm that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is occurring, and that, if anything, the official pronouncements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are perhaps dangerously optimistic in their time lines, the ARR will point out a few dissenters (usually referred to as "thousands of scientists") and claim that these lone voices (some with demonstrable links to oil and coal companies) are right, although, to tell the truth, the ARR cannot explain even the fundamentals of AGW and are basing their preference for the (extreme) minority position for the same reason as their preference for Creationism, I guess, which is also an extreme minority position among biologically-educated scientists, including all of those in the National Academy of Sciences. In point of fact, it's a mystery to me why three disparate fields of human inquiry (the origin of the Universe, evolutionary adaptation and AGW) should all inspire the same response from the same theocratic impulse. Is it just a maniacal desire to be wrong all the time, no matter what the human cost?

Since the United States is the world's primary energy hog (on a per capita basis - well, hell, you name the basis), there are real world consequences of such idiocy. Reading this book by Richard Heinberg (and the Peak Oil theorists in general, including Our Man Dmitry), I'm beginning to see that peak oil, and the concomitant requirement that life again be re-localized on a massive scale, may operate as a kind of deus ex machina (and that's the one sense in which "god" might have some currency). To wit, American progressives (the educated members living in Consensus Reality) are never, ever going to convince the ARR of...well, anything. That's what agnotology is concluding. The ARR is so stuck in a kind of mindless denial and delusion, so haunted by ghosts, souls, goblins, gods, demons and the rest of their dramatis personae of insanity, that there is absolutely no hope whatsoever that this thing can be turned around through rational procedures. Thus, to counter the impediment which the United States is, an outside force, called Mother Nature, must intervene and compel all the changes that America, acting monolithically, is incapable of making on a volitional basis.

There might be time for that to happen before the window of opportunity slams shut and runaway greenhouse becomes inevitable, and Mankind's arrogant experiment with accelerating the entropic conversion of potential energy to waste heat beyond natural rhythms will come to a screaming stop. It's almost enough to make me believe in Divine Providence.

August 29, 2011

Richard Heinberg's The End of Growth

I've been reading Richard Heinberg's latest book, The End of Growth, which follows up where his book Peak Everything left off. Increasingly, it seems to me that we've turned a corner in our economic reality. Whereas before the arguments were monopolized, on the one hand, by the liberal Keynesians, who contended the path to growth, and thus full employment, was a robust participation by the federal government through spending to take up the slack in private demand; and on the other, by the Austrians and other "conservatives" who are convinced that government is the problem, and that big public debts are the precursors to runaway inflation, the "Deep Economics" of people like Heinberg (building on seminal work by Herman Daly and his Steady State Economics of the 1970's, along with all the brilliant books by Barry Commoner, which analyzed the thermodynamics of our energy predicament), Heinberg et al. proceed as if there is a physical environment involved in economic reality. Pretty wild, huh? I think so too.

I think that small lacuna, the absence of context, is what drives me a little nuts about liberal economists such as Paul Krugman. His personal style, grandiose as it is, grates somewhat, but it's his (apparently) unexamined belief that "growth in GDP," regardless of its composition, that makes me question whether there is really much of a difference between a "liberal" economist such as Krugman or Brad DeLong (on the faculty at John Yoo University) and a conservative. They all want the same thing, I guess: the return of the American consumer economy with unemployment at a nice, healthy 5%, growth at 4% of GDP, just like the good old days. They are only arguing about how to get there - should the federal government increase its existing deficit of around $1.5 trillion (and 43% of its total budget) to something along the lines of $2.5 trillion? Krugman & Co. say yes, because they're convinced the medium-term growth in the economy will allow the economy to fill in the difference with tax revenues in the longer term. The conservatives say this is folly, not because they don't believe in growth, but because the federal government will "crowd out" private investment or "over regulate."

Although I write about it from time to time, I don't really care whether the United States increases its budget deficits. The interest rates it pays on Treasury debt are, for the time being, dirt cheap, and the effect on servicing costs of the national debt (that $8 trillion or so that is truly "public," that is, not one of the intragovernmental trust funds or bonds owned by the Treasury's alter ego, the Federal Reserve) are not a big deal - now. But I actually don't care because it's pretty obvious we're never going to get near paying off the national debt anyway because that would require true growth in the economy, and that is not going to happen. So pile it on: a deadbeat with room on his credit limit may as well take things up to the max before he goes belly up.

What Heinberg & his ilk point out (Dmitry Orlov is very good on these same points) is that actual growth in an economy (as opposed to monetary and fiscal games, which the United States substitutes for productive activity) requires energy. We don't often think about the congruence of energy and economic growth because we've been distracted by people getting rich writing credit default swaps, which seem to require only household alternating current plugged into a computer. But at the macroeconomic level, an increase in wealth (meaning, an increase in the overall well-being of the general populace in terms of maintaining their vital heat through eating and shelter) requires a real interaction between the human race and the planet we live on. Fundamentally, this is because we are ourselves carbon-based life forms dependent on physical processes for survival; while it's confusing at times because of all the virtual avatars we now substitute for our actual selves, facebook and Twitter, by themselves, are not something you can eat. The way we effect the interaction between Homo sapiens and Earth is through the use of energy.

We are now entering an era of permanent shortage in the cheap liquid fuels on which modern civilization has been built, and everything is going to change as a result. In the United States, for example, liquid fuels (primarily gasoline) are used for 90% of the passenger miles traveled by Americans. Petroleum inputs are used in virtually everything, but most critically in order to carry on agribusiness. Our consumer society depends on long-range transportation of goods through the global economy to their Big Box destinations. At a point past Peak Oil (which has already happened), then the whole system begins to wobble, as the price of oil goes up, the fear of shortages begins to drive future prices, as the uncertainty of long-haul restocking begins to weigh on the decisions whether to expand existing business, et cetera. As Dmitry Orlov has demonstrated through a careful thought experiment, the ride down from Peak Oil is not a smooth descent, but a chaotic, bumpy ride, as various negative feedbacks begin to interact. More or less the way the world increasingly seems to be these days, in other words. We're just not always aware of the Man Behind the Curtain, imagining it's all because of one political "policy" decision or another. Things will become increasingly clear over the next decade, that's for sure.

As I say: an interesting read.