• Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2019.
As I hope you know, Vaclav Smil is an expert on energy, food, population, and economics, who assembles and analyzes data in fact-filled books like Energy and Civilization: a History. Bill Gates has said “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next ‘Star Wars’ movie.”
You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?
The facts here are fascinating but the question is absurd. Are we really sinking into such anti-intellectualism that a journalist feels the need to start a conversation with a scientist by asking if he sees himself as a “nerd”?
I’d have been tempted to reply “First, can I ask if you see yourself as a twit?” Smil more wisely replied:
Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it.
Here’s why he wrote the book:
I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it–economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.
He advocates degrowth in some places… but growth in others:
[…] it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience. There is this pernicious idea by this [Thomas] Friedman guy that the world is flat and everything is now the same, so what works in one place can work for everyone. But that’s totally wrong. For example, Denmark has nothing in common with Nigeria. What you do in each place will be different. What we need in Nigeria is more food, more growth. In Philippines we need a little more of it. And in Canada and Sweden, we need less of it. We have to look at it from different points of view. In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.
I’m sure his book will be more interesting than these quotes, because it’ll be full of well-organized and important facts—and the questions surrounding growth are some of the most pressing of our age.
John always tells me to write short, sweet, and clear. Knowing that his advice is supreme on these matters, I’ll try to write mini-posts in between the bigger ones. But… not this time – the topic is too good.
Work smarter, not (just) harder.
Today I got an email from Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. (350 parts per million, the concentration of CO2 considered a “safe upper limit” for Earth, by NASA scientists James Hansen. We’re soaring past 415ppm.) In preparation for the global climate strike, Bill wants to share an important idea: divesting from fossil fuels may be our greatest lever.
I’ll pluck paragraphs to quote, but please read the whole article; this is an extremely important and practical idea for addressing the crisis. And it’s well written… the first sentence sounds fairly Baezian.
I’m skilled at eluding the fetal crouch of despair—because I’ve been working on climate change for thirty years, I’ve learned to parcel out my angst, to keep my distress under control. But, in the past few months, I’ve more often found myself awake at night with true fear-for-your-kids anguish. This spring, we set another high mark for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: four hundred and fifteen parts per million, higher than it has been in many millions of years. The summer began with the hottest June ever recorded, and then July became the hottest month ever recorded. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany, which have some of the world’s oldest weather records, all hit new high temperatures, and then the heat moved north, until most of Greenland was melting and immense Siberian wildfires were sending great clouds of carbon skyward. At the beginning of September, Hurricane Dorian stalled above the Bahamas, where it unleashed what one meteorologist called “the longest siege of violent, destructive weather ever observed” on our planet.
Bill emphasizes that change has moved far too slowly, of course. But he’s spent the past week with Greta Thunberg and many other activists, and one can tell that he really is heartened.
It seems that there are finally enough people to make an impact… what if there were an additional lever to pull, one that could work both quickly and globally?
The answer: money.
Today it is large corporations which have the greatest power over daily life, and they are far more susceptible to pressure and change then the insulated bureaucracies of governments.
Thankfully Bill and many others knew this years ago, and started a divestment campaign of breathtaking magnitude:
Seven years ago, 350.org helped launch a global movement to persuade the managers of college endowments, pension funds, and other large pots of money to sell their stock in fossil-fuel companies. It has become the largest such campaign in history: funds worth more than eleven trillion dollars have divested some or all of their fossil-fuel holdings.
And it has been effective: when Peabody Energy, the largest American coal company, filed for bankruptcy, in 2016, it cited divestment as one of the pressures weighing on its business, and, this year, Shell called divestment a “material adverse effect” on its performance.
The movement is only growing, accelerating, and setting its sights on the big gorillas. The main sectors: banking, asset management, and insurance.
Consider a bank like, say, JPMorgan Chase, which is America’s largest bank and the world’s most valuable by market capitalization. In the three years since the end of the Paris climate talks, Chase has reportedly committed 196 billion dollars in financing for the fossil-fuel industry, much of it to fund extreme new ventures: ultra-deep-sea drilling, Arctic oil extraction, and so on. In each of those years, ExxonMobil, by contrast, spent less than 3 billion dollars on exploration, research, and development. $196B is larger than the market value of BP; it dwarfs that of the coal companies or the frackers. By this measure, Jamie Dimon, the C.E.O. of JPMorgan Chase, is an oil, coal, and gas baron almost without peer.
