"It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting our high technology from WEAPONRY to LIVINGRY."
- Buckminster Fuller (h/t Suzy Waldman)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Shakespeare's works not Written by Shakespeare but by Somebody Else with the Same Name


or: Does it matter if you are who you say you are?

1) wherein our hero expresses a clever observation

Today's Twitter rabbit-hole begins with a clever observation on my part.

Marshall Shepherd writes on Forbes, some not very unusual "don't be such a scientist" stuff about trying to tart up the climate story to reach a broad audience.

Which as my regular readers know, in my opinion is grossly insufficient. We have to explain, patiently, and forthrightly, at every level of sophistication we can muster, targeted to every audience that expresses an interest. That this is essentially impossible is met by the competing factor that it's absolutely necessary. The human interest angle is something, but it is not everything.

Shepherd writes:
As the report rolled out, I saw excellent articles and information sharing with charts or graphics showing warming areas or trend lines of temperature, sea level and so forth. However, a part of me wonders if such maps have become the "car alarms" of climate communication. I argue that we need more climate stories, less graphs and maps.
So I tweeted in reply:
Our failure to communicate with charts & graphs made these photos & stories possible. Can't photograph a prediction!
That is, if we had succeeded in getting our charts and graphs across to people, we would have kept climate change small enough that there really wouldn't be photographs and stories of climate change to turn into engaging human interest stories. We'd be so much better off if we never had to count on the stories and images that engage a disengaged public.

Now, it turns out that there are still people who don't believe anything is happening. This strikes me as immensely odd, since everything is happening more or less on schedule. (The global warming metric itself is a bit slow, but many impacts are nevertheless going up faster than we probably expected. And people everywhere who are connected to their surroundings are noticing.) (Also there's that stratospheric cooling as predicted in Charney et al 1979, which cannot be explained by any other warming mechanism. I find this dispositive but I guess your mileage may vary.)

2) wherein our hero gets trolled

Now in response to my cleverness, one @balinteractive replied:
Climate communicators realise that annotating their dark fairy tales w/ charts & graphs hasn't worked: will now just stick to scare stories.
Of course this ticked me off no end, partly because I am utterly opposed to "sticking to scare stories" and in response I dug up an old favourite Gahan Wilson cartoon:


See, my point was y'all should have paid attention to the charts and graphs in the first place, hear?

And what did I get back?

That's good. Much better than a chart or graph as a text accompaniment.
3) wherein our hero wonders if all is as it seems

OK, this belligerent obtuseness has me mad. Whom am I talking to? @balinteratcive describes itself as

Man-made global warming sceptic.  Detest animal cruelty. Despise politicians. Absolutely adore my rescue German Shepherds..
This brief bio is accompanied by a charming picture of a young woman, and a banner picture of two dogs on a beach. Do I believe this is a true biography? Well, if this is a troll account, it would be useful to attach it to such attributes as being an attractive young woman who loves animals and is politically neutral. Looking at the linked blog shows exclusively climate skeptic articles, mostly with elaborate charts and graphs like this one. It's mostly in the usual vein of finding some inconclusive data and thereby somehow concluding there's nothing to conclude. There's quite a lot of it, and I wonder why someone whom I'd not encountered in the blog wars at all would go to all that trouble.

Now, you could ask whether it matters whether the biography is contrived. It's the old joke.

Did you know that what we know of as Shakespeare's works weren't written by Shakespeare? In fact they were written by somebody else with the same name. 


As with Shakespeare, it's clear that somebody wrote this stuff, and it stands or falls on its own merits.

Who cares whether it is a young female dog fancier or somebody else, a paid troll or a fanatic, putting out extra articles in the usual vein?

On the other hand, it is an interesting profile. If it's a real person, you have to wonder how she developed this level of obsession to write, apparently exclusively, in the blog-science anti-climate vein, as if there were a shortage of that stuff.

If it's not a real person, that calls into question the legitimacy of the motivation for this writing. Who would misrepresent themselves for these purposes? Obviously, somebody out to discredit science. There are plenty of motivated parties out there!

So (perhaps foolishly( I expressed my doubts
I have trouble believing you're real. Animal activist & climate naysayer, or troll? You know climate disruption already damages ecosystems?
We had a version of The Usual Argument which I thought the end of it:


but then...




