July 26, 2012

Yogi Berra's Future

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."  Yogi Berra.

"The winter in Ithaca convinced him that he had to leave, and Caltech, in addition to better weather, had the appeal of not being a liberal arts university like Cornell, where, he said, 'the theoretical broadening which comes from having many humanities subjects on campus is offset by the general dopiness of the people who study these things.'"  Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss, about Richard Feynman's life in physics.  

Once I was asked by my mother what the university experience was all about (she had not attended college), and I thought about it for a minute and answered that, as far as the subjects I had studied, it seemed to be a reading list.  You could read the books that educated people thought were important, and the university provided a handy list, called a syllabus, as a guide to your reading.  Another approach to such an education, in other words, would be to have someone who attended the college simply give you the lists, and then you could approach your "education" at your leisure.

I think the "classical" style of education probably made more sense - an emphasis on hard sciences and dead languages, specifically Greek and Latin.  These subjects are better learned in a formal academic setting.  You can "figure out" the plays of Shakespeare or Toqueville's Democracy in America on your own - listening to people lecture about such things simply indoctrinates you into a certain subjective approach, which is probably more limiting than helpful.

The blogosphere daily reflects the limitations of "liberal arts" commentators.  I was thinking this as I read through Jim Kunstler's book Too Much Magic, about the general hopelessness of technology to solve our future energy and economic problems.  Kunstler assures us in numerous places that it's inconceivable we'll come up with solutions that "scale" to the problems we'll face,  and ticks off the usual arguments one by one (solar, wind, thermal, nuclear and so forth) and confidently proclaims that nothing is going to work once oil shortages begin to hit.

That's the thing about the blogosphere: it's become highly influential in a relatively short period, but the general reading public does not often reflect on the absence of peer review, that winnowing process in professional scientific journals that gives at least some guarantee that what you're reading is not absolute nonsense.  The absence of any "gating" procedure such as peer review means that a book like Kunstler's, which follows closely the arguments he makes weekly on his blog Clusterfuck Nation, enters the stream of commerce and consciousness without any real vetting.  I try to remember this as I read such confident "predictions" about the future.

Because I fundamentally agree with Yogi Berra.  Yogi, in his trademark way, was suggesting that the future is impossible to predict because of the problem of unknown variables and feedback loops.  Take the problem of water shortages, for example.  The Earth is covered with salt water, to enormous depths, over 70% of its surface (my daughter forwards word from her oceanography class this summer that the coolest theory going currently is that the water in the oceans originated with impacts from ice-bearing asteroids - I really like that one).  Most of mankind (on the order of 75%) lives near or on the sea coasts.  Thus, a major breakthrough in desalination (dealing, essentially, with the energy issues and with the osmotic sludge produced in the process) would solve the fresh water shortage problem in perpetuity.  But, Kunstler assures us, we will not have the energy for such a process.  He specifically rules out any possibility of fusion power as a solution (for desalination or anything else).

Feynman would not have ruled out fusion power; indeed, he encouraged his Caltech students to pursue the engineering issues (the science is well understood) because he was confident the process could be mastered.  So, just supposing, you simultaneously made breakthroughs in fusion power and desalination - immediately, two gigantic problems would be overcome by a synergistic interplay in (that awful word) technology.  (Or, in the Ali G usage I prefer, techmology.)  At one point (in telephone and telegraph days) the internet itself was unimaginable.  It required the development of materials science (something Feynman also got very interested in) alongside the development of computer science, which at the time was a subset of electrical engineering (Feynman was in on the ground floor of computer science as well, and was the first to conceive of quantum computing).

The mistake Kunstler makes, in my opinion, is that he violates the basic rule of the scientific method, and, again, no one could describe the integrity of the scientific method better than Richard Feynman.  Kunstler assumes his conclusion: we are headed back to horse-and-buggy days, with a general store and a cracker barrel, with a potbellied stove in the middle of the plank-floored room, and the women, dressed in gingham, will turn the paddles in the butter churn and gossip about the new young filly who's living in sin just up the road a piece.  Et cetera.  Thus, all variables which seem to defeat this illusion are quickly and summarily dismissed as inconvenient impediments to this anodyne imagery of America in the 1840's.

That's not the way to do it, in my opinion. At the front end of your "thought experiment," you must not presume your conclusion; otherwise, you will, consciously or unconsciously, force all of your data in a direction favorable to your presumed outcome.

In point of fact, there are lots of ideas which have not been tried yet.  For a simple example, people laugh at Steven Chu's suggestion that all roofs in America be painted white. In the Sunbelt, this will have the effect of lowering electrical usage for air conditioning, and, everywhere, the roofs will reflect incoming sunlight creating an albedo effect.  The reflected light will not radiate infrared heat into the atmosphere where it can be captured by greenhouse gases.  Similarly, all roads should be light colored to reduce the "heat island" problem.  Chu also is a proponent of the cellulosic conversion of switchgrass, essentially a weed, into ethanol as a power source for internal combustion engines.  Kunstler only argues about corn ethanol, but corn requires all kinds of heavy inputs, and its use for ethanol has negative impacts on food production.  Not so with switchgrass, which is an herbaceous, woody plant that in effect "self-fertilizes;" it dies back and replenishes the soil out of which it has been harvested.

The obstacles to such ideas are political, not scientific.  I do believe that social movements run in cycles, and currently we're locked into a very destructive one where the "financialization" of the economy has led to oligarchic control of the political process.  I don't think this will last, and the very crises which Kunstler and others describe will be among the reasons for transformation.  I just don't believe that future shortages of oil, which will doubtless happen along the lines Kunstler describes, will mean the end of the Age of Technology, because that's a little like saying that the human race will lose its collective memory of scientific progress, and that just isn't going to happen.