But here’s the thing: fossil-fuel financing accounts for only about 7% of Chase’s lending and underwriting. The bank lends to everyone else, too—to people who build bowling alleys and beach houses and breweries. And, if the world were to switch decisively to solar and wind power, Chase would lend to renewable-energy companies, too. Indeed, it already does, though on a much smaller scale… It’s possible to imagine these industries, given that the world is now in existential danger, quickly jettisoning their fossil-fuel business. It’s not easy to imagine—capitalism is not noted for surrendering sources of revenue. But, then, the Arctic ice sheet is not noted for melting.
Bill elucidates the fact that it is critical to effect the divestment of giants like Chase, Blackrock, and Chubb. Even if these targets are quite hard, this method of action applies to every aspect of the economy, and empowers every single individual (more below). If the total divestment is spread over a decade, it can be done without serious economic instability. And if done well, it will spur tremendous growth in the renewable energy sector and ecological economy in general, as public consciousness opens up to these ideas on a large scale.
I want to keep giving quotes, but you can read it. (If anyone is out of free articles for New Yorker, I can send a text file.) I’ll contribute a few of my own thoughts, expanding on stuff implicit in the article; and then this topic can be continued with another post.
Divesting is a truly powerful lever, for several reasons.
First, money talks. Many people who have been misled by modern society have the following equation in their heads:
money = value
These people, being overwhelmed with social complexity, have lifted the “burden” of large-scale ethics off of their shoulders and into a blind faith in the economic system – thinking “well, if enough people have the right idea, then capitalism will surely head in the right direction.”
Of course, after not too long, we find that this is not the case. But their thinking has not changed, and we need a way to communicate with them. While it may feel strange and wrong to reformulate the message from “ethical imperative” to “financial risk”, this is the way to get through to many people in powerful places. When you read about success stories, it is effective, especially considering all the time spent mired in anthropogenic-warming skepticism.
Second, social pressure is now a real force in the world. We can bend competition to our will: incentivize companies to better practices, and when one capitulates, the others in that sphere follow. It has happened many times, and the current is only getting stronger.
Though if we want to fry bigger fish than no-straws, we need to sharpen our collective tactics. It will of course be more systematic and penetrating than shaming companies on Twitter. The article includes great examples of this; it would be awesome to discuss more ideas in the comments.
Third, everyone can help this way, directly and significantly. Everyone has a bank account. It is not difficult, nor seriously detrimental, to switch to a credit union. The divestment campaign can be significantly accelerated by a movement of concerned citizens making this transition.
(My family uses Chase. When I was spending quality time back home, I asked my parents how the value of a bank is anything more than secure money storage. The main thing they mentioned was loans – but they admitted that the biggest and best loan they ever took was through a credit union. The reasons simply did not add up. I plan to show them this article, and I’ll try to have an earnest conversation with them. I really hope they understand, because I know they are rational and good people.)
It’s all but impossible for most of us to stop using fossil fuels immediately, especially since, in many places, the fossil-fuel and utility industries have made it difficult and expensive to install solar panels on your roof. But it’s both simple and powerful to switch your bank account: local credit unions and small-town banks are unlikely to be invested in fossil fuels, and Beneficial State Bank and Amalgamated Bank bring fossil-free services to the West and East Coasts, respectively, while Aspiration Bank offers them online. (And they’re all connected to A.T.M.s.)
This all could, in fact, become one of the final great campaigns of the climate movement—a way to focus the concerted power of any person, city, and institution with a bank account, a retirement fund, or an insurance policy on the handful of institutions that could actually change the game. We are indeed in a climate moment—people’s fear is turning into anger, and that anger could turn fast and hard on the financiers. If it did, it wouldn’t end the climate crisis: we still have to pass the laws that would actually cut the emissions, and build out the wind farms and solar panels. Financial institutions can help with that work, but their main usefulness lies in helping to break the power of the fossil-fuel companies.
The economy is far more responsive to changes in the collective ethos than the government. This is how people can directly express their values every day, with every bit of earning they have. We are recognizing that the public mindset is changing, and we can now take heart and leverage society in the right direction.
