Category Archives: Year in Review

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

The Best of the Best of 2017

Here’s a little feature I call the Best of the Best of. Basically I’ll link and comment on a few “2017 in review” articles I happen to come across. I’ll let all this rattle around in my brain and do a “best of” my own blog in January.

  • Worst cyberattacks of 2017 (Axios): Cyberattacks are bad, of course. This is an article about the most successfully bad ones, including hospitals, pacemakers, and Equifax. The article suggests, without providing any evidence at least in this short article, that some of these might be government hackers in North Korea, Russia, or China gathering information and probing U.S. vulnerabilities prior to a larger attack in the future.
  • The year in architecture (curbed.com). Not that I particularly care about architectural style, but the architectural press covers some planning and sustainability topics that I find interesting, A few highlights for me include Hurricane Harvey coverage, what Google Citylabs is up to in Toronto, Blade Runner 2049, a new energy-efficient Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City, timber-framed skyscrapers, and a Philadelphia rowhouse because Philadelphia rowhouses are where all the cool kids live and you don’t know what you’re missing until you buy one.
  • And for completeness, the year in landscape architecture (Huffington Post). A highlight for me was the reopening of the big fountain garden at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia. I have fond memories of visiting that garden as a kid and got a chance to see it again with my own children shortly after it reopened this year. The rest of the article is a bunch of park designs and book reviews including some touching on urban ecology.
  • Planetizen urban planning blog’s most popular posts of 2017: a few that caught my eye are a Microsoft smart city development in Arizona, Seattle discontinuing its bikeshare program, “bikelash” from angry drivers, skepticism about self-driving cars, and the never-ending debates about density, gentrification, and New Urbanism. They also have Top 10 lists of planning-related books, websites, and apps. One new website that caught my attention is called “Treepedia”.
  • 2017 MacArthur Fellows: I hadn’t heard of any individuals, but it can be interesting to see the professions and trending specialties. I count 10 artists/writers, 7 social scientists/activists (sorry to lump you guys together), 4 computer/physical scientists/mathematicians, 1 journalist, and 2 landscape architects/planners
  • Stuff that happened in the Middle East in 2017 (Lawfare): Saudi Arabia initiated some social and economic reforms, but also an internal crackdown on political rivals, aggressive diplomatic attacks on some of its neighbors and a vicious, ongoing military attack on Yemen which the U.S. is participating in. The war in Syria is apparently winding down with its government hanging on. ISIS was decisively defeated by the Iraqi and U.S. armies and no longer controls territory politically, but has “gone underground” to plot and inspire terrorist attacks around the world. The U.S. is trying to back out of the Iran nuclear deal. Kurdistan tried to declare independence and the rest of the world basically ignored it. The U.S. has also torpedoed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and gotten itself condemned by the great bulk of the United Nations. But good news: the U.S. still leads a “coalition of the willing” including “Israel, Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo”, at least until several of those blink out of existence from sea level rise (a slight irony there?).
  • The year in hate crimes (ProPublica): Somewhat unsurprisingly, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic incidents were both up in the U.S.
  • Best political long-form articles of 2017 (Longreads.com): This is a seriously deep dive into resurgent white nationalism in Europe and the U.S. If you take the plunge be sure to come back up for air.
  • Best science and technology long-form articles of 2017 (Longreads.com): The most interesting one here is on artificial intelligence augmenting human intelligence.
  • Jealousy List 2017 (Bloomberg): This is a list of articles Bloomberg writers liked in other publications. There is way too much to read here. A few interesting ones are the decline of public research universities, James Burnham’s “managerial elite”, what is going on at Snopes.com, even more white nationalism, the risk of nuclear war, Elizabeth Warren, chemical industry foxes guarding the toxic hen house at the EPA, the complete dysfunction and failure that is the U.S. health care system, the Bin Laden raid, and octopuses.
  • The Most-Read Business Stories of 2017 (Wired): A lot of these have to do with the effect of automation on jobs. Also, Amazon’s “nomadic retiree army”, guaranteed basic income, and China’s social scoring plan.
  • Best of Wired Science (Wired): Wired Science is awesome. I could spend 2018 just reading these articles from 2017. The most popular commercial species of banana is so inbred it is in serious trouble. (But, one thing I learned when I lived, worked, and traveled in Asia for awhile is that there is a whole universe of delicious bananas out there most of us have never tried. Some have seeds, don’t ship well or don’t keep well, and therefore are not commercially ideal, but are actually quite delicious.) Meat allergies might be caused by a tick. Life-extension pills, fake meat, and robot friends might all become real things.
  • 2017’s Biggest Conspiracy Theories (Snopes.com): Maybe these really were big, but I hadn’t heard of most of them. A few things I didn’t know is that this year’s killer hurricanes either were real and created by the government, or else they were fictitious and created by the government. The survivors of the Las Vegas shooting are being hunted down and murdered. Bitcoin is a creation of an evil artificial intelligence. And Obama is running a shadow government. Now, I don’t automatically discount all conspiracy theories. I figure that for every 100 conspiracy theories, one or two are probably true, so it’s good to keep an open mind, review the facts, and then reject about 99% of them.
  • Wired most-read opinion pieces (Wired): A few interesting ones are about “permanent” drought in California, the idea that a state government could just pull the plug on a private corporation like Equifax, playing the odds in sports, and criminal sentencing using algorithms.
  • Top economics commentary from Project Syndicate: Some top economists wrote about everything from why the U.S. economy, stock market, and/or dollar could be headed for a fall, to the collapses of Puerto Rico and Venezuela, to recognizing the need to compensate globalization’s losers.

