—Systemic change begins with personal transformation—

526: A recent talk on doof, heroin, crack, and sustainability

2021-11-06

This talk gets to the root of what I see destroying Earth's ability to sustain life and our health and happiness in the process. Here is the audio a recent talk I gave on doof, building up to what we can do to get rid of it, and improving our world in the process. I compare its effects with those of heroin, crack, and other addictions. I examine what makes something doof, like if it's advertised, packaged, fiber-removed, or the big one: if the manufacturer engineered it to create craving. I consider this audio a great talk.

518: Killing cities, gardens, and parks, New York’s cruel “Open Restaurants” overreach

2021-10-11

Don't outdoor restaurants sound nice? During the pandemic, New York City allowed restaurants that couldn't host people indoors to serve them outdoors. Many restaurant owners credit the rule for keeping them in business. We neighbors happily supported businesses in need. The landlords saw the huge profit in keeping this public space for their private property, started raising rents---profiting from a deadly pandemic---and tried to get politicians to give them that public land permanently. I might not mind if that space were coming from just car spaces, or if restaurants weren't polluting the area so much with plastic, burning fossil fuels to heat the outdoors while California is on fire, other packaging, and noise. There is a better alternative that no one thought of because we didn't know the city was willing to convert space from parking spaces and open sidewalk. We could turn it to living green spaces: community gardens, playgrounds, farmers markets, bike lanes, public pedestrian spaces, and such. There was already huge demand for such spaces. People wait years for plots in the tiny spaces we have. But search the web for "Manhattan community gardens" and you'll find almost nothing, especially around Greenwich Village. This program is already raising rents, making new restaurants harder to start. It helps a few individuals while hurting the industry it purports to help. Those who know New York City's history will see this land grab from the public on par with the failed Lower Manhattan Expressway. People organized to protect what became global destinations: Soho, Nolita, Tribeca, the Lower East Side. If you have influence with New York City politics, end this program of pollution and destruction.

516: Geoengineering: Prologue or Epilogue for Humanity?

