The Hundred Years’ War for Safe Streets

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Should safety standards for new vehicles take into account the safety only of the inside passengers, or also the safety of others on the streets?

Right of Way, by Angie Schmitt, published by Island Press

When economic circumstances force large numbers of people who can’t afford cars to move into suburbs, should traffic policy on suburban streets still prioritize the unimpeded movement of the car owners? 

In urban areas where the population is predominantly from racialized communities, should mostly white, male engineering associations still set traffic rules?

These are some of the life-and-death questions explored in Angie Schmitt’s essential new book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America (Island Press, August 2020). Although the focus is on the US, Schmitt also explains how and why other industrial countries have achieved far better safety records on urban streets.‡

Schmitt begins by outlining a sudden and rapid increase in traffic violence. Since 2009, Schmitt notes, there has been a 10% increase in total driving miles by Americans – but a 50% increase in pedestrian deaths. (Right of Way, page 7)

The reasons for the rise in fatalities are complex but there are obvious clues:

“There are patterns in who is killed: older people, men, and people of color are disproportionately at risk. We know what kinds of vehicles are most likely to kill: large trucks and SUVs.” (Right of Way, page 3)

Unravelling what she calls an epidemic, Schmitt visits cities around the country and explores issues of mobility justice, racial justice, economic justice and environmental justice. While most of the book deals with events of the past 30 years, she does look at key developments from a hundred years ago.

Victim-blaming and the invention of jaywalking

“In the United Kingdom,” Schmitt writes, “there is no equivalent violation to jaywalking, but the pedestrian safety record there puts the US data to shame.” (Right of Way, page 67)

Defining and prosecuting an offense called “jaywalking”, as it turns out, is not a way to protect the safety of pedestrians, but rather a way to turn street space into the privileged domain of dangerous vehicles and their drivers.

For nearly all of history, people simply crossed the road when they wanted to get to the other side. Now, however, they are expected to walk down the road, wait for permission from a traffic light, scurry across, and then walk back to their destination; they face the risk of summary execution by car if they simply cross the road when and where they’d prefer.

How did this come about? Schmitt draws on the work of historian Peter Norton (see Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City). During the 1920s – an era when car ownership was still relatively rare – about 200,000 Americans lost their lives to cars, and the victims were disproportionately children.

“In contrast to modern media accounts,” Schmitt writes, “the news at the time was unflinching about where to lay the blame: on drivers.” (Right of Way, page 69) Cities across the nation began to discuss serious restrictions or even bans on the passage of cars through city streets. The dominance of car culture was in doubt, and the response was a combination of political muscle by the largest industries, plus a concerted public relations campaign. The path to progress, the car companies and their spin doctors insisted, was not to restrict the movement of cars but to restrict the rights of walkers to safely cross the streets.

“One of motordom’s most critical victories was the introduction and eventual acceptance of the concept of jaywalking,” Schmitt writes. (Right of Way, page 70) She goes on to illustrate how, 100 years later, “the ideology of flow” continues to kill people, especially in economically disadvantaged and radicalized communities.

Take, for example, the important issue of installing signalized crosswalks that might give pedestrians a margin of safety at the cost of some inconvenience to drivers. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Schmitt writes, 

“instructs engineers that a crosswalk with a traffic signal is only “warranted” if ninety-three pedestrians per hour are crossing at the location in question. Failing that, the MUTCD states that a crosswalk with a traffic signal can be warranted if five pedestrians are struck by cars at the location in a single year.” (Right of Way, page 101)

A recent intensifying factor is the “suburbanization of poverty.” In the post-WWII era a road-building boom promoted “white flight” from US urban centers to suburbs where nearly everyone relied on cars. But in the last generation the trend has reversed. Many urban areas have gentrified and poorer residents – disproportionately black, latino and indigenous – have had to find cheaper housing in the suburbs. For example, Schmitt writes that in 1980 just 47 percent of Atlanta’s black population lived in the suburbs, but in 2010 the figure was 87 percent.

High-speed suburban arterial roads are especially deadly for people who must walk to work, walk to the grocery store, or walk to catch a bus. They are deadly for elderly people who have difficulty crossing several wide traffic lanes in the time allowed by signals programmed to minimize interruption to drivers. And these roads are especially deadly today, with a majority of new passenger vehicles that are far more dangerous to pedestrians than the cars of just 20 years ago.

Mean machines

Most environmentalists would agree that fossil fuel executives rank high on the corporate villainy scale, due to their role in sowing climate change confusion while their own scientists were secretly documenting the devastating effects of carbon emissions. But auto company executives deserve their own special place in hell. Not only did they respond to the climate crisis with a decades-long push to sell ever bigger, heavier, and therefore less fuel-efficient passenger vehicles, but they did so even as the evidence mounted that their products are far more dangerous to pedestrians.

Whereas an old-style sedan with a low front end would hit an average-height pedestrian in the legs, an SUV or recent model pick-up truck, with a much higher front end, will hit the same pedestrian in the abdomen, chest, head – or all three at once. It shouldn’t take an emergency room doctor to understand that being hit by a much taller vehicle is likely to cause much more serious internal injuries. Add to that the fact that whereas a pedestrian hit by a sedan will typically fall onto the hood of the sedan, a pedestrian hit by a much taller vehicle is likely to be literally run over, suffering more severe injuries or death even if the initial impact is survivable.

Ah, but think of the profit margin! Schmitt cites a Kelley Blue Book analysis: while even a small crossover SUV in 2017 sold for almost $9,000 more than an average midsized sedan, the production costs are almost the same. You can guess which kind of vehicle the auto industry is eager to sell.

In recent years the US auto industry has been the biggest buyer of advertising – more than $30 billion annually – and Schmitt reports that nine of the top ten advertised vehicles were SUVs or pick-ups.

The ad campaigns worked. While 83 percent of vehicles sold in the US in 2012 were sedans, Schmitt writes, by 2018 crossover SUVs had become the top-selling vehicle type.

As the sales of SUVs climbed, so did the pedestrian deaths. In the period 2010 to 2015, the odds of a pedestrian dying when hit by a vehicle jumped 29 percent.

Was this deadly trend just an unfortunate co-incidence? Not according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); they estimated that “pedestrians struck by an SUV are two to three times more likely to be killed than those struck by a car.” (Right of Way, page 84)

The trend was also seen as causation, not mere correlation, by European lawmakers.

Schmitt writes that since 2004, the United Nations has recommended the imposition of “standards on automakers specifically to protect people outside the vehicles: pedestrians or cyclists.” In response, “the European Union imposed rules to protect pedestrians beginning in 2010.” (Right of Way, page 90)

These rules are already improving pedestrian safety in more advanced countries. In contrast to the high walls of steel at the front end of American SUVs and pickups, new European cars earning the best safety ratings have “active hood systems” which cushion the blow in a collision with a pedestrian. The result, Schmitt reports, is that pedestrians are 35 percent more likely to survive a collision.

Back to basics

Auto design, though, is just one aspect of traffic safety, and not necessarily the most important. Limiting speed is critical, since the force imparted in a collision increases non-linearly – doubling the speed quadruples the kinetic energy. Lowering vehicle speeds where pedestrians are present is thus an obvious response, if we are to believe that pedestrian lives matter.

Many cities are now lowering speed limits, especially in residential areas, and introducing other traffic calming measures. And while many tech boosters believe that autonomous vehicles will someday deliver us from traffic violence, there is already technology that can ensure that posted speed limits are effective:

“In 2019, the European Parliament ruled that by 2022, all new cars will come equipped with speed governors that physically limit the cars from exceeding the posted speed limit.” (Right of Way, page 137)

A transportation revolution must clearly be a big component of a Green New Deal. For anyone interested in exploring the many aspects of mobility justice, Right of Way is a must-read.

‡Schmitt writes that “On a population-adjusted basis, Canada, for example, loses less than half as many people on the roads every year as the United States” – which may be explained by the fact that the transit ridership share in Canada is about twice that of the US. But many issues in the book – the suburbanization of poverty, the recent predominance of high-front-end SUVs and pick-ups, the traffic policies reflected in high-speed suburban arterial roads – apply equally in Canada.

Illustration at top: The “Fearless Girl” statue stands her ground on a New York street against a Cadillac Escalade, one of the tallest of the current SUVs. This illustration was also inspired by a photo in Right of Way of a Tanzanian child who protested by sitting down in the middle of a busy street in Dar es Salaam, after a classmate was struck trying to cross that road.

Climate change, citizenship, and the global caste system

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Suppose humanity survives through the 21st century. Our descendants may shudder to realize their own grandparents blithely accepted, perhaps even praised, a rigid caste system that offered rich opportunities to a minority while consigning the vast majority to a brutal struggle for mere existence.

This week hundreds of millions of people in North America will celebrate their citizenships as both Canada and the United States mark national holidays. But citizenship has always been primarily about who is excluded from the vaunted rights and privileges, writes Dimitry Kochenov.

In his superb and sobering essay Citizenship: The Great Extinguisher of Hope, Kochenov argues that 

“Citizenship’s connection to ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion. … Citizenship, as one of the key tools for locking the poorest populations within the confines of their dysfunctional states, thus perpetuates and reinforces global inequality ….”

His 2019 book Citizenship (MIT Press) allows Kochenov to explore the character of citizenship at greater length. He traces the concept back to Aristotle’s Athens, where inequality and the erasure of individuality were at the very core of citizenship. He explores the changing rationale for citizenship in settler colonialism, and points out the explicit sexism in most countries’ citizenship rules right into the second half of the 20th century. He argues that the concept of universal human rights, increasingly influential in the post World War II era, conflicts squarely with the exclusionary privileges of citizenship.

Other than noting that the citizenship system will face continued challenges in the future, however, Kochenov’s book and essay stick with what has been true in the past and what is true today. Nevertheless in reading his work it’s hard not to think about an increasingly urgent issue for our global future.

The effects of climate change, caused overwhelmingly by the cumulative carbon emissions in wealthy and privileged countries, are threatening the homelands of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people. Already the number of persons displaced by war, famine and climate change – tangled phenomena whose roots can’t always be separated – is at a 75-year high of about 65 million people (Vox, Jan 30, 2017). Yet just another 20 or 30 years of an unchecked fossil-fuel economy is expected to boost the numbers of climate refugees into the hundreds of millions, as low-lying coastal areas flood, and vast areas close to the equator become too hot for the survival of food crops or indeed for the humans that depend on those crops.

Can there be any ethical justification for an international legal edifice that awards millions nothing better than the “right” to be a citizen of a land that increasingly cannot support human life? The ethical crisis in our global caste system, described so bitingly and in such detail by Kochenov, will become even less conscionable as the climate crisis worsens.

‘Super-citizenships’ and the long reach of colonialism

Kochenov writes that “The status of citizenship traditionally has been absolute and irrevocable” (Citizenship, p. 81), but there are cracks in the legal framework today. Changes have happened partly to satisfy the wishes of settler colonial societies who wanted immigrants from certain countries (and just as strongly, did not want immigrants from other countries). In recent decades other changes have come about through decisions by the European Court of Human Rights.

It is possible and indeed attractive to imagine (if you hold a favored and desired citizenship) that this status is freely chosen. Yet Kochenov writes that “all the cases of naturalization [acquiring a citizenship other than the one originally assigned] in the world combined would still amount to less than 2 percent of the world’s population” (Citizenship, p. 2).

Compounding the injustice of assigning drastically varying life opportunities at birth through citizenship, the process of naturalization also tends to be difficult or impossible for those with the least desirable citizenships, and easiest for those who are already privileged.

Citizens of impoverished countries typically wait for months or years simply to acquire travel visas, wait even longer for the uncertain decisions on foreign work permits, and even after that may or may not be given a chance at citizenship in a country that offers a minimally acceptable standard of living. For those who won the birth lottery and thus were granted citizenship in a wealthy country, it tends to be far easier to gain a second or third citizenship in an equally or even more prosperous nation.

Full disclosure: I hold two of what Kochenov terms “super-citizenships” – which come with the right to travel in dozens of other wealthy countries without pre-clearance – and I haven’t always been aware of this wholly unearned degree of privilege. In the first instance, I was lifted up by my still wet heels, spanked on my ass, and from my very first cry I was a citizen of the United States. In another solemn ceremony many years later, I became a citizen of the sovereign nation of Canada by affirming true allegiance to the Queen of England.

But while the rules governing the assignment of both original citizenships and naturalizations are diverse and sometimes absurd, the effects of the granting and especially of the denial of citizenship are deadly serious.

Kochenov details the racist provisions in both Canadian and US law for much of their histories – but perhaps more significantly he describes the systemic racism of citizenship law and practice throughout the contemporary world:

“Decolonization and its aftermath have in fact upgraded the racial divide in the area of citizenship by confining the majority of the former colonial inferiors to ‘their own states,’ which are behind impenetrable visa walls ….” (Citizenship, p. 97)

Refugees aside – and refugees must risk their very lives simply to ask to be considered for a new citizenship – the relative few who dramatically upgrade their citizenship status tend to have some other advantage, such as exceptional talent, a rare and sought-after skill, or enough money to buy property or start a business.

There is a great deal more of value in Kochenov’s Citizenship: for example, the way the concept of citizenship is used to urge, persuade, or compel acceptance of the political status quo. I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in human rights, the law, the history and future of inequality – or essential issues of global justice in a world ravaged by climate change.

And this week, as Canadian and American citizens take time off for national holidays, we will do well to keep Kochenov’s summation in mind:

“Distributed like prizes in a lottery where four-fifths of the world’s population loses, citizenship is clothed in the language of self-determination and freedom, elevating hypocrisy as one of the status’s core features. … Citizenship’s connection to ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion.” (Citizenship, p. 240)

Photo at top of page: Layers of Concertina are added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S. – Mexico border near Nogales, AZ, February 4, 2019. Photo: Robert Bushell. Photo taken for United States Department of Homeland Security. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Energy storage and our unpredictable future

A review of Energy Storage and Civilization

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It’s a fine spring day and you decide on a whim to go camping. By early afternoon you’ve reached a sheltered clearing in the woods, the sky is clear, and you relax against a tree trunk rejoicing that “The best things in life are free!” as you soak up the abundant warmth of the sun. As the sun goes down, though, the temperature drops to near freezing, you shiver through a long night, and you resolve to be better prepared the next night.

And so by the time the sun sets again you’ve invested in a good down sleeping bag, you sleep through the long night in comfort due to your own carefully retained heat, and then you greet the cold dawn by cheerfully striking a match to the pile of dry sticks you had gathered and stacked the day before.

In this little excursion you’ve coped with variable energy flows, using technologies that allowed you to store energy for use at a later time. In short, you’ve faced the problems that Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd identify as critical challenges in all human civilizations – and especially in our own future.

Their new book Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach (Springer, February 2020) is an important contribution to biophysical economics – marvelously clear, deep and detailed where necessary, and remarkably thorough for a work of just over 150 pages.

The most widely appreciated insight of biophysical economics is the concept of Energy Return On Investment – the need for energy technologies to yield significantly more energy than the energy that must be invested in these activities. (If it takes more energy to drill an oil well than the resulting barrels of oil can produce, that project is a bust.) While in no way minimizing the importance of EROI, Palmer and Floyd lay out their book’s purpose succinctly:

“we want to argue that energy storage, as both a technological and natural phenomenon, has been much more significant to the development of human civilizations than usually understood.” (Energy Storage and Civilization, page 2)

Central to their project is the distinction between energy stocks and energy flows. Sunshine and wind energy – primary energy sources in a renewable energy future – are energy flows. Grains, butter, wood, coal, oil and natural gas are energy stocks. And storage mediates between the two:

“Energy storage deals with the relationship between stocks and flows: storing energy, whether by natural or anthropic processes, involves the accumulation of flows as stocks; exploiting stored energy involves the conversion of stocks to flows.” (page 1)

Our current industrial civilization relies on the vast quantities of energy stored in our one-time inheritance of fossil fuels. These energy stocks allow us to consume energy anywhere on earth, at any hour and in any season. If the limited supplies of readily accessible fossil fuels weren’t running out, and if their burning weren’t destabilizing the climate and threatening the entire web of life, we might think we had discovered the secret of civilizational eternal youth.

Fossil fuels are higher in energy density than any previous energy stock at our control. That energy density means we can ship and store these stocks for use across great distances and long periods. Oil is so easy to ship that it is traded worldwide and is fundamental to the entire global economy.

In particular, fossil fuel stocks can be readily converted to electrical energy flows. And electricity, which is so magnificently versatile that it too is fundamental to the global economy, cannot be stored in any significant quantity without being converted to another energy form form, and then converted back at time of use – at significant cost in energy losses and further costs for the storage technologies.

This is the crux of the problem, Palmer and Floyd explain. The vision of a renewable energy economy relies on use of solar PV and wind turbines to generate all our electricity – plus electrification of systems like transportation, which now rely directly on fossil fuel combustion engines. A major part of the book deals with two closely related questions: How much storage would we need to manage current energy demand with the highly intermittent flows of solar and wind energy? and, Are there feasible methods known today which could create those quantities of energy storage?

Beyond simple technologies like huge tanks or reservoirs of oil and gas, and stockpiles of coal, our current economy has little need for complicated means of energy storage. Batteries, while essential for niche uses in phones and computers, store only tiny amounts of electrical energy. But in Palmer and Floyd’s estimations, to maintain an economy with today’s energy consumption without fossil fuels, we will need to expand “current technologically-mediated storage capacity by three orders of magnitude”. (page 28)

What might a thousand-fold or greater expansion of storage technology look like? Palmer and Floyd provide some excellent illustrations. Pumped hydro storage is one promising candidate for managing the intermittent energy flows of solar PV or wind generators. Where suitable sites exist, surplus electricity can be used to pump water to an elevated reservoir, and then when the sun goes down or the wind calms, the water can flow down through turbines to regenerate electricity. This is a simple process, requiring two water reservoirs that are close geographically but at significantly different elevations, and is already used in some niche markets.

But for pumped hydro storage to be a primary means of managing intermittent renewable electricity production – that’s another story. By Palmer and Floyd’s calculations, to produce half of current US peak electricity demand via pumped hydro storage, the combined water flow from all the upper reservoirs would need to be far greater than the typical flow of the Mississippi River, and closer to the total flow of the Amazon River (depending on the average elevation differences between the reservoir pairs).

Comparison of required Pumped Hydro Storage flow to major river flows (by Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd, from Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach, page 143). This amount of Pumped Hydro Storage would be needed to meet half of current US peak electricity demand.

Building sufficient battery storage is equally daunting. Palmer and Floyd look at the challenge of converting the world’s gas- and diesel-powered passenger vehicles to battery-electric propulsion. Even after making appropriate allowance for the far greater “tank-to-wheels” efficiency of electric motors, they find that to replace the energy storage capacity now held in the vehicles’ fuel tanks, we would need battery storage equivalent to 142 TWh (TeraWatt hours). As shown in Palmer and Floyd’s illustration below, the key material requirements for that many batteries are vast, in some cases greater than the entire current world reserves. And that is to say nothing of the energy costs of acquiring the materials and building the batteries, or the even more difficult problems of electrifying heavy freight vehicles.

Material requirements for batteries for world’s fleet of passenger vehicles (by Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd, from Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach, page 141). To match the deliverable energy stored in the fuel tanks, battery production would consume huge quantities of key materials – in some cases exceeding the current world reserves.

Barring unknown and therefore unforeseeable possible developments in storage technologies that might provide order-of-magnitude improvements, then, it is highly unrealistic to expect that we can simply replace current world energy demands from renewable energy sources. Far greater changes are likely: combinations of changes in technologies, trading practices, regulations, social practices, ways of life. The layers of interacting complexity, Palmer and Floyd argue, are beyond the capacity of computer models to predict.

Their book is a bit of a complex system, too. Although many of the ideas they present are simple and they explain them well, there are sections which go beyond “challenging” for readers who have no more than an ancient memory of high-school-level chemistry and physics. (I plead guilty.) Such readers will nevertheless be rewarded by persevering through difficult parts, because Palmer and Floyd do such a good job of tying all the strands together. The second-to-last chapter, for example, provides a lucid explanation of why the “hydrogen economy” offers real potential for replacing some of the energy storage and transport capacities of fossil fuels – while incurring very significant energy conversion penalties that would have major economic implications.