2016 in Review

Each month this year, I picked three scary, three hopeful, and three interesting posts or groups of post from the month. Now I’m going to pick one of those three to represent each of the months. The choices are fairly arbitrary and the main point is just to review what the media was saying and what I was thinking about over the course of the year. Then I’ll see if I can identify any trends or come up with any insights.

Most Frightening Stories of the Year

  • JANUARYPaul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
  • FEBRUARY77% of jobs in China may be threatened by automation.
  • MARCH: An IMF official uttered the words “economic derailment“. That sounds like it could be a real train wreck. Meanwhile Robert Gordon has expanded his pessimistic article on future growth into a book.
  • APRIL: Robert Paxton says Trump is pretty much a fascist. Although conditions are different and he doesn’t believe everything the fascists believed. Umberto Eco once said that fascists don’t believe anything, they will say anything and then what they do once in office has nothing to do with what they said.
  • MAY: The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
  • JUNE: Trump may very well have organized crime links. And Moody’s says that if he gets elected and manages to do the things he says, it could crash the economy.
  • JULY: The CIA is just not that good at spying.
  • AUGUST: A former U.S. secretary of defense thinks the risk of nuclear war is higher now than during the cold war. The Republic Party platform appears to be outright in favor of nuclear weapons, while the Democratic Party platform includes a tepid commitment to maybe “reducing reliance” and spending on nuclear weapons. Jeffrey Sachs says the Syria War has become essentially a U.S.-Russia proxy war.
  • SEPTEMBER: The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • OCTOBER: According to James Hansen, the world needs “negative” greenhouse gas emissions right away, meaning an end to fossil fuel burning and improvements to agriculture, forestry, and soil conservation practices to absorb carbon. Part of the current problem is unexpected and unexplained increases in methane concentrations in the atmosphere.
  • NOVEMBER: Is there really any doubt what the most frightening story of November 2016 was? The United Nations Environment Program says we are on a track for 3 degrees C over pre-industrial temperatures, not the “less than 2” almost all serious people (a category that excludes 46% of U.S. voters, apparently) agree is needed. This story was released before the U.S. elected an immoral science denier as its leader. One theory is that our culture has lost all ability to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps states could take on more of a leadership role if the federal government is going to be immoral? Washington State voters considered a carbon tax that could have been a model for other states, and voted it down, in part because environmental groups didn’t like that it was revenue neutral. Adding insult to injury, WWF released its 2016 Living Planet Report, which along with more fun climate change info includes fun facts like 58% of all wild animals have disappeared. There is a 70-99% chance of a U.S. Southwest “mega-drought” lasting 35 years or longer this century. But don’t worry, this is only “if emissions of greenhouse gases remain unchecked”. Oh, and climate change is going to begin to strain the food supply worldwide, which is already strained by population, demand growth, and water resources depletion even without it.
  • DECEMBER: The geopolitical situation is not good. If Russia did hack the U.S. election, it wouldn’t be the first election they have hacked. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not over, and the rest of the greater Middle East is increasingly a mess.

Most Hopeful Stories of the Year

Most Interesting Stories of the Year

  • JANUARY: The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”
  • FEBRUARYTitanium dioxide is the reason Oreo filling is so white.
  • MARCH: Michael Pollan urged us to eat food. not too much. mostly psychedelic mushrooms.
  • APRIL: Genes can now be programmed just like circuits.
  • MAY: The world has about a billion dogs.
  • JUNE: Switzerland finished an enormous tunnel through the Alps that took 20 years to build.
  • JULY: I was a little side-tracked by U.S. Presidential politics. Nate Silver launched his general election site, putting the odds about 80-20 in favor of Hillary at the beginning of the month. The odds swung toward Trump over the course of the month as the two major party conventions took place (one in my backyard), but by the end of the month they were back to about 70-30 in favor of Hillary. During the month I mused about NAFTA, the fall of the Republic, the banana republicThe Art of the Deal, how to debate Trump, and Jon Stewart.
  • AUGUST: Here is a short video explaining the Fermi Paradox, which asks why there are no aliens. Meanwhile Russian astronomers are saying there might be aliens.
  • SEPTEMBERMonsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • OCTOBERNeil deGrasse Tyson says “we might expect to find as many as 100 alien civilizations in our galaxy communicating with radio waves right now.”
  • NOVEMBER: New technology can survey and create a 3D model of a room in seconds.
  • DECEMBER: According to Bill Gates, “new genome technologies are at the cusp of affecting us all in profound ways”. But an article in Nature says we should not be too hopeful about living much past 100.