2021-10-04

Here are the notes I read from, responding to this op-ed piece and this review for a book I've talked to the author about but haven't read. Geoengineering Prologue or Epilogue for Humanity? Introduction, context Geoengineering is becoming a more common topic as people feel more desperate. The common theme is that when things get serious, we have to put everything on the table, even things that may not work. The problem isn't if they'll work on their intended goal, but everything else. Over and over again in history, the unintended side-effects dwarf the intended ones. In fact, the story of oil, plastics, and most of our environmental problems today, since nobody chose to pollute but did try to improve people's lives despite side-effects they hoped would be small, geoengineering continues that story. Each time people thought they would solve. Each time it exacerbated and here we are. What got us into this mess won't get us out. It will get us deeper. Two recent pieces on geoengineering: Gernot Wagner book and David Keith NY Times editorial. Both results of months of just writing based on years of research and dedicated practice. I've met Gernot in person. Haven't read book but got some of it vocally. Don't know Keith but mutual friends. David Keith invited to engage by Twitter, which I think is disaster and one of our main problems today. People trying to checkmate each other in 160 characters, as he did in saying, please provide data. I will provide data, but not the kind he thinks. As you'll see, I believe history proves his approach disastrous. Both present unassailable perspective: we have to study, not dismiss out of hand, though I think they miss many have studied and out of thoughtful consideration and with difficulty but confidence reject. With 7.9 billion people, no objection to some studying. Plenty of resources. I don't say don't read the article or book. Besides that I haven't read the book, they mean well and want to save humanity from ecological catastrophe. Both value stopping emissions as primary. I'm not saying don't read them, but I recommend other works first. I'd start I may be misinterpreting, but I see them as approaching in two ways: at science and engineering level, understanding the situation, both the state of nature and the state of our technology, and innovating solutions. At the decision-making level, figuring out what we should do. I have a PhD in physics, I helped launch satellites with NASA and ESA to observe atmospheres, I've invented and patented several inventions, brought them working to the world, raising millions to do it. I also ran businesses, got an MBA, and coach executives at some of the world's largest and most prominent organizations, so I'm not a babe in the woods in these areas. How to look at it What data do I suggest and what do I suggest reading first, before their works? While tempting to look at it as engineering issue, I see it as high-stakes decision-making where we don't have the luxury of not responding somehow, can't possibly have all the information we want, and sections of global economy including millions to billions of lives affected, even human extinction in play. There is precedent, which is the data and history to learn from. Caveat: nothing is perfectly relevant. We are in uncharted territory. In all comparisons, more differences than similarities. But we have no alternate universes to practice on, only history of huge decisions. I don't like situation either, but agree on research. Each comparable itself could be studied forever in infinite detail. None had control groups or alternative realities. But like Gernot and Keith, I believe more study. At end I'll get to where lines of research I prefer could lead. Comparables and resources Vietnam McNamara and best and brightest from Harvard, etc. Data was last war. Sought numbers in kill ratio, etc. But underlying model was Domino Theory, we're huge and they're third-world, we beat Hitler Johnson focused on domestic agenda, where he was master, and just wanted this to go away. Didn't face it. Military said we have solutions. Believed they could overpower, had to overpower because of Domino Theory. Domino Theory was wrong, without basis. Numbers distracted from hearts and minds. Simple, enjoyable resource on decision-making: Path to War, "Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz in his 2016 book named Path to War as the 6th greatest American TV-movie of all time" Also Fog of War about McNamara's reflections looking back Space shuttle Some data but not relevant so had to extrapolate. People felt desperate and scared not to act. Lots of ways to interpret. There always will be. In this case they made the wrong choice. They knew if they chose otherwise, people could always second guess and say they were wrong. Resource: One of Harvard's case studies of conflicting interests. As physicist, Richard Feynman's stories of decision-making morass. Building highways into cities, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs Robert Moses always had the data and always got the funding. But data and projections were based on a model as flawed and unfounded as the Domino Theory, that traffic implied demand and more roads would lower congestion. Opposite happened most of the time. We have to live with results for centuries, including today's climate and pollution. By contrast, look at Amsterdam, especially channel called Not Just Bikes. Amsterdam could have looked like Houston does today. Imagine Houston looked like Amsterdam and was as livable. Resources: The Power Broker and Death and Life of Great American Cities. D-Day and Eisenhower To launch or not launch invasion where weather is difficult to predict, can make all the difference, and if you don't go one day, moon and tides mean next time might be a month or never. Hundreds of thousands of men's lives at stake, or all of Europe and free world. Resource: Ike: Countdown to D-Day starring Tom Selleck for focusing on the decision-making and teamwork amid civilization-in-the-balance stress. Green Revolution and Norman Borlaug Faced with people dying immediately, he did what he could to save them. Mid-career he saw the consequences. He enabled more population growth. He used the term "population monster". If anyone knew population, the consequences of its growth, and balancing saving people now and risking bigger problems later and facing the systemic problems now, he did. He spent the latter half of his career talking about the population monster, helping the Population Media Center, for example. Resource, his own quote: The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only. Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”. . . Since man is potentially a rational being, however, I am confident that within the next two decades he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth… We haven't acted, his prediction is happening, and geoengineering will at least repeat the problem, more likely augment it. At least it seems a close comparison. Also, recent PBS American Experience on him. Cuban Missile Crisis Joint Chiefs of Staff said situation was serious and we had to act before missiles were armed. Even JFK thought negotiation wouldn't work. It did. We didn't invade. We learned decades later that the warheads were armed, Castro had approval. If he expected to be killed, he could have launched missiles to kill tens of millions and start WWIII. Data suggested invading was best option. Resource: Movie 13 Days. I haven't yet read the book. CVS Drugs -> Health All advice was to keep selling their top profit line. If they didn't, anyone could walk a few steps to another store. Within twelve months they reached former profit levels. Big case: the abolitionists pushing to end slavery in the British Empire. 1807. Their model and mine I think they see situation like we're heading to a cliff and have to stop the car. They say best solution is to take foot off gas, which is pollution and greenhouse gases, but that doesn't stop the car. Their solutions are more like putting chemical in gas tank to stop engine. I'll grant that view, but only looking at climate misses full situation. Our environmental problems are more than just temperature. If they see the cliff in front and rapidly approaching, I think they see it like the end of Thelma and Louise, broad, flat, lots of space. Not cops behind. But more than climate. It's more like we're on a thin promontory or like thin pier over since there are many other dangers. To the right might be biodiversity loss, which could doom us too. To the left, pollution. About 10 million people a year die from breathing air. But we need more dimensions we could fall off so maybe there are land mines, which represent deforestation, and huge storms representing ocean acidification, and we have to construct more things to represent overpopulation, overfishing, running out of minerals, depleting aquifers, depleting topsoil, and you've seen the headlines and know many more, few of which geoengineering would help and most of which it would exacerbate, not buy us time. So geoengineering is more like we're headed toward a cliff, already with cliffs immediately to our left and right, and more, and geoengineering is like slashing the tires or causing the engine to seize violently, which might possibly keep us from the cliff in front, but first causing us to lose control. Here the analogy is too small because it could cause us to fall off both the left, right, and other dimensions, hit a land mine, get hit by lightning, roll over and crash, and so on. But their version of the Domino Theory and self-confidence blinds them from seeing anything other than one problem and all the other side-effects and the line of thinking that got us here. Lessons Acting out of desperation, helplessness, and hopelessness, even when desperate, produces poor decisions. Don't have to ignore long-term to act on short-term. We can regret wrong decisions Study leadership and decision-making. Rarely do technical solutions to social problems solve them. Look for social solutions to social problems. Look at Mechai Viravaidya in Thailand, Population Media Center. Expect unintended side-effects to be greater than effects, as Norman Borlaug eventually realized. Then there's how to learn any performance-based skill: practice. Want to get to Carnegie Hall, Wimbledon, or NBA finals? Practice. If you haven't practiced, you haven't developed the skills. Want to live sustainably? Try! If you pollute more than the average, you probably don't know many solutions that work. Just spoke with James Rebank, a bestselling author, a farmer who started path to industrial. When he tried regenerative things he couldn't have imagined worked. Watch Fog of War to see how McNamara saw how flawed their process was. For that matter, the term fog of war comes from Von Clausewitz. I'm in the middle of reading his work, but listen to my episode with Marine Corps General Von Riper, who cleaned up the floor with the US military in the millennium challenge, playing a woefully under-resourced red team. Solutions? My goal here is not to be comprehensive, just some quick thoughts since I don't want to take too long to respond to David Keith's tweets. There is a solution that works. Not full solution but major part: live sustainably, as humans have for about 300,000 years. The knee-jerk response is, "but we live differently today." Yes, how we live is what we have to change. The longer we wait, the harder. I just recorded a conversation with a guy who lost his legs to flesh-eating disease. Would you rather live sustainably or lose both legs? Because if you prefer living sustainably, well he was minutes from death, but just returned from Tokyo with a silver medal and shared how lucky his life and great he's made it. He points out everyone suffers and we all face challenges often we didn't ask for. If he can with the choice you don't want, we can do so with the preferable choice. Only we'll eat more vegetables and live closer to family. Mostly life improvements. They downplay the possibility. Listeners to this podcast know I lived like the average American, probably polluting more, but dropped 90 percent. It was as hard for me as everyone, but once committed, doable. Once done, fun, freedom, joy, and better, because living by universal values. Actually, still going as skills develop. Engaging people we disagree with, who think there's no problem, who see population as impossible to change Pope and evangelicals Following domination to stewardship transformation (and Earth not center), grains of sand prophecy interpretation. Contraception: I haven't had vasectomy, but if you can imagine colonizing Mars, I can imagine an implant that can stop and start flow of sperm. Nearly half of pregnancies accidental. Nearly 300,000 years of human history was replacement level and endured. I can imagine a similar device for women. I can even imagine Popes endorsing. When we change our values we innovate just as much, but in direction of new values, which I propose to be stewardship and increasing Earth's ability to sustain life. We can come up with more solutions if we try. Few people are innovating by those values, certainly not in Silicon Valley, Washington DC, or academia.