Conjecture The critical science of our time has the form:
This is why John Baez brought together so many capable people for the Azimuth Project. I hope that we can connect with the new momentum and coordinate on something great. Even in just the last post there were some really good ideas. I really look forward to hearing more. Thanks.
I’m going to try to post more short news items. For example, here’s a new book I haven’t read yet:
• Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Simon and Schuster, 2019.
I think she’s right when she says this:
I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.
Nonetheless Robert Jensen argues that the book is too “inspiring”, in the sense of unrealistic optimism:
On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.
Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.
One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Fire makes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.
The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)
Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”
First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.
Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.
I don’t know what Klein actually thinks about this, but she does think drastic changes are coming, one way or another. She writes:
Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.
The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.
I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.
One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.
Hello, I’m Christian Williams. I study category theory with John Baez at UC Riverside. I’ve written two posts on Azimuth about promising distributed computing endeavors. I believe in the power of applied theory – that’s why I left my life in Texas just to work with John. But lately I’ve begun to wonder if these great ideas will help the world quickly enough.
I want to discuss the big picture, and John has kindly granted me this platform with such a diverse, intelligent, and caring audience. This will be a learning process. All thoughts are welcome. Thanks for reading.
….. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
It’s important to be positive. Humanity now has a global organization called the United Nations. Just a few years ago, members signed an amazing treaty called The Paris Agreement. The parties and signatories:
… basically everyone.
By ratifying this document, the nations of the world agreed to act to keep global warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels – an unparalleled environmental consensus. (On Azimuth, in 2015.) It’s not mandatory, and to me that’s not the point. Together we formally recognize the crisis and express the intent to turn it around.
Except… we really don’t have much time.
We are consistently finding that the ecological crisis is of a greater magnitude and urgency than we thought. The report that finally slapped me awake is the IPCC 2018, which explains the difference between 2C and 1.5C in terms of total devastation and lives, and states definitively:
We must reduce global carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and by 100% by 2050 to keep within 1.5C. We must have strong negative emissions into the next century. We must go well beyond our agreement, now.
So… how is our progress on the agreement? That is complicated, and a whole analysis is yet to be done. Here is the UN progress tracker. Here is an NRDC summary. Some countries are taking significant action, but most are not yet doing enough. Let that sink in.
However, the picture is much deeper than only national. Reform sparks at all levels of society: a US politician wanting to leave the agreement emboldened us to form the vast coalition We Are Still In. There are many initiatives like this, hundreds of millions of people rising to the challenge. A small selection:
On the national level, we must make concrete, compulsory commitments. If they do not soon then we must demand louder, or take their place. The same week as the summit, there will be a global climate strike. It is crucial that all generations join the youth in these demonstrations.
We must change how the world works. We have reached global awareness, and we have reached an ethical imperative.
The complex numbers together with infinity form a sphere called
the Riemann sphere. The 6 simplest numbers on this sphere lie at points we could call the north pole, the south pole, the east pole, the west pole, the front pole and the back pole. They’re the corners of an octahedron!
On the Earth, I’d say the “front pole” is where the prime meridian meets the equator at 0°N 0°E. It’s called Null Island, but there’s no island there—just a buoy. Here it is:
Where’s the back pole, the east pole and the west pole? I’ll leave two of these as puzzles, but I discovered that in Singapore I’m fairly close to the east pole:
If you think of the octahedron’s corners as the quaternions you can look for unit quaternions such that whenever is one of these corners, so is . There are 48 of these! They form a group called the binary octahedral group.
By how we set it up, the binary octahedral group acts as rotational symmetries of the octahedron: any transformation sending to is a rotation. But this group is a double cover of the octahedron’s rotational symmetry group! That is, pairs of elements of the binary octahedral group describe the same rotation of the octahedron.
If we go back and think of the Earth’s 6 poles as points on the Riemann sphere instead of , we can think of the binary octahedral group as a subgroup of ), since this acts as conformal transformations of the Riemann sphere!
If we do this, the binary octahedral group is actually a subgroup of , the double cover of the rotation group—which is isomorphic to the group of unit quaternions. So it all hangs together.
