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April 28, 2008

Feedback, Tipping Points, and Hard Choices

I have one thing to say: depopulation is not a global warming strategy.

Here's what leads me to that (seemingly obvious, but apparently not) observation.

We know these to be true:

  • Feedback effects ranging from methane released from melting permafrost to carbon emissions from decaying remnants of forests devoured by pine beetles will boost greenhouse gases faster than natural compensation mechanisms can handle.
  • The accumulation of non-linear drivers can lead to "tipping point" events causing functionally irreversible changes to geophysical systems (such as massive sea-level increases). Some of these can have feedback effects of their own, such as the elimination of ice caps reducing global albedo, thereby accelerating heating.
  • Because of the long, slow nature of carbon cycles, no matter what we do, we are committed to warming the planet for at least 2-3 decades beyond when we stop adding to greenhouse gases.

    We also know these to be likely:

  • The economic, environmental and social benefits accruing to early adopters of cleaner infrastructure and behavior can serve as a catalyst for faster adoption by lagging actors. In short, the first ones in demonstrate that the water's fine.
  • Many of the cleaner technologies, infrastructure and behavior have ancillary benefits, from quality-of-life to political rebalancing, that can accelerate their adoption.
  • Continued technological innovations could allow for faster mitigation of greenhouse gases, even potentially allow for the uptake of atmospheric carbon, accelerating the natural cycle of carbon from the atmosphere.

    So: we have a set of demoralizing forces at play, countered by a set of encouraging possibilities. What is the common element that would allow those possibilities to play out? Time.

    Time is what we need. Time is what we may not have.

    Climate and environmental sciences remain imperfect, but few of the improvements in our understanding have reduced the sense of urgency surrounding global climate disruption. On the contrary, much of the enhanced analysis has increased scientists' level of worry. Richard Clarke once famously described a subset of international security analysts running around Washington DC in 2000 and 2001 with their "hair on fire," trying to alert policy-makers to the potential for a terrorist attack in the US. Today, it's the geophysical scientists with their hair on fire, sounding increasingly desperate and shrill about delays in responding to climate meltdown. And they have good cause for alarm: even an enlightened transition away from business-as-usual energy, transportation and social systems may not happen fast enough to avoid catastrophe; certainly, the slow, mulish pattern we've seen up to the present won't.

    If it all comes down to time, we have two choices: move faster, or get more time.

    Moving faster is the approach preferred by nearly everyone making a study of climate and environmental changes. We know what we need to do, we know roughly what it will cost and how long it will take, and we know ways to make it happen to all of our benefit. Unfortunately, we apparently have bigger priorities at the moment, and will get to this climate thing when it really starts to make some noise (by which time, it will be far too late). It seems we're just not that good at thinking in terms of lagging cause-and-effect, and the need for long-term thinking.

    We could get lucky; positive feedbacks and "the water's fine" demonstrations may allow us to move faster.

    We could also get "lucky" in a not-so-lucky way: a clarity-inducing global disaster could trigger the necessary economic and political shifts without pushing us over the edge. Arguably, a series of even moderate natural disasters that could be convincingly tied to global warming (convincing at the political level, even if scientists remain cautious) might serve as a goad to get recalcitrant actors to move faster or suffer political harm (c.f., tobacco.) It wouldn't be so lucky for the thousands or millions of people suffering from these "clarity-inducing" disasters, of course, or for the thousands or millions who would suffer from subsequent disasters happening while we get ourselves in gear.

    Getting more time means slowing down the greenhouse gas-heat-feedback cycle, and that means geoengineering. Let me be clear: we don't know enough about how the various geoengineering proposals would play out to make a persuasive case for trying any of them, and I -- along with most geoengineering proponents I've interacted with -- want to see far more study before making any even moderate-scale experimental effort. This is not something to try today. The most important task for current geoengineering research is to identify the approaches that might look attractive at first, but have devastating results -- we need to know what we should avoid even if desperate.

    Make no mistake: I am not arguing that geoengineering, should it be tried, would be a replacement for making the economic, social, and technological changes needed to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gases. It would only be a way of giving us more time to make those changes. It's not an either-or situation; geo is a last-ditch prop for making sure that we can do what needs to be done.

    Claims that we shouldn't even talk about geoengineering, or give it any kind of meaningful research funding, while we're trying to get people to move faster smacks of Condoleezza Rice's infamous statement regarding contingency planning and the Iraq war:

    "It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work."