512: Perhaps our most useful lesson, from of a Paralympic athlete who endured catastrophe

2021-09-28

"Unearned suffering is redemptive," said Martin Luther King. In today's episode I share what I learned today recording with Blake Haxton, a guest whose episode will appear soon. He lost two legs to flesh-eating disease in 2009. Tragedy? Yes. Reason to give up? On the contrary, according to him, his one unlucky event in life. I contend that his outlook on life and message that we all face setbacks, we can still live to our potential can help us learn to live sustainably than any number of windmills and solar panels. After all, which would you prefer, to live without fossil fuels and take others into account for all you do or to lose both your legs. If you prefer to live sustainably, then his life of fun and reward says you can attain as much fun and reward living sustainably.

507: Behind the Mic: Teamwork Versus Leadership

2021-09-13

Today's episode explores a subtle but potentially meaningful and large shift, considering focusing on sustainability teamwork more than sustainability leadership. The main difference is that I think people feel taking a leadership role makes them vulnerable and means lots of work. Joining a team is fun. If enough people join it feels natural and odd not to. You're hearing me develop an idea in real time. Here are the notes I read from: Switch to team? Leadership stick neck out Sports, business, military, music, drama, family, indigenous tribes, small communities Playing Beethoven: no one but everyone Everyone matters, bench player, fans, home court advantage Improv exercise Everyone can join team. Not to messes it up for everyone. Imagine fan blocking. Some can lead, many leadership roles: coach, outstanding player, biggest fan Internet search: nothing relevant Kicks in tribalism Competition two meanings: winning versus finding and reaching their potential Opponent is the old values and complacency Difference between parent and babysitter Chamber quartet with tuba or clown horn is SUV

506: I lost $10 million on September 11, 2001. Here is what I learned from those who sacrificed and served.

2021-09-11

Sorry for the slow pace of this episode, but just before recording I looked at the firehouse across the street from my apartment, the small plaque naming the firemen who died trying to help others, and the flowers people put there for them, which led me to lose it as I started recording. I've never considered the changes to my life meaningful in comparison, despite my losses being greater than anyone I know who didn't die or was related to someone who died for the obvious reason that no material loss compares. Not even close. But twenty years later, it occurs to me that not communicating about the loss and what I learned from it doesn't help either, because when faced with a huge material loss---I lost about ten million dollars and the future I'd sacrificed other dreams for---we can choose to give up or we can choose to find our values and live by them, if not the fleeting material stuff. In this episode I share what I live for, what in part I learned from the firefighters who served that day, the servicemembers who enlisted for years to come, as well as from others who lost. We can prevent far greater losses than September 11, than the Holocaust, than the Atlantic slave trade in conserving and protecting our environment. I choose to devote my life to the greatest cause of our time, in helping the most number of people from the greatest amount of suffering of any time. If you'd like to help, we who choose to serve, could use your help. But we don't have to enter towering infernos. We eat vegetables instead of takeout, live closer to family instead of flying to and from them, have one child, and learn to lead others to enjoy the same. Contact me if you'd like to join.

500: This Podcast’s Next Milestone

2021-08-27

For the 500th episode, I share the outcome I expect to make happen from all this podcast experience as part of my mission to change culture to embrace, not refrain from or fear, sustainability and stewardship. I describe how I will lead people at leverage points of systems to share their intrinsic motivation, act on it, and lead their organizations to huge changes for their intrinsic motivations. When our culture changes, we will act because we want to, not because we have to. Then we will be off to the races to change.

499: What sets limits on pollution, part 2: some answers

2021-08-24

The notes I read from for this episode: I asked many questions on the last episode. The core ones were “why aren’t we switching to renewables and not polluting faster?” I know we can’t switch overnight, but what sets the pace? Do we know if the limits will go away, like we just need to build more factories, or maybe they won’t, like what led us to retract from supersonic flight? It worked in some ways, but not enough. A mix of social, business, engineering, and physics issues pulled us back. How much farther can advances go? Can we expect as great advances as the 747 compared to the Wright brothers’ first plane? How much of the solar power hitting the Earth can we effectively use? I point you to a paper called Pulling Back The Curtain On The Energy Transition Tale, which I link to in the notes. It’s not peer-reviewed, but shares all its sources. It looks at the limitations of renewable energy sources. What does it take to build solar and wind farms? How many do we have to build? How many can we? Things like that. I recommend reading it. I’ll share some highlights, or lowlights. [EDIT: They published a peer-reviewed version of the paper: Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition, by Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees] To start off, most, about 80 percent of energy comes fossil fuels directly, like heating iron to make steel. Some processes can use electrical power but not all. They cite sources that generating that 20 percent of electrical power would cost $11 trillion for solar cells, just a small part of over $250 trillion, though it would have to be in the desert since we couldn’t transmit it far from there. We’d need to grow the grid 14 times faster than we are to do it by 2050. That’s still not covering fossil fuel things like heating and container ships. We’d have to build solar and wind farms 3 to 4 times faster than ever every years until 2050. Since they last 15 to 25 years, once finished, we’d have to replace them all. Making the solar cells and windmills requires steel, cement, concrete, and other materials that require temperatures we so far only get from fossil fuels, so we’d have to keep burning them to create the would-be sustainable renewables, but they aren’t sustainable if they require fossil fuels in perpetuity. They also emit greenhouse gases. The paper goes into more detail about alternatives like biogas that don’t work for other reasons. For one thing, land we use to grow fuel we aren’t growing food with, but we’re projected to need all that food. Building solar panels requires fossil fuel-burning temperatures. The processes produce toxic by-products and other greenhouse gases besides CO2. They require some rare minerals that may run out and so far have often led to human rights abuses in mining them. Since they operate a few decades, disposing of them may lead them to be 10 percent of electronic waste. Recycling materials so far use techniques that expose people to toxic waste. Batteries and other storage require hundreds of times more capacity than we have. “The world’s largest battery manufacturing facility—Tesla’s $5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada—could store only three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand in its entire year of production. Fabricating a quantity of batteries that could store even two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand would require 1,000 years of Gigafactory production.” The paper goes into more detail about limitations of batteries and other storage worth reading. Any number of its points might be enough to derail renewables. “Large cranes (used to load and unload cargo, in large construction projects, in mining operations, and more), container and other large ships, airplanes, and medium and heavy duty trucks” may never be able to run on batteries or anything other than fossil fuels. Wind turbines require magnets that require rare earth metals whose mining produces toxic and radioactive waste. The blades are fiberglass that can’t be recycled or reused. Making the towers requires fossil fuels to make the steel and power the large vehicles to transport them. Installing the towers requires heavy trucks and machinery that batteries can’t power to dig deep and manufacture the materials. Plus they use a lot of cement and concrete, which emit a lot of greenhouse gases. Technology may overcome some of these problems, but remember, these technologies were supposed to solve the problems of past technologies, which were supposed to handle the problems of technologies before them. The paper doesn’t say it, but each solution seems to require more work than all the ones it replaces. Why should we expect this round to be the last when each before only enlarged the problems? Every indication suggests more problems to come with all the waste to manage, manufacture that doesn’t go away, and raw materials we’ll keep needing, destroying the environment and creating deadly working conditions. The paper then goes into hydropower, fission, and fusion. Hydro has few places that can be dammed left. Fission would need many more to be built, but they take long times and have big waste management issues. The paper details many problems with fusion that may never be solvable—high operating costs, huge needs for water when many areas humans live in are becoming arid, time to build if ever feasible, and so on. The paper covers carbon capture and storage, mainly pointing out that no viable schemes exist nor on any remotely useful scale. It covers the social exploitation that has always accompanied mining the materials needed for batteries, magnets, and other material parts of renewables. It talks about physical limits to potential advances. Most of these fields are mature and the technologies reaching those physical limits. Solar cells can’t produce much more power per area than they are, nor can wind. While cars and bicycles can run from batteries, large trucks for transportation and construction, planes, and freight ships can’t. Probably whole systems of trains can’t run on renewables or at least would need an expanded grid whose construction would take away from the rest of the economy. All high-speed rail projects in the US run over in cost and time. As for flying, you’ll get to hear the details from the chief engineer when our conversation emerges from the editing pipeline. My high-level takeaways, though, are that batteries add weight and are near their limits on being able to hold enough energy for a long flight and to deliver power fast enough without overheating. These two properties—holding energy and delivering power fast—tend to be exclusive. If you improve one you lose the other. To fly a heavier plane requires moving slower, but planes can only slow so much. It means fewer people and different plane design, but plane design is a mature field. No one knows any new advances. They’re mostly implementing old ones that the industry didn’t use because it optimized for profitability, not sustainability, before pollution became the issue it did. I understood from him that currently no technologies allow for flights of the capacity, speed, and distance we now consider normal. If we reached the limits of all technologies, I understood we still couldn’t fly dozens of people thousands of miles. Going from North America to Europe would require stopping over in Greenland or Iceland not to recharge, which would take a long time, but to change planes, which would require lots of extra planes on the ground, which adds costs and pollution to manufacture extra planes. Meanwhile, the Atlantic would now have a huge bottleneck if we could even fly those distances, build enough planes, and generate enough power to charge them in Greenland and Iceland. How many flights per day could these small islands process? Could we cross the Pacific at all by plane? I’m not bringing these points up to bring you down. I didn’t make up this research. I learned of it through podcast guest Dave Gardner’s podcast Growthbusters episode Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Green New Deal, featuring Megan Seibert, who explains this research and her views. She’s part of the Real Green New Deal project, which I also link to in the notes. It seems to me if you have to cross Death Valley, it’s useful to know how much water you need and can bring. If we don’t have enough, nobody wins by starting to cross, knowing we won’t make it. By contrast, reducing consumption and birth rate require no new technological advances, cost little money and probably save more, and when implemented in voluntary non-coercive ways have improved measures of health, longevity, prosperity, abundance, and stability. Solutions exist, just not the ones we’ve fantasized for generations would work. Living much simpler lives is beyond possible. Contrary to mainstream beliefs, it means what I believe anyone would call a better life not despite not flying all over the world at whim but because of it. Living as our ancestors did doesn’t mean 30 becomes old age or we lose science. On the contrary, probably more longevity and more meaningful interaction with nature. Life can be great living sustainably. Our entitlement holds us back, not a physical lack of viability.