It’s fun to actualy see the unit quaternions in the binary octahedral group. First we have 8 that form the corners of a cross-polytope (the 4d analogue of an octahedron):
These form a group on their own, called the quaternion group. Then we have 16 that form the corners of a hypercube (the 4d analogue of a cube, also called a tesseract or 4-cube):
These don’t form a group, but if we take them together with the 8 previous ones we get a 24-element subgroup of the unit quaternions called the binary tetrahedral group. They’re also the vertices of a 24-cell, which is yet another highly symmetrical shape in 4 dimensions (a 4-dimensional regular polytope that doesn’t have a 3d analogue).
That accounts for half the quaternions in the binary octahedral group! Here are the other 24:
These form the vertices of another 24-cell!
The first 24 quaternions, those in the binary tetrahedral group, give rotations that preserve each one of the two tetrahedra that you can fit around an octahedron like this:
while the second 24 switch these tetrahedra.
The 6 elements
describe 180° rotations around the octahedron’s 3 axes, the 16 elements
describe 120° clockwise rotations of the octahedron’s 8 triangles, the 12 elements
describe 90° clockwise rotations holding fixed one of the octahedron’s 6 vertices, and the 12 elements
describe 180° clockwise rotations of the octahedron’s 6 opposite pairs of edges.
Finally, the two elements
So, we can have a lot of fun with the idea that a sphere has 6 poles.
This is part 4 of an intermittent yet always enjoyable series:
• Part 1: the rise of the ancient Puebloan civilization in the American Southwest from 10,000 BC to 750 AD.
• Part 2: the rise and collapse of the ancient Puebloan civilization from 750 AD to 1350 AD.
• Part 3: a simplified model of civilizational collapse.
This time let’s look at the collapse of Greek science and resulting loss of knowledge!
The Antikythera mechanism, found undersea in the Mediterranean, dates to somewhere between 200 and 60 BC. It’s a full-fledged analogue computer! It had at least 30 gears and could predict eclipses, even modelling changes in the Moon’s speed as it orbits the Earth.
What Greek knowledge was lost during the Roman takeover? We’ll never really know.
They killed Archimedes and plundered Syracuse in 212 BC. Ptolemy the Fat—”Physcon” —put an end to science in Alexandria in 154 BC with brutal persecutions.
Contrary to myth, Library of Alexandria was not destroyed once and for all in a single huge fire. The sixth head librarian, Aristarchus of Samothrace, fled when Physcon took over. The library was indeed set on fire in the civil war of 48 BC. But it seems to have lasted until 260 AD, when it basically lost its funding.
When the Romans took over, they dumbed things down. In his marvelous book The Forgotten Revolution, quoted below, Lucio Russo explains the evil effects.
Another example: we have the first four books by Apollonius on conic sections—the more elementary ones—but the other three have been lost.
Archimedes figured out the volume and surface area of a sphere, and the area under a parabola, in a letter to Eratosthenes. He used modern ideas like ‘infinitesimals’! The letter was repeatedly copied and made its way into a 10th-century Byzantine parchment manuscript. But this parchment was written over by Christian monks in the 13th century, and only rediscovered in 1906.
There’s no way to tell how much has been permanently lost. So we’ll never know the full heights of Greek science and mathematics. If we hadn’t found one example of an analogue computer in a shipwreck in 1902, we wouldn’t have guessed they could make those!
And we shouldn’t count on our current knowledge lasting forever, either.
Here are some more things to read. Most of all I recommend this book:
• Lucio Rosso, The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born In 300 BC And Why It Had To Be Reborn, Springer, Berlin, 2013. (First chapter.)
Check out the review by Sandro Graffi (who taught me analysis when I was an undergrad at Princeton):
A quick question: if somebody wants to donate money to reduce his or her carbon footprint, which org(s) would you recommend that he or she donate to?
Do you have a good answer to this? I don’t want answers that deny the premise. We’re assuming someone wants to donate money to reduce his or her carbon footprint, and choosing an organization based on this. We’re not comparing this against other activities, like cutting personal carbon emissions or voting for politicians who want to cut carbon emissions.
Here they list various ways to offset your carbon emissions, currently with prices between $11 and $18 per tonne.
The Gold Standard Foundation is a non-profit foundation headquartered in Geneva that tries to ensure that carbon credits are real and verifiable and that projects make measurable contributions to sustainable development.
You need the word 'latex' right after the first dollar sign, and it needs a space after it. Double dollar signs don't work, and other limitations apply, some described here. You can't preview comments here, but I'm happy to fix errors.