4) wherein our hero suffers untoward consequences for his suspicions:

There followed numerous attacks on my character from various other people, and that of "climate scientists" in general, as if suspecting people of being trolls is a standard technique and my own treading into this territory. e.g.



Jim Bouldin, as is his wont, was singularly unhelpful (these are in reverse order for technical reasons I'm too lazy to work around), to my eye expressing exactly the arrogance he accuses others of:



and a bit more from a few of the Usual Suspects.

5) wherein our hero searches for the meaning of this escapade

So, is this person really a young dog-loving Brexiter from Lancs. Lincs.? Does it matter? Was it stupid of me to express my doubts?

As for biographical information, she provided
I don't have any mad blog science skills. I got a first degree in Phys/Astronomy at UCL and did a masters in Env Acoustics at Southbank.
That explains my passion for science I believe.
Which really didn't convince me of much. "Environmental Acoustics" (which is a branch of architecture that tries to keep noise down in buildings) seems like something somebody doing a quick Google for obscure postgraduate environmental majors for physicists might come up with. We don't have any idea what she does when she isn't writing blog science or romping on the beach with her dogs. And "that explains my passion for science" in no way follows, nor does a "passion for science" really justify the usual tiresome nitpicking about specific trends, preferably noisy and local ones.

On the other hand, in defense of her reality, she does express what appears a genuine revulsion for a local windfarm, one which may indeed be insensitively and crudely sited, for all I know. And on review, her Twitter feed does seem a bit more fleshed out than that of the typical paid troll.

6) wherein a paradoxical solution to the quandary is proposed

Is it any of my business? If she is real, of course it isn't. If she isn't real, of course it is!

Quite a weird quandary.

Anyway, Ms Jaime Jessop, if you are really a dogloving acoustician with an astronomy degree hanging out with your dogs in Lancashire Lincolnshire who likes to spend many hours snarking at climate scientists because you abhor wind turbines, I do apologise for all this. But if you aren't, I don't.

It's not your obligation to convince me, of course. But it's not my obligation to be convinced by your brief protestations either. As for who has been rude and condescending to whom here, and in what order, I guess opinions vary.

Anyway, Jaime Jessop, I remain open to a Skype conversation beginning with a sincere apology from me, if you are a real person. On the record or off, as you choose.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Twitter rant


Eli: Mostly you don't get the time to expound bcs people get off the elevator

Me: This gets me off on quite a tangent... Why don't people pay attention to the future of their own world? Busy, stressed, scared, angry, mean

One reason for the buckling of democracy is the stealing of people's time and emotional energy in high stakes marketplace hypercompetition.

 Democracy can be preserved or restored only if & when daily life is secure. A key reason to support Universal Basic Income or similar ideas.

 A calm and confident people can learn, absorb ideas, weigh strategies. A hassled population buffeted by competing shallow ideas cannot.

Kevin Leahy: Not to mention the dumbing down of news via infotainment +robust for profit propaganda/outrage machine.

These go together. A society with the time to think wouldn't tolerate this bullshit. I'm old enough to remember when we didn't.

Scott Wahlstrom: If this is true, how does democracy emerge out of discontent and oppression?  I'm not a master of history, so the premise may be flawed...

For one thing, in US, UK, and Canada at least, democracy emerged gradually from comfortable oligarchy.  In France many false starts.

But my point is more how democracies fail than how they emerge. I think it's clear that the end of the Weimar Republic is hugely instructive

I'm old enough to remember intelligent, respectful, intellectually challenging debate on television. The idea seems almost unimaginable now!

In those days, the standard was one job per household of four to six. Now it's every adult must work. Jobs are more stressful, less reliable

Given that machines are more capable & there is supposedly much more wealth to go around, it's hard to understand this urgent need for jobs!

Meanwhile the decisions facing the democracy are at least as complicated, perhaps more so. But there isn't the public attention available.

Most people eschew politics altogether. Those who are engaged are not only polarized but professionalized. Discourse replaced by team sport.

The people who even bother to vote are then faced with a choice between a few heavily advertised but obviously defective brands.

Little resembling public discourse occurs. Little resembling leadership is possible. A formerly remarkable system goes on autopilot.

