Welcome to the Greenhouse

Happy New Year!

I just got back from Hanoi. I think I love it. It’s a fascinating city, full of street vendors and craftsmen and twisting back alleys and deep ‘tunnel houses’ and Buddhist temples and more. It’s over a thousand years old, layered with history. The Vietnamese have taken culture from all the more powerful countries that tried to invade them — the Chinese, the French, the Americans — and made it their own. You can see it all here.

At first I hated Hanoi. In the Old Quarter, the roads are packed with motorbikes zipping in all directions — and the sidewalks are all used either as motorbike parking lots, or restaurants with people sitting on little plastic chairs, so you pretty much need to walk in the road a lot of the time. Traffic lights are few and rarely heeded.

It seems like a pedestrian’s worst nightmare. Try walking across this:


But on my first night there, I ran in a philosopher friend from Singapore, an expert on Moore’s paradox: John Williams. He was sitting in a bar, looking out the door, watching the world go by. Strange coincidence!

So we had a beer, and I relaxed a bit, and I noticed that the traffic is actually governed by a set of unwritten rules that you can learn by watching. Little old ladies or gaggles of laughing teenagers can stroll across the street, motorbikes whizzing past them in both directions, and not get hurt! And so can you, once you learn what to do.

And then the fun starts. There’s way, way, way too much to tell you about, so I won’t even try now. Maybe later, probably on my diary.

I think Jeremy Kressman said it right: “You don’t just visit Hanoi. Hanoi visits you.” The picture above is from his blog. I’ll replace it with one of my own as soon as I get around to downloading my photos.

But as I’ve already hinted, this blog entry is not really about Hanoi. It’s about a new collection of SF stories, all tackling the theme of global warming:

• Gordon Van Gelder, editor, Welcome to the Greenhouse, O/R Books, 2011.

It includes stories by Brian W. Aldiss, Jeff Carlson, Judith Moffett, Matthew Hughes, Gregory Benford, Michael Alexander, Bruce Sterling, Joseph Green, Pat MacEwen, Alan Dean Foster, David Prill, George Guthridge, Paul Di Filippo, Chris Lawson, Ray Vukcevich and M. J. Locke.

It’s long past time for SF writers to start envisioning the world we seem to be heading towards. Were some of these stories published a while ago? Have you read any of them? Are they any good?

This item was pointed out to me by David Roberts. And by the way: in case you missed it, check out the global warming game that Giampiero Campa brought to our attention:

Fate of the World, website.

It’s not free, but Giampiero says it’s fun, and I trust him. He wrote:

But don’t waste your time, winning is plain impossible!

but then later:

I take it back, I have finally won today, which basically means that I got to the year 2120 with less than 3 degrees increment without destroying civilization. I mean, Latin America has to be rebuilt and there’s war raging in China, but other than that, it’s an excellent result :-)

47 Responses to Welcome to the Greenhouse

  1. Miguel says:

    Sounds like the “Global Change” Game that Bob Altemeyer reports having run with his psychology students as guinea pigs…

    (http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/)

  2. DavidTweed says:

    One book that might be interesting is John Barnes “Mother of Storms” for 1995-ish. (You can find it a reference to this in your local online book retailler.)

    It’s about one fictional (so take the science the same way you take law enforcement in fiction) envrionmental scenario and the interests trying to deal with it. The writing struck me as quite good with interesting ideas, some practical some clearly SF. However, it also predicts/satirises various insalubrious future developments, so there’s always the question of whether the writer is enjoying a bit too much describing what he’s frowing on. (You can argue that many of these things have happened or are on the verge of happening, so the trend spotting was accurate, it’s just the detail.) So be warned, but it might be of interest.

    Of a similar vintage is Bruce Sterling’s “Heavy Weather”. I can’t actually remember much about how the plot resolves, I vaguely remember it was interesting but not particularly about the environment beyond stormchasing. (The final chapter does the cringeworthy “I need a mathematical buzzword” for someone to complain about tedious lecturing and picks “polynomials”. Oh dear.)

    I can’t think of anything else I’ve actually read where a significantly altered future environment is more than just the background in which a different story takes place.

    • John Baez says:

      In Welcome to the Greenhouse, Sterling’s story is set a thousand years after serious global warming takes place.

      I really liked Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting. It has a great description of what the NSF might do in a time of climate crisis. But global warming happens too fast and too dramatically to be realistic.

      A really good global warming story has to realistically address the creeping, slow, stealthy nature of climate change, just like a really good space travel story has to realistically address how slow travel between stars will seem.

      • DavidTweed says:

        “Mother of storms” has a runaway “methane clathrate coming out of containment raising temperature (including ocean water) causing more methane clathrate to come out of containment raising…” cycle in the oceans in order to get a compressed timescale for climate change. At the time of writing in the early nineties I gather that wasn’t ruled out, although there wasn’t any positive evidence for it either. Wikipedia suggests there’s still uncertainty about global methane clathrate feedback mechanisms.

        I half suspect that both in reality and in fiction a sigmoid-function (type of S shape) change in some variable is probably the most likely to have dramatic impact.

      • DavidTweed says:

        By coincidence, it looks like there’s a big capacity for methane consuming bacteria to expand. Of course, it’s unknown if this capacity would be large enough to deal with large scale clathrate destabilisation due to temperature rises.

    • Blake Stacey says:

      In Welcome to the Greenhouse, Sterling’s story is set a thousand years after serious global warming takes place.

      David Brin’s Earth takes place a few decades after serious environmental damage becomes painfully obvious; Oklahoma and Kansas have become a desert, as I recall. Some science fiction from earlier generations takes resource depletion as part of its background, such as Asimov’s The Caves of Steel and “The Martian Way”, which back in the 1950s imagined an Earth in which fossil fuels had been used up.

      Of course, science and the world have marched on, and different stories are now possible.

