Tag Archives: ecosystem services

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • 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.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

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

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • 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.


Large Igneous Provinces and mass extinction

Ars Technica has an article on Large Igneous Provinces, which are volcanic eruptions so large (occurring every 15 million years or so on average) they are thought to be the main culprit behind most mass extinctions. Lava and toxic gas can be bad but are not enough to explain mass extinction. They can actually cause large-scale global cooling on a short time scale (a decade or so) due to particulate emissions, but that effect also is not enough to explain mass extinction. The way they are thought to cause global mass extinction this is by burning underground fossil fuels on an enormous scale, causing catastrophic climate change that species cannot adapt to (including global warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, which kick in after the shorter-term cooling effect has run its course, and last a lot longer).

I was also wondering about volcanic activity versus comet and asteroid strikes. The article addresses that too:

Debate over what caused these factory resets of life has raged ever since Cuvier’s time. He considered them to be caused by environmental catastrophes that rearranged the oceans and continents. Since then, a host of explanations have been proposed, including diseasesgalactic gamma raysdark matter, and even methane from microbes. But since the 1970s, most scientists have considered the likely root cause to be either asteroid impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, or a combination of both.

Those asteroid (or comet) impacts have captured the public imagination ever since 1980, when Luis and Walter Alvarez found global traces of iridium, which they inferred to be extraterrestrial, at the geological boundary that marked the disappearance of the dinosaurs. The identification of the Chicxulub impact crater in Mexico soon after sealed the deal. Impacts have been proposed to explain other mass extinctions, but there’s very little actual evidence to support those links. In the words of researchers David Bond and Stephen Grasby, who reviewed the evidence in 2016: “Despite much searching, there remains only one confirmed example of a bolide impact coinciding with an extinction event…”

Volcanism, on the other hand, has coincided with most, if not all, mass extinctions—it looks suspiciously like a serial killer, if you like.

According to the article, the rate of fossil fuel burning is similar to what humans are doing now. So it follows that natural ecosystems could collapse this time too. That would be a catastrophe in itself, but how resilient can our species and food production systems be compared to all the others that have come and gone before us?

Sounding the alarm on biodiversity

What’s the elevator pitch to convince a skeptic that biodiversity is important? To people who value nature for its own sake and believe it is immoral to destroy it, maybe it seems as though the pitch should not be needed. But it’s needed, considering the difficulties communicating the practical/economic case against global warming when that case should be fairly obvious (reliability of the food supply; cost of food, energy, and water; cost to protect, relocate or abandon coastal cities; impacts of extreme weather, drought and fire inland).

Of course, the practical/economic case to fight biodiversity loss has to do with how much our civilization relies on free ecosystem services, and has neither the level of technology nor wealth to replace them in the near term. I believe many people will respond to the ethical case too, and more would if we emphasized ethics more in children’s education. But this paragraph is already too long for an elevator pitch now, isn’t it.

Here are a couple articles that talk about bolstering both the science and the communications.





October 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Donald Trump’s proposed tax policies are based on numbers he just makes up. This is not a matter of differences of political opinion, it is a matter of made-up numbers that can be compared to actual measured numbers taken from reality. Large swaths of the public seem unaware or unconcerned about this difference. large enough swaths of the public are concerned enough, however, that we are accepting of a situation where the (very recently retired members of the) military appears to be taking a very active role in executive branch decision making.
  • U.S. diplomats in Cuba are being subjected to some kind of directional noise weapon, and nobody knows who is doing it or why.
  • 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.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The U.S. Democratic party could consider embracing an anti-monopoly platform. Spun the right way, this would be a pro-business policy in the sense of creating a level playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete and innovate, rather than a system that is unfairly skewed in favor of big business at the expense of small business, workers, and consumers.
  • Evaporation theoretically could be harnessed to produce enormous amounts of energy for human use.
  • Supersonic (civilian) travel is almost back.

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

  • A lot of the recyclables picked up at curbside in the U.S. are shipped to China for use as raw materials for manufactured goods that will be exported back to the U.S.
  • 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.
  • I mused about what it would take for a metropolitan area in the U.S. to achieve statehood. It seems like a tough uphill climb but I can imagine it having benefits not just for the metro area but for the economy and country as a whole.

