Saturday, November 12, 2022

Ron descends from the mountain

It has been over a year since I wrote a real post here.  The reason for my long absence is that I have been struggling with a number of existential crises.  Three of them, in fact.  The first is over climate change.  The second is over the political situation in the U.S.

The third is not so easy to distill into a slogan.  It has to do with the idea that the kind of outcome I want to see for the world is simply not possible because it actually violates the laws of physics.  It's pretty geeky as existential crises go, and one of these days I'll write about it (click here for spoilers), but for now climate change and politics are more than enough to fuel my despair so I'll focus on those for the time being.

The TL;DR is that a while back I came to the conclusion that the climate change situation was hopeless, that the distance between what would need to be done to avoid catastrophe and what could plausibly be done given the geopolitical situation here on earth was so vast that the odds of averting catastrophe were indistinguishable from zero.  But it was even worse than that.  I first became aware of climate change more than thirty years ago.  Back then it was a long-term concern, something that might start to produce some observable effects in my lifetime, but where the really bad stuff wouldn't happen for 100 years or so.  Twelve years ago I moved from LA to San Francisco thinking that would make a difference in my personal exposure to the worst effects of climate change.  I now think that was wildly overoptimistic.

Let me be clear about what I mean by "the bad stuff".  I'm not talking about the extinction of life from the surface of the planet, or even the extinction of homo sapiens.  That is not going to happen.  We're not talking about "saving the planet".  The planet, and even our species, has been through much bigger changes than what we are facing.

I'm talking about the end of technological civilization, the organization of humans into cooperating groups larger than tribes.  I'm talking about what happened beginning at the end of the last ice age when humans stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and started to engage in large-scale agriculture.  That led to the formation of city-states, then to empires and nation-states, and ultimately to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and cat videos on your smart phone.

I've become a big fan of industrial civilization.  It has allowed me to live a life of relative leisure compared to most of my ancestors.  I have beheld great wonders.  I have even been privileged to participate in the production of a few of them.  I want those who come after me to have the same opportunities.

But the maintenance of our civilization is heavily dependent on a stable climate.  This is because it depends on infrastructure, and infrastructure is generally not mobile.  Factories and data centers are generally housed in buildings and connected by networks of roads that are attached firmly to the surface of the earth.  And the same goes for farms.  And so civilization depends on a certain amount of climate stability.  In particular, it depends on rain falling in somewhat predictable patterns.

Those patterns are changing.  And that change is happening with breathtaking speed.

This has become very evident to me living in California, which is one of the epicenters of climate-change-related drought.  But this phenomenon is not unique to California.  It is global.  The Mississippi river is at historic lows because there is drought not just in California, but across the U.S.

The reason that all of these places are getting drier is that the jet stream, which once brought winter rains, has been moving further and further north.  The reason for that is that the jet stream is caused by the temperature difference between the arctic, which once has a giant ice cap on it year-round keeping it nice and chilly.  But that ice cap has been melting.  That moves the jet stream, and the rains, to the north.

Some time in the next 10-20 years the arctic ice cap will almost certainly melt entirely producing a so-called blue-ocean event.  What happens after that is anybody's guess, but whatever it is it will almost certainly not be good.  The jet stream could stop altogether, along with rain in California.

California currently produces 13 of the agricultural output of the U.S.  Without rain, all of that will stop.  If it were only California that might be survivable, but it won't be.  Droughts do not respect political boundaries.  There is a real possibility of drought-induced global famine some time in the next 10-20 years.  Within 100 years it is all but certain to happen.

This in and of itself, as bad as it is, would not necessarily be calamitous if not for the second problem: humans are very resourceful creatures, but to be our most effective we have to cooperate.  To solve the climate-change problem we are going to have to cooperate on an unprecedented planet-wide scale.  And lately we have not proven to be very adept at this.  We can't even agree that climate change is in fact a problem that needs to be dealt with, let alone what we're actually going to do about it that has a chance of succeeding.  Our geo-political institutions just do not appear to be even remotely up to the task.