  3. Tim van Beek says:

    I noticed that the traffic is actually governed by a set of unwritten rules that you can learn by watching.

    Let me guess:

    a) walk straight ahead at a constant velocity and

    b) don’t look at the driver, appear to be unaware of what happens around you.

    a) helps the others to figure out how to drive around you and b) signals them that they have to pay attention since you don’t. At least that’s what helped me in “similar” situations in Rome.

    A really good global warming story has to realistically address the creeping, slow, stealthy nature of climate change…

    …and that’s a story killer. Writing a novel is a lot of hard work, writing about what science tells us will actually happens will be much too boring to most people, meaning that your hard work won’t pay off. Dramatic things have to happen during the lifetime of your hero!

    I really liked Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy…

    I have to admit that I did not get past page 50 of “Red Mars”, and I read all novels of Thomas Mann (and that really means something)!

    The final chapter does the cringeworthy “I need a mathematical buzzword” for someone to complain about tedious lecturing and picks “polynomials”. Oh dear.

    “Polynomials” sound to people without background in mathematics like voodoo. Like “I extended Perelman’s proof of the Poincaré conjecture by taking the Ext of a Tor on a bidruddle category over the Grothendieck site on a 4-category to construct a σ-model with 4 generations of chiral Goldenberg fermions that fulfills the Steenrod-Bergman axioms” to me or you. But that’s too long

    • Giampiero Campa says:

      Interesting, i have never thought about this in term of unwritten rules, but guess in Italy people have an “internal model of behavior” according to which the faster objects worry about going around the slower ones. So if you walk you pretty much only worry about “staying slow” (e.g. don’t suddenly jump into the path of a faster object).

    • John Baez says:

      Tim wrote:

      Let me guess:

      a) walk straight ahead at a constant velocity and

      b) don’t look at the driver, appear to be unaware of what happens around you.

      a) helps the others to figure out how to drive around you and b) signals them that they have to pay attention since you don’t. At least that’s what helped me in “similar” situations in Rome.

      I did something a bit different:

      a) wait for a low-density region to form,

      b) walk slowly in a straight line,

      c) look at the oncoming traffic, and

      d) make slight adjustments in speed to avoid collisions

      Your strategy might be better, but I didn’t think of it, and I’d be scared to try it without further study.

      The next time I’m in this situation, I’ll watch the experts more carefully, to see exactly what they do! But I’m pretty sure they do look at the traffic and respond to its motions.

      Giampero wrote:

      Interesting, I have never thought about this in term of unwritten rules, but guess in Italy people have an “internal model of behavior” according to which the faster objects worry about going around the slower ones.

      I think of this as an ‘adiabatic approximation’, where the fast movers can treat the slow movers as essentially static.

      In molecular physics, the Born-Oppenheimer approximation is based on an idea like this. To a good approximation, the electrons treat the nuclei as essentially static, and zip around in the electrostatic potential formed by these static nuclei, forming a probability cloud that tries to minimize its energy. To a good approximation, the nuclei don’t see individual electrons, because they’re zipping around too fast: all they respond to is the probability cloud.

      So, when I cross the streets in Hanoi, I feel like an atomic nucleus. Unfortunately, unlike an atomic nucleus, I’m less massive than the faster-moving objects. So, I’m more nervous than a typical nucleus.

    • John Baez says:

      Tim wrote:

      Dramatic things have to happen during the lifetime of your hero!

      I don’t actually think so, but then I’m weird. I sort of dislike science fiction where at the end aliens land on Earth, stop the nuclear war that was just about to happen, show us how to teleport into the seventeenth dimension… and then everyone on Earth teleports into the seventeenth dimension and lives happily ever after. I really like science fiction that moves more slowly and gives more of a sense of realism. A kind of window into another world.

      That may be why I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, while you couldn’t finish it.

      In truth, a lot happens in this trilogy — probably too much for my taste. For example, Phobos collides with Mars! Typically these dramatic events tend to happen near the end of each book (so if you ever notice a lot of exciting stuff happening, it means the novel you live in is almost over). But there are also long stretches where the main interest comes from the characters and their interactions.

      • Tim van Beek says:

        I’m not sure why I did not like “Red Mars”, but my overall impression is that science fiction authors either don’t use the specific aspects of the art form “novel”, like shedding light on a high plateau of the soul of a protagonist that no camera could ever reach, or, of course, use the “sci” in scifi as a ridiculous source of “deus ex machina” effects, as you note.

        And – maybe I’m spoiled, but – reading Robinson’s prose was like chomping sand to me.

        To me, scifi is interesting when it speculates about new technologies and how those affect society. A lot of Star Trek (this time I checked the spelling first) episodes is about fundamental questions of society (like “who owns Data and what is life”). I don’t consider novels – or movies for that matter – to be a kind of circus with other means. But then I’m weird. AGW fits this pattern, but it is too slow.

        Now, some time ago the McDonalds of modern art, Hollywood, produced a big mac called “The Day After Tomorrow” that actually explains the Snowball Earth scenario (they must have asked someone who knew about that). In the movie, most of the Northern Hemisphere is covered with ice in the end and the president of the USA informs his citizens that this state is a (locally) stable state of the climate and thus will last for a long while, and the USA have to be abandoned.

        (The biggest surprise of the move is that it is possible to create an action scene with the heroes fleeing frantically from a – dramatic pause – sharp drop in temperature. :-)

        This is the kind of storytelling that is successful, not “Slow Changes Over Many Millennia”.

        • John F says:

          I like hard SF best, and one of the grittiest Mars stories is Ludek Pesek’s “The Earth is Near”. It is kind of like eating sand, but in a good way.

          Interestingly, Pesek was the unnamed artist of “artist’s impression” in many of the most popular realistic space art for NASA etc.