    No. Wrong. Sorry. The only rational, resilient, ethical approach is to prepare to deal with failure of one's preferred strategy before that failure occurs. I don't want us to have to engage in geoengineering. I want us to stop being such idiots and start to make real changes to our societies, our infrastructure, our lives. But I also know that we're getting awfully close to the point of being too late for those changes to have a meaningful impact.

    And if we're too late, millions, perhaps billions, of people will die. I will not accept the loss of so many lives as the only alternative to political leaders in the US and China getting their acts together. Depopulation is not a global warming strategy. It's a horrific, tragic result of the failure of strategy, the failure of imagination, and the failure of our capacity to fight to the last breath for our future.

  • April 23, 2008

    Wednesday Topsight, April 23, 2008

    simearth-m.jpgEarly Bright Green: "It is when man shall have discovered the means of restocking the sea and of controlling its supplies that his "dominion over the fish" will be perfect. The power to deplete, which so far marks the utmost limit of his advance, is mere tyrrany. Dominon should embrace a more benevolent sway, and to that end no doubt the efforts of science and the might of law will presently join forces."

    From The Sea-fishing industry of England and Wales: A Popular Account of the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Ports of Those Countries F. G. Aflalo 1904

    Hegemonic Games: As the US global hegemony declines, the mainstream view is that China will move into its place. I don't think that's likely, but China will certainly rival the US as a sub-hegemonic actor. The fun's already begun, in fact, as demonstrated by Chinese soldiers patrolling Zimbabwe streets alongside Mugabe's troops:

    Chinese troops have been seen on the streets of Zimbabwe's third largest city, Mutare, according to local witnesses. They were seen patrolling with Zimbabwean soldiers before and during Tuesday's ill-fated general strike called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). [...]

    One eyewitness, who asked not to be named, said: "We've never seen Chinese soldiers in full regalia on our streets before. The entire delegation took 80 rooms from the hotel, 10 for the Chinese and 70 for Zimbabwean soldiers."

    See also here. This is going to be messy.

    Green Games (the fun kind): Jon Lebkowsky has a piece in the Austin Chronicle entitled "The Serious Play in Saving the World," building on the South-by-Southwest panel he ran in March. It's a strong piece on the state of green gaming, and both its potential and challenges. The article focuses on Pliny Fisk, who joined me on the SXSW panel, and his efforts to find an intersection between sustainability and gaming.

    Fisk has been considering how you could use real-world data in virtual environments to model what he calls EcoBalance, the name of a board game he proposed in 2000, where "participants plan land uses at a settlement or regional scale according to the footprints required to balance natural resource supply and sync functions (i.e., natural capital) with human life support needs."

    EcoBalance could evolve to be something more than a board game via Fisk's interest in digital convergence – increasingly realistic, detailed visualizations; fatter storage and faster CPUs; growing broad adoption of personal digital systems including mobile devices; and powerful support for in-world interactivity in massively multiplayer environments like Second Life.

    As I note the quote Jon used, there has not been a better time for the emergence of a green game. In fact, I think that if the ancient planet model SimEarth could be re-compiled for current hardware, it could be a minor hit -- and a major one if the graphics & simulation code could be updated, too.

    (Apparently, SimEarth can be downloaded from Abandonia.com -- if anyone gets it running, let me know!)

    The Global Suburb: The suburban dream spreads around the world.

    "Every year, we add 60 million urban residents on Earth," Stanilov says. "The countries most susceptible to embracing the American model are particularly those with a booming economy and an emerging class of affluent residents and consumers really eager to embrace the American lifestyles. They don't want just the house but the whole package, the three-car garage, the mall, all of that."

    For many developing nations, however, the suburban ideal is stuck in circa 1980: a sea of lookalike single-family homes and shopping malls on the edge of the city. It's a model that many Americans increasingly are rejecting.

    Suburbia is the logical result of economic growth in regions where density=squalor. System-focused enviros can't eliminate the pathologies of suburbia without both meeting the needs it satisfies and reinventing density.

    Jargon of Note: RUMINT: Rumor level intelligence.
    BOGINT — bogus intelligence
    To the Right/Left of the Boom: the time before or after a bomb detonation, as imagined on a timeline. Emergency response crews usually work to the right of the boom, i.e., afterwards; bomb disposal crews usually work to the left of the boom.

    April 22, 2008

    The Earth Will Be Just Fine, Thank You

    The grand myth of environmentalism is that it's all about saving the Earth.

