Five Books About Our Future

16 May, 2012

Jordan Peacock has suggested interviewing me for Five Books, a website where people talk about five books they’ve read.

It’s probably going against the point of this site to read books especially for the purpose of getting interviewed about them. But I like the idea of talking about books that paint different visions of our future, and the issues we face. And I may need to read some more to carry out this plan.

So: what are you favorite books on this subject?

I’d like to pick books with different visions, preferably focused on the relatively near-term future, and preferably somewhat plausible—though I don’t expect every book to seem convincing to all reasonable people.

Here are some options that leap to mind.

Whole Earth Discipline

• Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Viking Penguin, 2009.

I’ve been meaning to write about this one for a long time! Brand argues that changes in this century will be dominated by global warming, urbanization and biotechnology. He advocates new thinking on topics that traditional environmentalists have rather set negative opinions about, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the advantages of urban life. This is on my list for sure.

Limits to Growth

• Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004.

Sad to say, I’ve never read the original 1972 book The Limits to Growth—or the 1974 edition which among other things presented a simple computer model of world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Both the book and the model (called World3) have been much criticized over the years. But recently some have argued its projections—which were intended to illustrate ideas, not predict the future—are not doing so badly:

• Graham Turner, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with thirty years of reality, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

It would be interesting to delve into this highly controversial topic. By the way, the model is now available online:

• Brian Hayes, Limits to Growth.

with an engaging explanation here:

• Brian Hayes, World3, the public beta, Bit-Player: An Amateur’s Look at Computation and Mathematics, 15 April 2012.

It runs on your web-browser, and it’s easy to take a copy for yourself and play around with it.

The Ecotechnic Future

John Michael Greer believes that ‘peak oil’—or more precisely, the slow decline of fossil fuel production—will spell the end to our modern technological civilization. He spells this out here:

• John Michael Greer, The Long Descent, New Society Publishers, 2008.

I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read the sequel, which begins to imagine what comes afterwards:

• John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future, New Society Publishers, 2009.

Here he argues that in the next century or three we will go through a transition through ‘scarcity economies’ to ‘salvage economies’ to sustainable economies that use much less energy than we do now.

Both these books seem to outrage everyone who envisages our future as a story of technological progress continuing more or less along the lines we’ve already staked out.

The Singularity is Near

In the opposite direction, we have:

• Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, Penguin Books, 2005.

I’ve only read bits of this. According to Wikipedia, the main premises of the book are:

• A technological-evolutionary point known as “the singularity” exists as an achievable goal for humanity. (What exactly does Kurzeil mean by the “the singularity”? I think I know what other people, like Vernor Vinge and Eliezer Yudkowsky, mean by it. But what does he mean?)

• Through a law of accelerating returns, technology is progressing toward the singularity at an exponential rate. (What does in the world does it mean to progress toward a singularity at an exponential rate? I know that Kurzweil provides evidence that lots of things are growing exponentially… but if they keep doing that, that’s not what I’d call a singularity.)

• The functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.

• Medical advances make it possible for a significant number of Kurzweil’s generation (Baby Boomers) to live long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain.

If you think you know a better book that advocates a roughly similar thesis, let me know.

A Prosperous Way Down

• Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum, A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies, Columbia University Press, 2001.

Howard T. Odum is the father of ‘systems ecology’, and developed an interesting graphical language for describing energy flows in ecosystems. According to George Mobus:

In this book he and Elisabeth take on the situation regarding social ecology under the conditions of diminishing energy flows. Taking principles from systems ecology involving systems suffering from the decline of energy (e.g. deciduous forests in fall), showing how such systems have adapted or respond to those conditions, they have applied these to the human social system. The Odums argued that if we humans were wise enough to apply these principles through policy decisions to ourselves, we might find similar ways to adapt with much less suffering than is potentially implied by sudden and drastic social collapse.

This seems to be a more scholarly approach to some of the same issues:

• Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy, Columbia U. Press, 2007.


There are plenty of other candidates I know less about. These two seem to be free online:

• Lester Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

• Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, New Society Publishers, 2009.

I would really like even more choices—especially books by thoughtful people who do think we can solve the problems confronting us… but do not think all problems will automatically be solved by human ingenuity and leave it to the rest of us to work out the, umm, details.

