Tag Archives: natural capital

climate change starting to bite in Alaska

Bloomberg has an article about the effects of climate change in Alaska, and failure to deal with them. Surprisingly, it sounds like the state was making some limited strides under Sarah Palin but has completely dropped the ball since.

Across Alaska, in towns built on permafrost, rising temperatures are causing the ground to sink, damaging buildings and roads. In towns built on the coast, less sea ice means greater exposure to storms and floods. Drier conditions have led to more forest fires. Extreme weather killed or injured as many Alaskans in 2015 as in the previous 10 years combined. “Environmental change is not a theoretical in Alaska,” says Rick Thoman, the state’s climate sciences and services manager for the National Weather Service. “It’s happening, and it’s accelerating.”

Alaska was once at the vanguard of states trying to deal with global warming. In 2007, then-Governor Sarah Palin established a climate change subcabinet to study the effects of warmer weather and find policies to cope with them. Over three years, the legislature provided about $26 million in funding. But Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, disbanded the group in 2011. That year, Alaska withdrew from a federal program that provides funds for coastal management because of concern the program might restrict offshore oil extraction. Since then, lower oil prices, combined with dwindling production, have left the state with a budget crisis that’s among the worst in the U.S. Just when climate change is having real impact, Alaska has less and less capacity to deal with it…

Alaska is an extreme example of a national failure to prepare for climate change. Across the U.S., state funding for environmental projects, such as beach erosion control or upgraded sewage systems, peaked in 2007, even as capital expenditures have since risen 25 percent. States along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have resisted adopting the latest model building codes designed to protect residents against storms and other extreme weather.

Along with its failure to deal with climate change, it sounds like Alaska has squandered its oil wealth. It could have converted its natural capital in financial capital that future generations could use to deal with the consequences of extracting those natural resources – pretty much a textbook definition of sustainability. It’s not the only failure at the state level – my home state of Pennsylvania could have used royalties from the shale boom to reduce its enormous state and municipal pension mess, but it didn’t and it’s mostly too late now.

 

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

September 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
  • 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.
  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
  • There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.

30% of African elephants gone in 7 years

A project called The Great Elephant Census has this shocking statistic.

Continent-wide survey reveals massive decline in African savannah elephants

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are imperiled by poaching and habitat loss. Despite global attention to the plight of elephants, their population sizes and trends are uncertain or unknown over much of Africa. To conserve this iconic species, conservationists need timely, accurate data on elephant populations. Here, we report the results of the Great Elephant Census (GEC), the first continent-wide, standardized survey of African savannah elephants. We also provide the first quantitative model of elephant population trends across Africa. We estimated a population of 352,271 savannah elephants on study sites in 18 countries, representing approximately 93% of all savannah elephants in those countries. Elephant populations in survey areas with historical data decreased by an estimated 144,000 from 2007 to 2014, and populations are currently shrinking by 8% per year continent-wide, primarily due to poaching. Though 84% of elephants occurred in protected areas, many protected areas had carcass ratios that indicated high levels of elephant mortality. Results of the GEC show the necessity of action to end the African elephants’ downward trajectory by preventing poaching and protecting habitat.

It’s heartbreaking for at least two reasons. The obvious one is the elephants themselves because they are such a charismatic, iconic species. The African savannah ecosystem more broadly is iconic and its loss is also deeply disturbing. This is an example of a problem that probably almost everyone can understand and agree on, and yet our species is not solving it. It’s hard to have hope that we can solve the more complex and controversial problems if we can’t solve this one. It’s going to be a sad day when we realize the wild elephants are gone, possibly a sort of psychological tipping point for our civilization’s relationship with nature.

the G20 and “green finance”

According to this article, the G20 is making a commitment to “green finance”.

The conventional economic-development model viewed environmental protection as a “luxury good” that societies could afford only after they became rich. Such thinking explains why the dramatic growth in global income, 80-fold in real terms during the last century, has been accompanied by a decline, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, in natural capital in 127 of 140 countries…

But China is already taking concrete steps in the right direction. On August 30, President Xi Jinping presided over a decision by the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms to transform China’s financial system to facilitate green investment. The so-called “guidelines for establishing a green finance system” adopted at the meeting represent the world’s first attempt at an integrated policy package to promote an ambitious shift toward a green economy.

According to the guidelines, China will have to develop a wide range of new financial instruments, including green credit, green development funds, green bonds, green equity index products, green insurance, and carbon finance. It must also introduce a host of specific policies, regulations, and incentives, including innovative use of the central bank’s relending operations, interest subsidies, and guarantees. And it must establish a national-level Green Development Fund, much like the United Kingdom’s Green Investment Bank.

global human footprint mapping

This article in Nature Communications is about detailed global mapping of human impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems.

Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation

Human pressures on the environment are changing spatially and temporally, with profound implications for the planet’s biodiversity and human economies. Here we use recently available data on infrastructure, land cover and human access into natural areas to construct a globally standardized measure of the cumulative human footprint on the terrestrial environment at 1 km2 resolution from 1993 to 2009. We note that 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. Encouragingly, we discover decreases in environmental pressures in the wealthiest countries and those with strong control of corruption. Clearly the human footprint on Earth is changing, yet there are still opportunities for conservation gains.

August 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Bokashi is a system that essentially pickles your compost.
  • There is an unlikely but plausible scenario where Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, could become President of the United States this fall. Speaking of implausible scenarios, I learned that RIchard Nixon made a serious attempt to pass a basic income bill in 1969.
  • 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.

Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance

Here is the Amazon description of a new(ish) book by Donald Worster called Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance.

The discovery of the Americas around 1500 AD was an extraordinary watershed in human experience. It gave rise to the modern period of human ecology, a phenomenon global in scope that set in motion profound changes in almost every society on earth. This new period, which saw the depletion of the lands of the New World, proved tragic for some, triumphant for others, and powerfully affecting for all.

In this work, acclaimed environmental historian Donald Worster takes a global view in his examination of the ways in which complex issues of worldwide abundance and scarcity have shaped American society and behavior over three centuries. Looking at the limits nature imposes on human ambitions, he questions whether America today is in the midst of a shift from a culture of abundance to a culture of limits-and whether American consumption has become reliant on the global South. Worster engages with key political, economic, and environmental thinkers while presenting his own interpretation of the role of capitalism and government in issues of wealth, abundance, and scarcity. Acknowledging the earth’s agency throughout human history, Shrinking the Earth offers a compelling explanation of how we have arrived where we are and a hopeful way forward on a planet that is no longer as large as it once was.

It’s interesting to think that humanity took a few thousand years to “deplete” Europe and Asia, and now we have depleted North and South America in just a few hundred years. If there were another sizable continent out there, we could probably deplete it in a few decades, and the one after that in a few years, then months, etc.

But there aren’t any more out there, unless and until we are talking about going into space. This reminds me of a couple plausible near-future science fiction series on exactly this theme: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and Coyote by Allen Steele. Both worth reading, although I found the latter a bit more entertaining.