And now for trends and insights…

Serious long-term threats related to population, food, water resources, natural capital depletion, biodiversity loss, and climate change. These are all inter-related. In past years I probably would have suggested that these threats are so likely and so consequential that we should focus nearly all our efforts on them. But things have changed a bit over the past year. Now it appears that we face dire short term threats as well in the form of serious geopolitical instability, risk of war and global economic stagnation. If you don’t deal with short term threats you might not be around to deal with the long term ones. And voters have chosen leaders in the past year who have no intention of dealing with the long term threats. They make no serious attempt to understand their nature or root causes. In fact, they don’t even acknowledge that the threats exist in many cases.

War. The possibility of war is certainly the biggest short-term threat we face. If we get through the next 4-8 years without a war between major powers or any sort of nuclear detonation, we will have to consider that a win. The greater Middle East from North Africa to Afghanistan is dangerously unstable, and the U.S. has already been drawn into a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side and Iran and Russia on the other side. And it appears that Russia may have played a direct role in influencing the U.S. election. An accidental clash between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria, Eastern Europe, or over the world’s oceans could be enough to set off a series of escalations and miscalculations that leads to a war nobody wants or stands to gain anything from. A naval confrontation between the U.S. and China could be a similar risk.

The Great Recession. Although the U.S. economy has picked up, the overall global growth and employment situation is deeply concerning. Rather than just a cyclical downturn, it may be a long term trend driven by demographics, debt, and underemployment caused by automation. The automation trend is going to be relentless. The 2007-8 financial crisis caused by excessive risk taking in the U.S. finance industry may just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back and made the long-term trends obvious, and another financial crisis that severe at a time of weakness might be the one the world doesn’t recover from. Our new U.S. leaders are already working with big business to roll back the necessary but still inadequate protections put in place after the ’07-8 crisis. Costs and risks imposed by climate change are not going to make the economy any better.

Technology. Technology brings us grave concern over the employment situation, but also great hope that we could see a long-term pickup in productivity, and therefore our overall wealth and quality of life. Of course, an increase in overall wealth and quality of life may help only a small slice of society if that society is structured to concentrate rather than share the wealth, and the leaders we have chosen in the U.S. for the next few years are clearly committed to the former. Extreme concentration of wealth could lead us eventually to a situation of such instability that the only outcomes are armed revolution in the streets or else absolute authoritarian control.

But let’s optimistically assume that our political system eventually comes up with a consensus on sharing the wealth. Now a higher rate of productivity growth (within ecological limits) would be good for everyone. In this world, people whose jobs are displaced by automation would be quickly retrained for new jobs, and they would be educated in the first place so that they are very flexible and adaptable to changing conditions. Over time, we could become so rich that we simply don’t have to work so much, and we could devote more of our time to leisure activities, learning for the sake of learning, the arts, civic and social activities, etc.

This might seem like a utopian vision, but it has happened in the past. People used to work incredibly long, hard hours to grow just enough food to survive, and they didn’t live all that long at that. Later people used to work long, hard hours in factories and sweat shops. Technology, cheap energy, and the wealth they have brought have made huge changes in working hours and life expectancy for most of us. With technology seemingly advancing all around us, the puzzle is why we aren’t seeing similarly spectacular advances today as we have seen in the past.

Advances like the tractor and electricity were enormous changes at the time of course. Maybe today’s technological advances, even though they seem impressive to us, simply aren’t as dramatic as these advances were in their time. That is the basic thesis of Robert Gordon, who I mention above. The World Economic Forum and Nouriel Roubini articles I mention above have good summaries of the advances we are seeing. Roubini categorizes them as:

  • ET (energy technologies, including new forms of fossil fuels such as shale gas and oil and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, storage technologies, clean tech, and smart electric grids).
  • BT (biotechnologies, including genetic therapy, stem cell research, and the use of big data to reduce health-care costs radically and allow individuals to live much longer and healthier lives).
  • IT (information technologies, such as Web 2.0/3.0, social media, new apps, the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality devices).
  • MT (manufacturing technologies, such as robotics, automation, 3D printing, and personalized manufacturing).
  • FT (financial technologies that promise to revolutionize everything from payment systems to lending, insurance services and asset allocation).
  • DT (defense technologies, including the development of drones and other advanced weapon systems).