I’ve been reading a little about Socrates lately. There was a debate in ancient Athens, during its radical experiments with direct democracy and free speech, that a smooth-talking rhetorical style could tend to carry the day over solidly argued logic and facts. So these concerns are not new, and there probably was no golden age when groups of Americans or other human beings were a lot better at logic-based decision making than we are now. Still, what is frustrating is that any individual human being clearly is capable of logic-based decision making, and yet we are repeatedly swayed and misled by faulty logic in groups.

The insect thing is really wild. I just spent three weeks in tropical Asia and was struck by how un-buggy it was compared to past trips. Which probably has absolutely nothing to do with the peer-reviewed journal article mentioned above. My garden in Philadelphia actually was quite buggy this summer, somewhat ironically with the striped mosquito varieties that have drained significant quantities of my blood on past trips to tropical Asia.

Aichi biodiversity targets, Sustainable Development Goals and the Protected Planet report

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets were adopted by the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010, and at least some aspects of them (slightly confusing to me) were incorporated in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015. In short, my understanding from a quick skim is that the target is to protect 17% of land area. The current status is reported in a Protected Planet report that the UN produces every two years. (Disclaimer: I could easily have some details wrong here.)

In terms of the representation element of Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, less than half of the world’s 823 terrestrial ecoregions have at least 17% of their area in PAs and only one third of the 232 marine ecoregions have at least 10% of their area protected. Less than 20% of Key Biodiversity Areas are completely protected, and therefore further efforts are needed to expand PA systems to ensure that the global PA estate adequately covers areas important for biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services to people.


Here’s a new article from Ecological Economics on the idea of decoupling human progress from energy use. In other words, the idea that we can continue to improve the quality of our lives and society without continuing to produce and consume ever more energy, materials, and stuff. To do this requires distinguishing needs from wants, which goes against the grain of mainstream economics.

A Framework for Decoupling Human Need Satisfaction From Energy Use

Climate change poses great challenges to modern societies, central amongst which is to decouple human need satisfaction from energy use. Energy systems are the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the services provided by energy (such as heating, power, transport and lighting) are vital to support human development. To address this challenge, we advocate for a eudaimonic need-centred understanding of human well-being, as opposed to hedonic subjective views of well-being. We also argue for a shift in the way we analyse energy demand, from energy throughput to energy services. By adopting these perspectives on either end of the wellbeing-energy spectrum, a “double decoupling” potential can be uncovered. We present a novel analytic framework and showcase several methodological approaches for analysing the relationship between, and decoupling of, energy services and human needs. We conclude by proposing future directions of research in this area based on the analytic framework.

the Anthropocene

When exactly did the Anthropocene begin? Trying to measure that is important to certain people. The answer according to certain of those certain people is 1950…

According to their calculations, human activity eclipsed the sun, Earth, and errant falling stars as the dominant process shaping life on this planet around 1950. “This coincides with things like the first nuclear bombs, which put traceable radiation in the atmosphere, which is visible in the sedimentary record,” says Gaffney. They aren’t the first to fix on the post-war period. The 1950s mark what many researchers call the Great Acceleration, when the booming middle class caused spikes in global GDP, agricultural land use, paper production, dam building, personal vehicle ownership, international tourism, and other markers of consumption. Steffen and Gaffney’s equation just adds more oomph to the argument that the Anthropocene began in the same era as color TVs.

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.

November 2016 in Review

Sometimes you look back on a month and feel like nothing very important happened. But November 2016 was obviously not one of those months! I am not going to make any attempt to be apolitical here. I was once a registered independent and still do not consider myself a strong partisan. However, I like to think of myself as being on the side of facts, logic, problem solving, morality and basic goodness. Besides, this blog is about the future of our human civilization and human race. I can’t pretend our chances didn’t just take a turn for the worse.

3 most frightening stories

  • 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.
  • Technological unemployment may be starting to take hold, and might be an underlying reason behind some of the resentment directed at mainstream politicians. If you want a really clear and concise explanation of this issue, you could ask a smart person like, say, Barack Obama.
  • According to left wing sources like Forbes, an explosion of debt-financed spending on conventional and nuclear weapons is an expected consequence of the election. Please, Mr. Trump, prove them wrong!

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories