Creative Destruction

April 17, 2013

The Nature of Man (or Mankind)

Filed under: Art,Content-lite,Environment,Ethics — Brutus @ 2:20 pm

Long time no blog posts. I’ve been fairly active at The Spiral Staircase but not at all here. However, I got hipped to an animator, Steve Cutts, whose style and content fits my thinking. Gotta share it. In a recent video, he shows humanity to be pretty hideous in the way we treat the world (ours to kill, consume, and trash at will) yet blithely ignorant about it right up to the end, when we deserve to get stomped ourselves (like the bug at the beginning):

There are other animations at his website with similar themes. The mixture of truly baleful criticism and jokey tone, with mildly distorted drawings and silly though evocative music, makes them simultaneously entertaining and hard to watch. But we have a vicarious, rubbernecking streak in us, so it’s doubtful anyone will look away to preserve their innocence (if anyone can be said to have any).

BTW, to categorize this as content-lite is undoubtedly a mischaracterization, but since the content comes from elsewhere and requires little analysis, I’ve got nothing much to add.

August 30, 2007

Global Warming Consensus Unraveling?

Filed under: Environment — Robert @ 2:54 pm

Remember the Oreskes survey in 2004 that found a huge acceptance of climate change in the scientific literature? (Don’t lie. You do not either remember.)

These days, not so much.

June 5, 2007

Woe, Despair, Agony on Me

Filed under: Environment,Ethics — Brutus @ 12:00 am

From a blurb called The Earth is Dying:

At the heart of the modern age is a core of grief.

At some level, we’re aware that something terrible is happening, that we humans are laying waste to our natural inheritance. A great sorrow arises as we witness the changes …

… changes [that] signal a turning point in human history, and the outlook is not particularly bright. The anger, irritability, frustration and intolerance that increasingly pervade our common life are symptoms associated with grief. The pervasive sense of helplessness and numbness that surrounds us, and the frantic search for meaning and questioning of religion and philosophy of life, are likewise often seen among those who must deal with overwhelming sorrow.

I’ve been reading too much recently about disaster, catastrophe, and threats poised to overtake us. The quote above describes how I feel better than I can.

This post is a follow-up of sorts to my previous posts called Malicious Ecophagy and Steamrollers. My latest awful discovery is something that won’t take time to manifest — it’s already a fait accompli:

A vast swath of the Pacific, twice the size of Texas, is full of a plastic stew that is entering the food chain. Scientists say these toxins are causing obesity, infertility … and worse.

The article this second quote comes from is fairly complete and doesn’t appear to require advanced scientific training to evaluate and appreciate. How any naysayers can explain away large portions of ocean (in each of the four principal bodies, the article informs) ruined and wrecked by human waste is beyond me, but let them try.

We’ve heard recently about how the decimation of the bee population could affect agriculture. How would the disruption of the aquatic food chain (from plastic waste), starting with plankton and proceeding up the cycle, affect a planet that is roughly 2/3 water? Although the article raises the specter, I’m not sure that anyone really knows, just as we don’t really know with certainty how global warming will play out.

At some point, perhaps I’ll stop reading these reports and adopt the attitude of the typical American: don’t worry, be happy. I’m not there yet, though, and in the meantime, I think it’s still worthwhile to bring these baleful prognostications to light so that we might actually consider heeding the warnings.

May 26, 2007

Coercion And Advocacy: One Billion Bulbs

Filed under: Blogosphere,Environment,Political Correctness — Robert @ 5:03 pm

I’d like to participate in this site that aggregates people’s purchases of compact flourescent bulbs, the way Instapundit does. (His readers have just about reached the 10,000 bulb mark.)

Unfortunately, the people running it are apparently virtue fascists of a sort a little too extreme for my  taste. Check out the first sentence of their self-description:

The goal of OneBillionBulbs.com is to convince, coerce and cajole millions of people to replace standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.