498: What sets the limits on pollution? Why don’t we pollute less or decrease faster?

2021-08-23

My notes I read from: Why do we still pollute, part 1: the questions Does the following sound familiar? We use a lot of energy, but we’ll electrify everything and power them with wind and solar. Yes, we need to build a lot, but prices are cheaper than ever for renewable power and batteries. They fell faster than anyone expected and will keep falling. More solar energy hits the Earth daily than we need in a year. There are some problems, like that the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and we haven’t electrified some things, like heavy loaded trucks, airplanes, and container ships, but they’re just engineering issues that we’ll resolve. Nobody at the time of the Wright brothers could have predicted the 747. People a decade ago didn’t predict prices and capacity for renewables and batteries falling so fast. A world where we live like today just without carbon emissions is around the corner. All we have to do is wait, maybe fund some research. Those ideas sound enticing and compelling. Why was everyone so gloomy? What actually are the limits and why? The prices are lower but why not lower still? Is there a lower limit or do you believe it will drop to zero? Why aren’t we building more solar and wind farms? Why aren’t we damming more rivers? Why haven’t we electrified planes, boats, and for that matter more cars? If electric cars are better, why do people still buy internal combustion engine ones? Something is setting those limits. What? Do batteries and electric vehicles only require we build more factories, in which case it’s only a matter of time, or are there limits that we can’t overcome? Maybe some we can overcome and some we can’t. If so, it matters which. Also, I’ve written in my blog that humans have historically responded to new sources of power by using the old one and the new one. Our environmental problems aren’t too little power but too much pollution, just supplying new power doesn’t mean we stop using fossil fuels. Headlines keep touting record using of renewables, but the meaningful measure is how much we’re reducing pollution. We can easily keep building renewables and never stop burning coal and oil even if we can substitute. Why aren’t we closing coal plants? Why do we keep using jet fuels for jets? It’s tempting to believe that somewhere near the source of power supplies there are a few people or companies that are gearing up to supply what we need. Maybe they’re going as fast as they can. They’re just waiting for supplies or a few key technological developments. You probably realize it’s not as simple as that. There are markets and market forces driving development and things get implemented as they can. When market forces drive some development, they do, but not all things respond to market development. For example, people knew about problems with pollution and the greenhouse effect for generations but didn’t act. Why now? Are there things that market forces can’t resolve or won’t address? You probably know about the Tragedy of the Commons, Jevons Paradoxes, and Rebound Effects, which are systems effects where markets produce the opposite goals people expect or desire. How significant are they? Briefly, the tragedy of the commons occurs when private citizens benefit from using a resource that can be depleted but the public loses, for example overfishing the oceans, depleting aquifers, and polluting the atmosphere. Jevons Paradox is that when you make a technology more efficient, you decrease the pollution in each use, but by making it cheaper, more people use it more and for more things, so you may increase the total pollution. Rebound Effects are more broadly when our attempts to decrease pollution end up creating more, which might include replacing some business travel with video conferences, but then traveling for other reasons anyway, or traveling more for vacation with the time or money saved, resulting in more flights. There are other effects too. Prices are supposed to cause markets to allocate resources, but in some cases they don’t. Fish that become scarce sometimes see higher prices, promoting fishing more scarce fish. Fishing technology makes fishing deeper and more aggressively cheaper, so the market sees more fish even though the ocean has fewer, to the point where fish find each other slower so reproduce slower. What if these effects mean our solutions create problems greater than our problems? If we don’t change our systems, these systems effects may overwhelm us. They’re easy to ignore, but what if they dominate our situation? What if our air becomes unbreathable? About ten million people a year die from breathing—a number greater than the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust and near estimates of how many people died in the Atlantic Slave Trade, over years and centuries. Pollution is killing that many per year, a number which is increasing, and we can’t stop that polluted air from dispersing all over the globe. If we keep increasing that pollution, might all of Earth’s air kill people globally? Besides dying, what would life be like if the whole globe is like Beijing or New Delhi all the time? Pollution doesn’t come only from carbon dioxide. What other processes are we doing that pollute besides emitting greenhouse gases? What if renewables that lower greenhouse emissions don’t reduce other pollution? What if nuclear and fusion produce other pollution? You know about the concept of embedded carbon—how much carbon was emitted in making something. We generally think if we use the thing enough, the one-time manufacturing hit averages down to negligible. What it it doesn’t? Cars don’t last forever. Even if electric vehicles last longer than internal combustion engine ones, what if the embedded carbon and other pollution in manufacturing it doesn’t become negligible over its lifetime, yet billions of people keep buying them year after year? You might say, but we can bring down the embedded carbon by decarbonizing the manufacturing process. Can we? Are there limits to what we can decarbonize? While no one at the Wright brothers’ time could have imagined or predicted the 747, we can imagine a lot more that we can’t reach. We reached the Concorde and other supersonic flight, but pulled back from it. Why? Just because we made advances in one field, does that mean we’ll produce the advances we want in another? We thought antibiotics and vaccines would stop pandemics, yet the current one has us more worried about a future one. This one may metastasize with another variant. The delta variant may continue to grow. Who knows if antibiotics will keep working? I’m prompted to ask these questions all at once for two main reasons. The first is that our media, business leaders, and politicians keep focusing on the march of progress on solutions. Partly, I love hearing about more renewables and how people replace business trips with video, but we don’t focus on shutting down polluting plants and we don’t pay attention to system effects. If you make a polluting system more efficient, you pollute more efficiently. That describes our world today. We use less effort to produce more pollution than ever. I can swipe my finger on a cell phone screen and causes a 2-ton vehicle to travel miles to bring food in containers that will poison wildlife for centuries, maybe millennia. That cell phone is billions of times more efficient than ENIAC or the computers that put people on the moon, but they drive server farms that pollute more than most nations. We pollute more with less effort than ever. The second is that I’ve come across news that answers a lot of the questions, which I’ll talk about in part 2, but the news is more like the Concorde than the 747. That is, it looks like when we look at the engineering and details, we aren’t at the start of uncharted territories but at the ends of long lines of research reaching limits from the laws of physics. Nobody wants technology to help us more than I do, but if we try to fight the laws of thermodynamics, we will lose. I talked to the chief engineer of a company that has won awards for developing battery powered planes. We recorded a podcast episode that’s in the editing pipeline so you’ll get to hear it from him. There is a rosy future for electric planes, just not carrying people across oceans. I’ve also read a few reports on technological limits I’ll summarize and link to in the next episode. First, I wanted to pose the questions I’ve pondered that led me to pursue the answers enthusiastically. The answers matter. If potential solutions don’t work, the faster we pursue ones that can, the more likely we can succeed to some degree. We can’t bring back the ten million people who died in the past year from breathing air, nor the lives lost from past behavior that we can’t change, nor even the lives to be lost from results locked in for the next centuries. The people dying today are dying from past behavior. But we can change our behavior today to avoid killing people from our behavior. We wish past generations had changed. We can.

497: Don’t let judgment and criticism kill action: Gernot Wagner’s personal example.

2021-08-21

Gernot Wagner posted a story in New York Magazine about personally acting in a big way on his living situation. People criticized his sharing something vulnerable. Sadly, people acting in stewardship, in everyone's interest, still today have to suffer criticism. I describe in this episode his article, the criticism he faced (as did I), and the systemic effect of this criticism. Quoting from my book, I'll show how strongly blind criticism exacerbates inaction and accelerates polluting. Beyond annoying, it augments the problems.

494: How Is Addiction to Fossil Fuels Different From Addiction to Heroin and Crack?

2021-08-16

Below are the notes I introduced this episode with. If you want to see the state of the park, I posted two videos here. Prepare to be disgusted, maybe even shocked. You'll hear me talking about my local park, one of the most drug-ridden in New York City Because it's my back yard and I refuse to retreat from the degradation, you'll hear my passion. This was all extemporaneous, so you can tell the time I spend in my neighborhood, talking to neighbors and politicians to help. But please translate in your mind the addicts giving up and trashing common land to all of us as addicts to a/c, flying, twenty-minute showers, SUVs, meat, big families, and so on. At 80 percent overweight and obese, we're addicted to refined sugar and fat. I mention in the recording how the crack and heroin's pollution is small compared to rich people's, but I want to start you off with that perspective, since I'm illustrating our culture and all of our behavior that's not helping anyone as our health, longevity, abundance, and stability are decreasing, not increasing. I'm talking about us. If you think heroin and crack users who see no future actually do have futures if they overcome their addictions then you know you can too. Your excuses that you have to for work or family are as specious and self-serving as theirs. Please listen to this episode thinking of us as the addict. You'll hear potential solutions. You can live them yourself. You can live without flying, meat, long showers, more than one child, and so on. When you do you can lead others. Addicts need role models to see they can switch. I hope you believe how I had to transition from being just like you if you think you can't live without flying or whatever.

