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
- JANUARY: Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
- FEBRUARY: 77% 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
- JANUARY: The new Michael Moore visits other countries and collects their best ideas on policies that work well and we just don’t know about.
- FEBRUARY: There are some practical ideas for how to develop potentially dangerous technologies more safely.
- MARCH: There are some serious proposals to produce carbon nanotubes from sequestered carbon dioxide.
- APRIL: Better management of agricultural soil might be able to play a big role in carbon sequestration.
- MAY: Maybe the clean energy miracle is here!
- JUNE: There is still some hope for a technology-driven pick-up in productivity growth.
- JULY: Uber Pool could be a game changing technology that ushers in a new kind of flexible transportation system.
- AUGUST: There is new financial technology out there that may disrupt the traditional financial industry. Meanwhile, ride sharing has torpedoed the traditional taxi industry, with the value of Philadelphia taxi medallions dropping from a peak of $545,000 in July 2014 to $50,000 in March 2015.
- SEPTEMBER: There is still hope for fusion power.
- OCTOBER: New technology can read your heartbeat by bouncing a wireless signal off you. Mark Zuckerberg has decided to end disease.
- NOVEMBER: There is some research progress on new ways to combat antibiotic resistance.
- DECEMBER: There’s no clear evidence that genetically modified crops are bad for you.
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.”
- FEBRUARY: Titanium 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 republic, The 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.
- SEPTEMBER: Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
- OCTOBER: Neil 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.