Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pi's tiger and the Anthropocene

Science studies scholar Bruno Latour is fond of the film "Life of Pi" for the metaphor it provides for our current predicament. The main character of the film, Pi, ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger, and not a friendly one. Though Pi builds a raft to give himself distance from the tiger, he must still tie the raft to the lifeboat which holds all the supplies--food, fresh water, and, as we see later, flares. Ultimately, the destruction of his raft forces him to return to the lifeboat and find a way to live with the tiger.

In "Life of Pi" there is no peaceable kingdom like the one depicted by painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 62 surviving versions of his composition of that name. In "The Peaceable Kingdom" predator lies down with prey and no harm results--a reference to verses in Isaiah depicting an age in which "[t]he wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

In "Life of Pi" viewers are constantly in a state of anxiety about Pi's fate. The tiger cannot be tamed. And so it is with the biosphere as we enter the Anthropocene, a geological era defined by the large impacts of humans on the Earth and its cycles. As a post-Enlightenment culture, we have long believed that we are now free of the tyranny of nature. We can learn its ways and master it through our knowledge and ingenuity.

But it turns out that mastery over the Earth is an illusion fostered by its huge resources relative to human populations (until now) and the discovery of fossil fuels that have allowed humans to harness tens of millions of years of stored solar energy in just a couple of centuries.

As the dean of the steady-state economists Herman Daly has explained in his essay "Economics in a Full World":

As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a “full world” economics to replace our traditional “empty world” economics.

In the full world we now live in, we are sitting cheek by jowl with Pi's tiger. The tiger, of course, is the natural world which we have sought to put at a distance. We imagined that we could disentangle ourselves from its fate. But we cannot. Because as much as we might wish that humans and nature could be in separate categories, they aren't.

The tiger coming at us now is simply the full world pressing down upon us. The effects of the vast stream of entropy that human civilization produces cannot be placed "out there" any more; nor can we simply run away to a new place to avoid it. The effects we humans are having are so great and ubiquitous that we are close to naming a new geologic era of the Earth after ourselves as mentioned above.

Although Pi eventually finds his way back to civilization and the tiger parts with him and enters the forest, we have no such possibility. We must now dance with the tiger, give him some territory (as Pi does), and limit ourselves in our exploitation of the biosphere's (and lithosphere's) resources.

Nature, it turns out, is not a passive object, but an active agent. It reacts mightily to our provocations. Pi's father tells him early in the film that a tiger can never be regarded as a friend, that any feelings Pi thinks he sees in the tiger's eyes are just projections of Pi's own.

At the end of the film, Pi tells us that he believes he has seen a glimmer of the tiger's own feelings and that these feelings are not always geared to hunting and eating, but at times akin to accommodation if not mutual respect. In this he may have something of value for our comparison. For the biosphere itself is made to sustain us and we are made to thrive in it. But if we fail to understand its rhythms and its limits, it will snarl at us and even injure us for our injuries to it.

Our fear should be that the biosphere's response will end up being all out of proportion to our provocations. In this regard, it is Pi's father who is right about the tiger and by extension the biosphere. The biosphere will not develop sympathy for our current predicament. It can only remorselessly react. That notion should guide our actions as we move about in the only lifeboat we have, the thin membrane encircling the Earth that makes our existence possible.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Syfy's 'The Expanse': The imperial project unhinged

Syfy channel's political/military thriller "The Expanse," set hundreds of years in the future, seems eerily resonant with our own era. The two major powers of the solar system, Earth and Mars, have been locked in a cold war for decades. Exploited populations working and living in the asteroid belt--an area that supplies crucial raw materials to both empires--become the flashpoint for what could turn out to be a civilization-destroying hot war between the two imperial powers.

As it turns out, projecting the centuries-old imperial expansion project here on contemporary Earth into outer space is really no stretch at all. There is frequent coverage in the media today of schemes for landing humans on Mars and establishing colonies. And, there is also talk of extracting resources from asteroids. Empires need raw materials and when they run low, those empires, whether they are political or merely economic, seek new sources of supply.

But here is where "The Expanse" comes unhinged. Engaging in regular interplanetary flights requires a lot of energy. Rather than using elongated journeys powered by the gravity of planets to sling one's ship toward its destination (in an effort to save fuel), the ship captains of "The Expanse" burn a lot of fuel to take more direct routes. (The fuel seems like conventional rocket fuel, but we'll assume that's not the case.)

We find out in the first season that the source of this energy is fusion. All well and good. The attainment of fusion energy and its refinement over possibly centuries could power such a civilization. (We will leave aside for now the question of the effects of constant exposure to low gravity and cosmic radiation on the human body and brain.)

But if such copious and cheap fusion power were to become available, there would be no need to exploit the asteroid belt for rich ores. Instead that power could be used to get all the raw materials an advanced human civilization needs from sources available practically anywhere on Earth (or probably Mars). Granite--hardly something in short supply--contains almost all of the minerals we need albeit in very small concentrations. Mining granite in the required quantities and extracting trace elements from it would produce a lot of waste, but we'd have a lot of energy available to do it and deal with the waste.

