Localizing and Networking Basic Technology

guest post by Iuval Clejan

Natural philosophy (aka science) is distinguished from pure philosophy or mathematics by coupling theory to experiment. Engineering is distinguished from science in its focus on solving practical problems rather than merely coming up with more accurate models of the universe. Climate change will not be fixed by pure philosophy or argumentation. We need to use the methods of science and engineering to make progress towards a solution. The problem is complicated and involves not just climate dynamics and ecology, but psychology, economics and technology. Besides theory and experiment, we now have the tool of simulation. I propose a think-tank (or more properly, a think/do/simulate-tank) analogous to the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. However, this project would involve social and physical scientists, computer programmers, engineers, farmers and craftspeople who are trying to collaboratively solve the problem of how to provide food, shelter, water, clothes, medicine and recreation for a self contained village in a sustainable way. Sustainability has psychological dimensions, not just ecological. For example, it implies that people would want to keep living in this village, or similar villages. If we are interested in sustainability beyond the initial village, then sustainability implies replicability—that the village would inspire many other people to live similarly.

Initial outputs of this project would be well-founded suggestions regarding what kinds of production skills are needed and how to effectively network them, how many people, how much land, how much time spent on production in order to achieve village-scale independence and sustainability. An eventual outcome would be an actual demonstration of a functional village.

Why village? The word village is used here to mean a group of people who are economically networked in isolation from the rest of the global economy. It also implies choosing a particular geographic location, so not all outputs would be transferable to other locations, though with the initial simulation stage many locations could be tried.

Why economic isolation? Without putting a boundary on the experiment, the problem is too complex, even for simulation. Entropy reduction is the same reason cells have membranes and scientists have labs. The membrane could be permeable to sunlight, wind (and emissions) and water, but at first it might be simpler to keep it impermeable to economic exchange. In addition, it is easy to externalize all unsustainable practices without a membrane. But the size of the membrane is not predetermined. One possible conclusion might be that the village has to be the size of the whole earth. Another reason for starting with a village is that changes in biological (and probably other complex) systems always proceed from small populations that can spread out by replication. It is more practical to achieve a global change in lifestyle and technology starting with a small group of willing people who can then inspire others by example, rather than try to impose a change on a large population, the way fascist and communist experiments have proceeded. Another reason for keeping things smaller and more local is that a stronger feedback between production and consumption may arise, which would regulate unsustainable consumption, because the environmental, social and psychological costs of production are visible in the village, as opposed to hidden or abstracted from the consumers. There are other reasons for localization (e.g. resilience, freedom, more meaningful employment for more people, better relations among people or between people and nature), less directly related to climate change, and more speculative.

This is probably the place to admit my main bias. I am a Gandhist Luddite (who has a PhD in Physics, worked as a semiconductor engineer and a molecular biologist) , not the angry, machine-smashing kind, and I like not only to tinker with technology, but to think how it affects people and nature. I don’t think all technology can be equated with progress. I call this project the Luddite Manhattan Project (or or Localizing and Networking Basic Technology project) for that reason and because it parallels the project that produced the nuclear bomb. I think that the craftspeople and farmers would contribute more to this project than the scientists and engineers. I think that in the multidimensional optimization of technology, we have focused too much on efficiency (disregarding other human values) and that the industrial revolution was largely a mistake (though some good things came out of it, like global communication). If we focus on other human values, we can optimize technology better. I think that localism of basic-needs production (when coupled to non-technological things like democracy) is a constraint from which many other good things such as sustainability, full, meaningful employment, freedom, and good social relations would follow, though it too can be taken to extremes. Given my bias, I suspect that the kind of technology network that would be most sustainable would be pre-industrial, with a few modern innovations. If we really did the book-keeping accurately we would probably find that industrial production is unsustainable. Or rather we would find that pre-industrial production can be sustainable, while current industrial production is not (I leave open the possibility that industrial production might be sustainable in the future, with new innovations, but even then it tramples too many human values). But these conclusions would be outputs of the project, not pre-assumptions or inputs of the project. I welcome some discussion of these ideas, followed by computation, testing and implementation.

The technical part of the project is basically a networking problem. It would allow initial imports (in a way that would allow replicability—that is don’t hog a disproportionate fraction of resources into the village) into a specific location and then network existing technologies so that the system is self-sustaining. What one craftsperson produces, others in the village must use so that the village can continue in perpetuity. A blacksmith needs some fuel, but also customers who need his products and can exchange stuff that he needs. A cooper is mostly useless in the current industrial economy, but would probably find some use in a local village economy, where people need ways to store water and other liquids.

Here are some typical challenges and questions the project would face: How can antibiotics be made on a village scale with no external inputs? What can’t be made and can we find substitutes? Are there missing technology links and can we invent them, or do we need to start with another scenario? What food needs to be produced to provide basic caloric needs to all inhabitants of the village? How much area is required? How can water be captured and transported without plastic or rubber? How much carbon is emitted in production of everything? Where does garbage go? How can metals be recycled? Can plastic be produced? Can electronics be produced? Is there enough time for art, science, scholarship and other forms of edifying human activity? What kind of economic systems work? Is there an optimal one as far as sustainability, or is it a matter of personal preference? These are all questions that can be tackled, if we face them with curiosity and realism, instead of with fear and the kind of magical thinking that most people have towards technology and other things they don’t understand. I’ve heard that Leonardo Da Vinci was the last man to understand the technology of his age, but we have computers to help us.

It might be appropriate at this stage to mention that I do not advocate giving up entirely the industrial mode of production, or the global trade it requires. The Localizing and Networking Basic Technology project would address only food, shelter, water, medicine, all the subsidiary crafts necessary to sustain these, and a few edifying human activities like art, music and scholarship. Computers and internet hardware are almost certainly best left to industrial production, and so are cars, airplanes (but the need for these will drastically decrease if this project is successful), some of the parts for particle accelerators and fancy biotech equipment, etc.

The initial computational stage of the project could model itself on online multiplayer games like Warcraft and planning games like Sim City (I have tried to contact Will Wright, to no avail). I do not play these games (I prefer simple low tech games personally), but I see the usefulness of online collaboration and computation for this project, as a sort of in-silico evolution. Programmers and mathematicians could set up the software to allow both online collaboration and some central planning. I think the simplest solutions should be tried first, i.e. the most primitive technologies, like hunting and gathering. My educated guess is that they will be shown incapable of providing basic needs given the current world population. The same conclusion would probably follow for current industrial production, except the incapacity would be with regards to sustainability. I predict the sweet spot where both sustainability and capacity to “feed the world” (meaning provide a decent life) would be achieved by pre-industrial, agrarian and craft-based production.

I am totally willing to be proven wrong by this experiment about my anti-industrialization bias. With regards to scientific experimentation, there needs to be well posed hypotheses that can be proven wrong, and good controls. The engineering approach is an alternative. Who is willing to work on this project? Let’s make amends for unleashing the horror of the Bomb on the earth, tackle climate change realistically and have some technical fun. For further information please see:

• Iuval Clejan, Luddite Manhattan Project, first stage, 16 April 2012.

• Iuval Clejan, A proposal for funding a blueprint of a village-based technology ecosystem, 5 February 2012.

68 Responses to Localizing and Networking Basic Technology

  1. domenico says:

    I am thinking that a single network can be simple, and inexpensive.
    No telephone line, only wireless connections.
    No gas, only electricity, with underground (or external) low tension distribution with water distribution (only a tube for all).
    Only green energy (wind, solar, geothermical, tide, stirling with each natural fuels) and without gas distribution (electric cookers), and low performance stirling-car (they work with all the fuels, for example pellets-cars): a single stirling engine that work for all, the same component for termogenerator, electricity and movement; there is low cost for spare parts, and a single mechanics (it is like the power supply of the computers: a single black box that give a standard energy with a standard input).
    It is possible in some country (if the movement is low velocity and it the weather is clement) to habe no ways, no streets (zero impact: I am thinking some African countries).
    It is possible zero garbage, if the product are produced on-site, and transformed on-site (burned, or converted in biomass).
    The idea is possible and feasible.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      I am afraid you do not understand the scope of this project. If the village can’t produce and maintain the hardware for wind, solar, etc, it is not allowed, except as an initial input. The word “network” may have thrown you off. I was not talking about a wireless network, but a network of production of basic needs.