Democracy depends on engagement from the voting class. We have set things up so most voters cannot afford the time or emotion to engage.

Time is what we need. Time for calm reflection. I think a lot of people can't even imagine what that would be like anymore.

Given that people are disengaged, politics boils down to competing advertising agencies pitching packages of half-truths.

Recently it's been discovered that unmitigated lies have advantages in a marketplace of ideas where buyers don't have time to shop carefully

I think we are well on our way to incapacitating ourselves wrt not just climate change but even maintaining what had been a robust peace.

If we descend into barbarism nobody will be able to care enough for the future to work hard enough to replace fossil fuels.

So whether we go all the way to genocide or not, the 21st century now looks likely to be even more disastrous and stupid than the 20th.

The 20th century totalitarians made a horror of their own time. We, more powerful, stand to make a horror of many generations to come.

I'm not eager to abandon democracy as an ideal, but it demands participation & engagement. That won't come from a frantic, stressed society.

Everyone on earth should be guaranteed food and shelter. This would be much cheaper than means-tested programs, very much cheaper than war! But also that kind of security would free up attention that is now bottled up in scheming and striving and jealousy and fear. We might still pull a decent future out if we address our idiotic commitment to a policy of maximum employment at minimum wage. A long shot. But I am starting to think it's the only shot we've got.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A grumble

A random grumble about coupled models found during the cleanup. This may provide some insight into one of the key failure points of my checkered career as a scientist.

==

It's the clocking when you couple systems that makes for messes like these. Even if co-designed, the component models necessarily have different time steps.

Not only is it a kluge to make the ice the main(), as far as I understand nobody has investigated the dynamic implications of various coupling strategies. 

I am very confident that somebody smarter than me can figure out a predictor-corrector (a sort of huge Runge-Kutta step) scheme for the coupler strategy. Whether it is worth the bother is unclear to me. Perhaps the extant coupling is good enough. 

But to be honest, if anybody has done any serious math defending the proposal that ANY of the various ad hoc coupling strategies of climate models (or perhaps of multiphysics models in general) does no significant damage to the coupled system dynamics, I haven't seen it. Maybe it's obvious to some. Or maybe it's hard, but someone has worked through it. Or maybe it's just a crude hack that needs a major rethinking.


I really wanted to approach this experimentally, as my math isn't subtle enough to answer the question to my own satisfaction. But I put too much faith in a piece of DoE middleware, not for the first time, and fell flat on my face.

Wow! Just Wonderful Wow!

Re-upping this from 2011.

===


This infographic which ran on The Economist has been getting a lot of attention, and it's worthy of the attention, too.

Of course, almost everything on this time scale is a hockey stick. Some people find this a bit alarming. Others think it is cause for celebration.

Here's a particularly classic example of Not Getting It,
Wow! Just wonderful wow!

Lest we forget, amidst the daily/weekly/monthy/yearly ups and downs of the market, the market is an historically off-the-charts (almost literally) innovation machine.

Be happy that you live when you do and, if you live in the first world, where you do.
Now of course, the curmudgeonly likes of you and me don't join in the celebration. We immediately think, I guess this sort of person has never learned about The Exponential, as explained by Prof. Bartlett.

But these guys don't even have that excuse, as revealed in the comments:
I’m wondering about this…(just daydreaming)…The derivative is e^x. One might think that the derivative will always be e^x. History – and the future – always looks the most impressive to those alive/making it.
No, dude, that isn't how exponentials behave in real-world applications, see... Eventually constraints that weren't applicable in the early exponential growth phase appear and... Well, it gets complicated after that.

Anyway the reactions to this graph show that people are struck by different things. Others are struck by the triumphant march of civilization. I am struck by how little all this growth nets us.

I am struck that here we are, in the Great Recession or the Lesser Depression or whatever the hell it is. Yet the size of our economic activity exceeds that of any year in history prior to 2008. It substantially exceeds that of the rip-roaring 1990s and the Morning-In-America 1980s and utterly dwarfs the productivity of the postwar boom of the 1950s.

If production is wealth, we are in the richest period ever. We could afford to go to the moon in the 1960s. But now we are in "austerity" measures. We are forcing Greece to sell itself off to bankers. We are firing all our schoolteachers.

What exactly is this thing that has grown, then? And why should we be so happy about it?

Clearly, the thing that has grown is worse than worthless unless it keeps growing, since when it stops growing, we can't afford to educate our children. And of course, as it gets bigger and bigger, it gets harder and harder to sustain the growth. So that being the case, what glorious achievement does the graph really show? It's not only clear to me what is ominous about this graph. It's actually unclear to me what is so inspiring about it.





It's terrifying that this is a thing that has to grow exponentially all the time or else we have to immediately act on an emergency basis to shut down our civilization, cutting back on parks and cultural events, removing medical coverage from great swaths of the public, firing our schoolteachers. I don't find a thing like that something to celebrate.

Somebody, tell me again, what is all this endless increase in activity yielding us?

Some big picture stuff from a few years back (2014)

Sorting Out Old Material.

Found this fragment, introductory to a talk. Probably nothing new to you. But this is roughly how I start out talks to the general public.

===


I have no clear memory of first becoming concerned about climate change. 

As a young science buff, the idea that that temperature of the earth depends crucially on the concentrations of a few trace gases, especially water vapor and CO2, was presented to me as uncontroversial, established fact by sources I trusted, notably Isaac Asimov, long before it made the news. The idea that this would present a problem in my own lifetime was not presented as controversial in the 1960s and I don't remember having any doubt about it as a young reader.

LBJ mentioned it in an address to congress in 1965, before my ninth birthday. Johnson's panel of science advisors told him

"By the year 2000 there will be about 25 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable through local or even national efforts, could occur."

In fact, this general picture was first known in the scientific literature by 1898.

I became professionally involved in climate in 1989. It interested me for two reasons. First, the climate system itself is a fascinating, intricate complexity with some rather beautiful mathematics associated with efforts to understand it. Second, it is a crucial example of how democracy is going to be challenged in the increasingly complex, increasingly tightly coupled world of the future. 

Some non-obvious ideas had to be absorbed into the governing strategy by way of a democratic process. How would we cope?

So far, that question remains unanswered.

STARTING POINTS

Let me make sure you understand a four key points. These are points about which I am essentially certain, and which the public doesn't seem to understand, and which I think any sane discussion of our quandary has to start with. 

1) It's already happening

2) It's cumulative

3) You ain't seen nothin' yet

4) Uncertainty is not our friend

==

1) It's already happening

This is the main thrust of the third National Climate Assessment and the associated publicity push that put climate in the news this week. There's nothing particularly new in the report from a scientific point of view, but it's daunting. Everywhere you go, wildlife is stressed, infrastructure has taken some hits, agriculture is rapidly changing. We had our 2011 drought and fire season; New York City had its storm surge from Sandy; Nashville and Boulder and just recently Pensacola had unprecedented 24-hour rainfalls, and so on.
    
2) It's cumulative

The changes we are seeing are predominantly because of human changes to the natural environment, and of these, the most important is release of CO2 into the atmosphere. ANd CO2 is the most troubling for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it's cumulative, CO2 is the product of ordinary combustion; we "light fire" to things and they release energy and turn into, basically, ash and steam and CO2. The steam rains out pretty quickly, but the CO2 stays in the air and the oceans for a very long time - thousands of years to make a dent in it, hundreds of thousands to fade away entirely. 

This means that to stop climate disruption, that is the human-forced unnaturally rapid climate change, we can't just cut back on CO2 emissions. They basically have to stop altogether. 

3) You ain't seen nothin' yet

The second reason its' troubling is that the system doesn't respond immediately. The air temperature changes more or less immediately (warmer near the surface, colder in the stratosphere, as the atmosphere acts like a better blanket) but it also responds to the ocean temperature and the ice temperature, and those change very slowly. So at any time we've only seen the effects of the CO2 we put out some years ago. Further, the economic commitment, our power plants, our roads, our vehicles, can't be turned around overnight. So by the time climate change is actually visible, you are already committed to a pretty severe 