        • DavidTweed says:

          My memory of the Mars trilogy is that it’s partly about the slow changes in people’s minds and attitudes over their longevity extended lives in the course of an endeavour like terraforming a whole planet; if anything it could be said to have too drastic character change happening. (One of the characters “experiences the numinous” via a Forest Gump style couple of years running around Mars.) One of the problems is that this means that its pacing is on the slow side. As for the actual prose style, I’ll admit I don’t remember whether it struck me as good or not.

          The “people doing a techno-task” sub-genre is fairly obviously limited in size and scope, but it sometimes throws up interesting works.

        • Interesting point there about SF authors not using the novel form. Ursula Le Guin wrote an essay about this in 1976 called “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”, and questioned whether it was possible to write an SF novel in the strictest sense. I can’t recall the conclusion off the top of my head… but Wikipedia tells me that she concludes that it is.

        • John Baez says:

          I think Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness could be an attempt to write an SF novel that’s really a novel in the classic literary sense. Her less famous The Dispossesed may be even better in this respect! I should reread them, though. I read both of these novels at least twice, but it’s been decades. They seemed great at the time.

        • John Baez says:

          Tim wrote:

          (The biggest surprise of the move is that it is possible to create an action scene with the heroes fleeing frantically from a – dramatic pause – sharp drop in temperature. :-)

          This is the kind of storytelling that is successful, not “Slow Changes Over Many Millennia”.

          What do you mean by “successful”? I’m sure The Day After Tomorrow was successful in making millions of dollars, but by my own lofty standards, it’s not successful story-telling when the climax is someone running away from a big, bad, really scary thing. And you too don’t seem entirely enthralled with the “Big Mac” approach to movie-making, although perhaps you love Big Macs and I’m misunderstanding you.

          (I’ll admit didn’t actually watch that movie, so I shouldn’t be too critical, but the preview was enough to make me stay away.)

          And – maybe I’m spoiled, but – reading Robinson’s prose was like chomping sand to me.

          He’s not a master of luscious sentences, that’s true, but somehow I don’t mind. His sentences are clear and grammatical and he avoids purple prose, so I can focus on what he’s interested in, namely the characters and how they change along with Mars itself.

          When I want really luscious sentences I go for someone like Nabokov or Updike — or at least I used to, but these days I often find them overwrought.

          Which quote is by John Updike and which by Kim Stanley Robinson?

          History was like some vast thing that was always over the tight horizon, invisible except in its effects. It was what happened when you weren’t looking — an unknowable infinity of events, which although out of control, controlled everything.

          The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun’s just started.

        • Tim van Beek says:

          John said:

          And you too don’t seem entirely enthralled with the “Big Mac” approach to movie-making, although perhaps you love Big Macs and I’m misunderstanding you.

          The Big Mac analogy is this: people all over the world eat it. And Hollywood specializes in stories and story telling that people all over the world instantly recognize.

          Of course even a Big Mac can taste really good, if it is made really good, and if you are hungry and don’t eat it every day.

          And if I decided to spend two years of all my spare time to write a scifi novel about AGW, I would like to know that there is a big market for it – and there should be, because this is a topic that is close enough to reality and affects everyone on the planet.

          Actually, this could be the first time in history that the human species decides to take concerted action on a global scale.

        • Tim van Beek says:

          John asked:

          Which quote is by John Updike and which by Kim Stanley Robinson?

          It is unfair to pick one sentence and ask about a classification of prose, whose very nature is that it is woven out of many sentences.

          Is the first one from Robinson?

        • John Baez says:

          In fact Brian Eno has mentioned an interesting thing about post-1950s pop music, which is it’s ‘holographic’ quality: you can typically recognize a song from a small fragment of it, because the timbre of the instruments and the sound processing are a large part of what makes it unique.

          Similarly, Jon Hassell plays the trumpet in a way that one second of a single note lets you know it’s him.

          This is perhaps less true of novelists, but you guessed right, and I doubt there’s any single sentence by Kim Stanley Robinson that achieves the effect that Updike was always seeking.

          William Boyd wrote:

          I went back to [Updike's novel] Couples some months ago and found that after a few chapters the prose was becoming almost too succulent and luxurious: like chocolate cake, smothered with cream and drizzled with the sweetest honey. This facility he had – Lawrence Durrell is another that comes to mind – to be able to turn a finely written, baroquely detailed sentence almost without thinking can be as much of a curse as a blessing.

          This seems about right, but the “almost without thinking” is a bit unfair, since I’m pretty sure the way it works in literature (as in math) is that you spend years working very hard to develop techniques which then you can wield “almost without thinking”. Jon Hassell was very explicit about this:

          From 1973 up until then [1977] I was totally immersed in playing raga on the trumpet. I wanted the physical dexterity to be able to come into a room and be able to do something that nobody else in the world could do.

        • Tim van Beek says:

          John said:

          This is perhaps less true of novelists…

          I think that there are a lot of significant differences between the art of music and the art of literature, resulting in the fact that, for example, there are no child prodigies in literature.

          John said:

          …you guessed right…

          My guess was based on the content, not the form: The statement that history is formed by an infinity of barely noticable events over a long time reflects Robinson’s – not Updike’s – point of view, found e.g. in the Mars trilogy.

  4. Phil Henshaw says:

    OK, how did you arrange to relieve the financial necessity for multiplying financial returns given the energy intensity of wealth isn’t going to help us out by vanishing? In the present world if you are killing the rate of growing financial profits you’re definitely not allowed to fix the climate problem.

    I’ve marveled for a great many years why physicists are so simple and clear about perpetual motion machines, but don’t blink an eye at perpetual money machines. Money is nothing but resource use instructions, all of which require nominally 8000btu/$ energy consumption to provide. So its a very similar problem.

    Do physicists ignore it because growth involves the natural process of organizational development, and being opportunistic rather than deterministic doesn’t follow equations but fabricates them? It’s a different puzzle in some ways but also comes with many of the same old problems too. One simply can’t limit resource use and continue have multiplying money because economies are physical systems.