Roubini acknowledges the argument that these advances are not the equivalent of past advances, but also suggests that we may be in the lag phase between when technological advances happen and when they begin to have obvious effects on productivity. I think I said it pretty well in my post so I’ll repeat what I said:

Although the plow, the printing press, the steam engine, electricity, etc. were game changing, the game didn’t change as soon as they were invented. They had to catch on, infrastructure had to be built, resistance to change had to be overcome, and it took awhile. Each successive revolution happened faster though, which is why I am skeptical that this time is different… I think there is a lag, and it just hasn’t hit yet. If and when there is a sharp technology-driven surge in productivity, it doesn’t mean everything is going to instantly be great for everybody. As we produce more with less effort, there will be winners and losers, haves and have nots. And there will be a lag between when that starts and when it gets resolved. And just to beat a dead horse, we can’t just keep producing and consuming more forever unless we figure out a way to do that without growing our ecological footprint. And, we need to watch out for those defense technologies.

The information technology is all around us now, and the biotechnology is just starting to take off. 2017 could be the year when we have the same excitement in the popular imagination about biotech as we saw with the internet in the mid-1990s. Or maybe it will take a few years.

It is possible that our technology could advance so fast that ecological limits will cease to be relevant before they begin to exert a major drag force on our global economy and society. I don’t think it is safe to put all our eggs in that basket though. I am also saddened by the extreme and seemingly accelerating destruction of our planet’s ecosystems as we have known them throughout human history. We can try to preserve some of what is left, but even if we are successful it will be more like a museum or zoo recording what we used to have than a real, large-scale functioning planetary ecosystem.

There, I ended on a pretty pessimistic note. That’s how I feel at the moment. Not all stories have to have a happy ending. (This is exactly why King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play, because the bad guys do bad things and get away with it, and sometimes real life is like that.) I just don’t want to get my hopes up about 2017. Come on 2017, maybe you will pleasantly surprise me.

cold stratification

Mid-February, time for a gardening post. It’s kind of like when you start following your favorite sports team before the season starts, and you are excited because anything is still possible. I am especially excited though because I have a new house, it has a garden, and it is really the first time I have ever had a garden. I’m going to grow some annuals, mostly in pots, but what I really want to focus on is perennials. I’m picking mostly perennials, mostly natives, and mostly plants that are edible in a pinch, although garden for food is not my top objective (my top objective is butterflies and other pollinators, followed by interesting appearance including flowers, followed by food potential). Which brings me to cold stratification. I have started a bunch of seeds in the basement under lights over the last two weeks, but so far nothing has happened. These perennial seeds seem to be tougher than the annuals I have been used to in the past. One reason is some of them apparently need cold stratification.

Where I live the snow is rapidly melting, leaving behind a landscape that seems almost barren and asleep. However, for many native plants and quite a few garden perennials, it is this act of freezing and thawing that awakens them and actually increases their ability to survive and reproduce. Cold stratification is the term used to describe this very basic need; the need for winter.  Winter has the ability to soften the outer seed coat of some of nature’s toughest seeds through the action of freezing and thawing in a moist environment. For many plants that require stratification, this process can take up to 2 months and typically occurs between 34 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit. During that time, the seed coat softens and embryonic growth is stimulated. Eventually, the embryo bursts through the softened coat and begins the process of germination.

For those of us who enjoy starting our own flowers, there are some classic perennials that require a period of cold stratification to increase germination. One example is Echinacea, a personal favorite of mine. Echinacea is a plant gifted with many benefits. Most home herbalists are aware of its medicinal properties and gardeners love it for its beauty, low maintenance requirements and as a mid to late season nectar source for beneficial insects. For these reasons, Echinacea has a place in nearly every garden and farm.  But purchasing mature Echinacea plants from a nursery can be expensive and often some of the most interesting varieties (Rare or endangered native prairie Echinacea varieties have only been available in seed form recently.) are not available commercially. For these reasons, I started growing my own Echinacea from seed a number of years ago. In the beginning, I had mixed success. Without a period of cold stratification, the germination rate for this garden beauty can plummet to less than 30 percent. However, with stratification, it is possible to germinate nearly 100 percent of all Echinacea seeds that are started.

So I’m going to try throwing some seeds in pots in the backyard, even though it is freezing. But 30% doesn’t sound that bad to me. With a packet of 100+ seeds costing $2-4, I can afford to plant 3 seeds for every one that comes up. Still, I’m waiting a bit nervously for that first one…

2015 Year in Review

I’m going to try picking the most frightening, most hopeful, and most interesting post from each month. If the most interesting is also the most frightening or most hopeful, I’ll pick the next most interesting. Then I’ll have 12 nominees in each category and I’ll try to pick the most frightening, hopeful, and interesting posts of the year.

JANUARY

Most frightening: Johan Rockstrom and company have updated their 2009 planetary boundaries work. The news is not getting any better. 4 of the 9 boundaries are not in the “safe operating space”: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Most hopeful: It is starting to seem politically possible for the U.S. to strengthen regulation of risk-taking by huge financial firms.

Most interesting: Taxi medallions have been called the “best investment in America”, but now ride-sharing services may destroy them.