4) Uncertainty is not our friend

The doubts you hear so much about nowadays were not expressed decades ago, even though our scientific basis was much sketchier. The explanation has to be that decision points were further in the future. But the form of those doubts follows an old pattern of industry faced with inconvenient evidence - the casting of doubt. If there is doubt that cigarettes kill, or leaded gas kills, then surely it is unfair to penalize existing industries until the case is made, goes the argument. And to be fair, false accusations can be and occasionally are hurled at industry for a number of reasons. But the argument that we aren't sure in this case is irrational. We can't calibrate exactly how bad it's going to get by when, even if we could predict exactly how humans would act regarding climate-relevant behaviours. There are a number of climate-science uncertainties, and the purveyors of confusion are happy to dwell on them. But almost every one of these cuts both ways. The problem could be smaller and slower than we expect, but it could also be harsher and faster than we expect. So now the problem is actuarial. You protect yourself against the plausible disasters. You don't tell your child to cross the street in the middle of the block because chances are 99% that she'll get across in one piece! You worry about that hundredth time! Your child is precious to you, of course, but the world is precious to her! If you are uncertain and in any real sense "conservative", you will not use the uncertainty to justify foolhardy risks.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dead or Canadian?

Canadian.

==

I'm fine, and I'm in Canada!

I've always been a Canadian citizen, but have lived in the US most of my adult life.

I've been relatively silent (except sporadically on Twitter) of late. I've been wrapped up in liquidating assets in Texas, finding a place to live in Canada, working on my wife Irene's immigration process, packing up, and moving in.

As a young man, I, like many ambitious Canadians, wanted to be where the action is. I joined the brain drain, gravitating mostly to Chicago, first on student visas, then on an expert visa status, then with a green card. Except for four years in the 1980s, I've been living in the US since 1972.

In recent years, the comparison between the countries reversed. Partly it might be the tastes of an older person, and partly it could be the relatively more severe stresses in American society, but visits to Canada increasingly revealed a calmer, saner, and more attractive environment.

We decided to move last October, so it wasn't Trump that tipped the scales, but we might have procrastinated. We said to each other "well, if Trump wins we'll go immediately", but it was more of a joke than anything.

We toured Ontario that month, looking for an a place that was attractive, had urban amenities, closeness to nature, and good bicycling opportunities. Ottawa won by a wide margin. Notwithstanding Canadian winter, there's a solid argument for Ottawa as the best city in the western hemisphere.


(Image could be me except I always have a helmet on, from CBC.)

Moving from Austin has been an assault on the ears, I'll admit. People who have the temerity to sing on stage in public here would be laughed out of karaoke bars in Austin.

Mitigating the music losses, I can stream sunradio.com and kutx.org. My old favourite low wattage Chicago radio station, WHPK, is also streaming now! Please, lawyers, leave this lifeline alone!

The food is better than I remembered, and the plant-based dining options are especially good. Regarding Texas foodstuffs I have some trouble finding chiles and tomatillos but masa is easy to find, and we've found a taqueria that will sell us their excellent tortillas. Some of the vegan-targeted stuff on the shelf is unfamiliar and needs adjusting to. No mock chicken Better Than Bouillon, alas! There is a tofu-based meat substitute that puts Beyond Meat stuff to shame, which was an interesting and pleasant surprise. Falafel joints on every corner, and innumerable Indian buffets though I should avoid all that butter. A weekly farmer's market nearby, and of course, Byward Market in easy bicycle range.

Key benefits, in addition to the amazing bicycle path network, include remarkable visual arts communities, with one of the best art museums in the world very nearby. Also you can always play "guess the flag" when you happen across an embassy.

==

I have picked up my writing, thanks for asking. The book I was planning, a popular book on severe events in a changing climate, is back on the docket.

And I'll be blogging here.

I have plans to rework the content on Planet3.0 which I'll let you know about as they firm up. I'll leave the old articles up with their old URLs; I think that's what websites should do.

==

We have a few contacts in town, but not as many as we'd like, so if you know someone in or near Ottawa, I'd be happy to hear from them.

If I have any readers in Canada (other than the ones I'm already in contact with) I'd love to hear from you. Help me plan a book tour!

==

Sorry for my abrupt fizzling out. This move was a big step and took a lot out of me.

I do intend to fizzle back in. Thanks to those who inquired.

==

The title "Dead or Canadian?" was a quiz that was run on a US game show called Remote Control. The contestant was given the name of a modestly famous person, usually a show business celebrity, who was either Canadian or deceased. The contestant won points by guessing correctly.

==

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Free speech, Mercy, and Justice.