Civilizations both ancient and contemporary need practices that provide a sufficient Energy Return On Investment – but a high EROI is not sufficient cause for a technology or practice to come into wide use. Rather, we need complete socio-technical systems that provide the right combination of adequate EROI, and adequate and flexible energy storage.

Energy Storage and Civilization is a superb overview of these challenges for the waning years of fossil fuel civilization.

Photo at top by Radek Grzybowski – A stack of wood lays in front of a snowy and foggy forest, Gliwice, Poland; from Wikimedia Commons.

Platforms for a Green New Deal

Two new books in review

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Does the Green New Deal assume a faith in “green growth”? Does the Green New Deal make promises that go far beyond what our societies can afford? Will the Green New Deal saddle ordinary taxpayers with huge tax bills? Can the Green New Deal provide quick solutions to both environmental overshoot and economic inequality?

These questions have been posed by people from across the spectrum – but of course proponents of a Green New Deal may not agree on all of the goals, let alone an implementation plan. So it’s good to see two concise manifestos – one British, one American – released by Verso in November.

The Case for the Green New Deal (by Ann Pettifor), and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos) each clock in at a little under 200 pages, and both books are written in accessible prose for a general audience.

Surprisingly, there is remarkably little overlap in coverage and it’s well worth reading both volumes.

The Case for a Green New Deal takes a much deeper dive into monetary policy. A Planet To Win devotes many pages to explaining how a socially just and environmentally wise society can provide a healthy, prosperous, even luxurious lifestyle for all citizens, once we understand that luxury does not consist of ever-more-conspicuous consumption.

The two books wind to their destinations along different paths but they share some very important principles.

Covers of The Case For The Green New Deal and A Planet To Win

First, both books make clear that a Green New Deal must not shirk a head-on confrontation with the power of corporate finance. Both books hark back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous opposition to big banking interests, and both books fault Barack Obama for letting financial kingpins escape the 2008 crash with enhanced power and wealth while ordinary citizens suffered the consequences.

Instead of seeing the crash as an opportunity to set a dramatically different course for public finance, Obama presented himself as the protector of Wall Street:

“As [Obama] told financial CEOs in early 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Frankly, he should have put unemployed people to work in a solar-powered pitchfork factory.” (A Planet To Win, page 13)

A second point common to both books is the view that the biggest and most immediate emissions cuts must come from elite classes who account for a disproportionate share of emissions. Unfortunately, neither book makes it clear whether they are talking about the carbon-emitting elite in wealthy countries, or the carbon-emitting elite on a global scale. (If it’s the latter, that likely includes the authors, most of their readership, this writer and most readers of this review.)

Finally, both books take a clear position against the concept of continuous, exponential economic growth. Though they argue that the global economy must cease to grow, and sooner rather than later, their prescriptions also appear to imply that there will be one more dramatic burst of economic growth during the transition to an equitable, sustainable steady-state economy.

Left unasked and unanswered in these books is whether the climate system can stand even one more short burst of global economic growth.

Public or private finance

The British entry into this conversation takes a deeper dive into the economic policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt. British economist Ann Pettifor was at the centre of one of the first policy statements that used the “Green New Deal” moniker, just before the financial crash of 2007–08. She argues that we should have learned the same lessons from that crash that Roosevelt had to learn from the Depression of the 1930s.

Alluding to Roosevelt’s inaugural address, she summarizes her thesis this way:

“We can afford what we can do. This is the theme of the book in your hands. There are limits to what we can do – notably ecological limits, but thanks to the public good that is the monetary system, we can, within human and ecological limits, afford what we can do.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, page xi)

That comes across as a radical idea in this day of austerity budgetting. But Pettifor says the limits that count are the limits of what we can organize, what we can invent, and, critically, what the ecological system can sustain – not what private banking interests say we can afford.

In Pettifor’s view it is not optional, it is essential for nations around the world to re-win public control of their financial systems from the private institutions that now enrich themselves at public expense. And she takes us through the back-and-forth struggle for public control of banking, examining the ground-breaking theory of John Maynard Keynes after World War I, the dramatically changed monetary policy of the Roosevelt administration that was a precondition for the full employment policy of the original New Deal, and the gradual recapture of global banking systems by private interests since the early 1960s.

On the one hand, a rapid reassertion of public banking authority (which must include, Pettifor says, tackling the hegemony of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency) may seem a tall order given the urgent environmental challenges. On the other hand, the global financial order is highly unstable anyway, and Pettifor says we need to be ready next time around:

“sooner rather than later the world is going to be faced by a shuddering shock to the system. … It could be the flooding or partial destruction of a great city …. It could be widespread warfare…. Or it could be (in my view, most likely) another collapse of the internationally integrated financial system. … [N]one of these scenarios fit the ‘black swan’ theory of difficult-to-predict events. All three fall within the realm of normal expectations in history, science and economics.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 64)

A final major influence acknowledged by Pettifor is American economist Herman Daly, pioneer of steady-state economics. She places this idea at the center of the Green New Deal:

“our economic goal is for a ‘steady state’ economy … that helps to maintain and repair the delicate balance of nature, and respects the laws of ecology and physics (in particular thermodynamics). An economy that delivers social justice for all classes, and ensures a liveable planet for future generations.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 66)

Beyond a clear endorsement of this principle, though, Pettifor’s book doesn’t offer much detail on how our transportation system, food provisioning systems, etc, should be transformed. That’s no criticism of the book. Providing a clear explanation of the need for transformation in monetary policy; why the current system of “free mobility” of capital allows private finance to work beyond the reach of democratic control, with disastrous consequences for income equality and for the environment; and how finance was brought under public control before and can be again – this  is a big enough task for one short book, and Pettifor carries it out with aplomb.

Some paths are ruinous. Others are not.

Writing in The Nation in November of 2018, Daniel Aldana Cohen set out an essential corrective to the tone of most public discourse:

“Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. … The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.” (The Nation, “Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point,” November 2, 2018; emphasis mine)

There’s a clear echo of Cohen’s statement in the introduction to A Planet To Win:

“we rarely see climate narratives that combine scientific realism with positive political and technological change. Instead, most stories focus on just one trend: the grim projections of climate science, bright reports of promising technologies, or celebrations of gritty activism. But the real world will be a mess of all three. (A Planet To Win, pg 3)

The quartet of authors are particularly concerned to highlight a new path in which basic human needs are satisfied for all people, in which communal enjoyment of public luxuries replaces private conspicuous consumption, and in which all facets of the economy respect non-negotiable ecological limits.

The authors argue that a world of full employment; comfortable and dignified housing for all; convenient, cheap or even free public transport; healthy food and proper public health care; plus a growth in leisure time –  this vision can win widespread public backing and can take us to a sustainable civilization.

A Planet To Win dives into history, too, with a picture of the socialist housing that has been home to generations of people in Vienna. This is an important chapter, as it demonstrates that there is nothing inherently shabby in the concept of public housing:

“Vienna’s radiant social housing incarnates its working class’s socialist ideals; the United States’ decaying public housing incarnates its ruling class’s stingy racism.” (A Planet To Win, pg 127)

Likewise, the book looks at the job creation programs of the 1930s New Deal, noting that they not only built a vast array of public recreational facilities, but also carried out the largest program of environmental restoration ever conducted in the US.

The public co-operatives that brought electricity to rural people across the US could be revitalized and expanded for the era of all-renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies, too, should be brought under public ownership – for the purpose of winding them down as quickly as possible while safeguarding workers’ pensions.

In their efforts to present a New Green Deal in glowingly positive terms, I think the authors underestimate the difficulties in the energy transition. For example, they extol a new era in which Americans will have plenty of time to take inexpensive vacations on high-speed trains throughout the country. But it’s not at all clear, given current technology, how feasible it will be to run completely electrified trains through vast and sparsely populated regions of the US.

In discussing electrification of all transport and heating, the authors conclude that the US must roughly double the amount of electricity generated – as if it’s a given that Americans can or should use nearly as much total energy in the renewable era as they have in the fossil era.1

And once electric utilities are brought under democratic control, the authors write, “they can fulfill what should be their only mission: guaranteeing clean, cheap, or even free power to the people they serve.” (A World To Win, pg 53; emphasis mine)

A realistic understanding of thermodynamics and energy provision should, I think, prompt us to ask whether energy is ever cheap or free – (except in the dispersed, intermittent forms of energy that the natural world has always provided).

As it is, the authors acknowledge a “potent contradiction” in most current recipes for energy transition:

“the extractive processes necessary to realize a world powered by wind and sun entail their own devastating social and environmental consequences. The latter might not be as threatening to the global climate as carbon pollution. But should the same communities exploited by 500 years of capitalist and colonial violence be asked to bear the brunt of the clean energy transition …?” (A Planet To Win, pg 147-148)

With the chapter on the relationship between a Green New Deal in the industrialized world, and the even more urgent challenges facing people in the Global South, A World To Win gives us an honest grappling with another set of critical issues. And in recognizing that “We hope for greener mining techniques, but we shouldn’t count on them,” the authors make it clear that the Green New Deal is not yet a fully satisfactory program.

Again, however, they accomplish a lot in just under 200 pages, in support of their view that “An effective Green New Deal is also a radical Green New Deal” (A Planet To Win, pg 8; their emphasis). The time has long passed for timid nudges such as modest carbon taxes or gradual improvements to auto emission standards.

We are now in “a trench war,” they write, “to hold off every extra tenth of a degree of warming.” In this war,

“Another four years of the Trump administration is an obvious nightmare. … But there are many paths to a hellish earth, and another one leads right down the center of the political aisle.” (A Planet To Win, pg 180)

1 This page on the US government Energy Information Agency website gives total US primary energy consumption as 101 quadrillion Btus, and US electricity use as 38 quadrillion Btus. If all fossil fuel use were stopped but electricity use were doubled, the US would then use 76 quadrillion Btus, or 75% of current total energy consumption.