(My emphasis.) There are things worth coercing people over. Lightbulbs aren’t one of them. I doubt that Glenn knows of this attitude on their part, since he’s been consistently a voice for voluntary action, not bans.

I’ve tried the CFL bulbs and they work pretty well. There are sizing issues with some fixtures, and I don’t find the CFL light to be as warming as incandescent bulbs, but they’re fantastic for offices, porches, closets, rumpus rooms, etc. I doubt they’ll end up taking over the marketplace, but they should make a big dent in our use of electricity for residential lighting.

Let’s not get bossy about it, though.

May 3, 2007

Problems of Social Organization

Filed under: Environment,Ethics,Philosophy — Brutus @ 10:54 pm

We’re a species tragically marred by our own success. This article by Jeremy Rifkin presents the depressing numbers. Similar disaster is predicted everywhere these days. Here’s just one other example. (You’ve got to be living under a rock not to be aware of other, similar reports.) Some are considering how to face coming catastrophe: see here and here and here. The picture is bleak, and it’s been looming over the horizon for no short time.

The overarching story is that humankind and human nature has run its course and that, like the virus that eventually destroys its host, we have unwittingly sealed our own sad fate and ruined the planet for human habitation (and most other habitation with it). Unfortunately, unlike a virus, we can’t simply leap to a new host. In short, our basic form of social organization in the modern world, capitalist industry, has wrought changes in the ecosystem so vast that they’re now unrecoverable, and we’re too committed to our current paradigm to change in time to avoid catastrophe. In addition, our sheer numbers have been gained through a base exploitation of everything at our disposal, as though no other living creature has any right to survive.

Lost somewhere in the detritus of my abandoned and unfinished blog posts is the notion of maximizing, minimizing, and optimizing. Whereas most of nature occupies a niche in relative balance with the rest of creation — or at leasts lacks the wit and tools to overcome the cycles of ebb and flow — mankind since the Industrial Revolution (and perhaps since the Enlightenment) has been hellbent on maximizing its ecological niche. (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrates rather unequivocally that this has ever been our modus operandi. Human expansion in prehistory was always the trigger for local extinctions. Basically, we ate everything.) We’ve succeeded marvelously. Now, in this our latest stage of development, our impact is astonishing. Industry has provided us the means to wrest from the Earth everything we can, and no morality has effectively suggested that a more restrained approach to living, establishing, for example, an optimized or balanced harmony with the rest of nature, might ultimately be a better way of living.

I’ve been reading on the subject for over a year now and am still struggling to get my head around it. The extrapolation of current trends is almost too depressing to contemplate, and I can’t profess to having the hopefulness of many others who have similarly recognized our dilemma. However, the ethical response is to at least acknowledge what’s happening in the wider sweep of human history and hopefully alleviate some suffering down the line.

The best statements on this topics I’ve come across so far are two essays in Orion Magazine: “The Idols of Environmentalism” and “The Ecology of Work” by Curtis White. They are beautifully written and lack the sort of doom and gloom that is inescapable for me. They suggest the basic response that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and other books, has been recommending: that we walk away from civilizational culture.

April 4, 2007

Malicious Ecophagy

Filed under: Environment,Ethics,Science — Brutus @ 11:01 pm

I recently stumbled upon a really nasty threat in emergent science called “malicious ecophagy” that probably should have gone onto my earlier post called Steamrollers except for the fact that this threat doesn’t have the slow-moving inevitability of those I identified before. Rather, ecophagy (the consumption of the ecosphere) would most likely happen suddenly. The threat stems from the race in nanotechnology to create an assembler, a nanobot able to take apart material at the molecular level and reassemble it. Think of replicator technology contemplated in Star Trek fiction for a possible application.