    It's not. The Earth will be just fine. Environmentalism is all about saving ourselves.

    That may seem a bit counter-intuitive; after all, the Earth is certainly central to the rhetoric, the memetics of environmentalism. Most environmental discussions focus on ecological dynamics, with references to human beings typically limited to enumerations of the various insults we've visited upon the planet. Given the degree of culpability we bear for the current state of the planet, this is entirely appropriate.

    But the rhetorical focus of environmentalism on the planet obscures the fact that what human beings have done to the Earth pales in comparison to past disasters hitting our world, from massive asteroid strikes to super-volcano eruptions killing off 90+% of the Earth's species. In fact, over the course of our planet's lifespan it's experienced every form of (non-human-engineered) apocalypse on the Eschatological Taxonomy up to Class IV -- in comparison, humans have yet to unleash even a Class 0 Apocalypse. And in every case, the Earth has recovered, and life has once again flourished.

    We sometimes make the conceptual mistake of thinking that the way the Earth's ecosystem is today is the way it will forever be, that we've somehow reached an ecological end-state. But even in an eco-conscious world, or one devoid of humans entirely, natural processes from evolution to geophysical and solar cycles would continue. The Earth's been at this for a long time, literally billions of years; from a planetary perspective, a quadrupling of atmospheric carbon lasting 10,000 years (for example) is little more than a passing blip. The fact of the matter is that, no matter how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere or how many toxins we dump into the soil and oceans, given enough time the Earth will recover.

    But human civilization is far more fragile.

    Human civilization could not withstand and recover from the same kinds of assaults the planet itself has shrugged off in eons past. We remain entirely dependent upon myriad Earth services and systems, from topsoil and clean water to carbon cycles and biodiversity. Activities that undermine those critical services and systems quite literally threaten the survival of human civilization. The fundamental resilience of the Earth's geophysical systems simply means that, when we ignore our effects on the planet, we're simply making ourselves disposable, just another passing blip in the planet's long history.

    In trying to minimize the harmful impacts of human activities upon the global ecosystem, environmentalism supports the continued healthy existence of humankind.

    To me, this too is entirely appropriate. Despite its many flaws, I'm a big fan of human civilization. I marvel at our capacity to organize matter and information, at our ability to learn from mistakes and pass that learning down to subsequent generations. Civilization -- writing, cities, trade, the whole lot of it -- makes us unique on this planet and, as far as we can tell so far, in our part of the universe. Destroying that through malice or negligence is the worst form of crime, and the height of tragedy.

    Part of a focus upon civilization, however, is the recognition that we do not exist in isolation, that we are dependent upon an enormous variety of complex systems. As a result, our continued existence requires the continued success of those systems. In order to save ourselves, we have to minimize actions which damage and disrupt the environment.

    Like any social movement, environmentalists argue over tactics and goals, and some eco-activists will disagree with my characterization of the purpose of environmentalism. But the reality is that -- at least with current technologies -- there's nothing that we can do to truly put the planetary biosphere at existential risk. It will recover from what we now do, albeit in a different form than today. But what we can do is so violate the integrity of the planet's ecosystem that the Earth can no longer support us.

    Critics of environmentalism often claim that eco-activists hate humans, that we value the Earth more than we value ourselves. With very few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmentalism is fundamentally about making sure that human beings, and human civilization, can continue to thrive on our home planet for centuries, millennia to come. Environmentalism, in its demands for respect for nature, ultimately demands that we respect ourselves.

    Happy Earth Day -- and Happy Civilization Day.

    April 18, 2008

    Roll +3 vs the Future

    dmg.jpgAt one point during the multiple days of futures workshops held over the last week, one of my colleagues asked me where I'd learned to facilitate groups. After confirming that he thought I was doing it well, and wanted to learn more (as opposed to wanting to know what to avoid), I told him, and he was a little surprised. You might be, too.

    Dungeons & Dragons made me a professional futurist.

    Not the subject matter, of course. For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons (hereafter D&D) is kind of like World of Warcraft, with elves and wizards and inappropriately violent people with heavy swords, all in a vaguely medieval setting. The big difference between D&D and WoW is that D&D isn't played on the computer; it requires you and a handful of friends to sit around a table that's covered with sheets of paper, stacks of books with embarrassing covers, and dice. Lots of dice. The other big difference is that D&D emerged in the 1970s, and WoW is totally a ripoff. But I digress.