Make room for the bus

A review of Better Buses, Better Cities

Also published at

Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, published by Island Press and University of British Columbia Press, October 2019

We often hear that “the greenest building is the one you already have.” The idea is that the up-front carbon emissions released during the production of a new building can outweigh many  years of emissions from the old building. So in many cases retrofitting an old building makes more environmental sense than replacing it with a new “state-of-the-art” facility.

But should we say “the greenest transportation infrastructure is the one we already have?” Yes, in the sense that by far our biggest transportation infrastructure item is our network of paved roads. And rather than rushing to construct a new infrastructure – with all the up-front carbon emissions that would entail – we should simply stop squandering most of our road lanes on the least efficient mode of transportation, the private car.

While new light-rail systems, subways, inter-urban commuter trains all have their place, simply giving buses preference on existing roads could improve urban quality of life while bringing carbon emissions down – long before the planning and approval process for new train lines is complete.

Steven Higashide’s new book Better Buses, Better Cities is a superb how-to manual for urban activists and urban policy-makers. The book is filled with examples from transit reforms throughout the United States, but its relevance extends to countries like Canada whose city streets are similarly choked with creeping cars.

Given the book’s title, it is ironic that few of these reforms involve improvements to the bus vehicle itself (though the gradual replacement of diesel buses with electric buses is an important next step). Instead the key steps have to do with scheduling, prioritizing the movement of buses on city streets, and improving the environment for transit users before and after their bus rides.

Higashide begins the book by noting that buses can make far more effective space of busy roads:

Add bus service to a road and you can easily double the number of people it carries – even more so if buses are given dedicated space on the street or if a train runs down it. When you see a photograph of a bus in city traffic, there’s a decent chance that the bus is carrying more people than all the cars in the same frame.” (Better Buses, Better Cities, page 3)

Buses move more people than cars even on congested streets, but the people-moving power of a street really soars if there is adequate dedicated space for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users:

From Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, page 3

Frequency equals freedom

Which comes first – a bus route with several buses each hour or a bus route with big ridership? Municipal politicians and bean counters often argue that it makes no sense to up the frequency of lines with low ridership. But many surveys, and the experience in many cities, show that potential riders are unlikely to switch from cars to buses if the bus service is infrequent. In Higashide’s words,

The difference between a bus that runs every half hour and a bus that runs every 15 minutes is the difference between planning your life around a schedule and the freedom to show up and leave when you want.” (Better Buses, p. 23)

There is thus an inherent tension between planning routes for frequency, and planning routes for maximum coverage. The compromise is never perfect. A small number of high-frequency routes might get high ridership – as long as the major destinations for a sufficient number of riders are easily accessible. A route map with meandering service through every area of a city will provide maximum coverage – but if service is infrequent and slow, few people will use it.

In any case, overall bus network plans must be updated periodically to reflect major changes in cities, and Higashide provides case studies of cities in which transit restructuring was accomplished with very good results in a short time period.

Still, adding several buses each hour doesn’t help much if the streets are highly congested. Instead the result might be “bunching”: a would-be rider waits for a half hour, only to then have three buses arriving in a row with the first two packed full.

He emphasizes that “making buses better can start with redrawing a map, but it has to continue by redesigning the street.” (Better Buses, p. 37)

To emphasize the point he cites declining average speeds in most US cities since 2012, with New York City buses crawling at 7.6 mph in 2016. “Among the culprits,” Higashide writes, “is the enormous increase in Uber and Lyft rides; Amazon and other retailers have also led to a doubling in urban freight traffic associated with online shopping.” (Better Buses, p. 44)

Traffic stopped at Church Street and Park Place near the Financial District in Tribeca, Manhattan. Photo by Tdorante10 via Wikimedia Commons.

Effectively restricting some lanes to buses is one strategy to make transit use an  attractive option while making better use of road space. Others are the introduction of advance traffic signals for buses, or “bump-out” bus stops that allow buses to travel in a straight line, rather than swerving right to pick up passengers and then waiting for a chance to move back out into the traffic.

Transit planners often overlook the pedestrian experience as something that’s out of their realm, Higashide says. But a large majority of bus users walk to the bus, and then walk from the bus to their destination.

Unfortunately the dominance of autos in American cities has resulted in streets that are noisy, polluted, frightening and unsafe for pedestrians. In addition transit stops often have no shelter from scorching sun, cold wind or rain, and transit-using pedestrians may have very good reason to feel unsafe while they wait for a bus or while walking to or from the bus. Higashide gives welcome attention to these issues.

Finally, he discusses the rapid progress made by activists in cities where “pop-up” projects have introduced ideas such as dedicated bus lanes. Transit agencies, he says, “have to discard ponderous project development processes that result in 5-year timelines for bus lane projects and try tactical approaches that change streets overnight instead.” (Better Buses, page 11)

The people most likely to need better bus services are least likely to sit through years of public consultations. But pilot projects on specific street sections can demonstrate the many benefits of bus prioritization – for transit users, pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers and businesses alike. Higashide discusses pop-up projects which have been introduced in weeks instead of months or years, and have proven effective so quickly that they were adopted and expanded.

That’s good news for city dwellers, and good news for the rest of us too. With such an urgent need to cut carbon emissions, fast, we can not afford to spend ten or fifteen years waiting for huge new transit infrastructures. Likewise we shouldn’t put our hopes in a vast new fleet of electric cars, which will clog streets just as thoroughly as internal combustion cars do today.

In his conclusion, Higashide turns his focus directly to both the social justice and carbon emission implications of transit choices. Speaking of Green New Deal policies, he says “what they choose not to fund is as important as what they do fund.”

Federal policy must make it harder to build new roads, recognizing that highways are fossil fuel infrastructure as surely as oil and gas pipelines are and that their construction often directly harms neighborhoods where black and brown people live, so that suburban residents can get a faster trip.” (Better Buses, page 128)

We don’t need more lanes of pavement. We need to make room for buses on the pavement we already have.

Photo at top: Chicago Transit Authority buses at 87th St, photo by David Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

Questions as big as the atmosphere

A review of After Geoengineering

Also published at

After Geoengineering is published by Verso Books, Oct 1 2019.

What is the best-case scenario for solar geoengineering? For author Holly Jean Buck and the scientists she interviews, the best-case scenario is that we manage to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, and the idea of geoengineering quietly fades away.

But before that can happen, Buck explains, we will need heroic global efforts both to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and to remove much of the excess carbon we have already loosed into the skies.

She devotes most of her new book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration to proposed methods for drawing down carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere. Only after showing the immense difficulties in the multi-generational task of carbon drawdown does she directly discuss techniques and implications of solar geoengineering (defined here as an intentional modification of the upper atmosphere, meant to block a small percentage of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby counteracting part of global heating).

The book is well-researched, eminently readable, and just as thought-provoking on a second reading as on the first. Unfortunately there is little examination of the way future energy supply constraints will affect either carbon drawdown or solar engineering efforts. That significant qualification aside, After Geoengineering is a superb effort to grapple with some of the biggest questions for our collective future.


The fossil fuel frenzy in the world’s richest countries has already put us in greenhouse gas overshoot, so some degree of global heating will continue even if, miraculously, there were an instant political and economic revolution which ended all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow. Can we limit the resulting global heating to 1.5°C? At this late date our chances aren’t good.

As Greta Thunberg explained in her crystal clear fashion to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” 1

As Klaus Lackner, one of the many researchers interviewed by Buck, puts it, when you’ve been digging yourself into a hole, of course the first thing you need to do is stop digging – but then you still need to fill in the hole.2

How can we fill in the hole – in our case, get excess carbon back out of the atmosphere? There are two broad categories, biological processes and industrial processes, plus some technologies that cross the lines. Biological processes include regenerative agriculture and afforestation while industrial processes are represented most prominently by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

Buck summarizes key differences this way:

“Cultivation is generative. Burial, however, is pollution disposal, is safety, is sequestering something away where it can’t hurt you anymore. One approach generates life; the other makes things inert.” (After Geoengineering (AG), page 122)

Delving into regenerative agriculture, she notes that “over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original organic carbon” (AG, p 101).

Regenerative agriculture will gradually restore that carbon content in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide in the air – while also making the soil more fertile, reducing wind and water erosion, increasing the capacity of the soil to stay healthy when challenged by extreme rainfalls or drought, and making agriculture ecologically sustainable in contrast to industrial agriculture’s ongoing stripping the life from soil.

Regenerative agriculture cannot, however, counteract the huge volumes of excess carbon dioxide we are currently putting into the atmosphere. And even when we have cut emissions to zero, Buck writes, regenerative agriculture is limited in how much of the excess carbon it can draw down:

“soil carbon accrual rates decrease as stocks reach a new equilibrium. Sequestration follows a curve: the new practices sequester a lot of carbon at first, for the first two decades or so, but this diminishes over time toward a new plateau. Soil carbon sequestration is therefore a one-off method of carbon removal.” (AG, p 102)

There are other types of cultivation that can draw down carbon dioxide, and Buck interviews researchers in many of these fields. The planting of billions of trees has received the most press, and this could store a lot of carbon. But it also takes a lot of land, and it’s all too easy to imagine that more frequent and fiercer wildfires could destroy new forests just when they have started to accumulate major stores of carbon.

Biochar – the burying of charcoal in a way that stores carbon for millennia while also improving soil fertility – was practiced for centuries by indigenous civilizations in the Amazon. Its potential on a global scale is largely untapped but is the subject of promising research.