The old Jewish Kabbalist view of God has two balanced parts, Mercy and Justice.

Too much free speech is too much mercy. Justice requires that there be some way of delimiting good, valid, truthful speech from disrespectful, sick, or dishonest speech.

Censorship is a blunt tool. Social disapproval is as well. But perhaps they are better than nothing. We now lack any means whatever to separate the true from the false. Without a way for the good stuff to rise above the bad stuff, well, look around you.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Vanishing Blogs

Updating the blogroll (how old-fashioned!)

I would like to call attention to blogs which are not merely inactive but have also vanished.

People who allow their materials to vanish from the internet are not real bloggers, as they don't understand the purpose of the internet. In fact, my paid blogging for KCET has vanished from the internet, and nobody seems interested in taking my calls. I imagine I have raw text for this somewhere. I'm in the porcess of reorganizing all my old files from my old computers. We'll see if I can recover that material.

Collide-A-Scape's early stuff is gone; this rankles me especially as I participated actively there.

And of course, Facebook keeps everything you've ever written for them, but doesn't really let you find it.

Others from the Hall of Shame:

atmo.sphere
Climate Post
Climate Safety
Salsa Verde

If you comment extensively on a site you don't control or contribute to an aggregator, particularly one run by an institution or a big media outlet, make backups.

The following blogs are off the roll. When I last checked, these were inactive but still live on the internet:


Also, I would like to apologize for having linked to Curry's "Climate Etc." which is emphatically part of the problem.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Trumped

E. O. Wilson, the coiner of the terms "biodiversity" and "biophilia", has recently said that he sees Mr. Trump as the greatest threat to humanity's future.

He's not alone, My friend Arthur Smith's Facebook feed recently asserted that he has several European friends who see Trump as an existential threat to democracy.

I think so too. It has called me to call into question why I write and for whom.




My writing has always been based in a belief in democracy. That is to say, I believe it is possible for the population, collectively, to navigate the increasingly complex terrain of our tightly coupled and complex future.

I've always had some doubts about this prospect, because it would seem that the burden of democracy gets bigger as the complexity of collective management increases, but the cognitive and effort burden of effective participation increases while the reward does not. Lately the doubts have been winning.

===

COMPLEXITY AND DECISION-MAKING: AN EXAMPLE

I've written about climate and related matters in the belief that reaching the more involved segment of the public with more sophisticated arguments is crucial. (This belief boils down to what Kahan et al. call "the deficit fallacy, but I'll refrain from revisiting that argument here.)

Let's imagine for example that there is a complex decision - for instance a hydroelectric project is proposed.

In the long run, this project produces carbon-free energy, which has enormous benefits, but there is a one-time clearing of forest to contend with, which leaves the carbon balance not entirely neutral. Also a few remote communities will be disrupted. Some of them have special status under old treaties with indigenous tribal groups. It's a difficult tradeoff. Should this particular project go through? How should we weigh local interests in continuity, regional interests in prosperity, and global interests in sustainability? It's complicated.

Nowadays, people will align on this argument somewhat impulsively, based on some sort of underlying belief "hydro is a good thing" vs "hydro is a bad thing". But what of the position that some projects are good and some are bad? I choose hydro because I actually hold that position - which hydro projects to pursue is a contingent question. Neither "all" nor "none" makes any sense to me.

(If you're a person who objects to all large hydroelectric projects, I don't want to argue about that, and I don't want this point to derail your interest in this essay. So you can consider the question of which projects to remove, and in which order, a problem which has very similar constraints.)

How do we deal with such situations in practice? Local interests will have little difficulty expressing their objections to the project, but regional interests are expressed by jockeying for power among people elected on the basis of how nice their teeth look, how much fun they'd be at a barbecue, and their stance on specific, charged questions which tug at people's emotions.  (Abortion policy, for instance, is a real issue, but it is used politically as a way of short-circuiting people's reasoning capacities.)

Politicians are expected to have networks of self-interest and mutual obligation, which allow them to weigh the risks and benefits of the project. Of course, an immense amount of technical knowledge goes into the design and implementation of a large project like this should it go forward, but the go/no go decision is made by people who attained to power through no particular sophistication about energy matters. But the decision comes down to balancing the influence of stakeholders, specifically the capacity of the stakeholders to affect the re-election prospects of the representative and his or her party by funding or by directly influencing voters. It's true that occasionally politicians rise above this and "vote their conscience", but they can't afford to do so very often. 