FEBRUARY

Most frightening: There are some depressing new books out there about all the bad things that could happen to the world, from nuclear terrorism to pandemics. Also a “financial black hole”, a “major breakdown of the Internet”, “the underpopulation bomb”, the “death of death”, and more!

Most hopeful: A new study suggests a sudden, catastrophic climate tipping point may not be too likely.

Most interesting: Government fragmentation explains at least part of suburban sprawl and urban decline in U.S. states, with Pennsylvania among the worst.

MARCH

Most frightening: The drought in California and the U.S. Southwest is the worst ever, including one that wiped out an earlier civilization in the same spot. At least it is being taken seriously and some policies are being put in place. Meanwhile Sao Paulo, Brazil is emerging as a cautionary tale of what happens when the political and professional leadership in a major urban area fail to take drought seriously. Some people are predicting that water shortages could spark serious social unrest in developing countries.

Most hopeful: If we want to design ecosystems or just do some wildlife-friendly gardening, there is plenty of information on plants, butterflies, and pollinators out there. There is also an emerging literature on spatial habitat fragmentation and how it can be purposely designed and controlled for maximum benefit.

Most interesting (I just couldn’t choose between these):

  • Innovation in synthetic drugs is quickly outpacing the ability of regulatory agencies to adapt. (I struggled whether to put this in the negative or positive column. Drugs certainly cause suffering and social problems. But that is true of legal tobacco and alcohol, and prescription drugs, as well as illegal drugs. The policy frameworks countries have used to deal with illegal drugs in the past half century or so, most conspicuously the U.S. “war” on drugs, have led to more harm than good, and it is a good thing that governments are starting to acknowledge this and consider new policies for the changing times.)
  • Germ-line engineering is much further along than anyone imagined.” This means basically editing the DNA of egg and sperm cells at will. I put this in the positive column because it can mean huge health advances. Obviously there are risks and ethical concerns too.

APRIL

Most frightening: A group of well-known economists is concerned that the entire world has entered a period of persistently low economic growth, or “secular stagnation“.

Most hopeful: Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, is retiring. That might sound bad, but his ground-breaking ideas are continuing on and actually seem to be going mainstream.

Most interesting:

  • Biotechnology may soon bring us the tools to seriously monkey with photosynthesis. (This is one of those stories where I struggle between the positive and negative columns, but clearly there is a potential upside when we will have so many mouths to feed.)
  • Peter Thiel thinks we can live forever. (positive, but do see my earlier comment about mouths to feed…)

MAY

Most frightening: We’ve hit 400 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not just some places sometimes but pretty much everywhere, all the time.

Most hopeful: The rhetoric on renewable energy is really changing as it starts to seriously challenge fossil fuels on economic grounds. Following the Fukushima disaster, when all Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down, the gap was made up largely with liquid natural gas and with almost no disruption of consumer service. But renewables also grew explosively. Some are suggesting Saudi Arabia is supporting lower oil prices in part to stay competitive with renewables. Wind and solar capacity are growing quickly in many parts of the world.Lester Brown says the tide has turned and renewables are now unstoppable.

Most interesting: Human chemical use to combat diseases, bugs, and weeds is causing the diseases, bugs and weeds to evolve fast.

JUNE

Most frightening: One estimate says that climate change may reduce global economic growth by 3% in 2050 and 7-8% by 2100. Climate change may also double the frequency of El Nino. The DICE model is available to look at climate-economy linkages. Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers describe what a coming long, slow decline might look like. Rising temperatures in the Arctic are drying things out, leading to more fires, which burns more carbon, which raises temperatures, in an accelerating feedback loop.

Most hopeful: Stock values of U.S. coal companies have collapsed.

Most interesting: According to Paul Romer, academic economics has lost its way and is bogged down in “mathiness”.

JULY

Most frightening: James Hansen is warning of much faster and greater sea level rise than current mainstream expectations.

Most hopeful: Edible Forest Gardens is a great two book set that lays out an agenda for productive and low-input ecological garden design in eastern North America. You can turn your lawn into a food forest today.

Most interesting:

AUGUST

Most frightening: Steven Hawking is worried about an artificial intelligence arms race starting “within years, not decades”.

Most hopeful: It may be possible to capture atmospheric carbon and turn it into high-strength, valuable carbon fiber. This sounds like a potential game-changer to me, because if carbon fiber were cheap it could be substituted for a lot of heavy, toxic and energy-intensive materials we use now, and open up possibilities for entirely new types of structures and vehicles.

Most interesting:

  • gene drive” technology helps make sure that genetically engineered traits are passed along to offspring.
  • Technology marches on – quantum computing is in early emergence, the “internet of things” is arriving at the “peak of inflated expectations”, big data is crashing into the “trough of disillusionment”, virtual reality is beginning its assent to the “plateau of productivity”, and speech recognition is arriving on the plateau. And super-intelligent rodents may be on the way.
  • Robotics may be on the verge of a Cambrian explosion, which will almost certainly be bad for some types of jobs, but will also bring us things like cars that avoid pedestrians and computer chips powered by sweat. I for one am excited to be alive at this moment in history.

SEPTEMBER

Most frightening: Climate may be playing a role in the current refugee crisis, and the future may hold much more of this.

Most hopeful: The right mix of variety and repetition might be the key to learning.

Most interesting: Edward Tufte does not like Infographics.

OCTOBER

Most frightening: Corrupt Russian officials appear to be selling nuclear materials in Moldova.

Most hopeful: Elephants seem to have very low rates of cancer. Maybe we could learn their secrets.

Most interesting: Stephen Hawking is worried about inequality and technological unemployment.

NOVEMBER

Most frightening: I noticed that Robert Costanza in 2014 issued an update to his seminal 1997 paper on ecosystem services. He now estimates their value at $125 trillion per year, compared to a world economy of $77 trillion per year. Each year we are using up about $4-20 trillion in value more than the Earth is able to replenish. The correct conclusion here is that we can’t live without ecosystem services any time soon with our current level of knowledge and wealth, and yet we are depleting the natural capital that produces them. We were all lucky enough to inherit an enormous trust fund of natural capital at birth, and we are spending it down like the spoiled trust fund babies we are. We are living it up, and we measure our wealth based on that lifestyle, but we don’t have a bank statement so we don’t actually know when that nest egg is going to run out.

Most hopeful: There are plenty of ways to store intermittent solar and wind power so they can provide a constant, reliable electricity source.

Most interesting: Asimov’s yeast vats are finally here. This is good because it allows us to produce food without photosynthesis, but bad because it allows us to produce food without photosynthesis.

DECEMBER

Most frightening: Cyberattacks or superflares could destroy the U.S. electric grid.

Most hopeful: We had the Paris agreement. It is possible to be cynical about this agreement but it is the best agreement we have had so far.

Most interesting: I mused about whether it is really possible the U.S. could go down a fascist path. I reviewed Robert Paxton’s five stages of fascism. I am a little worried, but some knowledgeable people say not to worry. After reading Alice Goffman’s book On the Runthough, one could conclude that a certain segment of our population is living in a fascist police state right now. There is some fairly strong evidence that financial crises have tended to favor the rise of the right wing in Europe.

DISCUSSION

Well, one thing that certainly jumps out on the technology front is biotechnology. We have a couple articles about the possibility of drastic increases in the human lifespan, and what that would mean. “Germ-line engineering”, “gene drive”, and “CRISPR” are all ways of monkeying with DNA directly, even in ways that get passed along to offspring. To produce more food, we may be able to monkey with the fundamentals of photosynthesis, and if that doesn’t work we can use genetically engineered yeast to bypass photosythesis entirely.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I am reproducing the “Gartner hype cycle” below, which was mentioned in one of the posts from August.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

Government and corporate labs have been making huge advances in biotechnology in the last decade or so, so it is well beyond the “innovation trigger”. It has not yet reached the “peak of inflated expectations” where it would explode onto the commercial and media scene with a lot of fanfare. I expect that will happen. We will probably see a biotech boom, a biotech bubble, and a biotech bust similar to what we saw with the computers and the internet. And then it will quietly pervade every aspect of our daily lives similar to computers and the internet, and our children will shrug and assume it has always been that way.

Obviously there are dangers. A generation of people that refuse to die on time would be one. Bioterrorism is obviously one. Then there is the more subtle matter that as we raise the limit on the size our population and consumption level can attain, the footprint of our civilization will just grow to meet the new limit. When and how we come up against these limits, and what to do about it, is the subject of the updates to two seminal papers on these issues, by Rockstrom and Costanza. We have entered an “unsafe operating space” (Rockstrom), where we are depleting much more natural capital each year than the planet can replenish (Costanza), and there will be consequences. The Paris agreement is one hopeful sign that our civilization might be able to deal with these problems, but even if we deal with the carbon emission problem, it might be too late to prevent the worst consequences, and there are going to be “layers of limits” as the authors of Limits to Growth put it all those decades ago. If we take care of the global warming problem and figure out a way to grow food for 50 billion people, eventually we will grow to 50 billion people and have to think of something else.

So without further ado:

Most frightening: I can’t pick just one. In the relatively near term, it’s the stalling out of the world economy; the convergence of climate change, drought, and the challenge of feeding so many people; and the ongoing risks from nuclear and biological weapons.

Most hopeful: I see some hope on energy and land use issues. The Paris agreement, combined with renewable energy and energy storage breakthroughs, the potential for much more efficient use of space in cities rather than letting cars take up most of the space, are all hopeful. The possibility of making carbon fiber out of carbon emissions is a particularly intriguing one. At my personal scale, I am excited to do some sustainable gardening of native species that can feed both people and wildlife. I don’t expect my tiny garden to make a major difference in the world, but if we all had sustainable gardens, they were all connected, and we weren’t wasting so much space on roads and parking, it could start adding up to a much more sustainable land use pattern.

Most interesting: I’ve already mentioned a lot of stuff, so I will just pick something I haven’t already mentioned in the discussion above: the rise of synthetic drugs. It’s just an interesting article and makes you think about what it will mean to have advanced chemical, information, and biological technologies in the hands of the little guy, actually many, many little guys. It is a brave, new, dangerous, exciting world indeed. Happy new year!

2014 Report Card

It’s taken me a while to get out a “year in review” post for 2014, but anyway, here it is. This won’t be a masterpiece of the essay form. I’m just going to ramble on about some interesting trends and themes from the year, along with a few relevant links.

The critical question this blog tries to answer is, is our civilization failing or not? I’ll talk about our human economy, our planetary system, and make some attempt to tie the two together.

Overall Human Health and Wellbeing. First, there are some very happy statistics to report. For example, worldwide child mortality has dropped almost by half just since 1990. What better measure of progress could there be than more happy, healthy childhoods? And it’s not just about increasing wealth – people in developing countries today have much better health outcomes at the same level of wealth compared to developing countries of the past (for example, Indonesia today vs. the United States when it passed the same income level). It’s hard to argue against the idea that economic growth and technological change have obviously eliminated a lot of human suffering. So, I think the important questions are, will these trends continue? Is the system stable? Can the natural environment continue to support this trend indefinitely? There may also be an important question of whether we had the right to exploit the natural environment to get us to the point where we are now, but that is an academic question at this point.

Financial System Instability. Let’s talk about the stability of our human economic system. The U.S. economy may finally seem to be picking up from the aftermath of the severe 2007-8 financial crisis, but it is certainly far below where it would be if that hadn’t happened and the prior growth trend had just continued since then. The rest of the world isn’t doing so well, however – Europe and Japan are looking particularly slow if not in an outright deflationary spiral, at the same time developing countries appear to be slowing down. Some are calling this a “new normal” for the world economy. More scary than that, the industry-written regulations and perverse incentives allowing the excessive risk taking that caused the crisis have not been fully addressed and the whole episode could recur in the short term.

Thoughts on Ecosystem and Economic “Pulsing”. 2007-8 was a textbook financial crisis – although it was caused by novel forms of money and risk taking beyond the direct reach of government regulators and central banks, it was not that different from crises caused by plain old speculation and over-lending back when there were no central banks around. It’s hard to draw a direct link from the financial crisis to ecosystem services, climate change, or natural resource scarcity. However, if we think about natural ecosystems, they are resilient to outside stressors up to a point – say, moderate fluctuations in temperature, hydrology, or pressure from non-native species. However, say a major fluctuation happens such as a major flood or fire that causes serious damage. In the absence of major outside stressors, the system will eventually recover to its original state, but in the presence of major outside stressors, even if they did not cause the flood or fire, it may never bounce back all the way. In the same way, our human economy may appear resilient to the effects of climate change, ocean acidification, soil erosion, and so forth for a long time, but then when something comes out of left field, like a major financial crisis, war, or epidemic, we may not be able to recover to our previous trend. This probably also applies to the effects of technology on employment, as discussed below. In the absence of major shocks coming from outside the system, we’ll see a long, slow slide in employment and possibly a long, slow rise in energy and food prices, with so much noise in the signal that it will be easy for the naysayers to hold sway for long periods of time. But when those major events happen, we may see sudden, painful changes that we have no obvious way of mitigating quickly.

Technological Change: Artificial Intelligence, Robots, Automation, and Employment. After decades of slow but steady progress, these technologies are really coming into their own. Robots are being used to keep miners in line and to drive cars, for example. Manufacturing has become a high-tech industry. As computers and machines get better at performing more and more skilled jobs (book-keeping is one example), there is gradually less demand for the medium-skilled workers who used to do those jobs. High-skilled workers like computer programmers are doing very well, although I presume the automation will gradually creep higher and higher up the chain, so today’s safer jobs will be less safe tomorrow. At the same time these medium-skilled workers in developed countries are getting squeezed out, developing countries are not benefiting like they used to from their large pools of low-skilled workers as manufacturing becomes more and more automated, and can be done cost-effectively closer to consumers in richer countries.

Will our society recognize and solve this employment problem? American corporate society, and its admirers around the world, are unlikely to. Something very similar to this happened with agricultural automation in the early- to mid-20th century, and with globalization in the mid- to late-20th century. As agriculture became more automated, many displaced workers moved from rural areas in the U.S. southeast to urban areas in the U.S. northeast, looking for factory work. Unfortunately, the factory jobs that existed previously were being moved to developing countries with abundant low-wage labor. The pockets of poverty, unemployment, and social problems created by these forces have not been adequately addressed to this day. To the individual worker, it doesn’t much matter whether your job is being taken by a local robot or an overseas human. Unemployment created by technological forces today could resemble what was created by globalization yesterday, only on a much larger scale. We can only hope that the larger scale will drive real political solutions, such as better education and training, sharing of available work, and more widespread ownership of the labor-saving technology.