    For the most part, when I played D&D in the 1980s, I served as the "dungeon master" (DM) for the games -- that is, the guy who came up with the stories, managed the games, and threw various hazards at the players. It's not an easy task: the three to five players sitting with you have to run their individual characters, but the DM has to be everything else in the world, and has to make sure that the story moves along fast enough to keep the players interested but carefully enough that the players don't feel railroaded. That role taught me a couple of things that still shape my thinking.

    The first is the art of world-building. Although the current version of D&D (as well as the various other surviving non-computer role-playing games) includes a pre-made world in which to play, back in the day we didn't have pre-constructed settings with collections of conflicts and lore and a lengthy backstory, and we liked it. We had to make our own worlds. And if they were to be interesting settings for narrative play, they had to be detailed, internally-consistent, rich with history and key driving forces, and open to players creating novel strategies to deal with seemingly world-shaking threats.

    The last part is especially important. The art of world-building isn't the same as the art of story-telling. Stories focus on the characters, and have a strong narrative arc. World-building creates the environment in which the player's characters exist, and offers hooks and platforms upon which the players can, collaboratively, create their own stories.

    The parallels here between world-building in D&D and scenario construction for futures work should be obvious. Scenarios have to be detailed, internally-consistent, rich with history and key driving forces, and open to "players" -- that is, the strategists and citizens reading the scenarios -- developing their own strategies of operation. In this case, however, futures scenarios involve the emergence of nanomanufacturing or disruptive climate change rather than the emergence of wizard-kings or disruptive undead hordes.

    The second lesson from D&D is the art of invisible guidance. This is where the facilitation skills come into play -- the goal of a DM (facilitator) is to get the players (participants) to follow a particular story-line (strategic argument) and reach a given end-point while making the players (participants) feel as if they'd arrived there naturally. As a facilitator, standing up and telling the participants what they should be understanding and deciding is worse than ineffective, it's counter-productive. Similarly, when a DM gives the players no choice but to accept a quest or follow a path, players often end up pushing back.

    Why not just let the players or participants follow where their interests lead? Ideally, that would be wonderful, but both facilitators and dungeon masters have real-world limits on time. If an organization is paying me for seven hours of futures consultation, I had better make sure that what I produce by the end of the day is something that the organization finds worthwhile and appropriate. If a group of friends is going to take a full night out of a busy week to get together and play a game, I had better make sure that they have fun during that session, and feel like they've progressed.

    The trick, then, is to make sure that the participants and players move towards an end-point I have in my head without me telling them what that end-point will be. I don't have a checklist for this; for me, it's a style or practice that emerged out of years (a few decades, really) of on-the-job learning. One element that's certain: I always let the participants & players follow tangents for awhile before nudging them back towards the intended narrative. In nearly every case, this provides a better context for the ensuing conversation/game-play.

    Obviously, running a D&D game and facilitating a futures workshop have numerous fundamental differences, and I don't want to make more of the comparison than is warranted. But I am at the same time quite convinced that I wouldn't be able to do what I do today without the experience I've had playing these sorts of games. I suspect that, in a variety of important ways, the kinds of thinking and practices encouraged by those games are precisely those that have enormous value today: open-ended strategy; an embrace of the unexpected; and a fundamental reliance on asking "what if?"

    April 15, 2008

    Tuesday Topsight, April 15, 2008

    Because I'm in meetings all week...

    Going Around in Circles: What's the secret to improving fuel efficiency, cutting emissions, and saving gas money? Don't turn left. At least, that's how the UPS routing software does it. No, really:

    Time studies led UPS to discover that avoiding left-hand turns would save time, conserve fuel, reduce emissions and reduce the potential for accidents. UPS managers (who for years planned routes by physically driving each one and plotting on maps) began experimenting with their routes to see if right hand turns would increase efficiency. It worked. For decades, UPS has designed routes in a series of loops with as few left-hand turns as possible.

    Janice had a good question when I told her of this: if you're in a vehicle with auto-stop (like a hybrid or a growing number of high-mileage regular cars), how much of a difference would routing like this make?

    Sterling on Spimes: As usual, Chairman Bruce gives good rant, this time at the "Innovationsforum Interaktionsdesign" conference in Potsdam at the end of March. It's about a 40 minute talk, but worth checking out.

    Bruce Sterling from Innovationsforum on Vimeo.

    Excellent new term coming from his talk: meta-medium -- a new medium that embraces a variety of ostensibly unrelated earlier media. Example: the mobile phone.

    (Paraphrasing Bruce) Mobile phones are a "meta-medium" - they eat practically everything. phone. camera. web browser. video gaming. fax. radio. gps. pedometers. barcode readers. car keys. etc.

    (Via Posthuman Blues)

    The Copyfight Moves to Space: Patents killed an off-course communications satellite last week.

    The AMC-14 comsat didn't quite make its geostationary orbit when launched in March, falling into a survivable but non-useful orbit. The owners understandably wanted to try to salvage it, given the success of earlier satellite rescues involving flinging the satellite around the moon. Bad news:

    ...a plan to salvage AMC-14 was abandoned a week ago when SES gave up in the face of patent issues relating to the lunar flyby process used to bring wayward GEO birds back to GEO Earth orbit. [...] SES is currently suing Boeing for an unrelated New Skies matter in the order of $50 million dollars - and Boeing told SES that the patent was only available if SES Americom dropped the lawsuit.

    Industry sources have told SpaceDaily that the patent is regarded as legal "trite", as basic physics has been rebranded as a "process", and that the patent wouldn't stand up to any significant level of court scrutiny and was only registered at the time as "the patent office was incompetent when it came to space matters".

    So let me get this straight: Boeing has patented orbital mechanics?

    April 14, 2008

    On the Record

    deceptogram.jpgWhenever I talk about the participatory panopticon, one issue grabs an audience more often than anything else -- privacy. But the more I dig into the subject, the more it becomes clear that the real target of the panopticon technologies isn't privacy, but deception. We're starting to see the onset of a variety of technologies allowing the user to determine with some degree of accuracy whether or not the subject is lying. The most promising of these technologies use functional magnetic resonance imaging -- handy if you're conducting a police interview, perhaps, but not likely to be built into a cell phone any time soon. But it turns out that there's another emerging system for discovering deception, one that's not just potentially portable, but also offers the tantalizing possibility of determining if someone lied long after the fact.

    Ron Brinkmann is a visual technology expert, author of The Art and Science of Digital Compositing, and an occasional Open the Future reader. He recently blogged about a set of emerging, very experimental lie-detection technologies relying on images. One takes advantage of observations of so-called "microexpressions," a real phenomenon where micro-second changes in our facial expressions correlate to our feelings about what we are saying. The other takes advantage of changes in skin temperature around the eyes, looking for a brief flare-up of heat that correlates with stress. Rather than reiterate Ron's post, I suggest you go read it.

    I want to call particular attention to an observation he makes late in the piece, however, because I think it's worth careful consideration:

    But enough about the future. Let’s talk about now. Because those last few video/audio analysis techniques I mentioned raise a particularly interesting scenario: Even though we may not have the technology yet to accurately and consistently detect when someone is lying, we will eventually be able to look back at the video/audio that is being captured today and determine, after the fact, whether or not the speaker was being truthful. In other words, even though we may not be able to accurately analyze the data immediately, we can definitely start collecting it. Infrared cameras are readily available, and microexpressions (which may occur over a span of less than 1/25th of a second) should be something that even standard video (at 30fps) would be able to catch. And today’s cameras should have plenty of resolution to grab the details needed, particularly if you zoom in on the subject [...].

    Which brings us to the real point of this post. Is it possible that we’ve gotten to the point where certain peoples - I’m thinking specifically of politicians both foreign and domestic - should be made aware that anything they say in public will eventually be subject to retroactive truth-checking… Because it seems to me that someone needs to start recording all the Presidential debates NOW with a nice array of infrared and high-definition cameras. And they need to do it in a public fashion so that every one of these candidates is very aware of it and of why it is being done.

    (emphasis in original)

    There's no question in my mind that, when these lie-detection systems become seen as good enough (which does not mean 100% accurate, of course), people will start using them to go back through video recordings looking for microexpressions. Politicians offer an obvious set of initial subjects, but I suspect our attention would shift quickly to celebrities. I wouldn't be surprised to see the technologies adopted by activists, especially if we're in an age of going after environmental or economic criminals. Finally, once the systems have come down in price and increased in portability, we'll start pointing them at friends and lovers.

    What then? It's hard to believe that cheap, easy-to-use, after-the-fact applicable lie-detection systems won't be snapped up. But do we really want to know that sometimes when spouses or parents say "I love you," their microexpressions and facial heat say "...but not right now..."? Imagine the market for facial analysis apps as add-ons to video conferencing systems for businesses or the home. Video iChat, now with iTruth!