    Keynes saw it very clearly, what the elementally simple option is relieve the system of its growth imperative at its natural limits of comfortable growth (i.e. when growth doesn’t really pay anymore). Of course, I forgot, that’s discussing the next paradigm of natural science, where the world contains a wide variety of learning systems, and not just equations…, and possibly not allowed to be mentioned in discussions of the old paradigm, is that right?

    • Giampiero Campa says:

      Hi Phil, i am not sure if i understand what you want to say, but i’ll try to give my point of view below.

      You start with an opening question, and my opinion is that “you don’t”, and it appears (to me) that, given the current technology, we have to stop financial growth to mitigate the climate problem.

      I am not sure what you mean by “energy intensity of wealth”.

      Second paragraph, i am an engineer and can’t talk for physicists, but i think that money is really just a somewhat agreed-upon metric to measure the subjective value of stuff. The fact that one uses some energy (along with many other resources) to produce things of value is incidental.

      Also, not sure what you mean by money machines, but the scarcity of money is controlled at will by most states, in an attempt to accomplish other goals. Put it another way, the amount of money available is just a number that central banks can (and do) manipulate and it is only loosely related to a bunch of other stuff (macroeconomists have all sort of models for this), but it does not appear (to me) to be just “resource use instructions”, so personally i don’t think it’s a “very similar problem”.

      Third paragraph, i just don’t know what you mean by “organizational development”,”opportunistic vs deterministic”, and to “fabricate equation”.

      Also, learning systems can be (and are) modeled with equations, sometimes even simple ones, but traditionally that’s not in the realm of studies of physics, (in the same way in which, for example, designing a rover capable of running around and building a map of the environment is not). But i am not sure this is relevant, in the sense that i don’t think one needs to model things at this level to understand and control economies.

      Finally, in my opinion you are right in hinting that our current obsession with financial growth is unhealthy and i also think that generalized growth is going to stop at some point, (whether we like it or not) and we would be better off to prepare for it in advance. However, i think that any serious attempt of doing so will require many more people (if not the majority of them) to understand basic macroeconomics, which right now they do not.

      • John Baez says:

        Giampiero wrote:

        I am not sure what you mean by “energy intensity of wealth”.

        Take a look at this page written by Phil Henshaw, which divides the total annual energy usage of the world by the world’s annual GDP to get the “energy intensity of wealth”. I redid the calculation here and got roughly 7.3 megajoules per dollar GDP.

        He then worked out the energy per area that the Earth’s surface receives in sunlight, and uses this to get an approximate upper bound on the GDP given the value of the “energy intensity of wealth”.

        I am fairly suspicious of the assumption that we can treat the energy intensity of wealth as constant. First, are we using constant dollars to measure the GDP, or not? If we don’t, inflation would decrease the energy intensity of wealth.

        Second, it’s worth doing some calculations to see if the energy intensity of wealth has remained constant for the last few decades. Has anyone done this?

        • Nathan Urban says:

          This EIA page has energy intensity data for the years 1980-2008.

        • Phil Henshaw says:

          Well, of course the relation between wealth and energy use is not constant, and one uses constant $’s for these things to adjust for the instability in our units of measure.

          The energy intensity of GDP has declined by a quite regularly at 1.3%/yr, so any increase in GDP faster than that is an exponential increase in energy consumption.

        • John Baez says:

          Thanks, Nathan. For those too lazy to click the link: energy per dollar GDP dropped from about 15,500 BTU/$ in 1980 to 9,800 BTU/$ in 2008. These figures are measured in constant dollars: 2005 dollars, to be precise.

          Why the heck does the US use “British Thermal Units” when even the Brits are smart enough to have dropped them?

          Let me convert these numbers to metric: in 1980 it was 16.3 megajoules/$, while by 2008 it had dropped to 10.3 megajoules/$.

          (Why is that figure so different than my earlier calculation where I got about 7.3 megajoules/$ for 2008? I should check. I was using 2008 dollars, but I doubt that explains it.)

          Phil wrote:

          The energy intensity of GDP has declined quite regularly at 1.3%/yr…

          That’s interesting!

          By the way, to add to the confusion even more, I find the whole notion of ‘constant dollars’ quite problematic, since I believe it’s based on the idea of a ‘basket of goods’ whose true value remains constant in time, but:

          1) why should we declare that the ‘true value’ of goods remain constant in time?

          and

          2) the set of goods that are widely purchased keeps changing with time.

          The poor folks who try to work out the consumer price index actually grapple with these questions in a serious way, but I have trouble imagining any ‘objective’ way of answering them.

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          Ok yes I remember now, i did the calculation myself and came up with 7MJ/$. Just didn’t remember that it was defined as “energy intensity of wealth”. Also i remember you pointing me to “thermoeconomics” (which is extremely interesting by the way).

          It looks like that figure is just the end result of so many inter-dependent processes, so I have hard time regarding this quantity as “fundamental” in some way. A lot like the “money velocity”, perhaps even more so.

          It would make more sense to me to use real dollars vs. nominal ones, (real$ = nominal$/CPI) when calculating the energy intensity of wealth, but you can probably define the “real” and “nominal” intensities of wealth :)

          I also have an observation, GDP is a measure of _production_ of value, so it is measured in value/time. That is, it is not measured in (real or nominal) dollars, but in dollars/year.

          Also, it’s “value”, not “amount of money”, so this measure only relates to dollars that are actually spent (which is intrinsic in the GDP), not on dollars that are printed by the fed and sit idle in banks.

          Just felt like clarifying because it’s a common fallacy, and it wasn’t clear to me before actually starting to study some economics …

          I’ll answer the other question later this evening since that’s a long one :)

      • Phil Henshaw says:

        Thanks for your questions. Yes the key problem is that on a finite planet, with humans having limited capacity to understand and competently respond to ever more complex demands on their reasoning, your answer that “you don’t” = never remove the imperative to generate multiplying (real) financial returns, is irrational.