In acknowledging the many uncertainties in under-researched areas, Buck does offer some slender threads of hope here. Scientists say that “rocks for crops” techniques – in which certain kinds of rock are ground up and spread on farmland – could absorb a lot of carbon while also providing other soil nutrients. In the lab, the carbon absorption is steady but geologically slow, but there is some evidence that in the real world, the combined effects of microbes and plant enzymes may speed up the weathering process by at least an order of magnitude. (AG, p 145-146)

The cultivation methods offer a win-win-win scenario for carbon drawdown – but we’re on pace to a greenhouse gas overshoot that will likely dwarf the drawdown capacity of these methods. Buck estimates that cultivation methods, at the extremes of their potential, could sequester perhaps 10 to 20 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide per year (and that figure would taper off once most agricultural soils had been restored to a healthy state). That is unlikely to be anywhere near enough:

“Imagine that emissions flatline in 2020; the world puts in a strong effort to hold them steady, but it doesn’t manage to start decreasing them until 2030. … But ten years steady at 50 Gt CO2 eq [carbon dioxide equivalent emissions include other gases such as methane] – and there goes another 500 Gt CO2 eq into the atmosphere. That one decade would cancel out the 500 Gt CO2 eq the soils and forests could sequester over the next 50 years (sequestered at an extreme amount of effort and coordination among people around the whole world).” (AG p 115)

With every year that we pump out fossil fuel emissions, then, we compound the intergenerational crime we have already committed against Greta Thunberg and her children’s generations. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the probability that biological, generative methods of carbon drawdown will be too slow. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the degree to which future generations will be compelled to engage in industrial carbon drawdown work, using technologies which do not enrich the soil, which produce no food, which will not directly aid the millions of species struggling for survival, and which will suck up huge amounts of energy.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has earned a bad name for good reasons. To date most CCS projects – even those barely past the concept stage – have been promoted by fossil fuel interests. CCS projects offer them research subsidies for ways to continue their fossil fuel businesses, plus a public relations shine as proponents of “clean” energy.

A lignite mine in southwest Saskatchewan. This fossil fuel deposit is home to one of the few operating Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Carbon from a coal-fired generating station is captured and pumped into a depleting oil reservoir – for the purpose of prolonging petroleum production.

Buck argues that in spite of these factors, we need to think about CCS technologies separate from their current capitalist contexts. First of all, major use of CCS technologies alongside continued carbon emissions would not be remotely adequate – we will need to shut off carbon emissions AND draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And there is no obvious way to fit an ongoing, global program of CCS into the framework of our current corporatocracy.

The fossil fuel interests possess much of the technical infrastructure that could be used for CCS, but their business models rely on the sale of polluting products. So if CCS is to be done in a sustained fashion, it will need to be done in a publicly-funded way where the service, greenhouse gas drawdown, is for the benefit of the global public (indeed, the whole web of life, present and future); there will be no “product” to sell.

However CCS efforts are organized, they will need to be massive in order to cope with the amounts of carbon emissions that fossil fuel interests are still hell-bent on releasing. In the words of University of Southern California geologist Joshua West,

“The fossil fuels industry has an enormous footprint …. Effectively, if we want to offset that in an industrial way, we have to have an industry that is of equivalent proportion ….” (AG, p 147)

Imagine an industrial system that spans the globe, employing as many people and as much capital as the fossil fuel industries do today. But this industry will produce no energy, no wealth, no products – it will be busy simply managing the airborne refuse bequeathed by a predecessor economy whose dividends have long since been spent.

So while transitioning the entire global economy to strictly renewable energies, the next generations will also need enough energy to run an immense atmospheric garbage-disposal project.

After Geoengineering gives brief mentions but no sustained discussion of this energy crunch.

One of the intriguing features of the book is the incorporation of short fictional sketches of lives and lifestyles in coming decades. These sketches are well drawn, offering vivid glimpses of characters dealing with climate instability and working in new carbon drawdown industries. The vignettes certainly help in putting human faces and feelings into what otherwise might remain abstract theories.

Yet there is no suggestion that restricted energy supplies will be a limiting factor. The people in the sketches still travel in motorized vehicles, check their computers for communications, run artificial intelligence programs to guide their work, and watch TV in their high-rise apartments. In these sketches, people have maintained recognizably first-world lifestyles powered by zero-emission energy technologies, while managing a carbon drawdown program on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry.

If you lean strongly towards optimism you may hope for that outcome – but how can anyone feel realistically confident in that outcome?

The lack of a serious grappling with this energy challenge is, in my mind, the major shortcoming in After Geoengineering. And big questions about energy supply will hang in the air not only around carbon sequestration, but also around solar geoengineering if humanity comes to that.

Shaving the peak

Solar geoengineering –  the intentional pumping of substances into the upper atmosphere into order to block a percentage of incoming sunlight to cool the earth – has also earned a bad name among climate activists. It is, of course, a dangerous idea – just as extreme as the practice of pumping billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to overheat the earth.

But Buck makes a good case – a convincing case, in my opinion – that in order to justifiably rule out solar geoengineering, we and our descendants will have to do a very good job at both eliminating carbon emissions and drawing down our current excess of carbon dioxide, fast.

Suppose we achieve something which seems far beyond the capabilities of our current political and economic leadership. Suppose we get global carbon emissions on a steep downward track, and suppose that the coming generation manages to transition to 100% renewable while also starting a massive carbon drawdown industry. That would be fabulous – and it still may not be enough.

As Buck points out, just as it has proven difficult to predict just how fast the earth system responds to a sustained increased in carbon dioxide levels, nobody really knows how quickly the earth system would respond to a carbon drawdown process. The upshot: even in an era where carbon dioxide levels are gradually dropping, it will be some time before long-term warming trends reverse. And during that interim a lot of disastrous things could happen.

Take the example of coral reefs. Reef ecosystems are already dying due to ocean acidification, and more frequent oceanic heat waves threaten to stress reefs beyond survival. Buck writes,

“Reefs protect coasts from storms; without them, waves reaching some Pacific islands would be twice as tall. Over 500 million people depend on reef ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Therefore, keeping these ecosystems functioning is a climate justice issue.” (AG, p 216)

In a scenario about as close to best-case as we could realistically expect, the global community might achieve dropping atmospheric carbon levels, but still need to buy time for reefs until temperatures in the air and in the ocean have dropped back to a safe level. This is the plausible scenario studied by people looking into a small-scale type of geoengineering – seeding the air above reefs with a salt-water mist that could, on a regional scale only, reflect back sunlight and offer interim protection to essential and vulnerable ecosystems.

One could say that this wouldn’t really be geoengineering, since it wouldn’t affect the whole globe – and certainly any program to affect the whole globe would involve many more dangerous uncertainties.

Yet due to our current and flagrantly negligent practice of global-heating-geoengineering, it is not hard to imagine a scenario this century where an intentional program of global-cooling-geoengineering may come to be a reasonable choice.

Buck takes us through the reasoning with the following diagram:

From After Geoengineering, page 219

If we rapidly cut carbon emissions to zero, and we also begin a vast program of carbon removal, there will still be a significant time lag before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have dropped to a safe level and global temperatures have come back down. And in that interim, dangerous tipping points could be crossed.

To look at just one: the Antarctic ice sheets are anchored in place by ice shelves extending into the ocean. When warming ocean water has melted these ice shelves, a serious tipping point is reached. In the words of Harvard atmospheric scientist Peter Irvine,

“Because of the way the glaciers meet the ocean, when they start to retreat, they have kind of a runaway retreat. Again, very slow, like a couple of centuries. Five centuries. But once it starts, it’s not a temperature-driven thing; it’s a dynamic-driven thing … Once the ice shelf is sheared off or melted away, it’s not there to hold the ice sheet back and there’s this kind of dynamic response.” (AG, p 236)

The melting of these glaciers, of course, would flood the homes of billions of people, along with a huge proportion of the world’s agricultural land and industrial infrastructure.

So given the current course of history, it’s not at all far-fetched that the best option available in 50 years might be a temporary but concerted program of solar geoengineering. If this could “shave the peak” off a temperature overshoot, and thereby stop the Antarctic ice from crossing a tipping point, would that be a crazy idea? Or would it be a crazy idea not to do solar geoengineering?

These questions will not go away in our lifetimes. But if our generation and the next can end the fossil fuel frenzy, then just possibly the prospect of geoengineering can eventually be forgotten forever.

1 Greta Thunberg, “If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them”, address to United Nations, New York, September 23, 2019, as printed in The Guardian.
2 In the webinar “Towards a 20 GT Negative CO2 Emissions Industry”, sponsored by Security and Sustainability Forum, Sept 19, 2019.

If the insects go, we all go

An illustrated review of Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Also published at

Buzz, Sting, Bite is a breezy read with a sobering message: insects are so deeply woven into the web of life that the worldwide drop in insect populations threatens every other species. (Buzz, Sting, Bite is published by Simon & Schuster, July 2019)

Author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is a Norwegian ecologist who specializes in the interactions of the thousands of species that live in dead wood in Scandinavia. But here she writes for non-specialists, with the goal of inspiring more people with fascination, respect, awe and concern for insects.

So she’s happy to sprinkle the text with anthropomorphic metaphors, to showcase strange tales of insect sexual practices, and to regale us with ghoulish examples of insects who devour other insects in bizarre and inventive fashion. She explains why, in scientific terms, insects, spiders and centipedes belong to different phyla, while bugs are a specific order of insects – but she doesn’t let those formal distinctions get in the way of a good story.

Damselflies in Summer Meadow. Sverdrup-Thygeson writes: “Have you ever seen damselflies … perching or flying around in pairs? … The sole purpose of this tandem position is that it allows the male to keep watch over the female and make sure she doesn’t mate with any rivals until she has laid (what he hopes are) their jointly fertilized eggs on a suitable aquatic plant.” (page 34)

Though the book is illustrated only with a few eloquent black-and-white illustrations, Sverdrup-Thygeson’s story-telling is vivid. In just over two hundred pages the reader will absorb much fundamental biological understanding, along with compelling anecdotes about species from all over the world.

She concedes that a small number of insect species cause us harm, from annoying but temporarily itchy bites, to sudden crop failures, to epidemics of deadly diseases. Her focus, however, is on the other side of the ledger – the far more numerous species whose activities are indispensable to the biosphere that supports us.

Red Wasp on Hydrangea Paniculata. “Insects’ visits to flowers contribute to seed production in more than 80 percent of the world’s wild plants, and insect pollination improves fruit or seed quality in a large proportion of our global food crops …. A study of forty different crops across the planet showed that visits from wild insects increased crop yields in all systems.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 85)

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Echinacea.

At the end of the book she quotes Harvard professor E.O. Wilson: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change …. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.” And by the end of the book, Sverdrup-Thygeson has helped us to understand why Wilson was so right.

Insects evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than larger species did, and as a result our ecosystem is built on a foundation of insect biodiversity. More than half of all bird species, for example, eat insects, as do most freshwater fish. For about 80 per cent of wild plants, as well as most of the plants that we eat, visits from a variety of insects are either essential or measurably beneficial.