492: Did Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature miss why we’re less violent?

2021-08-10

Here are the notes I read from: Comments on Better Angels of Our Nature I finally finished Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. I started it more than skeptical of its main thesis. The book is 800 pages long, so I’m sure I’ll oversimplify and not do it justice, but I recommend it so you can get his full message. He says that we are living in the least violent time in history and it was due to enlightenment values of classical liberalism. I was sure he’d missed some important issue or discounted the risk of nuclear war or pandemic. I’d find some flaw in his analysis. On the contrary, the more I read, or listened to to be precise, the more compelling I found his case. I won’t recapitulate the whole thing, but I agree with his thesis, if I’m not oversimplifying, that we live in the least violent time and it’s due to classical liberalism. What caused liberalism is another question. He spent time looking for exogenous causes. After all, humans were human when we were more violent and now that we’re less violent. Did something change? One main cause he found was the development of printing. Printing spread ideas. Some cultures adopted it and others didn’t so observing their different evolutions suggested its value. I agree printing was a major cause. In this episode, I want to suggest a major potential point he barely touched on, but that 1. I believe is a greater cause, or at least worth considering more, and 2. if we miss this cause, we miss other effects, especially if the cause disappears. More importantly, this cause may be changing today, and if we misunderstand it, if a critical pillar of support goes away, we could lose everything we’ve gained and a lot more. Reading from The Smithsonian Magazine and The Nation: On August 24, 1967, Abbie Hoffman and a group of friends invaded the heart of American capitalism, the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. They threw money from the visitors’ gallery onto the floor, and the brokers and traders there leapt into the air to grab the dollar bills floating down. Trading was interrupted, briefly. News coverage was massive. Before entering the stock exchange gallery, Hoffman had passed out handfuls of dollar bills to each of the protesters. Once in the gallery above the trading floor, the protesters threw the dollars over to the stock traders. Participant Bruce Dancis recalled, “At first people on the floor were stunned. They didn’t know what was happening. They looked up and when they saw money was being thrown they started to cheer, and there was a big scramble for the dollars.” The protesters exited the Stock Exchange and were immediately beset by reporters, who wanted to know who they were and what they’d done. People risked their jobs whose cash flows dwarfed mere dollars to scramble for them. With that historical example in your mind, imagine this fictional scene: a battle where suddenly manna fell from heaven. By manna, I mean something that satisfies all your wants. You can kill the guy next to you or gather manna. Once everyone starts gathering manna, who wants to fight and risk being killed when you can gather more? Now imagine you learn that not only will tomorrow bring more manna, but so will the next year, decade, generation, century, and as far as anyone can foresee. Would you expect people to fight less? I would. Would they not devote themselves to more liberal pursuits in the traditional sense of the word—culture, arts, learning, trade? I believe humans with an unending supply of manna would trace the path Steven Pinker’s book described. Well, the manna started appearing over 500 years ago. Well, before written history, people knew of coal, but our ancestors really started learning its utility, though not its potential global danger, centuries before the Industrial Revolution. That foundation, among others, eventually enabled the Industrial Revolution to happen. Most people attribute the gains of the Industrial Revolution to human ingenuity in creating machines, economic systems, political systems, and so on. They built machines to cross oceans and continents, manufacture things to scrape the sky, and so on, enabling people to work in teams as large as nations. Sure, humans were ingenious, but imagine a locomotive or steamboat without coal. Ingenuity doesn’t boil water to make steam. It tells you how, but we didn’t create the coal. We found it. Besides increased liberal pursuits, would you not have more kids, especially if your neighbors did? After all, your need to work to feed them or bequeath them land just dropped precipitously. If everyone you knew had just learned of two new continents, isn’t that manna in the form of real estate? Of course, independent of fossil fuel and real estate manna, plenty of other advances in science and humanities contributed to the explosion of technology that led to the Industrial Revolution and its material abundance but once Watt's steam engine and Smith's Wealth of Nations kicked in, they were tied together in a cycle driven by that manna. As long as you take that manna for granted, you might assign the progress to human ingenuity, but we needed the fossil fuels too. Without them we would have had no steamships, no railroads, no steam-powered factories, no coal mines, no substitute for slavery, no artificial fertilizer so no Green Revolution, no solar panels, no nuclear. Just windmills, water wheels, sailboats. Ability to amass armies, navies, and build pyramids and empires. Even if we discover that the manna will run out—that is, we have limited fossil fuels—a system based on it with enough momentum will sustain itself long after we’d want to stop using it. We can’t easily stop using them today even if we want to. I would say we’re addicted to their results. Because we now know that the limit to this fossil fuel manna is only partly running of it. Equally, the global danger is that It poisons our air, land, water, and wildlife we depend on, like bees. Burning fossil fuels is lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life. We've used up the space and resources to process that waste and with plastic and toxic chemical increased its toxicity. Back to Steven Pinker, he searched for an exogenous cause to the changes he described. He found printing as one candidate. Europe's adoption led to its liberalization while Islam's rejection led to its stagnation. I started his book expecting to find flaw. I thought, “he must not realize how much less violent we are today, or how less stable our peace today is compared to his imagination,” but I found him completely persuasive. I agree we're less violent than ever and the causes all as he suggests. I grant him everything in his book and offer this one change that I think will strengthen his case, fill in the missing exogenous sources he sought, but change his outlook. While not the only contribution, the fossil fuel manna contributed to everything he described. I’m not a historian, so I’m only going on broad trends. The timing seems to work. Fossil fuels started kicking in on brightening human futures well before the Industrial Revolution so around the right times and places, as well as not in the wrong times and places. I’m not saying fossil fuels were the only cause, but I expect a major one. I don't mean to take away from all the achievements he described. They're tremendous, but they depend in part on discovering something we can take no credit for producing and whose deadly side effects, combined with the laws of thermodynamics they helped us discover, force us to choose from stopping accepting the manna or allowing it to kill us. First we didn’t know the side-effects. I don’t blame anyone. But now they are undeniable and incalculably deadly, on the scale of billions. I believe we can retain the advances fossil fuels helped us discover and achieve without them, but the transition requires time. Had we started transitioning generations ago, with a smaller population and less addiction, we could take time. If we start today, and we haven't in earnest, well, already nine million died in 2019 from breathing air, a number on par with the Holocaust and Atlantic slave trade, except annual and increasing, so there's no avoiding destruction. But if we reduce fossil fuel use with everything we've got, we'll face economic shocks. A lot of economists worry about them, but I understand that government management within historical norms could keep those shocks within historical boundaries, as described in JB MacKinnon's upcoming book The Day the World Stopped Shopping, but we can keep from losing billions of lives. To clarify, by reducing fossil fuels I don't just mean adding more renewable sources. Humans throughout history have met new manna with new growth. So yes we have to produce more energy through renewables, but also shut down what burns fossil fuels first: coal plants, airplane engines, container ships, car engines, artificial fertilizers, and more. To leave it in the ground or risk billions of people dying. My point is to speak to one person—Steve Pinker—in, I believe, the view of his thesis, that I agree in his view of the better angels of our nature, but I believe those angels were fed on fossil fuels beyond what he recognized. I didn't spend the time in this discussion to reach his rhetorical level, but I hope I crossed enough of a threshold for him to engage on the topic: how much did our society develop from fossil fuels and what happens if we remove them? I have no self-interest to promote. I'm motivated as much through the wonder I felt at his masterful book. It's almost fifteen years since I read The Blank Slate and loved it. I’ve seen him speak in person and found it riveting. I saw him once in my neighborhood and said hi. I believe that if he considers this one element, that he will either see flaw in my perspective or not. If he does, I would love to be relieved of my mistaken view. If not, I believe he will feel compelled to consider it more and may even reach the point I have, that it is the most important pursuit anyone could work on. I think many people don't consider it because, well what can anyone do? Only governments and corporations can make a difference. But believing one's first attempt at a solution won't work is no proof no solution exists. I have found many and would love to pick up from this point. As I said, he walked right into likely reader disagreement, took it on, and persuaded. I expected to disagree with him. I expect most did. But I agree with him and consider myself educated for it, plus admire his research and writing skills. If I’m off point or he considered it, I hope to learn what I missed. If I hit something critical, I’d love to engage him further on how to spread word of the danger. I’ll put on the page a plot that previous guest Tom Murphy calls his most important plot with a link to his description of it. It shows humanity’s source of energy. Wood and food for hundreds of thousands of years. Then suddenly it shoots up almost instantaneously. Then for the next hundreds of thousands of years, he has a question mark, but makes a strong case there will be a drop. Question remains: how much of our decreasing violence resulted from blind luck of fossil fuels? Independent of contribution to past, how much of present lack of violence depends on fossil fuels and disregard of pollution? If we remove fossil fuels or take heed of pollution and future looks less abundant than assumptions contributing to peace, do we lose peace? If we believe renewables and nuclear will replace, what if time scale is off -if can't ramp them up as fast as fossil fuels decrease. Problem isn't lack of coal. What if pollution lowers future more than expectations? Even accepting seamless shift to renewables, positive-sum of future from fossil fuels will disappear. Will our philosophies adjust fast enough? What if some things can't substitute, like container ships, flying, and artificial fertilizers? What if pollution overwhelms? Seems to me his thesis may be correct, but if fundamental cause is not human philosophy and if much of the philosophy that was proximate cause resulted from that fundamental cause, and that fundamental cause will disappear or harm than help, then the final takeaway may be to eloquently showcase what we erroneously take credit for and may lose. Are we sitting on a four-legged stool about to lose one, which might mildly affect our stability? Or a three-legged stool about lose one? Or two or all three? Not a matter of opinion. Can be quantified, not argued as belief. But greater issue is what to do if we're about to lose a leg or two of a three-legged stool.

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