Seawater is filled with minerals as well. And, we currently get many minerals from it. With enough cheap energy seawater could be mined even for minerals in very tiny concentrations. The air contains inert gases such as helium, neon, argon and krypton that are already available to us through existing methods. These would become cheaper to extract. And, of course, with huge amounts of cheap energy, seawater could easily be desalinated to provide drinking and irrigation water to any population within a few hundred miles of a coast.

The structure of society could and probably would be highly decentralized as most of the necessary resources would be locally available. Every community would have its own fusion and resource extraction complex. And thus empires--which are built on new resources taken from newly subdued lands (or, in this case, planets and asteroids)--would become irrelevant. Why go halfway across the solar system when everything you need is right at your doorstep because you now have the energy to extract it and mitigate the resulting waste?

In writing all this, I am not prophesying a space-faring human culture. Nor am I convinced that fusion power will be easily and quickly harnessed. The technical challenges may turn out to be so great that our current civilization will dissolve before we can succeed at taming fusion.

Rather, I am trying to show how our contemporary misconceptions about energy and the complex resource flows in our society lead to narratives that mislead us about the challenges we actually face.

"The Expanse" is fun to watch, and its subject matter maps well with our current political and military dramas. You can certainly enjoy it on that level. But take its assumptions about energy and resource flows and their effects on our political and social lives with a grain of salt. Those assumptions don't map well onto our material lives, even for an advanced civilization presumed to exist many hundreds of years in the future.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Can we live without progress?

To a person alive today it is hard to fathom that the ancient Greeks regarded themselves as living in an age of decline. These are the people who gave us the philosophers Socrates and Plato, the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, the mathematician Pythagoras, the scientist and polymath Archimedes, and the first person to formulate atomic theory, Democritus. These are the people who designed and built the Parthenon and created the sculpture we so admire today in our museums. And yet, the ancient Greeks believed that the Golden Age, a period of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement, already lay deep in the past.

A friend recently asked if we who are alive today could bear to live in such an age. Our modern lives are premised on the idea that tomorrow will not only be different, but also better. He said this attitude has made us inattentive. We feel we don't have to pay attention to the details of life because we know their destination in advance, namely, progress.

In the sciences we speak of progress--greater knowledge, better instruments, new investigatory techniques, more comprehensive theories. But we rarely speak of progress in the arts. We tend to believe that art changes, while science advances. We do not think of James Joyce's novels as new and improved versions of Thomas Hardy's. We simply say that they are different.

Can we imagine an existence in which tomorrow may be different from yesterday, but may not necessarily represent an advance? Can we imagine a whole lifetime of such days? And, perhaps the most vexing question of all: Is it possible that we have actually been living in such a world without knowing it?

This question, of course, begets another one: What do we mean by progress? Generally speaking, we are offered the following metrics: more people living longer, healthier lives and enjoying greater material prosperity year after year (that is, ever increasing per capita consumption). We may also be told that our knowledge of the natural and social worlds is growing rapidly and that this knowledge is part of the reason for our prosperity.

When speaking of progress, we tend to leave out the side effects--some of them very dangerous--such as climate change, toxic pollution, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, species extinction, and myriad other ongoing environmental cataclysms that have the potential to destroy our civilization.

To contain our anxiety we tell ourselves that this is the price of progress. The politicians ask,"Which would you rather save, your jobs or some obscure species of fish?" Of course, the predicament we face is not so easily dismissed.

Another friend pointed out the disconnect between the United Nations' recent announcement that world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.5 billion today, while the organization also warns of the devastating consequences of climate change for world food supplies in the future. Might not billions die of malnutrition and hunger before 2050 arrives as climate change continues to move faster than we have previously estimated?

And yet, the news is filled with predictions of fantastic leaps forward in artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology without reference to the dangers we face--both from these fields themselves and from our environmental problems--that could put an end to and even reverse what we call progress.

One of the world's most prominent climate scientists, Tim Garrett, believes that our economic system simply cannot bring about the emissions reductions needed to stop climate change. Economic activity and carbon emissions are too closely linked.

This is just another way of saying that the idea of progress is embedded in the social and economic system, and that we cannot attack carbon emissions without attacking the idea of progress itself. Here is the question Garrett is really posing: If the progress we've made since the beginning of industrial civilization only leads to a complete reversal of all our supposed gains in the long run, can we really call what is happening progress?

And so, we must ask: Could we live in a world in which the idea of progress is abandoned? Could we stand the thought that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that might feel endlessly the same, our personal power neither increasing nor diminishing--or worse yet, possibly diminishing somewhat over time.

Living without the hope of progress didn't stop the ancient Greeks from creating art, architecture, literature and philosophy that we still admire and learn from today. Could humans once again learn to value change without demanding that it be progress? In truth, our fate depends on the answer to that question.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.