    Arguably, the only thing worse than this kind of technology getting into everybody's hands would be if it only got into the hands of people already in power.

    Information is power, but so is misinformation. People who lie to achieve some outcome have very real power over the people they've lied to. The capacity to identify those lies, even after-the-fact, can undermine that power. This won't be an easy transition; the technological rebalancing of the political system is already underway (as shown with blogs, YouTube, and the like). Any efforts to pull back from this shift will be met with resistance, anger, and worse. And they will undoubtedly be on the record, like it or not.

    April 9, 2008


    Neologisms coming to mind during the Institute for the Future Ten-Year Forecast event (Updated):

    • "Mesh-to-Mesh" -- social network applications, like Twitter, structured as overlapping peer networks. Living in the space between one-to-one and many-to-many, mesh-to-mesh networks serve as a medium for discovering & creating new network connections, and bridging otherwise distinct communities. This one emerged as I was thinking about Twitter.

      In brief, questions and responses to someone on my Twitter who's part of one community (say, eco-bloggers) are visible everyone on my Twitter list, across the full array of represented communities. If they aren't already linked, they'll only see my half of the conversation, but (in my experience) speaking directly to someone often leads to some folks on my network becoming part of theirs. Mesh-to-mesh networks are likely to be strongest when there's moderate overlap: too much overlap and they become functionally identical networks; too little overlap and call-outs and links to the alternative networks happen too infrequently. Mesh-to-mesh can have the intimacy of personal links and the diversity of a mass discussion.

    • "Planet-to-Peer" -- an interactive environmental information network allowing for both monitoring and (when appropriate) manipulation. A green sousveillance system with feedback. This one emerged during a small group session led by David Pescovitz, covering eco-monitoring technologies; he'd asked me to describe how some of these networks might work, and by way of explanation I offered "they're planet-to-peer systems."


    • "Adaptive Optics" -- not a new term, but a new use. Optical metaphors are commonplace in consulting, with talk about "lenses" and "prisms" almost a requirement. In thinking about cognitive or cultural lenses for understanding a rapidly changing environment, the term "adaptive optics" came to mind. In reality a technology for dealing with a rapidly changing visual environment (such as turbulence in the atmosphere), the metaphorical version would be systems for dealing with a rapidly changing foresight environment.

    If and when more new phrases bubble up during the event, I'll add to this post.

    (Photo by Alex Pang)

    April 7, 2008

    The Big Picture: Resource Collapse

    Puccinia_graminis_teliospores.png(The Big Picture is my series on the major driving forces likely to shape the next 20 years. The first post, on Climate Change, went up in early February.)

    Truism #1: Human society's continued existence depends on the sustained flows of a variety of natural resources.
    Truism #2: What that set of natural resources comprises can change over time.

    We (the human we) have pushed the limits of many of the resources our civilization has come to depend upon. Oil is the most talked-about example, but from topsoil to fisheries, water to wheat, many of the resources underpinning life and society as we know it face significant threat. In many cases, this threat comes from simple over-consumption; in others, it comes from ecosystem damage (often, but not always, made worse by over-consumption).

    The most obvious cause of over-consumption is population. Long a contentious issue for environmentalists, the argument that "we have too many people," logical in theory, faces serious ethical questions when turned to practice. One example: how do we decide who gets to continue living? Over-consumption is compounded by rising standards-of-living allowing more people to consume even more than before, and by a historically-rooted assumption that the Earth is big and can always provide.

    But some resources simply have limits -- there's a maximum amount of oil to be extracted, or copper to be dug up. Some resources (topsoil, fisheries) can renew themselves, but at a rate far slower than our use. Unfortunately, what we've seen from other dwindling resources is that humans have a tendency to try to grab the last bits for themselves, even at the expense of others. This is the so-called "tragedy of the commons," and its most visible present-day manifestation has to be ocean fisheries. Many seafood species are the on the verge of total collapse, perhaps even extinction; official efforts to limit or halt fishing of certain species face desperate communities dependent upon the industry.

    The other driver for resource collapse, ecosystem damage, is somewhat more complex. In some cases, such as honeybees, we still have little certainty as to why the resource is in such danger. In the case of wheat, the risk comes from a combination of human and natural activity.