      • domenico says:

        I think that an self-contained village, without extern assistance, can be possible.
        I read of some Afghanistan women that work in the mobile phone repair: I think that it is possible the repair of the technologies of cellular broadcasting, with a little of practice; a initial structur can be provided, and repaired for years.
        The use of a transmission line on distant village is expensive (in Africa are used only cell lines): there are transmission of money in Africa, in poor village.
        A complete elimination of the technology can be possible, but I don’t think that can be really accepted.
        I am thinking, now, to a minimum consumption of natural resource in the villages, taking the best green energy, and evaluating the energy, pollution and footprint of the village on the Earth: this remind me the Encyclopedie of Diderot and D’Alember, that contained the technologic information of industrial process.
        I think that the autonomous replication is important (the base of each life form) and if the energy consumption is optimal, then the growth can be exponential.
        Is it possible build of cellular antenna (or radio antenna like in Australia) with low cost technologies?
        An other interesting point is the medicines use; there are some natural cure (aspirin is a natural product of the willows cortex) that are hidden in the sciaman, and healers, knowledge: it is possible to extract the correct knowledge (herbal) and, for each zone of the Earth, give the correct medicine books (the plant are not the same in different continents) for many, but not all, the disease.

        • domenico says:

          There is an analogy between your idea and the ancient greek colonization.
          I observe that the colonization happen near rivers, with the exportation and cultivation of medicinal plants in ancient colonies, and a propagation of cultural and technical skill: there is a separate evolution.
          There is a optimal strategy in the colonization, that can be evaluated like starting point for a general theory.

        • Iuval Clejan says:

          Dear Domenico,

          The problem with all these high tech communications and “green” energies is that they require electronics, which are probably not going to be made locally. Also other materials that are not going to be availbale locally, for wind turbines, for solar panels, for batteries, etc. You can build antennas but if you don’t have electronics for transmitter and receiver, they do no good. These are luxuries, not basic needs. Once basic needs are figured out, we can think about luxuries.

          What exactly is the analogy between this project and ancient greek colonization? They didn’t need to figure out a technological infrastructure, because they already had one that worked. We don’t.

          Herbal medicine should be integrated into the project because it can take advantage of local plants. There are already some books about herbs and their medicinal uses that are place-specific.

        • domenico says:

          The ancient Greek civilization had distant state cities, in different nations, that are indipendent, with their craftmen that built each artifacts that need locally.
          There is not direct earth connection (naval commerce), no simple communication, optimal geographical position, same language, same optimal city structure.
          Some elementary technologies can be made locally, it is sufficient to have elementary commodity (metals,woods) with an elementary construction: I think 3D printer technology, and some universal robot (that contain only metal and plastic) that built the electronic circuits from a file (I think that an an analog circuit must be more simple).
          The analogy can be made from village and apartment building: if a theorical, and technological structure work, then each optimal change can spread like a virus; I think for example the optimization in the roof , with planted grass or vegetable, water recovery for internal use, energy production without windmill (windsheer) and noise (solar energy): only if it is convenient to use a new technology with taxes reduction, and cost reduction, then can have a great diffusion
          You imagine an optimal research for modification in the cities, that have great cost reduction, so that each person change reduce CO2 production in the right direction.

        • domenico says:

          I am thinking that a plant for roof is not an optimal choice.
          If there is a optimal choice for the ecosystem, then there is a great carbon sequestration in the plants (to obtain natural energy with cogeneration).
          It is possible to obtain the ecosystem plants (that include earthworms and insects) of the same latitude, with the same height, and the same meteorological condition (the natural plant don’t require water and fertilizer).
          If in some million of years, there are more plants in an localized environment, then these complex biochemical natural laboratory is balanced, and optimized (this remind me the Hortus Gramineus Woburensis of Darwin).
          If there is a solar lawn mower robot that cut the plants to obtain the biomass, then I think that can be possible to use the ecosystem with natural Herbivore.
          It is possible to use light, and interlocking, square cement vases, with mobile edges to permit the earthworms movement.

        • Iuval Clejan says:

          Dear Domenico,

          Lots of interesting ideas. Do you mean “herbicide” or “herbivore”? Where do the materials and parts for robot come from? Where do materials and parts for cogeneration plant come from? Remember, if it can’t be made and obtained locally, it is not part of this project.

        • domenico says:

          I think that a good idea in a village, or in an apartment building, or in a great city, have common application.
          In some city there is the attempt to build rooftop gardens, reducing pollution in the water, and obtaining carbon sequestration.
          So, if there are the right plants, then can be possible a large scale application (the knowledge like a virus diffusion in the different communities).
          The same idea can be applied to a real village: what are the optimal plants, without erbicide, fertilizer, to use for herbivores to human alimentation? Or what are the plants, for human alimentation, that can be used without fertilizer and irrigation? It is possible the cogeneration with natural plant, without the use of fuel for the harvest?
          I think that exist ecosystem with optimal plants that coexist with erbivores, so that a cultivation can be considered an ecosystem herbivores-plants = robot-plants = countryman-plants.

  2. Tom Haws says:

    I think that the following are important insights of this essay:

    1. “It is more practical to achieve a global change in lifestyle and technology starting with a small group of willing people who can then inspire others by example, rather than try to impose a change on a large population….”

    Yes. Of course the great question is how to be inspiring. I think this question must be asked early and often: How are we inspiring? I think your ideas about art and craftsmanship as well as for a computer game are key.

    2. “I think that in the multidimensional optimization of technology, we have focused too much on efficiency (disregarding other human values).”

    Yes. Much of what appears to be efficient is bad because it externalizes costs. Other processes that are truly optimized for efficiency are meaningless because they produce questionable value. For example, producing more corn than we can eat is meaningless. Once I have met my basic needs, what I really want to do rather than increase efficiency is Make Good Art and Interact. This may reveal a facet of the importance of the membrane. Besides removing our ability to import goods and export pollution, it removes our ability to export excess. It removes our incentive to over-produce and over-optimize.

    In general, I like how the project sets the stage for a lot of good things to happen. And the idea for a computer game seems like a big winner, possibly worth pitching incessantly until successful.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Dear Tom,

      Interesting points. The one about excess especially. Though excess can be beneficial when used for trade, as in my excess may be something you don’t have enough of. So eventually perhaps we can allow local trade even for basic needs, but keep things local and transparent. Oh, this is a pandora’s box you’ve opened. Someone was bound to do it eventually.

  3. nad says:

    Iuval as I understood you want to include your game in an multiplayer online environment, so I put your game proposal on the corresponding Azimuth project page.

    You write:

    I predict the sweet spot where both sustainability and capacity to “feed the world” (meaning provide a decent life) would be achieved by pre-industrial, agrarian and craft-based production.

    I don’t believe this. How do you want to distribute alone the agrarian space? Like in Germany every little space is taken up already either by agriculture or by cities etc.
    I am also very sceptical about your village type project. Ever ended up to survive at -17 degrees Celsius without electricity and running water? It pretty means the stronger ones with chipping experience are chipping wood all day, the less chipping experienced carry water and the rest is busy with cooking, cleaning etc. Not much time for art, science and scholarship.

    The northern (and mostly colder) parts of the world would have a hard time without technology thats why they are pushing brain childs instead of real ones. I eventually want to explain this a bit more, but I currently have no time for this.

    By the way I found your views on Jews:

    The fact is that most Jews (except recently a few in Israel) have lost touch with a sense of place, not just by being nomadic, but by not participating in a local economy, which involves ecological (as opposed to industrial) agriculture and crafts and domestic services, not just information juggling.

    awkward and on the brink of antisemitism. It would be good if you could clarify this.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Dear Nadja,

      Thanks for adding my game to the Azimuth project page. Hopefully this will attract some game programmers.

      You write:

      I don’t believe this.

      Part of the point of this project is to go beyond belief, faith and religion and know. I happen to believe it based on my experience in a mostly pre-industrial community, but the experiment isn’t perfect.

      How do you want to distribute alone the agrarian space?

      That is beyond the scope of the project. What would be part of the project’s output are things like how many acres per person are necessary for a decent life within the village.

      Like in Germany every little space is taken up already either by agriculture or by cities etc.

      Yes, and it’s unsustainable in many ways, so let’s figure out how to do something else (hence this project)

      Ever ended up to survive at -17 degrees Celsius without electricity and running water?

      I just asked a friend who lived a few winters at the Possibility Alliance in MO how cold it got. She said 4F, which is -15.5C, and she says it does get colder some winters.

      It pretty means the stronger ones with chipping experience are chipping wood all day, the less chipping experienced carry water and the rest is busy with cooking, cleaning etc. Not much time for art, science and scholarship.

      I think you mean chopping, not chipping. They don’t spend all their time chopping or cutting wood. Winter especially is a time of rest, scholarship and contemplation there. Summer and fall involves some wood chopping and cutting, as well as other chores, but from my experience it is not more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and it is very pleasant work, not the drudgery you make it sound.

      The northern (and mostly colder) parts of the world would have a hard time without technology thats why they are pushing brain childs instead of real ones.

      Who is suggesting no technology? Non-industrial technology is still technology (and quite sophisticated), and this project does not exclude industrial technology. I just predict that industrial tech won’t meet the local constraint and we already know it isn’t sustainable.

      by the way I found your views on jews awkward and on the brink of antisemitism. It would be good if you could clarify this.

      I would love to discuss this with you, but it is not directly relevant to this project, so let’s discuss it over email or on my blog if you want. BTW, I am an Israeli Jew, who is not against himself and definitely not against semites or any other group. Let’s keep the discussion civil please, and not throw slurs at each other.