Red Admiral Butterfly on Coriander. “Most insect species on the planet undergo complete metamorphosis. This includes the dominant insect groups, such as beetles, wasps, butterflies, flies, and mosquitoes. The ingenious part of it is that they can exploit two totally different diets and habitats as child and adult ….” (page 5)

Green-Eyed Dragon. “The dragonfly excels as a lethal hunter, succeeding in more than 95 percent of its attempts. … Their vision makes a significant contribution to their success …. Almost their entire head consists of eyes. In fact, each eye is made up of 30,000 small eyes, which can see both ultraviolet and polarized light as well as colors. And since the eyes are like balls, the dragonfly can see most of what is happening on all sides of its body.” (page 16-17)

Disappearing Damselflies. “Freshwater fish live largely off insects because some insects take infant swimming so seriously that they keep their young permanently submerged until they reach the age of reason: mosquitos, mayflies, and dragonflies, to name but a few.” (page 101)

And then there’s decomposition, AKA composting and recycling. All over the globe there are sophisticated teams of bugs, bacteria and fungi which transform rotting animal flesh, fruit, leaves, trees, and dung into nutrients that then feed other species.

Ants in Tree-House. “Once fungi and insects, mosses and lichens, and bacteria have moved in, there are more living cells in the dead tree than there were when it was alive. So ironically enough, dead trees are actually among the most living things you can find in the forest.” (page 113)

There are many reasons for a rapid decline in insect numbers in many countries, including habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and climate change. Typically, the rare and most specialized species are the first to go, Sverdrup-Thygeson says. And though extinction is a frightening (and increasingly frequent) outcome, she warns that:

“It’s too late to worry when a species is on the brink of extinction. Species cease to function in the ecosystem long before the last individual dies out. That is why it is so vital not to focus exclusively on species extinction but to turn the spotlight on the decline in the number of individuals.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 178)

Buzz, Bite, Sting is an easy read for a summer day – but the book is meant to spur important action and change:

“We have everything to gain by caring a bit more about insects. I believe in knowledge, positive talk, and enthusiasm. Be curious about bugs, take the time to look and learn. Teach children about all the strange and useful things insects do. Talk nicely about bugs. Make your garden a better place for flower visitors. Let’s get insects onto the agenda in land-use plans and official reports, agriculture regulations and state budgets. … My hope is that this book will open more people’s eyes to the weird and wonderful world of insects and the extraordinary lives they live alongside us on this planet we share.”

Photographs taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Port Darlington, Ontario. Photo at top of post: Meadow Sunset Dragonfly (click here for full-size version)


Designing Climate Solutions – a big-picture view that doesn’t skimp on details

Also published at

Let us pause for a moment of thanks to the policy wonks, who work within the limitations of whatever is currently politically permissible and take important steps forward in their branches of bureaucracy.

Let us also give thanks to those who cannot work within those limitations, and who are determined to transform what is and is not politically permissible.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy is published by Island Press, November 2018.

An excellent new book from Island Press makes clear that both approaches to the challenge of climate disruption are necessary, though it deals almost exclusively with the work of policy design and implementation.

Designing Climate Solutions, by Hal Harvey with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, is a thoughtful and thorough discussion of policy options aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Harvey is particularly focused on discovering which specific policies are likely to have the biggest – and equally important, the quickest – impact on our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But he also pays close attention to the fine details of policy design which, if ignored, can cause the best-intentioned policies to miss their potentials.

One of the many strengths of the book is the wealth of graphics which present complex information in visually effective formats.

A political acceptable baseline

Though political wrangling is barely discussed, Harvey notes that “It goes without saying that a key consideration of any climate policy is whether it stands a chance of being enacted. A highly abating and perfectly designed policy is not worth pursuing if there is no chance it can be implemented.”

He takes as a starting point the target of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has received agreement in principle from nearly all countries: to reduce emissions enough by 2050 to give us at least a 50% chance of avoiding more than 2°C global warming. (We’ll return later to the question of the reasonableness of that goal.)

Throughout the book, then, different aspects of climate policy are evaluated for their relative contributions to the 2°C goal.

Working with a climate policy computer model which is discussed in detail in an appendix and which is available online, Harvey presents this framework: a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions of 2,253 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent from 2020 to 2050, but that must be reduced by 1,185 Gigatons.

The following chart presents what Harvey’s team believes is the realistic contribution of various sectors to the emission-reduction goal.

“Figure 3.4 – Policy contributions to meeting the 2°C global warming target.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 67)

The key point from this chart is that about 70% of the reductions are projected to come in three broad areas: changes to industrial production, conversion of electrical generation (“power sector”) to renewable energy, and cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions in line with their true social costs.

(The way things are categorized makes a big difference. For example, agriculture is slotted as a subset of the industrial sector, which boosts the relative importance of this sector for emissions-reduction potential.)

Harvey buttresses the argument by looking at the costs – or in many cases, cost-savings – of emissions-reduction policies. The following chart shows the relative costs of policies on the vertical dimension, and their relative contribution to emissions reduction on the horizontal dimension.

“Figure 3.2 – The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 59)


The data portrayed in this chart can guide policy in two important ways: policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

It may come as a surprise that the transportation and building sectors, in this framework, are responsible for only small slices of overall emission reductions.

Building Codes and Appliance Standards are pegged to contribute about 5% of the emission reductions, while a suite of transportation policies could together contribute about 7% of emission reductions.

A clear view of the overriding importance of reducing cumulative emissions by 2050 helps explain these seemingly small contributions – and why it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect these sectors.

To achieve climate policy goals it’s critical to reduce emissions quickly – and that’s hard to do in the building and transportation sectors. Building stock tends to last for generations, and major appliances typically last 10 years or more. Likewise car, truck and bus fleets tend to stay on the road for ten years or more. Thus the best building codes and the best standards for vehicle efficiency will have a very limited impact on carbon emissions over the next 15 years. By the same token, even the most rapid electrification possible of car and truck fleets won’t have full impact on emissions until the electric grid is generally decarbonized.

These are among the reasons that decarbonizing the electric grid, along with cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions, are so important to emissions reduction in the short term.

Meanwhile, though, it is also essential to get on with the slower work of upgrading buildings, appliances, transportation systems, and decarbonized agricultural and industrial processes. In the longer term, especially after 2050 when it will be essential to achieve zero net carbon emissions, even (relatively) minor contributions to emissions will be important. But as Harvey puts it, “There is no mopping up the last 10 percent of carbon emissions if we don’t eliminate the first 90 percent!”

International case studies

Harvey gets deep into the nuances of policy with an excellent discussion of the differences between carbon taxes and carbon caps. This helps readers to understand the value of hybrid approaches, and the importance in some countries of policies to limit “leakage”, whereby major industries simply shift production to jurisdictions without carbon prices or caps.

The many case studies – from the US, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries – illustrate policy designs that work especially well, or conversely, policies that have resulted in unintentional consequences which reduce their effectiveness.

These case studies also provide a reminder of the amount of hard work and dedication that mostly unsung bureaucrats have put in to the cause of mitigating climate disruption. As much as we may mourn that political leadership has been sorely lacking and that we appear to be losing the battle to forestall climate disaster, it seems undeniable that we would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the accomplishments of civil servants who have eked out small gains in their own sectors.

For example, the hard-won feed-in tariffs and other policies promoting renewable energies for electric generation haven’t yet resulted in a wholesale transformation of the grid – but they’ve resulted in an exponential drop in the cost per kilowatt of solar- and wind-generated power. Performance standards for many types of engines have resulted in significant improvements in energy efficiency. These improvements have so far mostly been offset by our economy’s furious push to sell more and bigger products – but these efficiency gains could nevertheless play a key role in a sane economic system of the future.

The 2° gamble

Although most of the book is devoted to details of particular policies, Harvey’s admirably lucid discussion of the urgency of the climate challenge makes clear that we need far greater commitment from the highest levels of political leadership.

He notes that the reality of climate action has been far less impressive than the high-minded rhetoric. With few exceptions the nations responsible for most of the carbon emissions have been woefully slow to act, which makes the challenge both more urgent and more difficult.

Harvey illustrates this point with the chart below. The black solid and dotted lines represent the necessary progress with emissions, if we had been smart enough to ensure emissions peaked in 2015. The red lines show what may now be the best-case scenario – an emissions peak in 2030 – and the much more drastic reductions that will then be required to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 2°C or less.

“Figure I-7. The longer the delay in peaking emissions, the harder it becomes to meet the same carbon budget.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 9)

We might well ask if a 50% likelihood of worldwide climate catastrophe is a prudent and reasonable policy aim, or certifiably bonkers. Still, a 50/50 chance of disaster is somewhat better than assured civilizational collapse, which is the destination of “business as usual.”

In any case, the political climate has changed considerably in the short time since Harvey and colleagues prepared Designing Climate Solutions. With the challenge to the political status quo embodied in the Green New Deal movement, it now seems plausible that some major carbon-emitting countries will enact more appropriate greenhouse-gas emission targets in the next few years. If that comes to pass, these new goals will need to be translated into effective policy, and the many lessons in Designing Climate Solutions will remain important.

What about fossil fuel subsidies?

In a book of such wide and ambitious scope, it is inevitable that some important facets are omitted or given short shrift.

The issues of deforestation and forest degradation are duly noted, but Harvey declines to delve into this subject by explaining that “The science, the policies, and the actors for reducing emissions from land use are very different from those for energy and industrial processes, and they deserve separate treatment from experts in land use policy.”

The issue of embodied carbon does not come up in the text. In assessing the replacement of fossil-powered vehicle fleets by electric vehicles, for example, is the embodied carbon inherent in current manufacturing processes a significant factor? Readers will need to search elsewhere for that answer.

Also noteworthy is the absence of any acknowledgement that economic growth itself may be a problem. For all the discussion of ways to transform industrial processes, there is no discussion of whether the scale of industrial output should also be reduced. In most countries today, of course, a civil servant who tries to promote degrowth will soon become an expert in unemployment, but that highlights the need for a wider and deeper look at economic fundamentals than is currently politically permissible.