        It simply gets too complicated to provide ever multiplying material returns for every dollar saved in the past, just completely delusional. Of course, there was a time in the past when it seemed easy to do, and our minds treated it as completely natural.

        I think the important thing for people to realize is that this is an emerging inconsistency in our usual cultural expectations. Some individuals noticed long ago, but now our whole culture is faced with it. Our world did indeed once seem to encourage us to assume that the more liberties we took the more we’d always find to take.

        What helped me to understand it was observing that the same thing happens to literally EVERY kind of emerging process of organization in nature. Organizational change begins with a period of that same kind of escalating response from its environment (growth). Importantly that identifies growth as an interaction *between an emerging system and its environment*. So growth is not a formula, but an individual process of localized organizational change.

        When you see growth curves, regular proportional change, as in an economic measure, it typically identifies a developing system of some kind. Usually you can identify and study them. It may be an individual business or a society discovering its ability to perform on the world stage, etc.

        What makes growth systems opportunistic is how their parts are actively exploring how to use their environments, and learning from each other. It produces innovative swarm behaviors of their own circumstantial invention. It’s an active not passive process that builds its own pathways of development.

        What’s possible to find in development processes that is somewhat like equations is their learning curves, measures that reflect their whole system behavior, to be interpreted as phases of positive and negative feedback in their organizational change, (¸¸.•´ ¯ `•.¸¸).

        What Keynes observed (and was ridiculed for) was that WHEN the economy meets natural physical limits its natural financial limits are to strangle itself in debt, unless, creditors spent enough to stop accumulating wealth. That way the physical and financial economies can climax in unison. It’s really almost a tautology in the simplicity of the principle, the relation between a physical system and one’s measures of it, nothing more. The people who translated Keynes’ work into modern economics called that particular part “the fallacy”, however…. ;-)

        http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=site:synapse9.com+keynes

        That’s a search that returns my various attempts to describe it in more detail for people.

        Anyway, that or the equivalent seems to be the only way to keep the profit motive from blocking all efforts to respond to climate change…

        • John F says:

          Phil,
          it’s no accident that growth curves were first intensively used in biology and ecology, i.e. organisms rather than organizations.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistic_function

          A properly tended pure culture of most culturable unicellular organisms nicely follows a single sigmoidal growth curve, after a threshold until after saturation. By the way, no pure culture can sustain saturation in a closed environment, anymore than it could have sustained growing. But if you use other cell cultures there are already extra senescent limits on growth, not imposed by limited extracellular resources.

          http://www.senescence.info/cells.html

          Then too, mixed cultures, i.e. natural systems, don’t and usually can’t exhibit regular proportional growth. However, properly tended mixed cultures *can* sustain saturation indefinitely – among other things this is a goal of aquariums, letting some critters eat others etc. There are certainly scale effects. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen people put in huge tanks and then try to mock up a pond ecosystem; it always make me wonder why they didn’t just go with an unmock pond.

          Economically we would seem to be quite mixed.

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          Phil, i didn’t mean to imply that you “never remove the imperative to generate multiplying (real) financial returns”, i just wanted to express that right now (unfortunately, i might add) governments do not want to place laws limiting the accumulation of capital.

          However it would seem to me that a some point (probably not in the near future) it will naturally become harder to obtain an investment return rate (with an acceptable default risk) beyond the level of inflation, and that, (together with progressive taxes) could work to redirect more money from investments to consumption.

        • Phil Henshaw says:

          Giampiero, you speak of it in the usual way, “as if” people knew what they were doing, and “as if” that “governments do not want to place laws limiting the accumulation of capital.” was the barrier.

          From a long careful study of the problem… that’s true enough, not the barrier. The barrier is cognitive. It’s that the scientists consulting the financial stabilization board and all other similar functions do not realize that stabilizing our multiplying impacts and the rate of our depletion of usable resources is a *terrible* investment strategy.

          It doesn’t take much to show the alternative that is a better strategy, mainly realizing that the question requires thinking of the economy as a physical system, but Keynes showed conclusively there is only one way to keep a free market economy from maximizing investment until it produces no (as in people stop investing all together) returns, i.e. only if creditors spend enough of their earnings.

          All the macro people I know effectively say “we can’t consider that till we’ve exhausted all other possibilities”, which is not an intelligent response.

          That’s the real problem I think. They’re not physical scientists and the physical scientists are not conveying the necessity of managing the economy as if we lived in a physical world.

  5. John Baez says:

    Phil wrote:

    OK, how did you arrange to relieve the financial necessity for multiplying financial returns given the energy intensity of wealth isn’t going to help us out by vanishing?

    Who is “you”? My guess is that you mean Giampiero Campa, when he was playing that game.

    It’s not good to start a blog comment by referring to “you”, unless “you” is the author of the comment that directly precedes ones own, since there are lots of people having a big conversation here.

    While I’m complaining, I’ll complain a bit more! Your comments are getting a bit repetitive. The point you’ve been making is a good one, and I haven’t seen anyone here disagree with it. If I understand it, it’s not very new. It goes something like this: our current economic system demands approximately exponential economic growth and corresponding approximately exponential growth in the consumption of energy, but this cannot continue forever on a finite-sized planet. So, something has got to give.

    This is certainly a basic part of my worldview, despite your broad-brush complaint about ‘physicists’. I don’t know if it’s built into the ‘Fate of the World’ game that Giampero was playing.

    (Was it, Giampiero?)

    To me, the really interesting question is not “Will exponential economic growth end?” but “How can we make this as pleasant as possible?”

    Personally I think we should shift from an energy economy to an information economy and then to a knowledge economy and finally to a wisdom economy. But even assuming we all agree on this goal (which is probably not true), figuring out how to achieve it is very tricky.

  6. Giampiero Campa says:

    Yes the economic model built into the game seems to be pretty detailed, and it is definitely intertwined with the climate model.

    In fact, the essential “tool” (although not the only one) that one must use (in the game) to keep emissions from from growing indefinitely is a major worldwide recession/depression happening around the middle of the century, caused by the fact that the demand of oil outstrips the supply. Hell breaks loose, but emissions go down. The problem is making (letting) it happen in a somewhat controlled way.

    That being said, i think Phil’s question or comment is more general, and he was not referring to me playing the game. This is the kind of things i like to talk about, but i don’t really understand what he is trying to say. Anyway, encouraged by your answer, i’ll attempt and answer myself later.

  7. Phil Henshaw says:

    Well, John, I thought I was responding to your claim to achieve a rapid CO2 reduction on the climate game, though this thread format does make it harder to tell who one is responding to, and it would be good to be more clear.

    Your reply reminded me of how, when I played those games, it always seemed impossible if you kept the usual promise to sustain real growth. I happen to know in great detail how and why to stop real growth, without triggering uncontrolled economic decline. The simple requirement is for creditors to spend enough of their earnings so both lending and earning can stabilize together.

    I wish I could get someone building climate models to begin to include that option, and let people begin to think about what would happen if the economy no longer needed to multiply consumption for stability. I think playing with that is really how to both “make it as pleasant as possible”, and find futures “more pleasant than anyone has yet imagined”.

    It’d be a big emotional challenge to give up such a long established highly immature behavior, like expecting your environment to give you an ever multiplying free lunch… That is a block for people, but my expectation is that when we get over that kind of immaturity we’ll find that wasn’t all there is to life.

    • John Baez says:

      Phil wrote:

      Well, John, I thought I was responding to your claim to achieve a rapid CO2 reduction on the climate game…

      I’m even more confused now: I haven’t made any claims about the climate game Fate of the World, since I haven’t seen it. In this blog entry I quoted Giampiero Campa, who spent a bunch of time playing it.

      Anyway, that’s no big deal! Much more interesting is that Giampiero found:

      the essential “tool” (although not the only one) that one must use (in the game) to keep emissions from from growing indefinitely is a major worldwide recession/depression happening around the middle of the century, caused by the fact that the demand of oil outstrips the supply. Hell breaks loose, but emissions go down. The problem is making (letting) it happen in a somewhat controlled way.

      This resonates nicely with your comment:

      … when I played those games, it always seemed impossible if you kept the usual promise to sustain real growth. I happen to know in great detail how and why to stop real growth, without triggering uncontrolled economic decline. The simple requirement is for creditors to spend enough of their earnings so both lending and earning can stabilize together.

      I would like to know more about that.

      I would also like to ask Giampiero: is anything of what Phil says here reflected in that game? In the game, how do you cause a worldwide recession, and how do you make it ‘just bad enough, but not too bad’?

      • Phil Henshaw says:

        The point about “growth curves” versus “growth equations” should not be missed here, as it’s a very major change in the subject matter. Closely studying records of how complex systems reorganize as they evolve has essentially nothing at all to do with the equations that a regression would produce for representing a complex physical system as a formula. Studying records of how complex systems develop is to help you look at how they are working inside. It’s not to simplify what they look like from the outside as an equation does.

        Complex systems are simply not driven by the images we can make of them any more than you can eat the food that you see on a TV. To use growth curves to help understand what is going on within the emerging system producing them, the questions you ask have more to do with which parts are working as units, and how they respond as a group to either discovered conflicts or opportunities. It’s a whole different line of questioning.

        I don’t know exactly how the economic statisticians construct their ever evolving “market basket” for readjusting currencies for inflation. I have a some confidence in it though. It’s partly having read a bit, and partly because when you aggregate the world totals you get remarkably consistent proportional trends of energy use and GDP. You get an image of how the system works as a whole that is a picture perfect match to what an efficient global economy with liquid resources and competition should do theoretically. I guess they could be fudging the GDP numbers, to follow an empirical smooth exponential fuel use curve, but that really wouldn’t explain where the smooth exponential fuel use curve came from…

        My gripe with physics is partly, of course, because as a physicist I’ve had a bunch of wonderfully interesting things to talk about for decades and have just been treated dismissively everywhere I went. I’m really embarrassed that physicists seem so absorbed by equations that they are not the least bit interested in how the instrumental processes of complex systems work. All you do is study their continuities and then back track to what orchestration of events produced them. If I put those things on an “unsolved problems” list, other people promptly take them off the list (and it isn’t because the problem of how systems work was so quickly solved)!! It’s a real pain.

        Then there’s also the serious problem, that physicists are supposed to know something about quantitative measures and conserved properties. When it comes to how other people use our work, we don’t act like we understand the material consequences our work says we certainly should well understand.

        We really should not be casually going along with the economists and others in inventing ever more efficient ways for them to speed up the exhaustion of the earth toward its thermodynamic limit. What our invention of the methods of extracting every extractable crumb, and giving approval to it by taking pay for it and watching as they’re used as fast and humans can be organized to do it, has to be, is the most idiotic thing I can imagine people who understand the nature of physical materials doing. I don’t think the act of “washing our hands” of it completes the obligation we’d have if we understood what we clearly should understand about that.

        It’s not an academic question. At that point when the inexhaustibility of the earth has been “disproved” by a full scale test, there won’t be any useful thing left on earth. That’s “the test” after all. Because of the amazing efficiency of our know-how the end will put us in a far deeper hole than the Romans dug for themselves (doing precisely the same thing, incidentally) and our descendants won’t have any chance of crawling out of it. All some lonely survivor will be able to do is yell “I told you so” to an empty world.

        I also know some things about why the world is becoming numbingly complex and people are naturally becoming numbed to the arguments. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to be numbed to living on earth.