      • Iuval Clejan says:

        Dear Nadja,
        The link named “Utopia” next to my name, on the Azimuth project page is problematic in two ways. First the name–I don’t want “Utopia” as a name for the project I outlined here and on my blog. It implies that one is not serious and in touch with reality (Marx used that connotation to discredit the so-called “utopian” socialists). Second, the project described through that link bears only a rudimentary resemblance to the one I proposed. “Utopia” is an interesting and worthwhile project, but seems to be focused on issues of economics, not technology. This is a crucial difference. The problem of sustainability is not just psychological and economic, but also technological. The Luddite Manhattan Project imposes the constraint of locality on technology and economics, with the hope that this would lead to sustainability and a decent life. Whether or not it does is more a matter of experiment and simulation, less of debate. Perhaps it was an unintentional mistake and you just have the wrong links (there was a link to this website under my name; perhaps it should have been next to my name, instead of “Utopia”).

        • nad says:

          Perhaps it was an unintentional mistake and you just have the wrong links (there was a link to this website under my name; perhaps it should have been next to my name, instead of “Utopia”).

          Sorry, I don’t know what happened to the editing,
          but there is now a bulleted list.

        • nad says:

          The problem of sustainability is not just psychological and economic, but also technological.

          This draft is a work in progress.
          And if you allow that simple analogy: If you want to cure a disease then you eventually try to find out more about the causes (in this analogy htis would be: human psychology and the probably only partially suited economic rules) before applying any “medicine” or similar treatments (here: technology). But that doesn’t say that I am not interested in technology and that it may be (and actually is) included in the draft – at least in part.

      • John Baez says:

        Iuval wrote:

        The link named “Utopia” next to my name, on the Azimuth project page is problematic [...]

        Anybody can edit the Azimuth Wiki, so if there’s something you don’t like, you can click on the bottom where it says “Edit” and change it. Of course we ultimately aim to have some agreement that the material on this Wiki is correct, and sometimes this requires discussions, which we have on the Azimuth Forum. But in many cases, simply fixing mistakes is the quickest way to handle them.

  4. nad says:

    Summer and fall involves some wood chopping and cutting, as well as other chores, but from my experience it is not more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and it is very pleasant work, not the drudgery you make it sound.

    If you heat with wood then you need a lot of wood. I just remember that in such a cold we used up about one tree with 8 people within a week and we heated only one room. The wood had to be chopped because there was not enough pre-chopped wood and we were snowbound. We had to get the water from a lake and there was basically one person almost busy for the whole day with keeping the hole ice free and carrying the water for 8 people.

    I am also not sure if you want to do all the farming with pre-industrial tools.

    I would love to discuss this with you, but it is not directly relevant to this project, so let’s discuss it over email or on my blog if you want.

    No thanks I don’t want to discuss this. I just wanted to let you know how this can be perceived and that it would be better to clarify your words. You probably meant that among the jews, most jews…a.s.o.
    But it sounded as if the jews are standing out in their ” not participating in a local economy, which involves ecological (as opposed to industrial) agriculture and crafts and domestic services, not just information juggling.” That is this “nonparticipation in a local economy” applies to most “higher civilized” people and not just jews. I knew that Iuval is an Israeli name from Yuval Neeman so I actually suspected that you probably meant it in the above way.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Nad said:

      If you heat with wood then you need a lot of wood.

      That depends on the kind of stove you have (technology), and on the kind of insulation you have in your house (also technology). If you have a rocket stove or other downdraft mass heater, it is much more efficient than a fireplace or other wood burning stoves. You can get a factor of 2 or three less wood just from that. And good insulation (wool or leaves treated with some animal deterrent, or straw bales) can contribute another factor of x (I don’t remember what x is, but it is large) less wood.

      I just remember that in such a cold we used up about one tree with 8 people within a week and we heated only one room. The wood had to be chopped because there was not enough pre-chopped wood and we were snowbound.

      Chopping is efficient in some circumstances, but usually cutting (with a good timber saw, which can be almost as fast as a chain saw, without the gasoline or industrial material inputs), and splitting with an axe are better.

      We had to get the water from a lake and there was basically one person almost busy for the whole day with keeping the hole ice free and carrying the water for 8 people.

      Underground cisterns are one non-industrial solution to prevent freezing of water (the Romans made concrete, at a lower temperature than industrial concrete, and resultant lower, but sufficient strength). There are many others (e.g. animals). There are also pumps that can be built with non-industrial methods to reduce the burden of hauling water. And if you have to haul water, a social (non-technological) solution is to share the work with many people, not just one.

      I am also not sure if you want to do all the farming with pre-industrial tools.

      I am not sure of it either. Animals are good for plowing, but there is also no-till agriculture for field crops (vegetables can be grown with intensive gardening methods, requiring simple tools that do not need industrial inputs) that works in some regions. There are proposed bicycle-powered plows (both plows and bicycles can possibly be made with blacksmithing and other non-industrial metalworking, from scrap metal, the trash of industrial civilization). Threshers, winnowers, de-hullers and oil presses can be hand or animal-cranked, made from scrap-metal.

      Now you are perhaps beginning to see the scope of this project, and why it mostly is a NETWORKING problem rather than a new technology invention problem.

      No thanks I don’t want to discuss this. I just wanted to let you know [follows a discussion]

      So you discuss it anyway. With your permission, I will cut and paste your comment into the comments section of my blog entry “Thomas Freedman and the Religion of Progress” and answer your comment there.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Dear Nadja,

      As far as diagnoses, we disagree. Luddites think that part of the disease is technological. Lately this has focused on computers and the internet, but much cogent analysis of the trouble with the industrial mode of production has preceded it. In complex systems like human societies, causes are difficult to find because of all the feedbacks between memes and systems of memes. Perhaps some of this can be answered by simulation (the online multiplayer game, or whatever cool acronym you had for it)?

  5. nad says:

    So you discuss it anyway. With your permission, I will cut and paste your comment into the comments section of my blog entry “Thomas Freedman and the Religion of Progress” and answer your comment there.

    No it was no discussion but a remark that I think that your text might be understood in eventually unintented ways and how it could be understood and how you probably could have meant it. Thats it. I don’t want to have my comment to be cut and pasted to your blog.

  6. If the village is to be economically isolated, then for ethical reasons it must be able to produce modern computers and communications equipment. Denying the educational benefits of modern worldwide communication to every child born into this community would be child abuse.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Well, I don’t really want the village to be economically isolated with respect to everything, just a few basic needs. There are good theoretical reasons for this, having to do with biological speciation, which you can look up on my blog and elsewhere.

      As far as “child abuse”, that is incendiary. When my son was about 3 years old I got him some Broderbund (educational) software games, enthusiastic about this new educational tool. But I must say that I doubt it was beneficial. The educational software eventually morphed into video games. I think his curiosity decreased, as well as his ability to interact with the physical world, which often involves delayed gratification and ability to withstand serious failure, something computers discourage. My personal experience comparing kids who were not exposed to computers (mostly in intentional communities and home schooled) to those that were, supports the claim that computers are bad for children. I think there are studies linking ADHD to computers now, although not sure if anybody established causality yet. I am often struck by the shallowness of facebook interactions and the seeming inability of much of our youth to form deep, nuanced conversations. One of the biggest critics of the effect of computers on adult personality is Jaron Lanier, one of the inventors of virtual reality. At best, computers are a double edged sword, or to use a more modern analogy, they are like high powered guns, which I would not want to put in the hands of children.

      As far as other ethical issues, right now computers are made by effective chinese (and other third world people without better choices) slaves (and let’s not get into the argument of whether their lives or the Bangladeshi factory workers are improved by the factories). I think they may be worth figuring out how to make locally to avoid slaves, and for the benefit in global communication and the ability to do high powered computations, which most people are not interested in, but I love doing general relativity Mathematica computations, and part of the proposed LMP is a computer game. But having worked as an engineer at Motorola making computer chips (actually wafers) in a prototyping fab, I am not too optimistic that this would be possible locally. Marcin from Factor E Farm, is more optimistic, about that possibility, so if this interests you, talk to him about it.

  7. Lew G says:

    Iuval, your proposal is clearly aimed at developing a combination of both social and technological conditions that would improve the real daily lives of human beings. In addition to empirical disprovability, though, reproducibility of results is also a critical part of the scientific method. Your initial experiment would require significant inputs of time, expertise, energy, and other resources by many people. How do you propose to design the experiment in such a way as to ensure that your results would be reproducible under other circumstances? Or put another way, how would you ensure the greatest possible return (in terms of realizable new sustainable communities in a variety of geographic areas and existing cultural contexts around the world) from the proposed investment? Also, in order to make your initial results as unequivocal (interpretable, reproducible) as possible, what constraints would you foresee needing to impose on the first experiment, beyond those more general restrictions you’ve already described (localized production, limiting inputs from industrial technology to the initial spin-up, allowing free time for other life pursuits, etc.) These are questions of detail – but I suspect you will agree that actual sustainable, repeatable alternatives to modern industrial production may ultimately depend on finding detailed answers to unexpected challenges?

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Dear Lew,

      One advantage to simulation is the ability to investigate many localities in silico. In addition, I expect that even if some of the technologies will be place/resource-dependent, the process of how to network people and technologies locally would be transferable and reproducible.

      I am not clear right now about other constraints. Too many constraints impedes the evolutionary creative process (too little constraints does the same thing).

      • Iuval Clejan says:

        I forgot to mention, that at least as far as cultural replicability, cooperation is probably hardest in the US, without the incentives of fear and greed (but also freedom). So if we can pull this off in the US, we can probably replicate it in other places. As my old kibbutsnik friend said: don’t do it in the US. They have a national ethos of rugged individualism.

  8. Graham Jones says:

    I visited a community called Scoraig in the mid-1980s. It is on a peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. There is no road to it so it feels like an island. There was no mains water or electricity. About 60 people lived there.

    They mainly used peat for heating their houses. Some might say that this is sustainable since the peat regrows, but if you don’t cut the peat, it grows more than if you hadn’t. I think it is pretty bad for your carbon footprint. You’ll have similar issues if you use wood.

    They used small wind turbines to charge banks of old car batteries, which powered dim lights and TVs and radios designed for in-car use. They grew some veg but had to buy in food and other things. Most had a job or received state benefits. Some had a car and a boat to get to it. They had a primary school on the peninsula.

    More impressively, some were building their own houses from local rock (reconstructing ruined crofts) and bought-in wood, etc. There are very few trees in the area.

    The community is still there but I don’t know how much it has changed. Their web site is at
    http://www.scoraig.com/. Visiting places like this (no doubt there are ones nearer you!) would be more useful than simulations.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      I have visited places like this too, except without electricity from any source, or internal combustion engines. The point of simulation is to figure out how to do things more quickly and with all the pieces/technologies/skills in place. It will take such places many generations to build a viable infrastructure so that they are not dependent on the system for handouts, and also so they offer a decent life with lots of choices for work.

      • Iuval Clejan says:

        Forgot to mention that your carbon footprint with wood that is sustainably harvested should be 0. The tree takes up as much carbon as is released upon burning it. And people who grow, cut and burn their own wood are usually much more thrifty about heating their house. And you get warmed twice, as Thoreau used to say.

  9. John Baez says:

    I think it’s obvious that whether we’re trying to stop global warming or simply live with it, we’ll need to make significant changes in our economy and how we live our lives. So, I think the idea of experiments in new ways of living is a good one. One can imagine many different variants. One doesn’t really need to get universal agreement about what experiments are ‘best': one really just needs people to gather in groups who try different things, and one needs good ways to collect and analyze the ‘data’.

    So, I’ll ask: what are people doing along these lines already? And: what’s a good way for people who don’t want to actually join such communities to help them out?

    Of course, most people who join communities that try new ways of living don’t treat them as scientific experiments. It takes a lot of enthusiasm to try these things, so people usually go into them thinking they’re doing something really great… which tends to inhibit the scientific method, and lead to cultishness and quarrels.

    So, while there are already communities trying all sorts of different things, it may be hard to get people to pursue these efforts with a somewhat scientific mindset. That could be an interesting sociological challenge.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      Dear John,
      I may have overemphasized the scientific experiment nature of this project. It is there, but in addition there is a product to be delivered, just like with the Manhattan project: a functional, sustainable, local technology village. Second, just like with the original Manhattan project, this project is not grass roots. It requires a team of experts. Third, this project probably does not need new technologies, but mostly a networking of pre-industrial ones. Fourth this project needs significant up-front funding to feed and house the implementers, and probably just pay the planners (maybe not much if they are playing an online game). The funding is just for startup, obviously, since the project aims to be self-sufficient. These four factors make it unique. Nobody is doing this (even though in my opinion, it is a no brainer):
      1. The Possibility Alliance and a few places in England and France are grass roots and do not have a scientific or engineering bent. They will take generations to get to the complex network required for sustainability independent of the unsustainable global industrial system, if they and the industrial system survive that long.
      2. The transition town movement is also grass roots, and though it has more people involved, they are mostly volunteers who don’t have much time. They need to work at their day jobs just to survive and are not as advanced as the Possibility Alliance in their carbon footprint and independence of the industrial system.
      3. Factor E Farm is barely funded and understaffed, but they are starting from industrial technology and trying to localize it, and thus having to invent new technology. In contrast, this project is mostly starting with pre-industrial technology, which is mostly already local, and trying to network it into a functioning system..

      A good way for people to help is to either donate money, help get it funded, or work as one of the expert planners (including game programmers).

      As far as having a scientific mindset, it may be easier for the planners than the implementers. But if scientists can do it (and it is challenging for them as well, and cultishness can occur in science too), then hopefully others can too. Other methods help group dynamics as well, such as spiritual/ethical traditions and modern methods like NVC.

      • Iuval Clejan says:

        I forgot to mention Arcosanti, which focuses on architecture and I don’t think has achieved much as far as production of basic needs, with the exception of shelter (which I think is much more resource intensive in its construction than the building being built at the Possibility Alliance).
        I also forgot to mention that another thing that makes this project unique (in combination with the other four principles) is an understanding of the theoretical importance of a high level of cultural isolation. As unpalatable as it might be to out liberal sensibilities, I don’t see a way around it.

      • John Baezj says:

        Iuval wrote:

        [....] this project needs significant up-front funding to feed and house the implementers, and probably just pay the planners (maybe not much if they are playing an online game). The funding is just for startup, obviously, since the project aims to be self-sufficient. These four factors make it unique. Nobody is doing this (even though in my opinion, it is a no brainer)…

        The most interesting projects to me are the ones that might get done, so the interesting question about your project is how to get it done. “Floating” the idea—talking about it in public—is a good first step, but a lot of things get stuck at that step.

        The reason I asked about other projects is that it might be possible for a charismatic person to get involved with one of those and maybe shift the direction a bit to make it more like what you want. If your project is too different from existing ones to make this feasible, and it needs significant up-front funding, then someone has to persuade rich people, companies, or funding agencies to get involved. If I were you I’d be thinking about that issue. This aspect is not a ‘no-brainer': it requires significant social and political skills.

        Personally I try to limit my projects to those I can actually accomplish. When it comes to math and physics projects, I can often accomplish what I set out to do… or at least something close enough that it seems worthwhile. I didn’t succeed in quantizing gravity and I didn’t succeed in figuring out the whole theory of n-categories, but I made enough progress that I feel okay. When it comes to the Azimuth Project I’m at the very edge of what I can actually accomplish.

        • Iuval Clejan says:

          Dear John,

          You wrote:

          If your project is too different from existing ones to make this feasible, and it needs significant up-front funding, then someone has to persuade rich people, companies, or funding agencies to get involved. If I were you I’d be thinking about that issue. This aspect is not a ‘no-brainer’: it requires significant social and political skills.

          Yes, I have been working on this, it is definitely a challenging aspect of the project. I am actually working with some folks from the Possibility Alliance, one of whom is a grant writer, to get some funding and to do some of the things for this project together.

          Personally I try to limit my projects to those I can actually accomplish.

          You mean, accomplish alone, all by yourself? Yes, there is some advantage to such projects (I like those too), but I’m afraid those are not the kinds of projects that would help with climate change. If you don’t mean that, then how do you know in advance what you can and cannot do? This project seems so compelling (at least to me) on one hand, but the hard part is to convince people who have money and a religious view (see http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-religion-of-progress.html and the few following posts) which is incompatible with the view motivating this project to fund it.

          I didn’t succeed in quantizing gravity…

          That’s because it is quantum mechanics that needs to be geometricized, not the other way around . ;-)

        • John Baez says:

          John wrote:

          Personally I try to limit my projects to those I can actually accomplish.

          Iuval wrote:

          You mean, accomplish alone, all by yourself?

          No, every really interesting project I’ve done has involved working as part of a community of people interested in the same thing… working with collaborators, holding conferences, getting grants, getting a team of grad students to help me, etc. I’m gradually getting better at working with teams of people, but global warming issues require this sort of skill at a much higher level. Luckily, lots of smart people realize that we’re facing an emergency. So, I’m hoping that once I get my reputation up to a high enough level, and have accumulated some good ideas for things to do, it’ll be possible to join groups of people interested in doing them.

          I am actually working with some folks from the Possibility Alliance, one of whom is a grant writer, to get some funding and to do some of the things for this project together.

          Great! Let me know how it goes.

  10. John Baez says:

    One effort that interests me is the Transition Towns movement. They’re not trying to set up more or less isolated villages as experiments. They’re doing something else. But it still might be possible to take what they’re doing and treat some of it as ‘experiments’, and try to gather data and analyze it systematically:

    Transition Towns (also known as transition network or transition movement) is a grassroots network of communities that are working to build resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability.

    Transition Towns is a brand for these environmental and social movements “founded (in part) upon the principles of permaculture”, based originally on Bill Mollison’s seminal Permaculture, a Designer’s Manual published in 1988. The Transition Towns brand of permaculture uses David Holmgren’s 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. These techniques were included in a student project overseen by permaculture teacher Rob Hopkins at the Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland. The term ‘transition town’ was coined by Louise Rooney and Catherine Dunne. Following its start in Kinsale, Ireland it then spread to Totnes, England where Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande developed the concept during 2005 and 2006. The aim of this community project is to equip communities for the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil. The Transition Towns movement is an example of socioeconomic localisation. In 2007, the UK-based charity Transition Network was founded to disseminate the concept of transition and support communities around the world as they adopted the transition model.

    For more on permaculture read my interview with Thomas Fischbacher.

    I’m especially interested by their ‘energy descent action plans':

    A key concept within transition is the idea of a community-visioned, community-designed and community-implemented plan to proactively transition the community away from fossil fuels. The term “community” in this context includes all the key players – local people, local institutions, local agencies and the local council. With a website devoted to the plan and the publication of Totnes’ Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP), the definition of the concept of transition towns has recently seen a significant development.

    But, I don’t know much about what it really amounts to in practice.

  11. Iuval Clejan says:

    Dear John,
    Interesting interview. I don’t think what the transition town movement is doing amounts to much in practice, for the reasons I outlined in the previous response to you. Though I am not aware of all their efforts, I have seen a bit to make that bold statement. Perhaps if they had more funding, they could do more, but I think there is also not enough critical mass of expertise.

    I have been aware of permaculture for many years. It is generally a good thing.The worst critique of permaculture I’ve heard was that it collects ancient wisdom (mostly about agriculture and shelter), packages it up with hype (mostly about not having to work much), and distributes it to idealistic urban youth for a high price. Another critique which I’ve made myself is that most permie agriculture does not deliver enough calories per unit area and they are generally negative about growing grains (though they are eating them), which enable surplus due to good storage ability. This may not apply to Biointensive (the founders, who also popularized double digging, did not consider themselves permies, though not opposed to permaculture, when I visited several years ago), and Fukuoka (which hasn’t been very replicable). Anyway, I hope that a few permies are part of the LMP.

  12. A simulation must be based on a (mathematical) model, so i am curious about which (if any) model exist that can represent this kind of “village”.

    I don’t think models such as the ones used in Simcity are done to correctly represent reality, as they seem to be optimized (at least to a certain extent) around other priorities (e.g. keep the player engaged). I you haven’t played Simcity i strongly encourage you to try it out to see what i am talking about.

    In any case, I would definitely look at the economics literature (perhaps more micro) to see if anyone has come up with anything useful for smaller size communities.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      The model is a network of players, each with needs (inputs) and outputs which attempt to satisfy other players needs. Some needs are different, some similar (as in nutritional needs). I already have an excel spreadsheet with a visual basic macro that optimizes agricultural area based on nutritional, soil fertility, and available plant constraints. It tells you what to plant and how much. You can find it on appropedia, or I can send it to you. It is based on USDA nutritional data and a simplex linear programming algorithm. You can add uncertainties if you want, make it monte carlo (farmers always object on that basis).

      But I think what you didn’t understand is that before you can figure out economic scenarios, you have to have a functioning local technology network. This is something that the players will figure out as they are playing (in imperfect analogy to Sim City). No one knows how to do this anymore, if ever they did. E.g. Current blacksmiths mostly use mined iron and steel, and propane. If those are not available locally, they need to figure out (in the game) something else (e.g. junk metal and charcoal). After you have a functional technology network, you can start thinking about economic scenarios. I personally would not look that up in a book. I would leave it up to each group to decide what they want to do. I personally like a gift economy, which only works on a village scale, if at all.

  13. Iuval Clejan says:

    I think economics comes into it later for luxuries, but maybe even at the beginning to apportion time, so that you don’t end up with gross inequalities in time spent on work (e.g. the farmers doing much more work than the coopers). So you could try to have another constraint be “free time”, or “time not spent on livelihood”, and start with a baseline of equality, and see what work everyone needs to do to make the network local and self sustaining. For example, the cooper might need to do some farming or cooking, etc. Of course some players can choose to work extra for luxuries, or for the pleasure of the work. But first it is a non trivial challenge to provide the technological baseline that meets the basic needs constraints.

  14. Iuval Clejan says:

    We have an emergency, not just with climate change, but I won’t get into that. The last time physicists stepped up to the plate in an emergency was during the Manhattan Project.

    Who would be interested in drafting a letter to president Obama and George Soros, and a few other wealthy people to push funding for this project? We could probably use a famous physicist like Witten or Dyson to be more convincing (in analogy to Einstein signing the initial letter). I could play the role of Szilard, John could be Wigner. Actually, I also want to be Oppenheimer. OK, I am being a bit flippant and playful, but I am serious about writing a letter to the president and some wealthy people. I am probably not the best to draft the letter. Perhaps the government is not the best funding for this either. Can you help me to push this project by getting signatures from famous physicists? Or do you think it is too fringe for most physicists?

    • John Baez says:

      You’re joking about Dyson, right?

      Apart from that your idea seems okay… except that physicists are unlikely to be as important in fighting global warming as they were for developing the atomic bomb. So, while the Manhattan Project analogy has a certain charm, it makes more sense to get a letter from top scientists who could really do something about global warming. But who are they? Or, barring that, at least ones who know a lot about it. Or scientists that everyone knows, with good reputations.

      I’m fond of this quote from Stewart Brand’s summary of a great talk by engineer Saul Griffith. You’ll see what it has to do with the Manhattan Project near the end:

      Engineer Griffith said he was going to make the connection between personal actions and global climate change. To do that he’s been analyzing his own life in extreme detail to figure out exactly how much energy he uses and what changes might reduce the load. In 2007, when he started, he was consuming about 18,000 watts, like most Americans.

      The energy budget of the average person in the world is about 2,200 watts. Some 90 percent of the carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere was put there by the US, USSR (of old), China, Germany, Japan, and Britain. The rich countries have the most work to do.

      What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hansen, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

      The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

      That would mean the following. (Here I’m drawing on notes and extrapolations I’ve written up previously from discussion with Griffith):

      “Two terawatts of photovoltaic would require installing 100 square meters of 15-percent-efficient solar cells every second, second after second, for the next 25 years. (That’s about 1,200 square miles of solar cells a year, times 25 equals 30,000 square miles of photovoltaic cells.) Two terawatts of solar thermal? If it’s 30 percent efficient all told, we’ll need 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second. (Some 600 square miles a year, times 25.) Half a terawatt of biofuels? Something like one Olympic swimming pools of genetically engineered algae, installed every second. (About 15,250 square miles a year, times 25.) Two terawatts of wind? That’s a 300-foot-diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes. (Install 105,000 turbines a year in good wind locations, times 25.) Two terawatts of geothermal? Build 3 100-megawatt steam turbines every day — 1,095 a year, times 25. Three terawatts of new nuclear? That’s a 3-reactor, 3-gigawatt plant every week — 52 a year, times 25″.

      In other words, the land area dedicated to renewable energy (“Renewistan”) would occupy a space about the size of Australia to keep the carbon dioxide level at 450 ppm. To get to Hansen’s goal of 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, fossil fuel burning would have to be cut to ZERO, which means another 3 terawatts would have to come from renewables, expanding the size of Renewistan further by 26 percent.

      Meanwhile for individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (and he has passed no one in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

      Can the world actually build Renewistan? Griffith said it’s not like the Manhattan Project, it’s like the whole of World War II, only with all the antagonists on the same side this time. It’s damn near impossible, but it is necessary. And the world has to decide to do it.

      Griffith’s audience was strangely exhilarated by the prospect.

      • Iuval Clejan says:

        Well, yes I realize that Dyson is not sure about global warming, but he likes cool projects. I already failed to recruit his daughter, who is a venture capitalist. She, like most people, didn’t understand this project at all. Maybe Penrose instead? Hawking can be Teller. OK, enough silliness.

        I think physicists have some clout and respect, maybe a leftover from the Manhattan Project and also because we are part of the high priesthood of the current civil religion (of technological, economic and moral Progress). So if we make a joint statement, we will be heard. Also, unlike the completely unrealistic scenario described by Griffith (which also does not take into account the dwindling supply of oil to power all this renewable infrastructure, aka peak oil, and does not report whether he reached the requisite 2200 W, because he didn’t ), the LMP is doable with a small group of experts, and does not need the machinations of politicians (except possibly for relatively small funding), or the consent to change behavior of the masses. It will not be only about reducing carbon emissions and non-renewable energy use, but about a better way of life for most people, which is why it will also, as a side effect lead to less carbon emissions.

        I am not opposed to also including experts on climate change in the signatures.

        • Iuval Clejan says:

          Just to clarify, when I say better way of life, I don’t mean just because it would avoid the nastier parts of climate change. I mean in a day to day way, something that would improve most people’s lives. I am ready to change the name of the project and remove the word “luddite”, though it expresses the idea that the industrial revolution was a correctable mistake and that the root of the climate change problem lies in the kind of technology brought about as a result of the industrial revolution, and that another kind of technology is not only possible, but desirable for reasons not directly related to climate change. OK, I think I may be driving this horse too hard.

      • John Baez says:

        Iuval: I will be happy to consider signing a petition to support an experiment like the one you propose! I think it’s a good idea.

        You wrote:

        Also, unlike the completely unrealistic scenario described by Griffith (which also does not take into account the dwindling supply of oil to power all this renewable infrastructure, aka peak oil, and does not report whether he reached the requisite 2200 W, because he didn’t), the LMP is doable with a small group of experts…

        Yes, that makes your proposal vastly easier to implement. And that’s great.

        Of course, the reason is that you’re talking about a small “experiment”, while Griffiths was trying to depict a complete solution to the global warming problem through increased use of renewable energies. One is like the Manhattan Project, the other is like WWII. And in fact, if you listen to his talk, he was trying to point out how incredibly difficult it would be to tackle global warming solely through increased renewable energies. He was trying to make fun of people who think that will be easy.

        I think it’s pretty clear that the least painful way to tackle global warming would be a mix of

        1) decreased consumption of energy,

        2) increased production of renewable energy,

        3) increased production of nuclear energy,

        4) carbon sequestration,

        5) adaptation to a hotter Earth,

        6) geoengineering.

        For any one of these 6 activities, there are large numbers of people who consider that one unacceptable. They may be right! We need to figure that out. But the more we can – safely! – spread our strategy among these activities, the easier it will be to do enough.

        By the way: actually I think Saul Griffith did reduce his power consumption to 2200 watts, at least for some time. There was a New Yorker article about this. Unfortunately it’s hidden behind a paywall now.

        • Iuval Clejan says:

          Dear John,
          I agree with the 6 solutions above, except there is much work to do with nuclear to solve the waste storage problem, and the safety issues. I personally don’t like it also because it is a centralized production system, with all the resulting problems in political/economic control, transparency , and the kind of human beings that are adapted to a “feed” system, as opposed to a “seed” system (Neal Stephenson’s terminology). Let’s not make the same mistake that the industrial revolution made, focus on only one value to optimize–efficiency in the case of the industrial revolution, and now greenhouse emissions in the case of “green” technology, which nuclear is (arguably) not even, if you consider the costs of infrastructure building with fossil fuels (however, start building them with energy mostly from renewables and that statement is wrong) and toxic waste.

          On another note, thanks for letting me post my views on your blog. Perhaps we could draft a letter together (or I could do it) and start sending it out to a few high profile scientists and engineers, as extra incentive for a potential fundor to support this project. I keep trying to find someone to fund this project.

          IC

  15. nad says:

    John cited:

    …..and one terrawatt from clean nuclear.

    and wrote in his slides:

    “Make nuclear power cheaper and safer.
    According to James Hansen
    it’s already saved 1.8 million lives: coal is what kills!”

    I find the term “clean nuclear” utterly misleading, and I think some more critical reflection should be here at place, the same holds for your citation of James Hansen and the article on Daily KOS. Like for the nuclear safety comparision they used data from 2007 (Markandya and Wilkinson 2007) – as if Fukushima didn’t happen.

    • John Baez says:

      I don’t remember ever typing the phrase “one terrawatt from clean nuclear”. Where did I supposedly do that?

      The disaster in Fukushima clearly revealed major defects with the Japanese nuclear power system. But the tsunami in Japan caused approximately 15,883 deaths. What percent of the death toll was due to the use of nuclear power?

      • Lee Bloomquist says:

        Something is dirty here.

        If the technology is innocent in the case of this tsunami then it must be the organizations involved– a network of businesses, government agencies, and so on. For a possible starting point I heard there’s an ancient monument in the hills above, saying “Don’t build below this point.”

        Assuming that hierarchical re-writing Petri nets (where inside transitions you find Petri nets) are the best tool we have for organizing data on organizations and networks of organizations, in those terms we could say that the crucial information to prevent all these deaths resided in a Petri net place whose draining transitions were never triggered.

        Next point– an advocate of nuclear power has a infinitely better chance of getting access to these organizations than, for example, I would. So I should not work this project (because I will be seen as a political enemy). But a group of advocates might be able to get it done (in fact you would probably have to be a true political friend to get this done)–

        Assuming that you will never be allowed full access, just ask these organizations for whatever access they will give you. Then use Petri nets to organize these data at whatever level of hierarchy allowed. Since the above information that could have prevented all this loss of life is external to the organization, we know that you can start there.

        Then compare the Petri net organizing existing data to imagined systems of Petri nets that would have triggered the above transitions. Work with policy makers, businesses, and educators to design and simulate alternative Petri nets that would have reduced the loss of life. Transfer the technology developed to the organizations involved (as best you can of course). Then iterate on whatever additional problems to which these organizations– as a result of your good work, especially the impressive math modeling– will grant you access. Iterate to get access to data in lower and lower levels of the hierarchy.

        Over.

      • John Baez says:

        Lee wrote:

        If the technology is innocent in the case of this tsunami then it must be the organizations involved– a network of businesses, government agencies, and so on.

        The technology was not innocent. Nuclear power plants should be built with passive safety, meaning that they shut down and don’t heat up if the electric power is cut or the operators stop doing their job. Storing spent fuel rods in a pool that needs a reliable supply of electric power to keep them from melting down, and putting the pool on an upper story of a building, seems like the exact opposite of passive safety.

        But the organizations were the ultimate source of the problems. I’ve read there was a lot of ‘regulatory capture’ going on: the only Japanese who knew enough about nuclear power to regulate TEPCO (their power company) were people who had worked for TEPCO, so there was a huge built-in conflict of interest. So, we shouldn’t be surprised by the history of corruption at Fukushima Daiichi.

        Nonetheless, the death toll due to nuclear power was a negligible fraction of the overall death toll due to the tsunami. The Japanese should be improving nuclear safety and building in better organizational checks and balances, rather than shunning nuclear power.

        • John Baez writes,

          … the death toll due to nuclear power was a negligible fraction of the overall death toll due to the tsunami

          Especially if, as all appearances suggest, it was zero.

          Japan had been importing uranium at $0.25/MMBTU, and by using the Fukushima meltdowns as an excuse to forbid nuclear power plants from restarting, the Japanese government was able to force its electricity producers to use natural gas instead. Imported as LNG, it cost $16/MMBTU.

          Royalty rates on natural gas are hard to find, but in the USA they are in the range 12.5 percent to 18.75 percent. Each gigawatt of nuclear capacity that was forbidden to restart meant 66 million MMBTU of additional natural gas demand annually. If the Japanese government enjoys the lower, one-eighth rate, this is a gain for them on the order of $133 million per blocked reactor per year; they have blocked 50, so are ahead ~$6.6 billion.

          The regulatory capture I see is by that revenue. I would modify James Hansen’s fee-and-dividend proposal to start with the dividend.

        • John Baez says:

          Just a small comment: I don’t want to claim the total death toll due to radiation released at Fukushima will be zero, since most of it would manifest itself as slightly higher death rates due to cancer, and/or increased death rates due to pollution caused by burning extra fossil fuels to make up for the reactor shutdown. However, I’m willing to claim that it’s negligible compared to the total death toll in this disaster!

        • nad says:

          John wrote:

          I don’t remember ever typing the phrase “one terrawatt from clean nuclear”. Where did I supposedly do that?

          You pasted that in via quoting Saul Griffith, that is you cited amongst others:

          …Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear.

          please see above.

        • nad says:

          John wrote:

          The technology was not innocent. Nuclear power plants should be built with passive safety, meaning that they shut down and don’t heat up if the electric power is cut or the operators stop doing their job.


          ..the death toll due to nuclear power was a negligible fraction of the overall death toll due to the tsunami. The Japanese should be improving nuclear safety and building in better organizational checks and balances, rather than shunning nuclear power.

          What do you call negligible?

          According to Wikipedia there were 15883 confirmed earthquake/Tsunami related deaths and 2,676 people missing.

          In an Bloomberg article by R.P. Gale and E. Lax one finds:

          And what of the lasting threat from radiation? Remarkably, outside the immediate area of Fukushima, this is hardly a problem at all. Although the crippled nuclear reactors themselves still pose a danger, no one, including personnel who worked in the buildings, died from radiation exposure. Most experts agree that future health risks from the released radiation, notably radioactive iodine-131 and cesiums-134 and – 137, are extremely small and likely to be undetectable.