The missing subject that seems most germane to the book’s central purpose, though, is the issue of subsidies for fossil fuels. Harvey does state in passing that “for many sectors and technologies, pricing is the key. Removing subsidies for fossil fuels is the first step – though still widely ignored.” Indeed, many countries have paid lip service to the need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but few have taken action along these lines.

But throughout Harvey’s extensive examination of pricing signals – e.g., feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, carbon caps, low-interest loans to renewable energy projects – there is no discussion of the degree to which existing fossil fuel subsidies continue to undercut the goals of climate policy and retard the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In my next post I’ll take up this subject with a look at how some governments, while tepidly supporting the transformation envisioned in the Paris Agreements, continue to safeguard their fossil fuel sectors through generous subsidies.

Illustration at top adapted from Designing Climate Solutions cover by David Ter Avanesyan.

Of hope, grief, and humility

A review of Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice

Also published at

If you’re looking for hope in Dahr Jamail’s new book The End Of Ice, the recommendation that Dr. Harold Wanless gives for Miami is about the closest you’ll find:

“Sea level rise is going to accelerate faster than the models, and it’s not going to stop,” he says. “So the government has to have a plan that includes buyouts. It’s cheaper to buy this area out than it is to maintain the infrastructure.” And before vacating most of the city,

The final thing is cleaning the land before inundation, and this is most important. We should be planning for that, including removing things in the buildings and industrial land that will pollute the marine environment, including low-lying areas in flood-plains. Otherwise we will give our kids a highly polluted new marine environment ….” (From The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, by Dahr Jamail, published by The New Press, January 2019

Is preparing for a new Atlantis a hopeful scenario? Well, it’s all relative. As South Miami mayor Dr. Philip Stoddard puts it, “Frankly, there is worse stuff than sea level rise. Most of the rest of the aspects of climate change are far worse. With sea level rise you can move, as compared to what do you do when the food supply disappears? How do you grow crops? How do we feed people? The answer is, not very well.”

Dahr Jamail is the author of three books growing out of his experience as an unembedded journalist in Iraq. But he says what he learned while researching The End Of Ice shook him even more deeply than did his reporting from Iraq.

He is also an experienced and dedicated mountaineer who has spent a big chunk of his life working with rescue teams on high-altitude glaciers in Alaska. Watching the rapid shrinkage of these glaciers has given him a personal window to the onset of climate disruption. But communion with these starkly beautiful environments also offers him a way to cope with the overwhelmingly frightening prognosis that he hears from climate scientists in the Arctic, the Amazon basin, south Florida and the coral reefs of the South Pacific.

Though most of the book consists of interviews with front-line scientists, a recurring theme is his struggle with despair, depression and a sense of meaningless when confronting what he is learning. For all of us who pay attention to the steadily worsening climate news, his reflections on hope, grief, and humility are an important part of his message.

Suffice it to say that most of his interview subjects think we have already blown our chances of keeping global average temperature rise to 2°C or less – even if, miraculously, all nations meet their Paris Agreement commitments. And if 3°C, 4°C or more of temperature rise has already been set in motion, then some truly devastating positive feedback loops are likely to follow. Two such feedbacks that Jamail discusses are rapid die-offs of forests in both the Amazon and the boreal regions, which would turn these forests into major carbon sources rather than carbon sinks; and the potential for an explosive release of long-frozen methane due to the warming of arctic permafrost.

Even without such feedbacks, many researchers believe that the IPCC reports have been underestimating risks for decades now. As Harold Wanless explains,

There are political games going on in the IPCC and their modelers can’t look beyond the model. The IPCC only uses stuff in refereed journals, which is already four to five years outdated, and they cut off three years early for peer review, so it is at least 10 years outdated ….”

Furthermore, Wanless says, the need for consensus in the IPCC reports results in “lowball projections” skewing the reports and downplaying the seriousness of our predicament.

With each successive IPCC report, the previous predictions are shown to have been too optimistic. The loss of Arctic sea ice is galloping ahead of official projections – “we already reached the amount of Arctic sea ice loss anticipated for 2050 back in 2002.”

(Today’s news offers further confirmation, as a major new report says even in the best-case scenario at least one-third of the Himalayan ice cap will be lost by 2100, while with a 4–5°C global warming, at least two-thirds of this ice will be gone by 2100.)

Unlike the Greenland glaciers or the ice sheets covering Antarctica (which many scientists believe are already on an unstoppable path to melting), mountain-top glaciers don’t hold enough water to play a large part in sea-level rise. These glaciers do, however, play essential roles in their regional ecosystems, and their disappearance will have devastating impacts on biodiversity, agriculture, and political stability for hundreds of millions or billions of people.

Mountain snow caps, Jamail explains, are like water towers – storing water throughout the winter and spring, and gradually releasing cold water into rivers and valleys in summer. The icewater shapes micro-climates as it flows down the hills, providing life-giving conditions for species dependent on cold water. Then it provides drinking water or irrigation water for some of the world’s major agricultural areas in foothills and plains.

If snowpacks melt too early due to winter rains or high spring temperatures, the water is gone long before it is really needed in summer. The consequences will be widespread, Jamail says:

Most people in the United States who don’t live in areas where some or most of their water source is reliant upon glaciers may think melting glaciers won’t impact them. But they would be wrong. Diminishing glaciers in the western United States will impact agriculture, driving up food prices everywhere. And globally, when the millions of people who rely on glaciers for their water and agriculture lose those glaciers, many of these people will have to leave their homes, becoming refugees.”

Jamail ends the book with an extended reflection on death, despair, grieving and gratitude. He finds solace in quiet time gazing at the sunset on the face of a mountain, though that time feels like the precious hours shared at an intimate friend’s deathbed. And he says he has learned to surrender hope: “I came to understand that hope blocked the greater need to grieve, so that was the reason necessitating the surrendering of it.” He adds,

“Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things .… My acceptance of our probable decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself. … I am grieving and yet I have never felt more alive.”

Perhaps each person must answer these questions their own way, and though I have immense respect for Jamail’s work and his conclusions, I cannot say I am ready either to fully embrace hope or to give it up.

Jamail also shares inspiration in the words of Stan Rushworth, an elder of Cherokee descent who relates the lessons imparted by his father. For me these words especially ring true. Rushworth says:

The dire position we’re in now is solid evidence of the fact that the predominant civilization does not have a handle on all the interrelationships between humans and what we call the natural world. If it did, we wouldn’t be facing this dire situation. … We simply do not have a big enough or right-minded enough vision. Because of this, we need to allow for something we cannot understand.

This is not about hope, but more, humility, and carefully considered action within that humility, and much deeper listening.”

Photo at top: Dahr Jamail, photographed by John Fleming, from the cover of The End of Ice

Beyond computational thinking – a ‘cloud of unknowing’ for the 21st century

Also published at

New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, by James Bridle, Verso Books, 2018

If people are to make wise decisions in our heavily technological world, is it essential that they learn how to code?

For author and artist James Bridle, that is analogous to asking whether it is essential that people be taught plumbing skills.

Of course we want and need people who know how to connect water taps, how to find and fix leaks. But,

learning to plumb a sink is not enough to understand the complex interactions between water tables, political geography, ageing infrastructure, and social policy that define, shape and produce actual life support systems in society.” (Except where otherwise noted, all quotes in this article are from New Dark Age by James Bridle, Verso Books 2018)

Likewise, we need people who can view our technological society as a system – a complex, adaptive and emergent system – which remains heavily influenced by certain motives and interests while also spawning new developments that are beyond any one group’s control.

Bridle’s 2018 book New Dark Age takes deep dives into seemingly divergent subjects including the origins of contemporary weather forecasting, mass surveillance, airline reservation systems, and Youtube autoplay lists for toddlers.  Each of these excursions is so engrossing that it is sometimes difficult to hold his central thesis in mind, and yet he weaves all the threads into a cohesive tapestry.

Bridle wants us to be aware of the strengths of what he terms “computational thinking” – but also its critical limitations. And he wants us to look at the implications of  the internet as a system, not only of power lines and routers and servers and cables, but also of people, from the spies who tap into network nodes to monitor our communications, to the business analysts who devise ways to “monetize” our clicks, to the Facebook groups who share videos backing up their favoured theories.

Wiring of the SEAC computer, which was built in 1950 for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. It was used until 1964, for purposes including meteorology, city traffic simulations, and the wave function of  the helium atom. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

From today’s weather, predict tomorrow’s

Decades before a practical electronic computer existed, pioneering meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson1 thought up what would become a “killer app” for computers.

Given current weather data – temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed – for a wide but evenly spaced matrix of locations, Richardson reasoned that it should be possible to calculate how each cell’s conditions would interact with the conditions in adjacent cells, describe new weather patterns that would arise, and therefore predict tomorrow’s weather for each and all of those locations.

That method became the foundation of contemporary weather forecasting, which has improved by leaps and bounds in our lifetimes. But in 1916, when Richardson first tried to test his ideas they were practically useless. The method involved so many calculations that Richardson worked for weeks, then months, then years to work out a ‘prediction’ from a single day’s weather data.

But by the end of World War II, the US military had developed early electronic computers which could begin to make Richardson’s theory a useful one. To military strategists, of course, the ability to predict weather could provide a great advantage in war. Knowing when a particular attack would be helped or hindered by the weather would be a great boon to generals. Even more tantalizingly, if it were possible to clearly understand and predict the weather, it might then also be possible to control the weather, inflicting a deluge or a sandstorm, for example, on vulnerable enemy forces.

John von Neumann, a mathematician, Manhattan Project physicist and a major figure in the development of computers, summed it up.

In what could be taken as the founding statement of computational thought, [von Neumann] wrote: ‘All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.’”

Computational thinking, then, relied on the input of data about present conditions, and further data on how such conditions have been correlated in the past, in order to predict future conditions.

But because many aspects of our world are connected in one system – an adaptive and emergent system – this system spawns new trends which behave in new ways, not predictable simply from the patterns of the past. In other words, in the anthropocene age our system is not wholly computable. We need to understand, Bridle writes, that

technology’s increasing inability to predict the future – whether that’s the fluctuating markets of digital stock exchanges, the outcomes and applications of scientific research, or the accelerating instability of the global climate – stems directly from these misapprehensions about the neutrality and comprehensibility of computation.”

