Observations and Questions

For some time I’ve been accumulating observations and questions on a variety of topics but have felt the need to have, for the former, deep analysis, and for the latter, answers. I don’t have much in the way of either, but I’d like to share them nevertheless.

Cause and Effect.

Is technological progress driving prosperity, or is prosperity driving technological progress? The conventional answer is the former, as argued by authors such as Diamandis but certainly by many others. However it’s likely that the latter is actually the dominant cause and effect relationship, with a bit of the former (making it a feedback loop).

This may be the central assumption that differs between those who expect business as usual (in technological progress at least) to continue in some form and those that don’t. That is those who expect technological progress, but who are having a hard time denying the material limits to growth, still claim that such progress can proceed unimpeded. (Kurzweil likes to point out that even the Great Depression didn’t affect technological progress.) But without a prosperous underlying society — that relies upon the mining of nonrenewable natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital, to use Eisenstein’s phrasing — would this technological progress really continue? It seems we are going to find out the answer to this question over the next decade.

Poor Substitutes.
We’ve had nominal economic growth for a long time, but if we are to look at what’s happened, we’ve been substituting the rich with the cheap and real with the fake. One of the core reasons for this transition is that our appetites haven’t been decreasing but there are more and more people around the world entering their respective middle classes, expecting the materially-wealthy life that’s supposed to come with it.

In food: Fake olive oil, fake honey, fake sugar (in the form of artificial sweeteners — consider that at least 10 alternative sweeteners are used commonly today, including Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Stevia, Acesulfame potassium, Neotame, Xylitol, Mogroside, Thaumatin, and Isomalt).

In material goods: objects are made of thinner, less sturdy materials.

In news: the format of conventional newspapers and TV news programs hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades, but far less is going on behind the scenes to really investigate the world as budgets are cut. The same quality of news coverage can’t be done with a team of journalists a fraction the size of what was needed before.

In energy sources: this one is well known, but for completeness — we’re substituting dense, easy to extract, relatively cleaner energy sources with diffuse, hard to extract, and/or dirtier ones.

In relationships: many people can claim many more “friends” today than they could before, since they are in regular contact with a much larger group of people via social networks and the like. However, it seems unlikely that the quality of the interactions with any of those people is improved due to streamlined communication channels.

Ecosystems of Bureaucracies and Cities.

We might do a thought experiment, in which types of individuals are like types of plants or animals that move into an ecosystem / thrive in an ecosystem in different stages. Here we might consider two contexts: institutional bureaucracies and city cultures.

The radicals, innovators, crazy types are like pioneer weeds in an institution. The same goes for hipsters in cities. They forge new ground, go where others aren’t willing to, and get things ready for others to move in. However their will or interest in holding that ground wanes, and they move on to wide open spaces.

Yuppies, and their equivalents in institutions, move in later. While they contribute a little bit of creativity, innovate around the edges, they are mostly seeking stability.

It seems that there is a stable state that ecosystems reach that is rarely reached by either bureaucracies or cities. Instead, these human creations decline rather than arriving at the analogue to an old-growth forest. (Would it be a culture/community that has weathered hundreds or thousands of years in more or less the same form, one that is in balance with the world around it?)

Cataloging Euphemisms.

Our daily speech is filled with euphemisms but we don’t often work to correct them. Some of the euphemisms I’ve noticed recently that are relevant to the topic of this blog include:

Fish stocks — fish.

Harvesting — makes little sense when applied to companies, jobs, etc.

Oil production — no oil is being produced, as it was produced a long time ago.

Seeds as “infringing articles”, “copies” — the language of intellectual property does not fit biological reality.

Automobile — it doesn’t move on its own.

Public relations — is it possible to have an honest conversation with an anonymous group such as the “public”? (And what of the fact that the foundation of public relations is the work of Edward Bernays, whose book Public Relations (1945) was preceded by his book Propaganda (1928)?)

Breaking the Linear / Cyclical Duality.

Lots of authors argue that modern industrial society (and the world around it) undergoes a linear process of change (using linear to mean “in one direction”). Other say no, the processes are cyclical. Of course things are more complex than this, as interacting webs of cycles are layered on top of each other, with linear processes also playing a part, and other processes that are neither (chaotic). We might consider a few of them.

Biogeochemical cycles: ocean current conveyors of various durations, ENSO and other oscillations, Earth’s tilt and the ice age cycle, etc.

Civilization cycles: Kondratieff waves, anacyclosis, Strauss-Howe generational theory, Hindu Yugas, and short-term cycles like the business cycle.

Linear processes: entropy, solar insolation, Earth’s radiation of energy into space

Models that take into account multiple cycles, or better still a combination of multiple cycles along with linear or one-way processes can yield better results — consider multi-cyclic Hubbert analysis, such as the graph in this post by Tad Patzek on U.S. oil production.

Uneconomic Combustion.

Herman Daly introduced the idea of uneconomic growth many years ago. Have we entered the period of uneconomic combustion? Say you have X billion dollars to spend today as a large company or government, and you decide to spend it on extracting and burning some oil or coal. And say that that combustion then translates into some fractional increase in ppm of CO2, which increases the temperature curve over the coming decades and thereby increases the costs borne by society.

Where does the curve cross over? That is, today, how much growth (and thus wealth for some definition of wealth) does X billion dollars buy you vs. how much it might have bought in decades past? And have we reached a point where even in pure dollars and cents terms — setting aside human considerations — that digging up and burning more fossil fuels loses us money as a society? Is the problem that in economic terms people “discount the future”?

Algae Greenwashing.

Algae-based biodiesel, the renewable fuel miracle that has had a bright future ahead of it for at least a couple of decades, has gotten some good press recently. But the narrative in the media is, as you’d expect, very misleading. Let’s take this article in the Chronicle and deconstruct it.

Big oil took a small but significant hit Tuesday when Bay Area motorists began filling up their gas tanks with algae, becoming the first private citizens in the world to use a domestically grown product that could revolutionize the fuel industry.

It seems unlikely that big oil took any hit at all — really all that happened is that the companies making small quantities of algae-based biofuel got some good public relations (i.e. propaganda, if we’re avoiding euphemisms) in the paper.

The fuel, which is actually 20 percent algae and 80 percent petroleum, is available to any vehicle that runs on diesel, and it spews much less smog and ozone-depleting greenhouse gases, Horton said.

First of all, most gasoline in the U.S. is 90 percent petroleum and 10 percent ethanol, so most drivers could make a claim that they’re using fuel that is as much a biofuel. Second, notice that while taking about greenhouse gases, the topic is switched to “smog and ozone-depleting” gases, which, while a concern, is not the primary concern in the mind of most readers about greenhouse gases. Maybe they phrased it this way because in sum the algae fuel (in its life cycle) actually produces more climate-impacting greenhouse gases than petroleum-derived diesel?

Pesticide Greenwashing.

Things that are supposed to be green but aren’t, like algae-based fuel, aren’t the only sources of greenwashing. Pesticide makers (from what I can tell, primarily Bayer and Syngenta, though they hide their involvement carefully) have been running misleading ad campaigns to get people to visit their new website ApplyResponsibly.org where they talk about the importance of being “responsible” in the use of pesticides (but of course starting from the premise that they must be used in the first place, and can of course be used in a safe manner). The site, and corresponding ad campaign, may be the result of a deal that the chemical industry made to avoid penalties / regulation.

Is EROEI a useful concept?

The concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested is common in peak oil analyses — tar sands, for instance, get far less energy back for the energy that goes in than a conventional, on-land oil well. At a macro level — society-wide — it’s probably a useful concept due to factors such as White’s law.

However, I’ve come to the conclusion that EROEI is probably not that meaningful for any individual technology or fuel. First, most often EROEI calculations omit some part of the energy input analysis, or only follow the chain back so far, yielding inaccurate or non-comparable results. Second, energy arbitrage is useful for some time (even when we might frown on it) — we have that going on today in many forms, including methane into biofuels via fertilizers, methane plus tar sands into oil, and coal into photovoltaics and wind turbines (due to factories in Asia). It’s due to these factors that it seems EROEI should be avoided when focusing on any one particular energy source.

Heavy Metal.

A few years ago, a younger relative asked me a basic question: how’d mercury get in fish? I explained the sources and how industrial society has dispersed it, how natural processes caused the mercury to be bioaccumulated, etc. Since fish comprise the largest sector of food that humans largely don’t cultivate directly but catch in the wild (relative to other meats or produce), this problem is somewhat beyond remediation. That is, we can stop the pollution, but it may be a long time before we stop seeing mercury in fish.

However, we do have some control over land. So here’s a basic question I’ve had for a while: how do I remove lead from soil? How do I remove other contaminants from soil? In urban areas, especially those with houses / buildings over a few decades old, lead-based paint has slowly entered the soil. Land near roadways also accumulated lead from leaded fuels. Arsenic was once used as a pesticide, and it remains in some places. And the list goes on: chromium, selenium, PCBs.

Beyond simply physically digging up and hauling out soil, it seemed there must be better options. There are some biological approaches that use hyperaccumulators, including sunflowers and some types of mushrooms. (Of course these would then have to be taken somewhere not used for growing food.) There are also chemical options, which rely upon reactions to deactivate contaminants; one of the most promising I’ve seen is based on distributing ground up fish bones.

The Metaphor of Braess’s Paradox.

I mentioned in post last year the idea of Braess’s Paradox. The crux is that it’s possible in a network — road or computer or any other kind of network — to increase the capacity of the network but decrease its throughput. That is, by adding something, say lanes to a highway, it’s possible to actually slow down traffic.

While the paradox is interesting on its own, I didn’t want to explore it directly as much as consider the broader question of situations in which we have to sacrifice something (or at least feel as though we’re sacrificing something) for some longer term or other sort of gain, a gain that may be counter-intuitive or even hidden. Murphy’s Energy Trap and a similar observations by Meadows (in the context of global dynamics in Limits to Growth and lags in the global system that tend to lead to overshoot and decline) come to mind.

Are there old philosophical arguments about the nature of short-term sacrifice / long-term gain or changing the perspective one uses to realize that it’s not really sacrifice? And similarly, are there old parables and fables that convey similar ideas? While in the particulars Baess’s Paradox is new, the overall concept seems like a very old one.

An Ecological-Economic Shock.

It’s been said for a long time by many (as we asked Herman Daly about), that until there’s an ecologically-rooted economic shock, we may not collective shift our thinking in fundamental ways to move away from an infinite growth-based economic system. What if the need for such a shock is deeper than that — something akin to the idea underlying annealing? That is, we are stuck in a local maximum, one that is far from other potential maxima.

The question here is multi-part. First, what is the opposite of, in Naomi Klein’s terminology, disaster capitalism? The opposite isn’t moderated capitalism — that’s what we have every once in a while right now, and the system is oscillating between the two states of regular and disaster capitalism. Whatever the opposite is — and I’m not sure what it would look like — if it were to be the normal operating mode for some time it might allow for things to renormalize to some more sane midpoint. Second, what might cause such a shock, at what scale, and what impacts would it have? Third, what would the upsides and downsides be? What would be the timescale of these effects?

Taleb has argued that trying to predict when such a shock might happen is futile. So the case would be to prepare for the impact in advance, and in doing so improve the resilience of families, communities, and society overall. Is the overwhelming threat of a shock sufficient to cause action? Would the shock be self-fulfilling in such a case? (For example, some argue that the more people know about peak oil, the worse the effects will be as hoarding, speculation, and the like run wild.) Will the shock coincide with a recession, or will it look like something completely different?

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Responses to “Observations and Questions”

  1. “technological progress driving prosperity, or prosperity driving technological progress”

    I confess my immediate thought was, “Neither. Rather cheap, abundant, convenient fossil energy driving both.”

  2. Mike — I think we’re actually in agreement. My thinking is that prosperity is created by access to cheap and abundant energy sources.

  3. Cause and effect: As you have said in the comments. Technological progress is a positive (self-reinforcing) feed back loop, but depends (among other things) upon cheap or easily available resources. When these go away so does technological progress. However, the way that it goes away is that–as we are already seeing–resource flows are diverted to the money/power elites, who will continue technologies they favor at the expense of those they don’t, until eventually all technological progress grinds to a halt.

    Poor substitutes: For sure.

    Ecosystems of bureaucracies: These never stabilize because they are based on exponential growth. When growth ends they ossify and fall apart.

    Euphemisms: The Red Queen’s Race. It never ends. It is underwritten by the need to lie–which never ends.

    Greenwash: See euphemisms. The underlying lie is that we can continue our civilization and maintain it in its current form, simply by making it somehow ecologically sustainable. Unfortunately, we can’t. The basic or fundamental principles of our civilization are inherently unsustainable. The only politically acceptable course of action is to lie about it for as long as we continue to exist. Hence greenwash. When we quit existing it then becomes somebody else’s problem.

    Uneconomic: The basic point and purpose of modern economic theories is to justify and promote markets and activities that favor the elites at the expense of the rest of society, firstly, and to favor human wants over the ecological basis of life, secondly. It it thus, at its heart, a systematic lie about the nature of the world and how the world works, including a lie about how humans work. Economics is already starting to fail, but the failure is not and cannot be understood, because to do so would expose the lie, which above all must be protected.

    EROIE is fundamental to understanding why our civilization is collapsing, but is not of such great use for designing projects inside that collapsing civilization. The reason is that money is foremost and reality is very, very secondary, when it matters at all. Right now the most successful economic endeavors (mostly in banking) are not only anti-ecological but ant-productive in a material sense. This is not an accident, but a normal part of civilizational decline. It will not change ever, but ends when the civilization does.

    Heavy metal is a problem with no solution. Mitigation is often possible. The world is not going to return to its state “before pollution” ever. It is merely a different world now, and one less favorable to human life. Really, we ought to have been smarter. We weren’t.

    Ecological shock: Its already happening. We don’t see it and never will. Deserts are expanding right now but the resulting starvation is attributed to the personal character defects of those who are starving, and not to those have changed the climate. When starvation moves from the periphery of civilization to its core, the techniques of lying and re-attributing blame will not change, but only be reapplied. Of course, not all parts of the earth are turning to desert, and some may well be inhabitable by humans after civilization has collapsed.

    PS. A sustainable economy puts the ecosystem first, and human whims last. There have certainly been sustainable people in the past, but we want neither to live as they lived, nor learn from their ability to survive and persist. It is not that we couldn’t, but we don’t want to and so we won’t.


  4. Mike, Barath,
    I think our understanding of prosperity changes with the times. Even before fossil fuels, many civilizations flourished that had a lot of prosperity by their own account — they had plentiful nutritious food, arts, even universities and even though their life spans weren’t as long, they had never seen longer life spans before so they weren’t unhappy as a result, they were already calibrated to the shorter life expectancy by today’s standards. Our notion of prosperity is currently calibrated to the level enabled by technologies enabled by fossil fuels (e.g air conditioning). But as we climb down this mountain, our expectations will change and will change fast with the times, we will quickly recalibrate the meaning of prosperity, it is in our nature (we will still remember “those days”, but we will also learn to be happy in the present because we will have reset our expectations).

    Also, we need to acknowledge that the fossil fuels were always in the ground, but along with luck, human intelligence played a role. It is very unlikely that other species would have found a way to make use of fossil fuels to improve their chances of survival and expansion beyond their ecological niches even if they came across it. We have been creating technology ever since we started developing larger brains (which was because of survival pressure), way before fossil fuels, we have always “played with fire” so to speak. Now the question is our intelligence is informing us that we cannot continue this because we are in a “full world”, not an “empty world” (Herman Daly puts this way), and need to stop this mindless growth based on depleting energy, but as a society, most of us cannot come to terms with this reality and have been only relishing in our so called great technological accomplishments without acknowledging the cooperation of nature that enabled these to happen and without acknowledging the limits of nature.