How Sea Level Rise Will Affect New York

9 June, 2011

Let’s try answering this question on Quora:

How will global warming, and particularly sea level rises, affect New York City?

I doubt sea level rise will be the first way we’ll get badly hurt by global warming. I think it’ll be crop losses caused by floods, droughts and heat waves, and property damage caused by storms. But the question focuses on sea level rise, so perhaps we should think about that… along with any other ways that New York City is particularly susceptible to the effects of global warming.

Suppose you know a lot about New York, but you need an estimate of sea level rise to get started. In the Azimuth Project page on sea level rise, you’ll see a lot of discussion of this subject. Naturally, it’s complicated. But say you just want some numbers. Okay: very roughly, by the end of the century we can expect a sea level of at least 0.6 meters, not counting any melting from Greenland and Antarctica and at most 2 meters, including Greenland and Antarctica. That’s roughly between 2 and 6 feet.

On the other hand, there’s at least one report saying sea levels may rise in the Northeast US at twice the average global rate. What’s the latest word on that?

Now, here’s a website that claims to show what various amounts of sea level rise would do to different areas:

•, Flood maps, including New York City.

Details on how these maps were made are here. One problem is that they focus too much on really big sea level rises: the smallest rise shown is 1 meter, then 2 meters… and it goes up to 60 meters!

Anyway, here’s part of New York City now:

Here it is after a 1-meter (3-foot) sea level rise:

(Click to enlarge any of these.) And here’s 2 meters, or 6 feet:

It’s a bit hard to spot the effects in Manhattan. They’re much more noticeable in the low-lying areas between Jersey City and Secaucus. What are those: parks, industrial areas, or suburbs? I’ve heard New Yorkers crack jokes about the ‘swamps of Jersey’…

But of course, a lot of the city is underground. What will happen to subways and other infrastructure, like sewage systems? And what about water supplies? On coastlines, saltwater can infiltrate into surface waters and aquifers. Where does freshwater meet saltwater near New York City? How will the effect of floods and storms change?

And of course, there are other parts of New York City these little maps don’t show: for those, go here. But watch out: at first you’ll see the effect of a 7-meter sea level rise… you’ll need to change the settings to see the effects of a more realistic rise.

If you live in a place that will be flooded, let me know!

Luckily, we don’t have to figure everything out ourselves: the state of New York has a task force devoted to this. And as task forces do, they’ve written a report:

• New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Sea Level Rise Task Force, Final Report.

New York City also has an ambitious environmental plan:

• New York City, PlaNYC 2030.

Finally, let me quote part of this:

• Jim O’Grady, Sea level rise could turn New York into Venice, experts warn, WNYC News, 9 February 2011.

Because it looks ahead 200 years, this article paints a more dire picture than my remarks above:

David Bragdon, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability, is charged with preparing for the dangers of climate change. He said the city is taking precautions like raising the pumps at a wastewater treatment plant in the Rockaways and building the Willets Point development in Queens on six feet of landfill. The goal is to manage the risk from 100-year storms—one of the most severe. The mayor’s report says by the end of this century, 100-year storms could start arriving every 15 to 35 years.

Klaus Jacob, a Columbia University research scientist who specializes in disaster risk management, said that estimate may be too conservative. “What is now the impact of a 100-year storm will be, by the end of this century, roughly a 10-year storm,” he warned.

Back on the waterfront, oceanographer Malcolm Bowman offered what he said is a suitably outsized solution to this existential threat: storm surge barriers.

They would rise from the waters at Throgs Neck, where Long Island Sound and the East River meet, and at the opening to the lower harbor between the Rockaways and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Like the barriers on the Thames River that protect London, they would stay open most of the time to let ships pass but close to protect the city during hurricanes and severe storms.

The structures at their highest points would be 30 feet above the harbor surface. Preliminary engineering studies put the cost at around $11 billion.

Jacob suggested a different but equally drastic approach. He said sea level rise may force New Yorkers to pull back from vulnerable neighborhoods. “We will have to densify the high-lying areas and use the low-lying areas as parks and buffer zones,” he said.

In this scenario, New York in 200 years looks like Venice. Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have melted ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and raised our local sea level by six to eight feet. Inundating storms at certain times of year swell the harbor until it spills into the streets. Dozens of skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan have been sealed at the base and entrances added to higher floors. The streets of the financial district have become canals.