    If you hadn't heard that wheat is threatened, you're not alone. It's a relatively recent problem: a fungus known as Ug99. Emerging in Uganda in 1999 (hence the name), this black stem rust fungus seemed to be slowly moving north into the Middle East, not yet hitting locations dependent upon wheat as a primary food crop; this slow movement seemed to offer biologists time to come up with effective counters and to breed resistant strains of wheat, a time-consuming process. But that luck didn't hold.

    ...on 8 June 2007, Cyclone Gonu hit the Arabian peninsula, the worst storm there for 30 years.

    "We know it changed the winds," says Wafa Khoury of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, because desert locusts the FAO had been tracking in Yemen blew north towards Iran instead of north-west as expected [...]. "We think it may have done that to the rust spores." This means, she says, that Ug99 has reached Iran a year or two earlier than predicted. The fear is that the same winds could have blown the spores into Pakistan, which is also north of Yemen, and where surveillance of the fungus is limited.

    In Iran, the spore will encounter barberry bushes, which trigger explosive reproduction of Ug99 (and more potential for mutation). From Iran to Pakistan, and then to India (much more dependent upon wheat) and to China. From China, it can blow to North America (as dust and soot do already). The fungus ignores current strains of wheat with fungal resistance, because it initially faced monocultures of wheat with single markers for resistance, allowing for easy mutation and replication.

    I'm just glad the Norwegian seed vault is now up and operating. But as disturbing as the potential for collapse may be, the second truism listed above offers cause for hope.

    Ecosystem services is the term to remember this time around. It's tempting to think of ourselves as dependent upon the resources we currently use, but that's not quite right. What we depend upon are the services the various resources provide -- the energy, for example, or the protein. In principle, if we can receive those service a different way, we may avoid the repercussions of the collapse of a particular resource. It's true that, in some cases (like water), the resources effectively are the services, but even here, we have to be careful not to think of a particular source (e.g., aquifers) as being the only possibility.

    Bird poop provides an instructive example. In the 19th century, guano from birds native to Peru offered the world's best form of fertilizer -- so good that guano became the subject of imperial ambitions, national laws, and international tension. In "When guano imperialists ruled the earth," Salon's Andrew Leonard quotes from President Millard Fillmore's 1850 state of the union address:

    Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price.

    But by the end of the century, the market for guano had collapsed, along with Peru's economy, because of the development of industrial "superphosphate" fertilizer. It's worth noting that, even if superphosphate hadn't been developed, Peru would have been in trouble -- the supplies of guano were just about depleted by the time the market collapsed. That's right: The world was facing "Peak Guano," only to be saved by catalytic innovation.

    Resource Collapse and... Climate Change
    I addressed this in The Big Picture: Climate Change, but as I noted a week or so ago, a recent article by NASA's James Hansen points to another point of intersection. In "Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate" (PDF), Hansen and colleague Pushker A. Kharecha argue that the effort to keep atmospheric carbon levels below 450ppm (widely considered the seriously bad news tipping point) may be greatly helped by limitations on the amount of available oil. With a reasonable phase-out of coal, active measures to reduce non-CO2 forcings (including methane and black soot), and draw-down of CO2 through reforestation, limiting CO2 to 450ppm can be readily accomplished due to limits on oil reserves. This doesn't require the most aggressive peak oil scenarios, either -- simply using the US Energy Information Administration's estimates of oil reserves is enough. Using more aggressive numbers, atmospheric CO2 peaks at 422ppm.

    We may end up avoiding catastrophic climate disruption despite our own best efforts.

    Resource Collapse and... Catalytic Innovation
    The clearest connection between resource collapse and catalytic innovation is in the realm of substitution services. Nobody wants oil, for example, people want what can be done with oil. That can mean other forms of energy, such as electricity (for transportation), or it may mean other sources of hydrocarbons, such as thermal polymerization (for plastics), and so forth. The big concern: will the substitute technologies be ready by the time the resource is (effectively) gone?

    Often, the issue really isn't technology, but expense and willingness to change. Driving the cost of alternatives down to make them competitive with the depleting resource can be difficult; even more difficult can be getting people to accept a substitution service that isn't exactly like the old one (even if it's objectively "better"). Cultured meat would be far and away better than today's meat processing industry -- environmentally, ethically, health-wise -- but, even if the product looked, tasted and felt just like "real" meat, a substantial number of people would likely avoid it simply because it was weird.

    More important may be questions of culture and "ways of life." Substitutions rarely mean the same workforce providing one resource shifts seamlessly over to its replacement; more often, the substitute comes from an entirely different region, or may require different kinds or numbers of workers.

