Saturday, October 31, 2015

File:Overpopulation in Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam.JPG

The global economy currently consumes resources at a rate that would require 1.5 earths to guarantee long term sustainability. In other words, we are living way beyond our means. When we talk about our long term survival on the earth it always seems so difficult and technologically unfeasible, but isn't our long term survival relatively simple? Couldn't we reduce our numbers and our consumption of resources to live within the earth's capacity to sustain us? This option is seldom seriously considered, but why? Prosperous countries like Germany actually have negative population growth, because couples are choosing to have only one child or to remain childless. Unlike China's former one child policy, there is no coercion in Germany. In fact the German government has many incentives for couples to have more children - many months of paid maternity leave, a guaranteed return to work after years of staying home to raise your child, many child care options, etc. I've been to Germany several times, and by comparison, the United States is very anti family. Despite these incentives, young German couples are making the conscious decision to have small families. Isn't this a model that the world can aspire to and ultimately the key to long term sustainability? The article I link to casts the demographic changes in Germany in a negative light, as is common in the press, but doesn't the fact that people in a generally happy, prosperous, and family friendly nation are choosing to reduce their numbers even in the face of policies encouraging the growth of families provide a ray of hope for our long term future?


Monday, June 1, 2015

Autonomous Cars - Why Not Just Take a Bus or the Metro?

There's been a lot of buzz about autonomous vehicles lately. Wow a car that drives itself! Instead of enveloping each person in his or her own little metal capsule that gets not better mileage than a regular car, why not just take the bus, which will get much better mileage per person than any car, autonomous or otherwise? 

Google Self-Driving Car

Cars are the root of all the evil that threatens humankind and its fellow creatures today. Without cars, we wouldn't have the sprawl, the consequent destruction of animal habitats, and the insane runaway consumerism that has so cheapened human life and wreaked our climate. The wide use of automobiles has opened a Pandora's box of ecological devastation, and autonomous vehicles would be just one more step in the hideously wrong path automobiles have put us on. 

Where has this unquestioning love for technology for technology's sake come from? As a young boy, I loved the Jetsons as much as anyone, but I never thought for one moment that it represented the kind of world I wanted to live in. It represented a fantasy world that was fun to imagine living in, but a nightmare world if it ever became reality. The ideal world for me was one with rushing streams, forests of trees stirred by cool, fresh breezes, and fields dotted with flowers. That was the ideal world I saw myself living in. Such a world has been inhabited by humans for millenia. Why replace such an idyllic world of forests, fields, streams, and animals, with a nightmare world of sterile towers and autonomous vehicles? If I were religious, I would think that civilization had become possessed by a devil.

Just because we can do something doesn't always mean we should do something. We can blow up millions of people with a hydrogen bomb, but that doesn't mean we should. Do we want to live in a world full of blithering idiots, riding around in their autonomous vehicles, yapping with both hands free into their Android phones, oblivious to the ecological devastation they are leaving in their wake? Wait a minute... maybe that's part of the reason behind Google's fascination with autonomous vehicles. Currently, responsible drivers, rare as they are, put their phones away while driving. In an autonomous vehicle, you can talk, text, game, and watch Netflix to your heart's content. Meanwhile, the forests are cut down to make way for more asphalt, more petroleum is fracked, and more species go extinct! In an autonomous vehicle you don't even need to look out the window. Just eliminate the windows and project images of lakes, mountains, and castles to give the passenger the illusion he is driving through an idyllic Bavarian fairy tale landscape - much better than the reality of blight that truly lies on the outside. You will be able to go from you neat little home to your cozy office without ever seeing the denuded landscape that lies between your point of origin and your destination. It's the ultimate dream, we can continue destroying the Earth without ever coming into any kind of contact with the ugly reality of what our technological progress is doing to it.

It's all so unnecessary and pointlessly destructive. If you want to travel with your hands free, then ride the bus, take the metro, and when going really far, go by train. These traditional modes of transport are the ones we should be investing in. Autonomous vehicles, like so much of the hi-tech dreck that intoxicates us these days, are cool technology but ultimately worse than worthless.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Roundabout vs. The Hybrid

Everything clever has already been thought, one must only try to think it again.

Americans love cool, new technology, and it's probably safe to say that most of the world is becoming just as obsessed with novelty as Americans. Cool and new does not always mean better, however. To demonstrate this point, I am starting a new series of posts that will compare an example of something that is undoubtedly cool-and-new with something that many might consider dull-and-pedestrian. In making these comparisons, I will show that dull-and-pedestrian is usually better than cool-and-new. 

I will begin this series with a face off between cool-and-new hybrid automobiles and dull-and-pedestrian roundabouts.

Stop and go traffic kills automotive efficiency, because when you stop or slow down, you have to speed up again, and it takes force to accelerate the vehicle, and this force comes from consuming energy. The loss of efficiency is suffered by all types of vehicles, even if they are electrically powered. In recent years hybrid vehicles have gained popularity, because they store the mechanical energy normally wasted in braking in the form of chemical energy in a battery, which can then be used to run an electric motor to accelerate the car once you are ready to go again. The use of energy normally lost as heat during breaking is called regenerative braking. The combination of regenerative braking along with using electrical power at low speeds, when electrical motors are most efficient, and gasoline power at high speeds, when internal combustion engines are most efficient, gives hybrids a 25% boost in fuel efficiency over their conventional automobile counterparts. 

All advantages come at a cost, however. Hybrid technology is complicated and comparatively expensive, and it requires large, heavy batteries that don't last forever. What if I offered you a simpler and more reliable technology that is far cheaper and can boost your fuel efficiency by 30%, a full 5% higher than what is achievable with hybrids? That technology exists and most of you have probably already encountered it - the roundabout. Don't yawn! The old fashioned roundabout, that so many people find annoying and confusing, is a fuel efficiency booster. They save on fuel by eliminating the necessity of stopping. As I mentioned already, most of the energy used in transportation comes from accelerating, that's when most of the force is applied to a vehicle. A roundabout allows traffic to  flow smoothly through an intersection without the necessity of ever coming to a stop.

Roundabouts have gotten a bad rap in the US, because they compete with the far more common intersections regulated by stop signs or traffic signals, and people just haven't had much opportunity to get used to them. 

In addition to being automobile fuel efficiency boosters, roundabouts are quite a bit safer than stop-and-go intersections. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), roundabouts reduce the incidence of crashes causing injury by 75% at intersections where stop signs or stop lights had previously been used for traffic control. Also, the elimination of traffic signs and signals to control traffic makes roundabouts cheaper to build and maintain than ordinary intersections. I will go further and argue that roundabouts are more aesthetically pleasing than a cross made from concrete or asphalt.

It's very satisfying to have a nice, new automobile in your drive way, and if you are concerned about efficiency and climate change, it's doubly satisfying to have a hybrid. With a hybrid, you are getting a fun toy that isn't doing as much harm to the planet as your neighbor's gas guzzler. However, your hybrid doesn't make your neighbor's vehicle any more fuel efficient. A roundabout will. In fact, a roundabout will almost magically turn your neighbor's gas guzzler into its hybrid equivalent, and your neighbor wouldn't have to have paid to replace his vehicle. The roundabout will even help your lovely hybrid be just a little bit more fuel efficient. 

You can't force everybody to buy a hybrid, but with some activist city planning, everybody can be made to use roundabouts. In science, we often speak of Occam's razor, which is a principle that states the simplest solution is usually the best. The application of Occam's principle to the contest of hybrid vs. roundabout, decidedly shows that from the point of view of fuel efficiency, cost, and aesthetics, the roundabout is the clear winner. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Future Should Belong to the Reducers, Not the Producers!

Elon Musk, no idler he, has given the world the Tesla PowerWall. Thanks to brilliant producers like him, a better world is sure to come.

Wow, isn't our technological progress amazing? The possibilities are endless… or are they? Most people wouldn't have imagined the internet 60+ years ago, but the internet we have today lies well within the limits imposed by the science we had more than 60 years ago. The technology of today and the foreseeable future is running on the fumes of early 20th century science. Yes, I’m serious. For technology to go much further, apart from sexier more powerful internet capable watches, implantable brain enhancements, etc. we need new science. It's like talking about architecture using only bricks and cement. You can make amazing structures with those materials: Medieval Cathedrals, Baroque Palaces, etc., but there are limits that you cannot exceed unless you employ steel beams and modern materials. It is that way with our current technology. We are doing impressive things with the science we have, and we will continue doing more, but the future innovations will be incremental improvements. We can't have radical new technology without new science - we need to go beyond the "bricks and mortar" of current science if we want to avoid running into a technological brick wall in the next few decades.

I think we will hit that brick wall (PowerWall?), because I doubt we will produce major new fundamental insights into the workings of the world (at least not on the scale of relativity and quantum theory) that will be amenable to practical utilization for the benefit of humankind. Meanwhile, population grows and resources become more scarce. By the way, let’s not forget the other inhabitants, plants and animals, that we share this world with. No matter how clean and efficient we become, increasing numbers of us will result in more space occupied by humans and less habitat for our fellow earthlings. Isn't that a consideration that we shouldn't lose sight of?

Growing up in the latter third of the 20th century, my outlook was formed by the zeitgeist that commanded us to innovate our way out of our problems. Our leaders, both on the right and the left, parrot the quotidian call for ever more growth. Can’t they see that growth is the problem? Unchecked growth is cancer. As much as we innovate, our problems will forever outpace our innovations if we continue to follow the clarion call for ever more growth. Study Jevons’ Paradox - it’s inescapable. These problems are driven by our growing population and its ever expanding demands on Earth’s resources. Benevolent technology, green technology if you will, is only a treatment for the disease of population overshoot, and though it may delay collapse, it in the long run, will provide a positive feedback to actually worsen the ultimate problem. The only cure is to curb our addiction to growth. Otherwise an apocalyptic global crash lies inevitably around the corner.

Our current paradigm is to produce - produce more stuff for ever more people, train more workers to produce that stuff, and produce more consumers to consume that stuff. As much as I dislike it, I find it exceedingly difficult to think outside this paradigm - I frequently catch myself wondering "can’t we make solar panels more cheaply from renewable resources, can’t there be a killer app that will curb humanity's compulsive acquisitiveness, is there anything more adorable than a new baby…?" I need to get these thoughts out of my head as surely as the protagonist of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart felt he needed to stifle the beating of the dead man’s heart to keep from going stark raving mad. Rather than produce, we need to reduce. Instead of celebrating producers, we should revere the reducers. When will we hail reducers as heroes? What kind of economy could reward a reducer more than a producer?

Monday, March 2, 2015

American Viper

"If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life ..."
- Thoreau

This is my reaction to recent news stories discussing the possible future deployment of tens of thousands of US solders in Iraq to fight ISIS. There has also been a lot of talk about he American sniper, Chris Kyle, so my view of his "heroism" has found its way into my post as well.

According to the ancient Greek code of conduct, a hero must defeat his adversary in hand-to-hand combat. According to this code, an archer, who is a soldier that strikes his adversary from a remote location, could not earn the epithet of hero. I recently wondered what Homer, who derided archers in the Iliad, would think of a sniper like Chris Kyle. I concluded that he would consider a sniper, no matter what his reasons, as anything but a hero. Yes, the people Kyle killed were going to kill American soldiers, but the American soldiers were invaders! Isn't it right to do anything you can to drive out an invading force? In so far as a nation needs a military, no soldier should ever set foot on another nation's soil. The people killing American soldiers in Iraq were fighting off invaders, just as we would be doing if they came here. If ISIS invaded the US, we would be plotting to kill them off at every opportunity. Would an ISIS sniper then be a hero, since he would be killing Americans who were going to kill ISIS soldiers? Nazi snipers killed Poles who were certainly planning to kill Nazi soldiers. Why not extol individual Nazi snipers in our celebration of the individual soldier? I really see no difference.

America is a good nation, and other nations I've visited, and I've visited quite a number, are just as good in their own uniquely wonderful ways. The United States extols values that are suited to the people who decided to live and/or stay in this land. Our values are suitable for "here" but not necessarily anywhere else. We should stop believing in the universality of our values. Face it, values are relative.

America will do well to just leave other people alone. If we feel guilty about the mess we have made in the Middle East, we should put our money where our mouth is, and see to it that every person threatened by ISIS or any other sectarian group in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria should be guaranteed safe haven in the United States. We have already spent upwards of a trillion dollars messing up that part of the world. Surely the trillion we are preparing to spent to blow up ISIS would be better spent simply taking care of the millions of refugees that are fleeing that part of the world.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Bottoms Up!