July 23, 2012

A few notes on reading Jim Kunstler's "Too Much Magic"

I regularly read James Howard Kunstler's "Clusterfuck" blog on Monday mornings, and I'm used to his irreverent hilarity when writing about America's throngs of obese, clueless, Cheez-Doodle chompin', Big Gulp slurpin', NASCAR cheerin', Walmart-shoppin' videophiles.  So I was a little surprised at the rather somber tone of his latest book, Too Much Magic, about the misplaced belief, or hope, that he encounters as he roams around the country, lecturing and attending various forms of Doomsday conferences, that America will pull its (over-abundant) fat from the fire with a last minute technological fix to replace the looming natural resource shortages that lie in the not-too-distant future.

Essentially, the thread of logic which Kunstler delineates centers on the collision course between two main facts of American life: (1) Its car-dependent suburbia (the "Happy Motoring fiesta" he often writes about on the blog) and (2) Peak Oil.  I think that Jim Kunstler has better insight into the Sorrows of Suburbia than any other writer I've encountered.  It's a little uncanny when I read his descriptions.  He has it to a tee, and I know something about the housing tract life, having grown up in a neighborhood you might call the Apotheosis of the California Subdivision beginning in the early 1950's. (Kunstler and I were born in the same year.)  He writes rather movingly of the cultural and aesthetic poverty of such places, which have neither the vitality and vibrancy of true city life, nor the peace and pastoralism of the actual country, which the suburb is meant to simulate in an awful, abstract way.  It's really not surprising to me that the vast swaths of American suburbs have produced so many Gaia-paths, to coin a term, a huge cohort of people with so attenuated a connection to the natural world that they despise and discount the Earth entirely.

Anyway, JHK nails it, the streets of vinyl and particle-board homes, on their 1/4-acre lots, hemmed in by boulevards and strip malls, a flat, featureless terrain in the Geography of Nowhere, as he called it in a book of the same name.  As to Peak Oil, I would say this: I wish the Peak Oil theorists would call it something else, such as the Oil Shortage Crisis.  There is something a little cult-like in the Peakers' way of talking, a little too faith-based.  I get the general idea: Peak Oil refers to that point in time when 1/2 of the commercially-retrievable petroleum has been extracted from the ground, and the 50% that remains is less readily-accessible, more expensive or environmentally destructive to get at, or just not worthe the trouble at all.  But what it really adds up to is that there is going to be an oil shortage.

Right now we're straining at the limits of world production, which for actual, straight-up petroleum is about 84 million barrels per day (84 mm bbl/day), and including all "liquid fuels" that can serve similar purposes, the number is around 102 mm/bbl.  Fossil fuels have been a wonderful source of energy-dense power, essential for practically everything in modern life, so ubiquitous that we forget that without it, the whole operation pretty much shuts down.  Groceries don't get to market, commercial planes don't fly people here and there, crops don't get fertilized, the folks way out in the suburban tracts don't get to work, or to the store or to school, the whole system of international trade of goods suddenly ends. 

The question that doesn't really get answered by Peak Oil theorists is the one most on people's minds: at what point, more or less exactly, will the shortages predicted, or the rising price of oil, cause all these dire consequences to unfold?  I sometimes think, as I may have mentioned before, that from the viewpoint of the Peakers, it just can't happen soon enough.  This is part of my Special Theory of Personal Time Horizon Relativity (I'm not sure that anagrams very well - SPOPTHR).  The essential idea behind SPOPTHR is probably the reason humanity won't do anything about global warming until we've blown past all conceivable tipping points and points of no return.  We're simply not motivated, in an evolutionary, genetically-determined way, to do anything about a problem we are not dealing with as an observable crisis right here and now.  The somewhat bucolic, anodyne world the Peakers would like to see return, and which they envision just on the far side of the End of Suburbia, is something they, themselves, want to enjoy during their lifetimes.  I think this bias creeps into their analysis, although on balance, I think JHK and Dmitry Orlov are definitely right about the eventual outcome.

What maybe we didn't see so clearly was that as the world economies became sluggish, and failed to grow (phenomena related to the scarcity and high price of oil, as Gail Tverberg has shown in the graph above), was that petroleum usage, in the United States and elsewhere, would begin to fall precipitously.  And since the United States alone was using more than 20% of all the crude oil pumped from the Earth on a daily basis, this is a major downturn.

So this delays the moment of reckoning.  Of course, since energy inputs are necessary for economic growth, the economies of the world, particularly in the West, Japan and in the former Soviet bloc, are locked in stagnation, so we wouldn't be getting anywhere while we wait to run out of oil, if we try to follow business as usual.

The smart thing to do, as Kunstler says, is to use the available dense-energy fossil fuels to power a transition to a smaller, localized economy, with mass transit based on the old (not high speed) rail system, buses, walkable towns, bike paths and other sustainable approaches such as localized solar power (rooftop, for example) and wind turbines.  That does make sense. It's possible that the slow-motion collapse of the existing system, brought on by the collision course between unserviceable debts (which require, because of their compounding nature, concomitant exponential growth in GDP), on the one hand; and the gradual awakening to the reality that unavailability of oil is becoming a problem, on the other. 

If things happen less quickly than the Collapsarians envision in their Dark Dreams, say over the next 20 years or so, then some of the nascent tendencies already becoming apparent (local community gardens, small-scale farming, grass-fed ranching, a general return to the land) might have time to take shape.  It's not as dramatic, but it might be workable for the generations to come.