          Even considering the upper boundary of estimated effects, there is unlikely to be any detectable increase in cancers in Japan, Asia or the world except close to the facility, according to a World Health Organization report.

          On the website of the World Health Organization report one finds amongst others:

          In terms of specific cancers, for people in the most contaminated location, the estimated increased risks over what would normally be expected are:

          all solid cancers – around 4% in females exposed as infants;
          breast cancer – around 6% in females exposed as infants;
          leukaemia – around 7% in males exposed as infants;
          thyroid cancer – up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).

          By this it looks indeed as if one wouldn’t see an increase of the overall cancer rate in all over Japan. However it is not said here what this means in absolute numbers. How many more cancer cases/deaths are there to be in total?

          (This report is also cited by the german GRS report as “the” main source (see p.59) for the estimation of future health risks due to the Fukushima accident.)

          In the above citation of R.P. Gale and E. Lax it is in addition mentioned that there were no deaths due to radiation exposure. World-nuclear.org (which I often cite, because they are rather pro-nuclear and often rather well-informed) seems to assert the same, they write:

          There have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness from the nuclear accident, but over 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes to ensure this. Government nervousness delays their return.

          (please note that from this sentence it can be (and usually probably will be) ambiguously infered that “There have been no deaths from the nuclear accident…”, which is not true, please read further)

          The assertion that there had been no deaths due to radiation (which is also cited as such on Wikipedia) is eventually based on a sofar unpublished study by UNSCEAR , which was mentioned in an article by Brumfield, who writes:

          So far, neither operator seems to have suffered ill effects as a result of their exposure.

          Furthermore it seems that the UN thinks there were 6 dead workers, who did not die from radiation.

          I think this should be scutinized. In an email from Karl Feintuch at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commision (USNRC) (p. 76) (here another internet capture) it is reported that:

          Japan reports 5 persons have received lethal radiation doses

          but as he points out: there should be “caution regarding maturity and reliability of that information”. Furthermore Tepco reported at least one death, which sounds to me by the description very much radiation related (but this is only a Google translate):

          For one person seriously injured who had been trapped in the tower crane cockpit of the exhaust tube,
          Is transported to the ground from the tower crane in 13 minutes 5:00 pm today, died in 17 minutes 5:00 pm
          Has been confirmed.

          Moreover if you read reports as the article “Worker wants new government to secure safety at Fukushima plant” in Asahi Shimbun, than you may ask yourself how exhaustive and good is the monitoring of the health of workers at the Fukushima plant?

          A TEPCO employee in his 20s who grew up in Fukushima Prefecture has become an opponent of nuclear power after the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

          “I was told to work at the plant like a kamikaze pilot,” said the man, who is evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture due to high levels of radiation he received. “I have no idea about how much radiation I was exposed to.”

          What kind of treatment receive these workers who risk their health and lives for mitigating the effects of such a catastrophe?

          But let’s have again a look on the overall mostly future expected casualities:

          According to the study “Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident” by John E. Ten Hoeve and Mark Z. Jacobson (via Bloomberg.com)

          We find that inhalation exposure, external exposure, and ingestion exposure of the public to radioactivity
          may result in 15 to 1300 cancer mortalities and 24 to 2500 cancer morbidities worldwide, mostly in Japan. Exposure of workers to
          radioactivity at the plant is projected to result in another 2 to 12 cancers cases.

          So their “best estimate” as Evan Douple called it in the bloomberg article is about 130 deaths.

          The Results were evaluated against daily worldwide Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) airborne radionuclide concentrations and deposition rates from around Japan.
          Atmospheric and ground concentrations of iodine-131 (I-131), cesium-137 (Cs-137) and cesium-134 (Cs-134) were then used to estimate the worldwide health effects from the radioactive fallout

          On a first glance into the paper it looks to me as if for example sea and groundwater contamination via the ongoing release of contaminated water and eventual future contaminations had not been taken into account.

          The study
          Accounting for long-term doses in “worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident” Jan Beyea, Edwin Lyman and Frank N. von Hippel (via asianscientist.com) finds:

          On balance, the net result of adjusting the TH&J numbers to account for long-term dose from radiocesium is uncertain, but the mid-range estimate for the number of future mortalities is probably closer to 1000 than to 125.

          According to a report in Yomiuri Shimbun there are at least 537 deaths which had been certified by municipalities as a direct consequence of the Fukushima disaster.

          So if one accepts a cancer related death toll of 1000 people (i.e. a higher but possible projection in the Ten Hoeve and Jacobson fallout study or the expected average toll in the Beyea, Lyman and von Hippel article) and if adds these the stress related 573 deaths one has currently a prognostized Fukushima accident death toll of about 1600 people.

          This is roughly about one tenth of the casualties of the earth quake/Tsunami catastrophe. Is that negligible?!

          Moreover the Fukushima air circulation blew about roughly 81% of the fallout onto the open sea. That means if the winds would have been blown onto land then this would have given at least a factor 5 more fallout on possibly populated land (if one assumes approximately equal population density). But if one takes into account that the wind almost never blew into south direction (eventual erranous personal observation) , i.e. almost never into the direction of the densely populated Tokyo area then it sounds cautious to assume a factor of ten for what the cancer rates could have been under different weather conditions. That is in that case the death toll could have been about as big as the death toll of the earth quake/Tsunami catastrophe.

          And I don’t want to imagine the death toll which would have been a reality if additionally a criticality event would have turned into a chain reaction.

        • John Baez says:

          I’ll need to do a bit more research on this—thanks for the references. If the death toll due to radiation is among the higher figures you mention, I wouldn’t call that negligible. But as you know, these estimates tend to be controversial. And I certainly won’t accept any estimate made by Mark Z. Jacobson without further study! For example, in his paper A path to sustainable energy, Jacobson claimed that

          Nuclear power results in up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.

          Barry Brook investigated this claim and wrote:

          Hold on. How could this be? I’ve shown here that the “reactor construction” argument is utterly fallacious—wind has a building material footprint over 10 times larger than that of nuclear, on energy parity basis. Further, Peter Lang has shown that wind, once operating, offsets 20 times LESS carbon per unit energy than nuclear power, when a standard natural gas backup for wind is properly considered. I’ve also explained in this post that the emissions stemming from mining, milling, transport and refining of nuclear fuel is vastly overblown, and is of course irrelevant for fast spectrum and molten salt thorium reactors. So…?

          Well, you have to look to the technical version of the paper to trace the source of the claim. It comes from Jacobson 2009, where he posited that nuclear power means nuclear proliferation, nuclear proliferation leads to nuclear weapons, and this chain of events lead to nuclear war, so they calculate (?!) the carbon footprint of a nuclear war!

          Indeed, the cited paper by Jacobson posits a war in which fifty 15-kiloton nuclear devices are used, setting cities afire, giving CO2 emissions of 92–690 teragrams.

          This does not really explain the high figure arrived at by Jacobson: it’s just a small portion of the carbon footprint he estimates. However, it suggests one has to carefully investigate how he does his calculations.

        • John Baez says:

          Nad wrote:

          You pasted that in via quoting Saul Griffith, that is you cited amongst others:

          …Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear.

          please see above.

          Oh, whoops—okay! As I said, this passage was written by Stewart Brand, so you can blame him for the phrase ‘clean nuclear’ and also the nonexistent word ‘terrawatt’.

    • I like to say that nuclear power is aktiver Umweltschutz – active environmental protection. Just look at the Tshernobyl exclusion zone wilderness… Fukushima might perhaps help save the Pacific tuna from total collapse. But I guess they are not contaminated enough. More cesium! More mercury! On the other extreme, Bavarian wild pigs, many still being Tshernobylian radioactive waste, are now vastly overpopulating. Alas we can’t reintroduce wild bears as a check, so they need to get shot and disposed in German Entsorgung (lit. transl.: de-worrying).

      • grlcowan says:

        Florifulgurator says,

        … Fukushima might perhaps help save the Pacific tuna from total collapse … But I guess they are not contaminated enough. More cesium!

        Primary sources: Madigan et al. 2012, Madigan et different al. 2013.

        Stable cesium-133 is a fission product, but the neutrons that sustain fission in a power reactor tend to turn it into 2-year-halflife cesium-134. In a fission explosion, this doesn’t happen — the neutrons are gone before the 133-mass precursors of cesium-133 can turn into it — and 134 is therefore only from reactors.

        But if you look at the potassium-40 to cesium-(134, 137) disintegration rate ratios in those papers’ Tables 1, you may get the idea that melting down large power reactors is a difficult way to raise ocean fishes’ alkali metal radioactivity.

        If deuterium-tritium fusion power can ever be made to work, or better yet D-D fusion, its larger number of neutrons per joule compared to fission, and blankets of natural cesium around the fusion fireballs, might make lighting up fish easier.

    • John Baez says:

      I just happened to bump into this article by Andrew Revkin, an environmental columnist for the New York Times. I’ll quote a lot of it here and study the reports more later.