In the past year I have been holding my breath to see if the Democrats could address the short-term problem of crazy Republicans trying to overthrow the government of the United States.  As I write this the jury is still out, but I've decided that it doesn't matter.  Despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so at times the right thing to do is to suspend disbelief and proceed as if you believe that there is an answer even if you have no idea what it might be.  You never know when you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that you got it wrong.  And make no mistake: literally nothing would make me happier than to find out that I'm wrong about this.

So I've decided to start blogging again in the hopes of discovering that I'm wrong, that there is in fact hope of saving civilization from itself.  Over the course of the next few weeks I'm gong to write up some detailed analysis of both climate change and U.S. politics in the hopes of starting a discussion that might lead to either uncovering existing ideas that I'm not currently aware of, or generating some new ones.  I have no idea where this is going to lead, or indeed, if it's going to lead anywhere.  Like I said, in my heart of hearts at the moment I think this effort is doomed.  But there is something inside me that won't let me rest peacefully unless I try nonetheless.


coby said...

I hear you brother. That was a really nice write up of exactly my perception as well of our current reality, with two balancing differences. Firstly, I think our prospects are even worse than you describe (but probably know). But secondly, there is more hope for the future than you are expressing.

Where things are worse is in the fact that human civilization depends on very many ecosystem services beyond just rainfall patterns for agriculture. Those ecosystems also depend on stable climates too, but on top of that we have damaged them so badly via other human vices like pollution and over exploitation that any hope they might have had of adapting to a new normal is also indistinguishable from zero. I'm sure you know all of that.

So how do I claim there is more hope? Only by moving the goalposts to a place most people find it hard to care about and that is the very far future. Yes, global organization and infrastructure will very likely crumble and the humanitarian crises will be so mind-numbing that it will be a blessing if no recorded history survives. But I think the knowledge we have accumulated has excellent chances of surviving in some complete form or another. If it survives, it will be retrieved and the human journey of discovery can begin again.

As for nature, even if we produce a global extinction event to rival and even exceed the Permian–Triassic extinction event (IMO a near certainty), life will find a way, and the human species could probably survive that. New species and environments will evolve and thrive. New wonders will emerge. New biology will develop to consume and utilize what is now toxic or biologically inert. Life, writ large, is persistent and patient.

How reassuring one finds that perspective, if accepted, varies greatly. I like to look at and think about the stars, so this is the perspective I have chosen. In the meantime, let's just all help each other and try to be our best. Keeping your head in the clouds can transfer great strength to your feet on the ground.

Luke said...

> We can't even agree that climate change is in fact a problem that needs to be dealt with, let alone what we're actually going to do about it that has a chance of succeeding.

It might behoove us to write up who would be asked to sacrifice and who would especially benefit from various concrete proposals for dealing with climate change.

It might also behoove us to ask whether current intellectual property practices are inimical to tapping the full potential of human ingenuity.

If [enough of] the rich will only get richer via "fighting climate change", those who aren't rich might just say "No!", regardless of how much human misery will result. But to the extent this is a factor, the debate was never about science. And construing it as about science denial would be arbitrarily distorting of a very real factor. We have on record one prominent intellectual's willingness to throw those { who don't get to eat wine and cheese while discussing interesting ideas } under the bus:

> Now that we have run through the history of inequality and seen the forces that push it around, we can evaluate the claim that the growing inequality of the past three decades means that the world is getting worse—that only the rich have prospered, while everyone else is stagnating or suffering. The rich certainly have prospered more than anyone else, perhaps more than they should have, but the claim about everyone else is not accurate, for a number of reasons.
>     Most obviously, it’s false for the world as a whole: the majority of the human race has become much better off. The two-humped camel has become a one-humped dromedary; the elephant has a body the size of, well, an elephant; extreme poverty has plummeted and may disappear; and both international and global inequality coefficients are in decline. Now, it’s true that the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class, and if I were an American politician I would not publicly say that the tradeoff was worth it. But as citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the tradeoff is worth it. (Enlightenment Now, Chapter 9: Inequality)

What if this political calculus just doesn't work?