Take the case of climate studies and meteorology. The technological apparatus to collect all the data, crunch the numbers, and run the models is part of a huge industrial infrastructure that is itself changing the climate (with the internet itself contributing an ever-more significant share of greenhouse gas emissions). As a result the world’s weather is ever more turbulent, producing so-called ‘100 year storms’ every few years. We can make highly educated guesses about critical climatic tipping points, but we are unable to say for sure when these events will occur or how they will interact.

Age-old traditional knowledge of ways to deal with this week’s or this year’s weather is becoming less reliable. Scientists, too, should acknowledge the limits of computational thinking for their work:

In a 2016 editorial for the New York Times, computational meteorologist and past president of the American Meteorological Society William B. Gail cited a number of patterns that humanity has studied for centuries, but that are disrupted by climate change: long-term weather trends, fish spawning and migration, plant pollination, monsoon and tide cycles, the occurrence of ‘extreme’ weather events. For most of recorded history, these cycles have been broadly predictable, and we have built up vast reserves of knowledge that we can tap into in order to better sustain our ever more entangled civilisation.”

The implications are stark: “Gail foresees a time in which our grandchildren might conceivably know less about the world in which they live than we do today, with correspondingly catastrophic events for complex societies.”

World map of submarine communication cables, 2015. Cable data by Greg Mahlknecht, world map by Openstreetmap contributors. Accessed through Wikimedia Commons.

Lines of power

In many ways, Bridle says, we can be mislead by the current view of the internet as a “cloud”. Contrary to our metaphor, he writes, “The cloud is not weightless; it is not amorphous, or even invisible, if you know where to look for it.” To be clear,

It is a physical infrastructure consisting of phone lines, fibre optics, satellites, cables on the ocean floor, and vast warehouses filled with computers, which consume huge amounts of water and energy and reside within national and legal jurisdictions. The cloud is a new kind of industry, and a hungry one.”

We have already referred to the rapidly growing electricity requirements of the internet, with its inevitable impact on the world’s climate. When we hear about “cloud computing”, Bridle also wants us to bear in mind the ways in which this “cloud” both reflects and reinforces military, political and economic power relationships:

The cloud shapes itself to geographies of power and influence, and it serves to reinforce them. The cloud is a power relationship, and most people are not on top of it.”

It is no accident, he says, that maps of internet traffic trace pathways of colonial power that are hundreds of years old. And we shouldn’t be surprised that the US military-intelligence complex, which gave birth to internet protocols, have also installed wiretapping equipment and personnel at junctions where trans-oceanic cables come ashore in the US, allowing them to scoop up far more communications data than they can effectively monitor.2

These power relationships come into play in determining not only what is visible in our web applications, but what is hidden. Bridle is a keen plane-spotter, and he marvels at flight-tracking websites which show, in real time, the movements of thousands of commercial aircraft around the world. “The view of these flight trackers, like that of Google Earth and other satellite image services, is deeply seductive,” he says, but wait:

This God’s-eye view is illusory, as it also serves to block out and erase other private and state activities, from the private jets of oligarchs and politicians to covert surveillance flights and military manoeuvres. For everything that is shown, something is hidden.”

Aviation comes up frequently in the book, as its military and commercial importance is reflected in the outsize role aviation has played in the development of computing and communications infrastructure. Aviation provides compelling examples of the unintended, emergent consequences of this technology.

High anthropoclouds in the sky of Barcelona, 2010, accessed through Wikimedia Commons. The clouds created by aircraft have an outsize impact on climate change. And climate change, Bridle writes, contributes to the increasingly vexing problem of “clear air turbulence” which threatens aircraft but cannot be reliably predicted.

On the last day of October, just a few months after New Dark Age was published, I found myself at Gatwick International Airport near London. I wanted to walk to the nearby town of Crawley to pick up a cardboard packing box. Though the information clerks in the airport terminal told me there was no walking route to Crawley, I had already learned that there was in fact a multi-use cycling lane, and so I hunted around the delivery ramps and parking garage exits until I found my route.

It was a beautiful but noisy stroll, with a brook on one side, a high fence on the other, and the ear-splitting roar of jet engines rising over me every few minutes. Little did I know that in just over a month this strange setting would be a major crime scene, as the full force of the aeronautical/intelligence industry pulled out all stops to find the operators of unauthorized drones, while hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded in the pre-Christmas rush.

Another month has passed and no perpetrators have been identified, leading some to wonder if the multiple drone sightings were all mistakes. But in any case, aviation experts have long agreed that it’s just a matter of time before “non-state actors” manage to use unmanned aerial vehicles to deadly effect. Wireless communications, robotics, and three-dimensional location systems are now so widely available and inexpensive, it is unrealistic to think that drones will always be controlled by or even tracked by military or police authorities.

The exponential advance of artificial stupidity

Bridle’s discussion of trends in artificial intelligence is at once one of the most intriguing and, to this layperson at least, one of the less satisfying sections of the book. Many of us have heard about a new programming approach, following which a computer program taught itself to play the game Go, and soon was able to beat the world’s best human players of this ancient and complex game.

Those of us who have had to deal with automated telephone-tree answering systems, as much as we may hate the experience, can recognize that voice-recognition and language processing systems have also gotten better. And Google Translate has improved by leaps and bounds in just a few years time.

Bridle’s discussion of the relevant programming approaches presupposes a basic familiarity with the concept of neural networks. Since he writes so clearly about so many other facets of computational thinking, I wish he had chosen to spell out the major approaches to artificial intelligence a bit more for those of us who do not have degrees in computer science.

When he discusses the facility of Youtube in promoting mindless videos, and the efficiency of social media in spreading conspiracy theories of every sort, his message is lucid and provocative.

Here the two-step dance between algorithms and human users of the web produces results that might be laughable if they weren’t chilling. Likewise, strange trends develop out of interplay between Google’s official “mission” – “to organize the world’s information” – and the business model by which it boosts its share price – selling ads.

The Children’s Youtube division of Google has been one of Bridle’s research interests, and those of us fortunate enough not to be acquainted with this realm of culture are likely to be shocked by what he finds.

You might ask what kind of idiot would name a video “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Surfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho”. A clever idiot, that’s who, an idiot who may or may not be human, but who knows how to make money. Bridle explains the motive:

This unintelligible assemblage of brand names, characters and keywords points to the real audience for the descriptions: not the viewer, but the algorithms that decide who sees which videos.”

These videos are created to be seen by children too young to be reading titles. Youtube accommodates them – and parents happy to have their toddlers transfixed by a screen – by automatically assembling long reels of videos for autoplay. The videos simply need to earn their place in the playlists with titles that contain enough algorithm-matching words or phrases, and hold the toddler’s attention long enough for ads to be seen and the next video to begin.

The content factories that churn out videos by the millions, then, must keep pace with current trends while spending less on production than will be earned by the accompanying ads, which are typically sold on a “per thousand views” basis.

Is this a bit of a stretch from “organizing the world’s information”? Yes, but what’s more important, a corporation’s lofty mission statement, or its commercial raison d’être? (That is, to sell ads.)

When it comes to content aimed at adults the trends are just as troubling, as Bridle’s discussion of conspiracy theories makes clear.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he explains, “a belief is not a delusion when it is held by a person’s ‘culture or subculture’.”

But with today’s social media, it is easy to find people who share any particular belief, no matter how outlandish or ridiculous that belief might seem to others:

Those that the psychiatric establishment would have classified as delusional can ‘cure’ themselves of their delusions by seeking out and joining an online community of like minds. Any opposition to this worldview can be dismissed as a cover-up of the truth of their experience ….”

This pattern, as it happens, reflects the profit-motive basis of social media corporations – people give a media website their attention for much longer when it spools videos or returns search results that confirm their biases and beliefs, and that means there are more ads viewed, more ad revenue earned.

If Google and other social media giants do a splendid job of “organizing the world’s information”, then, they are equally adept at organizing the world’s misinformation:

The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.”

Our unknowable future

After reading to the last page of a book in which the author covers a dazzling array of topics so well and weaves them together so skillfully, it would be churlish to wish he had included more. I would hope, however, that Bridle or someone with an equal gift for systemic analysis will delve into two questions that naturally arise from this work.

Bridle notes that the energy demands of our computational network are growing rapidly, to the point that this network is a significant driver of climate change. But what might happen to the network if our energy supply becomes effectively scarce due to rapidly rising energy costs?3

Major sectors of the so-called Web 2.0 are founded in a particular business model: services are provided to the mass of users “free”, while advertisers and other data-buyers pay for our attention in order to sell us more products. What might happen to this dominant model of “free services”, if an economic crash means we can’t sustain consumption on anything close to the current scale?

I suspect Bridle would say that the answers to these questions, like so many others, do not compute. Though computation can be a great tool, it will not answer many of the most important questions.

In the morass of information/misinformation in which our network engulfs us, we might find many reasons for pessimism. But Bridle urges us to accept and even welcome the deep uncertainty which has always been a condition of our existence.

As misleading as the “cloud” may be as a picture of our computer network, Bridle suggests we can find value if we take a nod from the 14th-century Christian mystic classic  “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Its anonymous author wrote, “On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you …. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds.”

Or in Bridle’s 21st century phrasing,

It is this cloud that we have sought to conquer with computation, but that is continually undone by the reality of what we are attempting. Cloudy thinking, the embrace of unknowing, might allow us to revert from computational thinking, and it is what the network itself urges upon us.”

Photo at top: anthropogenic clouds over paper mill UPM-Kymmene, Schongau, 2013. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.


1 For an excellent account of the centuries-long development of contemporary meteorology, including the important role of Lewis Fry Richardson, see Bill Streever’s 2016 book And Soon I Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Moving Air.
2 More precisely, though intelligence agents can often zero in on suspicious conversations after a crime has been committed or an insurgency launched, the trillions of bits of data are unreliable sources of prediction before the fact.
3 Kris de Decker has posed some intriguing possibilities in Low-Tech Magazine. See, for example, his 2015 article “How to Build a Low-tech Internet”.