“It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to a normal madness.” ― John Nicholas GrayStraw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution. Many people advocating for action on climate change take top down approach. They appeal to those of us concerned about climate change to write letters to their politicians to persuade them to take action. I'm all for letters. I've written my share, but I don't expect much from them. Even if the leaders we are appealing to enthusiastically take  up our cause, the people we need to convince won't be moved. President Obama can come out forcefully in favor of putting in place policies that help us deal with climate change, but his initiatives will go nowhere unless the majority of the population jumps on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, the climate change doubters are even less likely to take up the fight against climate change if Obama appeals to them than if he does nothing at all. Those who don't believe that humans have anything to do with climate change tend not to like people like President Obama or Al Gore, James Hansen, or me. There is plenty of research that shows that appealing to people to change their beliefs (in this case, the belief that climate change is a hoax or at best a purely cyclical natural phenomenon) merely makes them hold on to their beliefs more stubbornly.

We need to approach this problem from below, not above. Better science education will help. Children who understand the science behind climate change will be more likely to see the sense of anti-carbon policies. Of course this will take at least a generation. In the mean time, we need to appeal to people's emotions more than to their sense of reason. Those who can be convinced by reason already have been, those who haven't yet been swayed by rational arguments probably can't be. The fight against climate change has to be turned into something like a religious movement. We need to speak of climate change as an evil that must be defeated. We need to "declare a holy war" on carbon. We have to speak of wasteful use of natural resources as a sin and conservation of resources as a blessed virtue. Discussions of climate change must be couched in the language of religion. The Pope speaking about climate change, as he has, probably can do more, at least among Catholics, to curb the human drive to destroy the world than all the world's politicians put together.

I'm a physicist, so the approach I am advocating is anathema to me, but my views of how to appeal to the public have evolved very gradually over many years. Read books like "Straw Dogs" by the philosopher John Gray. Most people are fundamentally irrational, and the few centuries of humanist-dominated thinking that have passed since the Enlightenment haven't changed that in the slightest. By all means, we should teach our children about greenhouse gases and climate modeling before irrational beliefs are too firmly held, but speak to the present day adult climate skeptics in terms of evil, sin, virtue, and the Earth spirit. If we can cite biblical phrases that support caring for our environment, all the better! Maybe we should start a dialog with theologians and religious leaders and hope that politicians will "see the light" once appeals to the hearts and souls of their constituents have begun to have a transfigurative effect.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Going where popes fear to tread.

Pope Francis is expected to address climate change in a papal encyclical that will soon be sent to all the Catholic Church's bishops and priests. He rightly excoriates global capitalism for its contribution to the problem.
His will join the voices of many outside the Roman Catholic church who demand that we do something about climate change. 
To all who are concerned about climate change, I say..
Go ahead - exhort nuclear over hydrocarbon, Cry "let us bring an end to consumerism." Encourage to buy local. Offer ever more treatments for the disease and ignore the cure.
We must admit WE are the disease. This isn't self loathing. Self loathing is sticking to the status quo. Self loathing is thinking our lives are worth less if we live by any standard other than the current one or one that is even bigger and more resource intensive.
People led worthwhile lives centuries before we were born. They lived fullfilling lives without cars, planes, 3D printers, and the "green revolution." Judging by the greatness of their art, music, and architecture compared to our own, life must have seemed worth more to our distant ancestors than to ourselves.
We have been mesmerized by progress. Progress is a false religion. It is a pied piper leading us over a cliff.
Provided unlimited nourishment, bacteria exponentially grow in numbers until they fill their petri dish, and then they rapidly die off. We are bacteria and Earth is our petri dish. We must heed the lesson of Jevons' paradox.
The major emphasis should not be on convincing people to go nuclear, wind, or solar. By all means, we should pursue cleaner energy, more and better public transportation, and increased population density, but don't mistake some good choices for solutions. We need to go where all Popes, including Francis, fear or refuse to treat. We should do everything reasonable to convince human couples to have no more than one child, better none.
This is not selfishness. Selfishness is believing that your genes are more precious than the future of your species and all the species that inhabit this planet.
By curbing our natural urge to reproduce just as be have curbed our use of tobacco, we can do as much to save our world in one generation as the wildest, techno triumphalist dreamers can only hope to accomplish in ten generations. Yes, such a dramatic, voluntary reduction in our numbers will bring about collapse of our global civilization. But isn't it better bring the whole rotten thing down gently, like a deflating balloon than to depend on technofixes that bring along unforeseeable undesirable consequences (as they always have) that will surely bring us to a sudden, violent DEAD end?