Of course, one of the earliest and probably the most shameful example of a modern capitalist system generating wealth for an elite few at the expense of workers is the American slavery system of the 18th and 19th centuries. We just can’t trust amoral, self-interested private enterprise to maximize welfare in the absence of a strong moral compass coming from the larger society. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Another example of extreme corporate immorality: Public apathy over climate change in the U.S. may have been manufactured by a cynical, immoral corporate disinformation campaign over climate change taken right out of the tobacco companies’ playbook.

The Gospel of Shareholder Value. There is an important debate over whether people who run corporations have any ethical responsibility to anything other than profit seeking. Well duh, everyone on Earth has an ethical responsibility. Case closed, as far as I’m concerned. There is even evidence that the ideology of profit maximization is a drag on innovation. Except billions of people out there who have worshiped at business schools would disagree with me. And I don’t want to offend anyone’s religion. Noam Chomsky had a quote that I particularly loved, so I am going to repeat it here:

In market systems, you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system, we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me; you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well, there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road; there’s a greater possibility of accidents; there’s more pollution; there’s more traffic jams. For him individually, it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that — there are several, but one is — say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they — if they’re paying attention — cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course state power intervened to rescue them. The task of the state is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have state power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger — that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions, you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival — that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren — and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.

Our Ecological Footprint. WWF issued an updated Living Planet Report in 2014 suggesting that our annual consumption of natural resources (including the obvious ones like energy and water extraction, straightforward ones like the ability to grow food, but also the less obvious ones like ability of the oceans and atmosphere to absorb our waste products) is continuing to exceed what the Earth can handle each year by at least 50%. We’re like spoiled trust fund babies – we have such incredible resources at our disposable, we never learn to live within our means and one day the resources run out, even if that takes a long time. As we recover from the financial crisis, we have a chance to do things differently, but the connections are not being made to the right kinds of investments in infrastructure, skills, and protection of natural capital that would set the stage for long-term sustainable growth in the future.

Other Big Stories from 2014:

  • World War I. 100 years ago, World War I was in full swing. Remember The Guns of August? Well, that was August 1914 they were talking about. Let’s hope we’re not about to blunder into another conflict. But (and I’m cheating a little here because I read this in 2015), the World Economic Forum named “interstate conflict” as both high probability and high consequence in its global risk report.
  • Ebola. Obviously, Ebola was a very bad thing that happened to a whole lot of people. To those of us lucky enough that we weren’t directly in its path, it is a chance to selfishly reflect whether Ebola or something even worse could be coming down the pike. Let’s hope not.
  • Severe Drought and Water Depletion in the Western U.S.: California has been in the midst of a historic drought, although they got some rain recently. Some are describing this as the new normal. Besides rainfall, glaciers, snowpack, and groundwater all seem to be disappearing in some important food-growing areas.
  • Solar grid parity is here! At least some places, some times…

Conclusion. Yes, I think we are on a path to collapse if nothing changes. And I don’t see things changing enough, or fast enough. There are glimmers of hope though. Lest you think I offer only negatives and no solutions, here are two solutions I harp on constantly throughout the blog:

  • Green infrastructure. This is how we fix the hydrologic cycle, close the loop on nutrients, begin to cleanse the atmosphere, protect wild creatures and genetic diversity, and create a society of people with some sense of connection to and stewardship over nature. Don’t act like it’s such a big mystery. It’s known technology. There has been plenty written about trees, design of wildlife corridors and connectivity, for examples. There is simply no excuse for cities to do such a crappy job with these things.
  • Muscle-Powered Transportation. Cars are clearly the root of all evil, the spawn of Mordor, as I pointed out several times (sorry, I just sat through 6+ hours of Hobbit movies). Unless you are perhaps that rare hobbit who can own a car without your morals being completed corrupted by its evil powers. But for the rest of us, I explained several times why getting rid of cars would be good. Here is just one example:

One of the most important things we can do to build a sustainable, resilient society is to design communities where most people can make most of their daily trips under their own power – on foot or by bicycle. It eliminates a huge amount of carbon emissions. It opens up enormous quantities of land to new possibilities other than roads and parking, which right now take up half or more of the land in urban areas. It reduces air pollution and increases physical activity, two things that are taking years off our lives. It eliminates crashes between vehicles, and crashes between vehicles and human bodies, which are serial killers of one million people worldwide every year, especially serial killers of children. It eliminates enormous amounts of dead, wasted time, because commuting is now a physically and mentally beneficial use of time. There is also a subtle effect, I believe, of creating more social interaction and trust and empathy between people just because they come into more contact, and creating a more vibrant, creative and innovative economy that might have a shot at solving our civilization’s more pressing problems.