In this particular case, "environmental" concerns are not aligned. The stakeholders for sustainability, weak though they are to begin with, are split between local concerns to preserve a specific piece of ground and global concerns to restrain the terrifying trend in the carbon content of the atmosphere and ocean. In practice, the constituency for the global view in local questions is much diluted.

How should we inject global concerns into local decisions, lacking a global power center?

===

WHAT REALLY MADE AMERICA GREAT

Let's imagine, counterfactually, how we'd like this to work.

In this counterfactual world, the costs and benefits and risks and uncertainties would be weighed rationally against a clear and thoughtful enumeration of values and intentions, both universal ones and idiosyncratic ones of affected subgroups. 

This is, let's be clear, even harder than deciding whether or not to dam the reservoir. It's harder because there is no solution on which everyone can agree; it's harder because a decision must nevertheless be taken; and it's harder because the result is contingent on many of the technically complex (and hence obscure) factors that go into the design itself.

But for the purposes of argument, we're imagining this working. This means that while anyone may disagree with a particular decision, most people feel that for the most part, decisions are being taken that respect both themselves as individuals, their community as a social fabric, their nationality as a cultural whole, and the world as a whole. Further, we would believe that all of these interests are respected both in the present and the very distant future.

A key ideal in this counterfactual is one of deliberation. Ideas are presented and digested; useful syntheses are constructed, risks and uncertainties are weighed against values and objectives, and a rational policy emerges that is coherent not only within itself, but within a larger network of policies.

In theory, this deliberative process must occur with the entire public.

Here's the rub. Think of 100 people you know, outside academic or professional circles. How many of them would you want to discuss the risks and benefits of a particular hydroelectric project with? Not many, I'll wager.

So how could this deliberative process possibly work given that the vast majority of the public lacks the skill or interest to participate effectively in even a single complex decision process, never mind all of them?

Clearly, there has to be delegation. I want someone who knows about dams and about energy and about climate and who understands my own interests and those of my own community at the table. (That's the ideal of democracy, right?) In order for this to work, there has to be such a person whom I trust, and that person has to deserve the trust that I invested. There really is no practical alternative.

In fact, if you ask me what made America great in the first place, in addition to the amazing bit of real estate within its borders, and the amazing creativity of its people, I'd have to put that there actually was, for a large stretch of time, a workable deliberative process which a sufficiently large and stable swath of the public (*) trusted decision makers ("the Establishment") and the decision makers merited that trust.

(* I don't mean to trivialize the extent to which "the public" in this case meant the white majority at the expense of others. It complicates the case I'm making. It shows that there's a key ethical component that implies that deliberative democracy is not enough. The point, though, is that there was enough competence and trust to create the immense engine of wealth and prosperity that America has been for over a century.)

===

SCALING DELIBERATION

How should this work in practice? Nobody, no matter ho brilliant, can grasp in detail all the factors that go into a single decision, such as adding (or removing) a hydroelectric project. Yet a complex society has a great many such decisions to make to navigate our increasingly fraught and difficult future.

A national leader, in particular, must rely on a "cabinet", a set of about one or two dozen trusted advisers, to drill down and focus on specific areas. These relationships are built on mutual trust. These in turn have their own set of advisors. There's a mutual sense of trust and competence with each of these relations. And each of these people have their own calculus of power and influence.

This isn't different from what we have now.

What's missing from what we have now is a sense of mutuality and a sense of trust that extends to the entire public. If someone has an idea, there is little sense that the political structure will be able to consider it fairly. If someone has an objection or an objective, they have to build up a power platform of their own to be considered. In our functioning democracy this changes. 

Of course, most people are operating on limited expertise and information. So most ideas, no matter how fervently held, are in some way wrong.  But on the other hand, if the deliberative process were about something other than mere powermongering, the germs of the good ideas could be nourished, and collective competence could rise to the level of individual or corporate competence. 

So ideas need to be debated and winnowed not just by an established elite, but by the public at large. This gets harder and harder as matters get more complicated. So in this counterfactual world, we get much better at discourse than we are in the real world we inhabit. 

In this world of sane deliberation, facts and serious argumentation matter a lot. (Staking out positions, lawyer-like, and contesting them with cherry picked facts matter very little.)

The purpose of my writing has always been to contribute to this world of sound and sane and value-driven discourse. I always believed that democracy is possible, even though by the nature of the complex and coupled future, it gets harder. Because it gets harder, we have to get better at it. That is, the fraction of our attention and resources that go toward governing ourselves has to increase.

It's always been my goal to pitch in to creating this world of collective competence. 

Leaving aside my own limitations and also the limitations of the commercial world in which we find ourselves, I am finally questioning that objective itself. It's not that the goal is unworthy, it's that the environment doesn't make the actions practical.

The deck chair analogy comes to mind.

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THE TRENDS ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY

It's not hard to come to the conclusion that I am tilting at windmills.

What we see is a world where, despite the fact that there is less and less realistic work to be done, people are increasingly frantic and stressed. Even experts find themselves in situations where preserving their own position is more important than advancing the general state of understanding. Most people lack the time to develop a connection to the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, the decision-making process itself has become professionalized. This divorces it from the public. Decision-makers have little time for anything but amassing funds, tricking people into voting for them, and jockeying for power. 

(Real deliberation is relegated to the fringes. It's why I've been spending so much time on Twitter lately. If you choose your Twitter population carefully, you can find semblances of fair and reasoned argument, ironically enough, in 140-character snippets.)

I've been worrying about this for a long time, and I have lots of thoughts about why this is happening, and why the USA in particular is leading the world down this disastrous path. This essay is already too long to address them here.

All I'm saying is it's happening. To the extent we are moving away from discourse, providing information for this discourse is futile.

This trend has been building for a while, but it's now obvious. I give you this exchange with Donald Trump in evidence:

Matt Lauer: Let me stay on ISIS. When we’ve met in the past and we’ve talked, you say things like I’m going to bomb the expletive out of them very quickly. And when people like me press you for details like that gentleman just said on what your plan is, you very often say, I’m not going to give you the details because I want to be unpredictable.
Donald Trump: Absolutely. The word is unpredictable.
Matt Lauer: But yesterday, you actually told us a little bit about your plan in your speech. You said this. Quote, “We’re going to convene my top generals and they will have 30 days to submit a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” So is the plan you’ve been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?
Donald Trump: No. But when I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine, or maybe doesn’t — I may love what the generals come back with. I will convene…
Matt Lauer: But you have your own plan?
Donald Trump: I have a plan. But I want to be — I don’t want to — look. I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.
Matt Lauer: But you’re going to…
Donald Trump: And let me tell you, if I like maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan, or the generals’ plan, if I like their plan, Matt, I’m not going to call you up and say, “Matt, we have a great plan.” This is what Obama does. “We’re going to leave Iraq on a certain day.”
Matt Lauer: But you’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do.
Donald Trump: Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m looking at the generals, today, you probably saw, I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today.

Why is it not clear to the public that this is empty bluster from a dangerous fool?

I would say that the reasons that this and similar trumpian argument from "buhlieve me" is a marketable posture, that Mr Trump has "a substantial chance of winning",  are closely related to the reasons that deliberative democracy has failed.

If it's enough to convince the most gullible 51% of the public that a con man has a "secret plan" or maybe doesn't, who knows, the problem is that the network of trust between the public and the people who are paying attention has practically completely broken down.

WHY BOTHER, THEN?

In this context, though, does it make any sense to write a commercially unviable book about attribution of extreme events to climate change? 

I think I have something to add to that conversation, but I don't think my addition would penetrate the public discourse.

Also, almost everyone I know of who has staked out a position on this question has a position that is substantially different from mine, so I don't really have a market or a constituency.

More generally, why should I blog? Why should I even engage on Twitter? I enjoy it, but perhaps it is interfering with enjoying other things. There's still time for me to play the piano. Why should I wear out my keyboard muscles on mere typing?

It seems to me that in a world where discourse doesn't matter, adding to the discourse in a way that has no established constituency has no value. To the extent that I am adding value, it's mostly to a world that doesn't exist.

Most people learn to STFU sooner. I guess I'm just slow.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The new world order

https://twitter.com/matthewstoller/status/746765092218277888

Time for me to figure out how to use storify