        • John Baez says:

          Phil wrote:

          My gripe with physics is partly, of course, because as a physicist I’ve had a bunch of wonderfully interesting things to talk about for decades and have just been treated dismissively everywhere I went.

          I agree with almost everything you’re saying, but I do have one piece of advice:

          When I’m trying to convince a certain group of people to get interested in some ideas, it never ever helps to complain about them.

          Complaining about a group of people — physicists, mathematicians, Americans, Chinese, Republicans, Democrats, or any group whatsoever — always brings out their ‘tribe mentality’, otherwise known as ‘patriotism’. They instantly focus on defending their tribe, and stop paying attention to what one is saying.

          If I desperately feel the need to complain about some people and how slow they are to appreciate my wonderful ideas, I talk to my wife. She thinks I’m great, so she usually agrees with me (or at least pretends to, very convincingly) — and I instantly feel much better.

          When I’m talking to a group of people, trying to convince them of some idea, I find it vastly more productive to flatter them, saying roughly: “You folks have the special abilities and tools needed to appreciate these ideas.”

          Saying this over and over, with unrealistic optimism in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, can work wonders over time.

          The key is to figure out ways to to appeal to the tribe mentality instead of fighting it. When I’m really desperate, I sometimes pull out a powerful secret weapon. I say: “You folks have the special abilities and tools needed to appreciate these ideas… which those other folks over there lack!

          That really gets them going. Every profession has its neighboring rival professions. More generally, every tribe has its neighboring rival tribes. Every tribe is looking for ways to gain a competitive advantage over its neighbors.

          So when I tell physicists, for example, that they’re better than mathematicians at appreciating the connection between topological quantum field theory and n-categories, because physicists know about path integrals, they believe me — especially because it was true! And they like it! And that’s a good way to get physicists to like n-categories.

          But this strategy of exploiting competition between neighboring tribes is risky, and I don’t really recommend it. First of all, the other tribe might be listening. Second of all, it’s probably better overall to reduce competition between tribes, rather than enhance it.

          But one can at least avoid certain uphill battles, by resisting the temptation to complain about a tribe when its members are listening.

        • Phil Henshaw says:

          John, I appreciate and have actually long understood that. It’s indeed not possible to speak to people except in a language they understand, generally their own, or else they don’t hear you…

          What I found over the years, though, is that the only thing otherwise quite smart people will listen to is when you’ve exhausted your patience speaking about things a little beyond their language. Everyone is able to respond to is someone else’s natural sense of frustration it seems.

          I don’t know how to do the math, really, but you might. What I was suggesting in my comment yesterday on your interest in real world problems for Mathematical Economics [http://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/mathematical-economics/#comment-3438] is a form of modeling for economic systems somewhat like QM.

          The difference from QM for studying the boundary conditions for large “observation, interpretation & response” networks (that economies are built around) would in the modeling of the “mysterious hidden process” connecting the “before” and “after” states. For learning machines that process would have variable non-zero duration as well as uncertainty, in this case for altogether human reasons. That would let you explore some of the natural limitations of using such a system to run a planet. These kinds of structures proliferate in economies and other natural systems that exhibit rapid organizational development processes, so the work would be both innovative and possibly quite valuable.

          I also posted the earlier comment with the graphic and above suggestion on my blog as comments on how to study the limits of learning, http://synapse9.com/blog/2011/01/09/the-limits-of-learning-machines-drawing-a-blank/ fyi

      • Giampiero Campa says:

        So, this is how the game works. You (the director of the global environmental office), start in 2020 with a certain monetary support from 11 different regions of the world. With that money, you need to hire agents and start projects (cards).

        Once you played your cards you advance 5 years, read what happened during those 5 years, and use the new money (from the regions that still support you) to play more cards.

        Since everything cost money, and you can only play a maximum of 6 cards for every region, you need to think very carefully what to do. The objective is to reach the year 2120. If you lose support from more than 8 states at once, or the temperature raises more than 3 degrees over pre-industrial levels, or if the global human development index drops below 0.5, then you lose.

        The strategy that has worked for me 2 or 3 times is the following:

        I focus on US, Europe, China, Latin America. That is because they are the biggest polluters, and there are no resources to work on the other regions (which anyway are too politically unstable and you can’t rely on them to support you consistently).

        During the first decades, I invest my resources on nuclear and renewable energy in all the above 4 territories, protect the forest in latin america, push electric cars in the US and china, and and install political and environmental offices in latin america and china, and technology offices everywhere. These offices allow you to play more environmental, political, and technological cards later. I don’t do anything like cap and trade, Tobin tax, Sequestration, or other stuff.

        This way, when the recession hits around the middle of the century (you don’t “cause it”, it happens by itself because the demand of oil outstrips the supply) at least those territories have some energy. You also need to do popular stuff like money incentives, unemployment measures, drought and flood countermeasures, welfare and stuff like that in china and latin america, especially during the recession, otherwise you lose support very quickly. And yes, ban biofuels (because they compete with food for lands) and enact famine countermeasures too.

        This will keep you afloat for a couple of more decades, more or less, (from 2040 to 2060). These are the years is when carbon emissions start to drop. Unfortunately this is not enough to keep the temperature from raising too fast, you also have to “make it worst” with a global ban on tar sands, OR oil shale, OR coil to liquid, since these are very polluting technologies. The timing of this ban needs to be carefully planned, too close to the recession and HDI drops below 0.5 and/or you lose support from too many states. Too late, and you can’t keep temperature down. There is also a card for a campaign to increase consumption, but i didn’t found it very useful.

        No matter what, your popularity will drop in latin america and china, and you will lose your support there at some point, that’s ok, just try not to let it happen at the same time, and don’t waste your money and time with black ops like regime changes or worst, it’s not worthy. After a few decades they will change their mind and support you again. If there is a war in any of those states, then declaring martial law (but it’s expensive) will help you a lot.

        If you reach 2090, things get a little better after that, so if you do something popular also for Oceania to keep its support, with some luck you can win.