    It also means a change in mindset or interpretations of the world around us. I've commented before about the imminent emergence of photovoltaic technologies allowing us to make nearly any surface a point of power generation. To an extent, this seems superficially obvious, but try taking a walk or drive with your mind's eye set on what would be different with a solar world. What rationale would we have, for example, for not giving any outside surface a photovoltaic layer? How would we design the material world differently? What would disappear -- and what would suddenly become ubiquitous?

    Or there may be larger issues of infrastructure delaying an otherwise "easy" transition. Take alternative power vehicles: in many ways, making the cars & trucks run on clean energy will be the easy part. Think of all of the gas stations that would have to change or go out of business; think of all of the jobs lost when old skills become less valuable; think of the thousands of car repair places needing to retrain and retool. If you take the scenario I posited in The Problem of Cars last year, imagine all of the elements of the present day that would have to change in order for it to become possible.

    Resource Collapse and... Ubiquitous Transparency
    As with the climate, the role of ubiquitous transparency is to keep a close eye on the flows of production and consumption that might otherwise be invisible (at least until it's too late).

    The scientific benefits would likely be the proximate driver. Whether the ultimate users are regulatory officials or participating panopticoneers depends on the balance of top-down vs. bottom-up power. Ultimately, it won't just be the points of production being watched, it will be the points of consumption, as well.

    Resource Collapse and... New Models of Development
    This is both harsh and simple.

    If the newly-developing nations persist in trying to follow a Western path of development, then the competition for dwindling resources will end up as a critical point of tension and, likely, warfare. The more powerful nations will scrape by, while the ones less-able to throw their weight around will suffer. The more that the newly developing nations emulate Western consumption, the more that they're likely to face famine, economic collapse, and millions of casualties.

    Conversely, if the newly-developing nations take a leapfrog-alternatives path, with a strong emphasis on efficiency and experimentation, they could find themselves the eventual winners of the century. The leapfrog concept is straightforward -- the areas with less legacy infrastructure can adopt new systems and models faster -- and emerging catalytic technologies and economic models seem custom-made for new adopters. But this isn't without risk; the new systems and models are intrinsically unproven, and may not work as well as expected. Leapfrogging nations may find themselves facing famine, economic collapse, and mass deaths anyway, and probably compounded by the expenditure of resources needed by the leapfrog systems and the loss or weakening of the old systems.

    Resource Collapse and... The Rise of the Post-Hegemonic World
    Resource collapse isn't the cause of the rise of the post-hegemonic world, but it's an important driver. It weakens the powerful, and opens up new niches of influence. It triggers conflict, setting the mighty against the mighty. It reveals vulnerabilities.

    Most importantly, it sets up the conditions for the emergence of new models of power, as ultimately the most effective responses to resource collapse will come from revolutions in technology and socio-economic behavior. Those actors adopting the new successful models will find themselves disproportionately powerful.

    Right now, none of the leading great power nations seem well-suited to discover and adopt such new models. The same can be said of the leading global corporate powers. The climate and resource crises of the 2010s and 2020s will be compounded by a vacuum of global leadership.

    Ultimately, I suspect that the identity of the pre-eminent global actors of the mid-21st century will surprise us all.

    April 1, 2008

    Yeats Signals

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    -William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

    Setting aside its religious imagery, the opening stanza of The Second Coming remains one of my favorite go-to sources for "uh oh" language in my writing.

    In conversation at IFTF this morning, a reference to a profound oddity in crop markets led to the coining of the phrase "Yeats Signals," a play on the IFTF term "weak signals" (referring to subtle indicators of big changes). The profound oddity is this:

    Whatever the reason, the price for a bushel of grain set in the derivatives markets has been substantially higher than the simultaneous price in the cash market.

    When that happens, no one can be exactly sure which is the accurate price in these crucial commodity markets, an uncertainty that can influence food prices and production decisions around the world. [...]

    Market regulators say they have ruled out deliberate market manipulation. But they, too, are baffled. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the exchanges where these grain derivatives trade, has scheduled a forum on April 22 where market participants will discuss these anomalies and other pressure points arising in the agricultural markets.

    This simply should not be happening, and yet it is. As an indicator of major instabilities in what had been structurally stable (if not always predictable) markets, it's a big one. Big enough that it wouldn't take much to imagine this as a sign of a major financial crisis in the global food market -- something with profound economic and health implications for everyone, including the rich countries.

    It seems to me that we've been seeing more than our fair share of Yeats Signals lately.

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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