“You may have to build bridges or get Venice gondolas or your little speed boats ferrying yourself up to those buildings,” Jacob said.

David Bragdon is not comfortable with such scenarios. He’d rather talk about the concrete steps he’s taking now, like updating the city’s flood evacuation plan to show more neighborhoods at risk. That would help the people living in them be better prepared to evacuate.

He said it’s too soon to contemplate the “extreme” step of moving “two, three, four hundred thousand people out of areas they’ve occupied for generations,” and disinvesting “literally billions of dollars of infrastructure in those areas.” On the other hand: “Another extreme would be to hide our heads in the sand and say, ‘Nothing’s going to happen.’”

Bragdon said he doesn’t think New Yorkers of the future will have to retreat very far from shore, if at all, but he’s not sure. And he would neither commit to storm surge barriers nor eliminate them as an option. He said what’s needed is more study—and that he’ll have further details in April, when the city updates PlaNYC.

Jacob warned that in preparing for disaster, no matter how far off, there’s a gulf between study and action. “There’s a good intent,” he said of New York’s climate change planning to date. “But, you know, mother nature doesn’t care about intent. Mother nature wants to see resiliency. And that is questionable, whether we have that.”

The One Best Thing Everyone Could Do to Slow Climate Change

27 May, 2011

There’s a website called Quora where people can ask and answer questions of all sorts. Lots of people use it, so Curtis Faith suggested that we—that is, everyone here reading this blog—try answering some of the questions there. That sounded like a nice idea, so now there’s a ‘topic’ on Quora called Azimuth Project. The questions we tackle will be listed there, so people can easily find them.

To get the ball rolling, Curtis posted this question:

What is the one best thing everyone could do to slow down climate change?

If you’re like me, the first thing you’ll want to do is question the question. Are we really looking for the one best thing everyone could do? Everyone in the world, including the billion poorest people?

In that case, many answers that leap to mind are no good. We can’t say “take fewer airplane trips” because most of those people don’t take airplane trips to begin with. We can’t say “drive less” because most of those people don’t have cars. And so on. It’s no fair! We need an easier question!

Well… let’s not try to second-guess the question. It’s actually fun to take it seriously and try to answer it. It’ll force us to think about the world as a whole, instead of the sins of our rich neighbors.

Here are 50 tips for how to fight global warming from Global Warming Facts. Could any of these be the right answer? How many of these are things that everyone on this Earth can do?

  1. Replace a regular incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb (cfl)
    CFLs use 60% less energy than a regular bulb. This simple switch will save about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.
    We recommend you purchase your CFL bulbs at, they have great deals on both screw-in and plug-in light bulbs.

  2. Install a programmable thermostat
    Programmable thermostats will automatically lower the heat or air conditioning at night and raise them again in the morning. They can save you $100 a year on your energy bill.

  3. Move your thermostat down 2° in winter and up 2° in summer
    Almost half of the energy we use in our homes goes to heating and cooling. You could save about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year with this simple adjustment.

  4. Clean or replace filters on your furnace and air conditioner
    Cleaning a dirty air filter can save 350 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

  5. Choose energy efficient appliances when making new purchases
    Look for the Energy Star label on new appliances to choose the most energy efficient products

  6. Do not leave appliances on standby
    Use the “on/off” function on the machine itself. A TV set that’s switched on for 3 hours a day (the average time Europeans spend watching TV) and in standby mode during the remaining 21 hours uses about 40% of its energy in standby mode.

  7. Wrap your water heater in an insulation blanket
    You’ll save 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year with this simple action. You can save another 550 pounds per year by setting the thermostat no higher than 50°C.

  8. Move your fridge and freezer
    Placing them next to the cooker or boiler consumes much more energy than if they were standing on their own. For example, if you put them in a hot cellar room where the room temperature is 30-35ºC, energy use is almost double and causes an extra 160 kg of CO2 emissions for fridges per year and 320 kg for freezers.

  9. Defrost old fridges and freezers regularly
    Even better is to replace them with newer models, which all have automatic defrost cycles and are generally up to two times more energy-efficient than their predecessors.

  10. Don’t let heat escape from your house over a long period
    When airing your house, open the windows for only a few minutes. If you leave a small opening all day long, the energy needed to keep it warm inside during six cold months (10ºC or less outside temperature) would result in almost 1 ton of CO2 emissions.

  11. Replace your old single-glazed windows with double-glazing
    This requires a bit of upfront investment, but will halve the energy lost through windows and pay off in the long term. If you go for the best the market has to offer (wooden-framed double-glazed units with low-emission glass and filled with argon gas), you can even save more than 70% of the energy lost.

  12. Get a home energy audit
    Many utilities offer free home energy audits to find where your home is poorly insulated or energy inefficient. You can save up to 30% off your energy bill and 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Energy Star can help you find an energy specialist.

  13. Cover your pots while cooking
    Doing so can save a lot of the energy needed for preparing the dish. Even better are pressure cookers and steamers: they can save around 70%!

  14. Use the washing machine or dishwasher only when they are full
    If you need to use it when it is half full, then use the half-load or economy setting. There is also no need to set the temperatures high. Nowadays detergents are so efficient that they get your clothes and dishes clean at low temperatures.

  15. Take a shower instead of a bath
    A shower takes up to four times less energy than a bath. To maximize the energy saving, avoid power showers and use low-flow showerheads, which are cheap and provide the same comfort.

  16. Use less hot water
    It takes a lot of energy to heat water. You can use less hot water by installing a low flow showerhead (350 pounds of carbon dioxide saved per year) and washing your clothes in cold or warm water (500 pounds saved per year) instead of hot.

  17. Use a clothesline instead of a dryer whenever possible
    You can save 700 pounds of carbon dioxide when you air dry your clothes for 6 months out of the year.

  18. Insulate and weatherize your home
    Properly insulating your walls and ceilings can save 25% of your home heating bill and 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Caulking and weather-stripping can save another 1,700 pounds per year. Energy Efficient has more information on how to better insulate your home.

  19. Be sure you’re recycling at home
    You can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide a year by recycling half of the waste your household generates.

  20. Recycle your organic waste
    Around 3% of the greenhouse gas emissions through the methane is released by decomposing bio-degradable waste. By recycling organic waste or composting it if you have a garden, you can help eliminate this problem! Just make sure that you compost it properly, so it decomposes with sufficient oxygen, otherwise your compost will cause methane emissions and smell foul.

  21. Buy intelligently
    One bottle of 1.5l requires less energy and produces less waste than three bottles of 0.5l. As well, buy recycled paper products: it takes less 70 to 90% less energy to make recycled paper and it prevents the loss of forests worldwide.

  22. Choose products that come with little packaging and buy refills when you can
    You will also cut down on waste production and energy use… another help against global warming.

  23. Reuse your shopping bag
    When shopping, it saves energy and waste to use a reusable bag instead of accepting a disposable one in each shop. Waste not only discharges CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, it can also pollute the air, groundwater and soil.

  24. Reduce waste
    Most products we buy cause greenhouse gas emissions in one or another way, e.g. during production and distribution. By taking your lunch in a reusable lunch box instead of a disposable one, you save the energy needed to produce new lunch boxes.

  25. Plant a tree
    A single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Shade provided by trees can also reduce your air conditioning bill by 10 to 15%. The Arbor Day Foundation has information on planting and provides trees you can plant with membership.

  26. Switch to green power
    In many areas, you can switch to energy generated by clean, renewable sources such as wind and solar. In some of these, you can even get refunds by government if you choose to switch to a clean energy producer, and you can also earn money by selling the energy you produce and don’t use for yourself.

  27. Buy locally grown and produced foods
    The average meal in the United States travels 1,200 miles from the farm to your plate. Buying locally will save fuel and keep money in your community.

  28. Buy fresh foods instead of frozen
    Frozen food uses 10 times more energy to produce.

  29. Seek out and support local farmers markets
    They reduce the amount of energy required to grow and transport the food to you by one fifth. Seek farmer’s markets in your area, and go for them.

  30. Buy organic foods as much as possible
    Organic soils capture and store carbon dioxide at much higher levels than soils from conventional farms. If we grew all of our corn and soybeans organically, we’d remove 580 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere!

  31. Eat less meat
    Methane is the second most significant greenhouse gas and cows are one of the greatest methane emitters. Their grassy diet and multiple stomachs cause them to produce methane, which they exhale with every breath.

  32. Reduce the number of miles you drive by walking, biking, carpooling or taking mass transit wherever possible
    Avoiding just 10 miles of driving every week would eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year! Look for transit options in your area.

  33. Start a carpool with your coworkers or classmates
    Sharing a ride with someone just 2 days a week will reduce your carbon dioxide emissions by 1,590 pounds a year. runs a free service connecting North American commuters and travelers.

  34. Don’t leave an empty roof rack on your car
    This can increase fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by up to 10% due to wind resistance and the extra weight – removing it is a better idea.

  35. Keep your car tuned up
    Regular maintenance helps improve fuel efficiency and reduces emissions. When just 1% of car owners properly maintain their cars, nearly a billion pounds of carbon dioxide are kept out of the atmosphere.

  36. Drive carefully and do not waste fuel
    You can reduce CO2 emissions by readjusting your driving style. Choose proper gears, do not abuse the gas pedal, use the engine brake instead of the pedal brake when possible and turn off your engine when your vehicle is motionless for more than one minute. By readjusting your driving style you can save money on both fuel and car maintenance.

  37. Check your tires weekly to make sure they’re properly inflated
    Proper tire inflation can improve gas mileage by more than 3%. Since every gallon of gasoline saved keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, every increase in fuel efficiency makes a difference!

  38. When it is time for a new car, choose a more fuel efficient vehicle
    You can save 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide every year if your new car gets only 3 miles per gallon more than your current one. You can get up to 60 miles per gallon with a hybrid! You can find information on fuel efficiency on FuelEconomy and on GreenCars websites.

  39. Try car sharing
    Need a car but don’t want to buy one? Community car sharing organizations provide access to a car and your membership fee covers gas, maintenance and insurance. Many companies – such as Flexcar – offer low emission or hybrid cars too! Also, see ZipCar.

  40. Try telecommuting from home
    Telecommuting can help you drastically reduce the number of miles you drive every week. For more information, check out the Telework Coalition.

  41. Fly less
    Air travel produces large amounts of emissions so reducing how much you fly by even one or two trips a year can reduce your emissions significantly. You can also offset your air travel carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy projects.

  42. Encourage your school or business to reduce emissions
    You can extend your positive influence on global warming well beyond your home by actively encouraging other to take action.

  43. Join the virtual march
    The Stop Global Warming Virtual March is a non-political effort to bring people concerned about global warming together in one place. Add your voice to the hundreds of
    thousands of other people urging action on this issue.

  44. Encourage the switch to renewable energy
    Successfully combating global warming requires a national transition to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. These technologies are ready to be deployed more widely but there are regulatory barriers impeding them. U.S. citizens, take action to break down those barriers with Vote Solar.

  45. Protect and conserve forest worldwide
    Forests play a critical role in global warming: they store carbon. When forests are burned or cut down, their stored carbon is release into the atmosphere – deforestation now accounts for about 20% of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Conservation International has more information on saving forests from global warming.

  46. Consider the impact of your investments
    If you invest your money, you should consider the impact that your investments and savings will have on global warming. Check out SocialInvest and Ceres to can learn more about how to ensure your money is being invested in companies, products and projects that address issues related to climate change.

  47. Make your city cool
    Cities and states around the country have taken action to stop global warming by passing innovative transportation and energy saving legislation. If you’re in the U.S., join the cool cities list.

  48. Tell Congress to act
    The McCain Lieberman Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act would set a firm limit on carbon dioxide emissions and then use free market incentives to lower costs, promote efficiency and spur innovation. Tell your representative to support it.

  49. Make sure your voice is heard!
    Americans must have a stronger commitment from their government in order to stop global warming and implement solutions and such a commitment won’t come without a dramatic increase in citizen lobbying for new laws with teeth. Get the facts about U.S. politicians and candidates at Project Vote Smart and The League of Conservation Voters. Make sure your voice is heard by voting!

  50. Share this list!
    Spread this list worldwide and help people doing their part: the more people you will manage to enlighten, the greater YOUR help to save the planet will be (but please take action on first person too)! If you like, you are free to republish, adapt or translate the list and post it in your blog, website or forum as long as you give us credit with a link to the original source.

There are a lot of great ideas here, but if we look for those that everyone can do, there aren’t many.

What’s the most important item that was left off this list?

I’ll give my answer to Curtis’ question after I’ve heard some of yours. It’s a tough question but I have an idea. And no, it’s not “join the Azimuth Project”.