        In general , it is important to constantly monitor stuff like emissions per industry sector, energy supply mix, demographics, (other than global temperature of course), so you can understand what is really happening in each territory.

        It would be nice to have an open source model of economy+climate like the one in the game, so we could do some simulation on our own.

        Anyway, I hope this gives a better idea, let me know if you have more questions.

        • John Baez says:

          Thanks a lot for the great description!

          It would definitely be much better if this game, or some game like it, were open-source. If the people selling this game are trying to help save the planet, they should make an open-source version — perhaps without the pretty graphics and other inessential features that make most people want to buy the game.

          I almost always resist playing games, but I’m tempted by this one. If I play it, it’ll be the first time I’ve played a game since my brief fling with Go.

        • Giampiero Campa says:

          Update: they have just released the official game (I have played on the beta version) and there is an interesting wiki here:

          http://fateoftheworld.wikia.com/wiki/Fate_of_the_World_Wiki

      • Giampiero Campa says:

        This is the best place, i think, to quote Paul Krugman in one of today’s post:

        http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/immaterial-growth/

        “the point is that real GDP isn’t necessarily about tons or BTUs, and it can keep rising, even the way we currently do the accounting, in a world of limited natural resources”

        This resonates well with one of your previous comments about going towards an information and knowledge economy.

    • Giampiero Campa says:

      There is a very pertinent discussion about these subjects at the dot earth blog:

      http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/beyond-the-eternal-food-fight/

      By the way, John, you might consider adding a link to this blog on the right hand side links, if you like it (personally after playing that game i have decided to follow that blog a little more closely, since my perception of the things to come has changed a little, at the emotional level more than the rational one).

      • John Baez says:

        Giamperio wrote:

        personally after playing that game i have decided to follow that blog a little more closely, since my perception of the things to come has changed a little, at the emotional level more than the rational one

        Okay, I’ll consider adding it. How has your perception changed? Even if it’s “just” an emotional thing, I’m curious.

        (In fact, emotions could be the most important factor in how people orient themselves toward issues like global warming, peak oil, etc.)

      • Phil Henshaw says:

        I didn’t check what Andy Revkin was doing yesterday, and it seems he’s picked up one of the themes I’ve been harping on for years, that this system wide price escalation is not likely to go away. Why I first decided that was that it represents just the kind of thing I look for as evidence of the economic system exceeding its behavioral limits, behavior it theoretically can’t have.

        The problem… is it kind of violates the general principle that increasing price results in increasing supply… If that’s not working, and over the long term it seems, that’s really really bad.

        It seems to say that systemically, even if you can’t explain it at first, the increasing difficulty of obtaining resources has come to dominate the supply of resources. It implies that due to interconnected price rises occurring for natural causes, we have reached “peak everything”. One of the Brookings papers I quoted in my study of it called “Profiting from Scarcity” described some of the interconnections between peak oil having been achieved in those terms and the food crisis in particular. fyi – http://www.synapse9.com/pub/ProfitingInScarcity.pdf

        Those curious can also ask more about why in the world a global economy would act as a whole in such an interconnected way to reach the practical limits of use for all its basic resources at once. It’s only natural for a liquid market system scouring the whole world for stuff to use is the simple answer….

  8. Giampiero Campa says:

    Well for one, I think I have a much clearer vision of the challenges and trade-offs we will face in this century.

    I sort of knew those problems and challenges on an abstract, mental level, but I guess that never really seep through lower levels of consciousness, because when I used to think about how the world would be in 2030, 2050, or 2070 i always had these unconscious semi-sci-fi visions of a better place in which science and technology had allowed for a many problems to be solved and for many people to be much better off.

    Now i don’t have those visions anymore, except perhaps as a part of a bigger picture, and i regard my former way of looking at the future as a bit disingenuous.

    Hope that gives the idea.

    (Anyway, I am still hopeful for the centuries following this current one :)

  9. Phil Henshaw says:

    It occurs to me that I have an immediate need for mathematical expertise that would be highly useful in the field of economics this year. It’s not quite as grand as inventing a QM-like mathematics for the behavior of learning systems driven to their limits as I suggested earlier.

    Elementary arithmetic will tell you that if you divide a pumpkin pie in equal slices that it will have near average amounts of every ingredient in each slice. This is about to become a major issue of economics. The economists have been counting the energy used in making each slice as only ~1/5 the average… no lie.

    The reason is that an ancient accounting technique was adopted for measuring how much energy use any business is responsible for, just counting up the receipts, essentially, and then asking the businesses they bought things from to count up their receipts too. That does give you the traceable energy uses the business has. It does not “divide up the whole pie” of energy uses, though, but just finds some threads.

    I’m publishing a paper called “Systems
    Energy Assessment”, providing a way to define the total energy use of a business as a whole system, using that pie-slice method for things I can’t trace… It shows rather conclusively that the total of traceable and untraceable energy uses a business has, if its services take about average energy per dollar to be delivered, will make use of ~5 times the traceable energy, and have ~5 times the carbon and other distributed impacts too.

    So the math I need is an elegant way to define the parameters for the distribution of that kind of economic “dark energy” (you might call it, as energy uses a business has no information about). There’s no mystery where it is being consumed, really, just in all the energy uses it has to pay for that it doesn’t receive detailed receipts for… That includes paying for employees, legal services, management, finance, taxes, etc, etc., all of which provide essential services that don’t come without the people providing them consuming substantial amounts of energy.

    The statistical interest is that all money is paid to people, actually, for rights or work, and if all people have similarly diverse high and low energy using consumption habits, then virtually every dollar of business expenses will end up being “about average”. That would make the distribution of energy intensities per dollar worldwide “very flat”. I can think much of it through conceptually, but sure could use some help defining it statistically.

    the paper is http://www.synapse9.com/pub/SEA_EROIwind.pdf fyi

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