The promise of such technology, which is partly the impetus for developing it, is the hope that, using nanotechnology, we would be able, for instance, to create corn from lawn clippings or clean up a toxic dump by merely rearranging the molecules. It could potentially be the end of want. An array of nanomedicine applications are also contemplated. The potential danger, however, is that if we manage to create an assembler, and if we can’t turn off the molecular transformation, the assembler could then go on to recreate itself ad infinitum until a swarm of biovorous nanobots have literally consumed the totality of biomass and reduced it to dust or some sort of gray goo. It has suitably been termed the “gray goo problem.” Science fiction has already suggested the problem, though of extraterrestrial origin, of an all-consuming biomass in the movie The Blob.

This passage from K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation describes the issue further:

Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term “gray goo” emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: we cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with [self-]replicating assemblers. Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident.

This spells out the stakes fairly succinctly. Yet in their hubris, scientists appear to be confident that they can avoid the problem, and research continues apace because there is no regulatory agency to oversee and halt the development of potentially dangerous technologies. Indeed, weaponization of nanotechnology is virtually assured. It reminded me that in the dawning atomic age, the creators of the first atomic bomb considered the possibility that detonating a device might accidentally ignite the atmosphere. The danger was calculated to be sufficiently low, though, that the gamble appeared to be worth it. (We’re certainly comfortable with that particular doomsday scenario in hindsight.)

Everyone to whom I’ve described the gray goo problem has responded fairly simply that, well, we just shouldn’t go there then. We don’t want an “oops” we can’t recover from. That’s also the argument made by Bill Joy in his lengthy article in Wired titled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. His preferred term is “relinquishment,” and he includes genetic engineering and robotics in a triumvirate of “GNR” (Genes-Nanotech-Robots) technologies that we should give up on before we outwit ourselves and alter something irrevocably. Joy’s credentials and scientific acumen are far better than anything I can bring to bear on the issue, and I rather trust his conclusions (and recommend reading the article). However, despite a few good examples of historical relinquishment, I have my doubts that we can muster the necessary humility and restraint to avoid delving ever deeper into the Pandora’s Box of science and technology. Like the so-called shot heard around the world, that “oops” muttered in a lab somewhere could be a signal event.

February 28, 2007

Is Gore’s Electricity 100% Green?

Filed under: Environment — Robert @ 10:34 pm

Al Gore has claimed (through a spokesman) that he offsets 100% of his Tennessee mansion’s electricity bill by purchasing renewables through a green power program. Upon reviewing the figures, this seems unlikely. Either Gore’s spokesperson is lying, or the AP has made a significant error in their reporting about Gore’s power usage.

According to the AP (not the conservative think tank that originally broke this story), Gore’s electricity bill averaged $1200 a month last year, while using 191,000 kilowatt-hours. (Compared to an average Nashville household usage of 15,600 kwh.) That comes to $14,400 in electricity expenses, which is around 7.5 cents a kilowatt-hour.

So I tooled over to the Nashville Electric Service, Al’s power company. Al (says he) subscribes to “Green Power Switch“, the renewable option offered by NES. (Seems like a good program, btw.) Green Power Switch will sell you 150 kilowatt-hour blocks of power for an extra $4 charge – adding 2.67 cents per kwh to the ordinary 7.38 cents that NES charges residential customers. That’s 10.05 cents per kilowatt-hour.

But the figures from Gore’s power bill, reported by the AP, show Gore paying about 7.5 cents a kilowatt-hour – pretty much exactly what he’d be paying if he bought his juice from the big coal-fired plant up the road. Something doesn’t add up, here.

Either Gore is not, in fact, buying green power, or the AP has badly misreported his power usage over the last year, or perhaps there are special sweetheart deals available for “residential” customers who order enough juice to light up Versailles. Or – and please forgive the cynicism – Gore is buying a teeny weeny bit of green power – perhaps enough to account for the 0.12 cents per kwh disparity in the posted rate and his actual bill – and the rest of his “green power” offset is coming in the form of “investments” in various renewable energy companies. Which is all well and good, of course, but which is a far cry from having all your power be renewable, which is apparently the claim being made.