      Experts Foresee No Detectable Health Impact from Fukushima Radiation

      The levels of exposure to radiation following the leaks and explosions at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in 2011 were so low that they led today to this important conclusion from experts convened in Vienna by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation:

      It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.

      Scientists had met all week to make final adjustments to a report on Fukushima radiation and health that will be submitted to the United Nations General Assembly later this year.

      The findings are even more definitive on the lack of risk than those in a World Health Organization report on the nuclear incident in February. An Associated Press account from a news conference following the meeting describes the difference:

      Wolfgang Weiss, a senior member of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, …suggested the UNSCEAR study, carried out by 80 experts and with the involvement of five international organisations including the United Nations health agency, was based on information covering a longer period after the accident.

      “So they (the WHO) didn’t have the full picture. We don’t have the full picture either but we have more than one year in addition,” he said.

      Here’s more from the news release issued by the United Nations committee:

      The additional exposures received by most Japanese people in the first year and subsequent years due to the radioactive releases from the accident are less than the doses received from natural background radiation (which is about 2.1 mSv per year). This is particularly the case for Japanese people living away from Fukushima, where annual doses of around 0.2 mSv from the accident are estimated, arising primarily through ingestion of radionuclides in food.

      No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers (including TEPCO employees and contractors) involved at the accident site.

      Given the small number of highly exposed workers, it is unlikely that excess cases of thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure would be detectable. Special health examinations will be given to workers with exposures above 100 mSv including annual monitoring of the thyroid, stomach, large intestine and lung for cancer as a means to monitor for potential late radiation-related health effects at the individual level.

      The assessment also concluded that although the rate of exposures may have exceeded the levels for the onset of effects on plants and animals several times in the first few months following the accident, any effects are expected to be transient in nature, given their short duration. In general, the exposures on both marine and terrestrial non-human biota were too low for observable acute effects. [Read the rest.]

      • nad says:

        From the UNSCEAR website:

        No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers (including TEPCO employees and contractors) involved at the accident site.

        How good are the workers informed about what could be a radiation related effect? How good is the radiation screening?

        How good is the health screening?

        Or blatantly put – iff one does too few or doesn’t do any health or radiation screenings at all for a case than one will of course observe no effects for that case.

        From the above cited article:

        He said he never saw officials from regulatory government agencies in those areas.

        and again the worker statement from above:

        “I was told to work at the plant like a kamikaze pilot,” said the man, who is evacuating from Fukushima Prefecture due to high levels of radiation he received. “I have no idea about how much radiation I was exposed to.”
        Not only in the very first days there were not enough measurement apparatus.

        and another quote form that article:

        The man said workers at the Fukushima No. 1 plant are being exploited.

        “Workers come from around the country because they are willing to work even at a nuclear plant due to the economic slump,” he said. “Many businesses siphon off part of their wages, taking advantage of their vulnerable positions.”

        and another quote from another article:

        Electric utilities and their contractors are obliged to issue personal records for workers at nuclear facilities and in cleanup work and monitor their radiation exposure to keep it within legal limits: up to 50 millisieverts annually and 100 millisieverts over five years.

        The records also include the results of their health checks.

        Workers receive their records when their contracts end, and new employers are supposed to use them to ascertain the accumulated radiation dose of each individual.

        In addition to tracking the radiation exposure of their workers themselves, utilities are also supposed to submit the data in electronic form to the Radiation Effects Association, a public entity, for centralized management.

        Earlier, TEPCO was found to have failed to send the association data for a total of 21,000 workers employed over a period from the nuclear accident through fiscal 2011.

        and

        The ministry announced in October that it confirmed 19 instances of irregularities, including non-use of dosimeters.

        But as I mentioned in my above comment this UNSCEAR assessment is not final :

        The report that is finally adopted by the Committee will be presented to the United Nations General Assembly when it meets later this year, and the scientific data and evaluation underpinning that report will be published separately.

        and so the UNSCEAR may still have some final comments on what haven’t been observed because it wasn’t observed.

      • John Baez says:

        I think it’s good that people are treating the UN and World Health Organization claims about Fukushima skeptically and demanding more evidence. I am sure we will learn more as time goes on. However, it seems clear that compared to the enormous and uncontroversial death toll due to burning coal, the rather subtle (if any) health effects of a disaster like Fukushima are indeed negligible.

        If solar, wind and hydro were able to grow fast enough to generate enough power to stop global warming soon enough to prevent serious problems, I would say we should avoid nuclear power. However, I don’t think we are in that situation. We are in a tough spot, and an imperfect solution is better than a solution that doesn’t work.

        • nad says:

          However, it seems clear that compared to the enormous and uncontroversial death toll due to burning coal, the rather subtle (if any) health effects of a disaster like Fukushima are indeed negligible.

          Frankly I feel very uneasy hearing you call 600 more or less confirmed deaths and -if the studies are correct- 1000 more cancer deaths “negligible” – regardless in comparision to what! And as said it could have been much more deaths.

          Apart from that I don’t think that people would care much about coal plants if there would be fewer of them. It is in particular the scale which makes the difference. In particular there are:

          According to the IEA Clean Coal Centre, there are over 2300 coal-fired power stations worldwide (7000 individual units). Approximately 620 of these power stations are in China.

          There are currently 437 nuclear power plants.

          Moreover future nuclear power will make use of breeders, which are sofar a rather uncommon technology and which may fuel a plutonium market.

          So there are roughly 6 times more coal plants than nuclear plants. There were 2 major nuclear accidents (Tchernobyl, Fukushima) within roughly 40 years (and numerous “smaller” ones and apart from other problems ). One can somewhat imagine how the accident rate scales with a factor of 6 and how this goes together with the installation of a rather new uncommon technology, an accumulating waste problem and a rising demand for optimization due to raising economic pressure.

          However, I don’t think we are in that situation. We are in a tough spot, and an imperfect solution is better than a solution that doesn’t work.

          I wouldn’t call the above problems “imperfections”.

          If you enter an airplane there is a difference between wether the colour of the seats is imperfect or wether the engines are not working properly e.g. due to an “imperfectly casted rotor”. You wouldn’t call the latter an “imperfection”. And of course the correct balancing between need and risk plays a bigger role in the latter case.

          In principle there is sofar no need for nuclear power generation.

          I think one of the great challenges of nowadays science and technology is to decide which science and technology should NOT be applied and used on a greater scale (and if at all at what scale) and to find ways to implement the findings.

    • Iuval Clejan says:

      That article has not much in common with the topic here, except that the author wants research to be more local in agriculture. Other than that, he is advocating business as usual, with a global technology network.

  16. Lee Bloomquist says:

    Would the village be a good place to test mathematical models of “word of mouth promotion” that might be evident in the allocation of water?

    http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/1956.html

    Papers about administered-system versus market-based allocation of water seem to be ignoring the individual’s role in relevant markets and policies. Word-of-mouth promotion would take the individual to be basic in markets and policy– because consumers, voters and other types of individuals are always involved in markets and policy of this type.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23597927

    How much word-of-mouth promotion would be/should be involved in water allocation?

    What kinds of conversations are involved? Could the conversation part of word-of-mouth promotion be effectively modeled by a two-person mathematical game? In word-of-mouth promotion a network of conversing individuals exists; so would closing circles in networks of word-of-mouth promoters be the necessary condition for market and political coalition efficiency? Could lab studies in experimental game theory be translated by mathematical models of the game, and network, of word-of-mouth-promotion into large-scale action toward the needed policies and markets?

    To be helpful, tools will have to be found in less that one generation.

    http://www.gwsp.org/fileadmin/documents_news/Bonn_Water_Declaration_final.pdf

  17. Iuval Clejan says:

    Dear Lee,

    I don’t know enough about these two important topics to give a good response to your questions, but I’ll try. Certainly in a simulation type game (such as the one I propose), economic factors such as WOMP can be incorporated. But I don’t think WOMP would be very interesting unless the scale of the village was in the thousands or millions. As to water allocation, I think this illustrates one of the general advantages of localization: that if the Tragedy of the Commons happens in your back yard, you have an immediate feedback to change your ways. If you are enabled by global industrialization to deplete and destroy resources (such as water) from some other place and not face (at least in the short term) those consequences (in fact your consequences are profitable), you will continue your behavior.

    I am actually trying to develop some land now in a semi arid region of California where the water table has been dropping for a while due to industrial agriculture. I am guessing that If people are just trying to live on the land with wells, pumps, tanks/cisterns and hoses (or other water carrying tech) that they built themselves out of local materials and tools, water depletion does not/will not happen. But if they use tech made by Chinese slaves, running on petroleum from far-away places and selling a product to far away places, they will continue their behavior until the water runs out. Also, people in the “developing” world will probably not take good care of pumps that require parts that they have to buy from the global industrial market, unless they are driven by profit, but then they’ll deplete the aquifers.6

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