(H/T to Charles, whose criticism of my criticism spurred me to investigate further and unearth this.)

(Update: According to this article in the Tennessean,  Gore did buy green power in the last three months, enough to cover his average monthly use. At a guess, I’d say he didn’t buy any green power last year, but started recently. So, tentatively, never mind. Thanks to Trailhead at Alas for finding this one.)

Why Al Gore’s House Matters

Filed under: Environment — Robert @ 3:17 am

(Updated: Welcome Instapundit readers!)

I was reading some comments on a post over at Bob Krumm’s site where one of the other commenters opined that conservative criticism of Gore is pointless because it doesn’t advance our understanding of anything. I responded at the Bob Krumm site, but want to cross-post my comments here in slightly edited form.

I think that the critique of Gore’s utilities-devouring monster house (one of three) and frequent air travel teaches us something very important. Considering the question teaches us something about Mr. Gore’s motives.

When people actually believe something, they generally live their life in a way that underscores or is compatible with the belief. Pacifists who oppose the death penalty don’t usually go out and get concealed carry permits. Writers who believe in a hyper-free exchange of ideas don’t usually go out and write restrictive comments policies for their blogs. Environmentalists who really believe in treating the planet well don’t usually live in power-sucking mansions and fly everywhere in private jets.And – oops! – there’s the problem with Mr. Gore. If he believed what he was saying on its own merits, then he would be behaving differently. Since his behavior and his rhetoric do not match, we learn something about him: that there is likely some other motivation for his policy preferences.

Those policy preferences – limit carbon, mandate the use of certain technologies, restrict land use, etc. – all seem to entail increasing governmental control over the economy. Mr. Gore’s actual motivation would appear to a fair-minded observer to be a desire to increase government power in the economic sphere – and environmental concern over global climate change is simply the convenient rhetorical tool to flog in the service of that agenda.

Mr. Gore is of course free to advocate for whatever policies he wishes. However, those of us who would bear the burden of his policies are also entitled – in our mindlessly swarming way – to think that his rhetorical flourishes are so much organically-composted, locally-grown, carbon-neutral BS.

February 19, 2007

Global Warming and the Environment

Filed under: Environment,Space — Robert @ 6:10 pm

One thing that bugs me about the whole global warming/climate change scuffle is that it tends to obscure discussion of the real questions concerning how we’re going to affect the planet’s environmental status in the future.

One of those questions is: what about the population-rich nations in Asia and Africa? Half the planet, maybe more, lives in one big oval, centered around the Indian Ocean, and encompassing the continent of Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific nations. That oval has some success stories, but economically is struggling at best. Those people, we assume, wish to get rich and live comfortable lives, and the trendlines seem to indicate that over time, that is going to happen. That means cars and big houses and iPods and all the rest of it. Those things have an environmental impact. How do we deal with it?

Another question that needs discussion: How do we mitigate, predict, and where possible control climactic variation? Here’s the thing: we can certainly quibble about the details of climate change and whether people cause it or not. But regardless of human presence, even a brief survey of the climatological history of our planet reveals enormous variation over time, sometimes with cataclysmic effect. So whether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, we face a certain prospect of exciting climactic times now and again. What tools can we develop to help us continue adapting to an ever-changing world?

My guess at these questions: the ultimate answer to both questions, I suspect, is tied up in wealth, and in space travel. Over the long run, it is increasing wealth in the developing world that will cap and then reduce the environmental impact of civilization. One of the keys to that wealth, and to ameliorating disastrous climate effects, is operations in space, particularly near-Earth space. There are exciting engineering technologies on the horizon that make economical access to space an increasing possibility. Right now, it costs something like $5000 per kilogram to get something put into orbit, on top of the high costs to develop your payload. Knock that figure down to $500, or $50, or God bless us $5, and the world changes in fundamental ways.

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