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

Also published at Resilience.org

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.


NOTES

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”.

The clean green pipeline machine – a free-market fairy tale

A review of Donald Gutstein’s The Big Stall

Also published at Resilience.org

In late 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ready to spell out his government’s “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change”. His pitch to Canadians went along these lines:

We recognize that climate change is a serious challenge and that we must transition to a new economy which dramatically cuts carbon emissions. To make this transition we need a strong economy and a united country. To have a strong economy we must allow our fossil fuel sector to continue to grow. And to keep our country united while we impose a modest price on carbon, we must also build new pipelines so that oil sands extraction can grow. That is why my government is proud to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions, by ensuring that the oil sands sector emits more carbon.

If you think that sounds absurd, then you’re likely not part of Canada’s financial, industrial, political or media elite, who for the most part applauded both the minimal carbon tax and the substantial oil sands expansions being pushed by Trudeau and by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

How did we get to a point where oil companies and governments are accepted as partners in devising climate action plans? And why did these climate action plans, decade after decade, permit fossil fuel companies to continue with business as usual, while carbon emissions grew steadily?

This is the subject of Donald Gutstein’s new book The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada. (James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, October 2018)

Though Gutstein takes a deep dive into Canadian politics, industry and academia, much of his story also concerns the series of international conferences which attempted, with very little success, to come up with strong international solutions for a climate crisis that knows no borders. Thus The Big Stall has relevance to climate change campaigners in many countries.

By the early 1990s, Gutstein says, the pervasive influence of neoliberal economic theory was leading to “a silent corporate takeover of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.

Neoliberal theory said that the “free market”, not government, should be relied on to solve the problem of climate change. That suited the oil industry, because the one thing they feared most was a hard-and-fast regulatory limit on carbon emissions.

An ad for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, perhaps? Not so – this is a still from the Alberta government’s tv ad series with the tagline “The TransMountain Pipeline is on  Canada’s side.” At keepcanadaworking.ca.

Lessons from Big Tobacco

In common with many other historians, Gutstein pays close attention to the strong links between public relations campaigns used by the tobacco industry and the similar strategies employed by Big Oil, particularly in sowing public confusion about the scientific consensus.

But as Gutstein’s book makes clear, the mainstream environmental movement failed to absorb a key lesson from the decades-long struggle to combat tobacco addiction: the industry whose products are the root of the problem should not be relied on to devise solutions.

Corporate participation in COP21 [Paris 2015] and in the conferences and talks leading up to and following it stands in stark contrast with the corporate role in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. There, tobacco interests are excluded, a fact which helps explain that treaty’s rapid progress in curtailing tobacco use. … At the climate talks, in sharp contrast, there is no conflict between Big Oil’s interests and public health and environmental interests. The corporate sector succeeded in making itself integral to the process.” (The Big Stall, page 158-159)

Fossil fuel interests assured their seat at the table in part by sponsoring the negotiations. In Paris in 2015, Gutstein writes,

Big Oil even partly financed the talks. France could have easily paid the C$255-million cost, but by allowing corporations to contribute 20 per cent, the host country encouraged the private sector to be part of the inner circle that was planning and organizing the event.” (The Big Stall, page 160)

The result was that in spite of inspiring rhetoric and lofty goals, the Paris Agreement contained no binding emissions reduction requirements. Instead countries were free to make their own reduction “pledges” with no penalties for missing their targets. This result was perfectly predictable, Gutstein says: “Paris was guided to its inevitable conclusion by the veiled hand of Big Oil and its corporate and political allies.” (The Big Stall, page 155)

He traces the pattern of corporate influence over climate negotiations back to the role of Canadian businessman Maurice Strong at the 1992 Rio Summit, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland at the eponymous Brundtland Commission in the 1980s.

Brundtland helped popularize the phrase “sustainable development” – a phrase which Gutstein says has come to mean little beyond sustaining the profits and asset values of major corporations. Thus fossil fuel interests can forge ahead with plans to extract even more nonrenewable resources while forestalling international action to reduce carbon emissions – and then sign declarations of support for “sustainable development”.

An ad for Wind Turbines? Flowers? Puppies? Kites? None of the above – this is a still from an Alberta government tv spot promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion, which is intended to double the amount of bitumen exported through the Port of Vancouver.

To tax or not to tax carbon

The story gets complicated, of course, because corporate figures do not always agree on the best ways to protect their bottom lines, and sometimes they respond to changing political winds in different ways.

Gutstein covers these shifts in corporate spin in great detail. Put simply, major fossil fuel interests went from denying that there was any scientific consensus on the reality or cause of global warming, to support for carbon-emissions trading markets, to support for a modest carbon tax.

In Canada in particular, a carbon tax was seen as a necessary concession to strong public concern that Canada wasn’t doing its part to mitigate global warming. Recognizing that the oil sands had a terrible reputation around the globe, oil interests hoped they could earn public favour by supporting a carbon tax. And politicians including Justin Trudeau pitched the carbon tax as an integral part of an indivisible package: we need to tax carbon to reduce emissions, while at the same time building new pipelines to ensure that oil sands extraction continues to grow.1

The common element in all of these fossil fuel corporation strategies is that there must not be any strict regulatory limit on carbon emissions – we must trust “the market”, in all its infinite wisdom, to arrive at emissions reductions. (When fossil fuel interests want subsidies, or need government help to get their products to market, then of course it is quite alright to deviate from free market principles.)

Gutstein makes clear that the level of carbon taxes advocated by fossil fuel interests is far too low to have a significant impact either on their profits or on national carbon emissions. Likewise, he says, the imposition of carbon taxes alone cannot substitute for the wide range of regulatory measures and incentives needed to make a rapid transition away from a fossil fuel economy. But he leaves unanswered another question: does he think carbon taxes could play an important role if they were set high enough to be effective, and were part of an appropriate package of other rules and incentives? In other words, if our political parties move beyond their fealty to neoliberal free-market ideology, should they enact effective carbon taxes?

The final corporate PR strategy that Gutstein discusses is the trend for fossil fuel companies to embrace the “market opportunity” of leading the transition to new energy systems. By publicizing their corporate efforts to buy wind turbines, study battery technology, or build heavily-subsidized prototypes of carbon-capture-and-sequestration plants, fossil fuel companies would like us to believe they are leading the way into a clean green future. But the important action happens behind the scenes, as fossil fuel companies continue to fight against any effective and compulsory limits on carbon emissions.

A clean green future? Major graphics in this article are stills from an Alberta-government funded tv ad series promoting the TransMountain Pipeline expansion. The ads do not show images of pipelines, tar sands open-pit mines, tailings ponds or refineries – just prosperous people and unspoiled environments. (At keepcanadaworking.ca.) Since the ads are paid for by a provincial government, and the TransMountain Pipeline is now owned by the federal government, fossil fuel industry adherence to “free market” principles can be flexible indeed.


FOOTNOTES

By the time The Big Stall was published, Trudeau’s grand bargain was in danger of failing on both fronts. Court cases and business decisions had delayed or cancelled most of the pending pipelines that would facilitate oil sands expansion. In the meantime the minimal carbon tax Trudeau has promised has been dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” by the new Premier of Ontario and the federal Conservative Party, and the scheduled tax is now vehemently opposed by provincial leaders in about half of the country.

Quantifying climate hypocrisy – the Canada file

Also published at Resilience.org

Which nation shows greater hypocrisy in the struggle to limit climate change – the United States or Canada?

The US President, of course, misses no opportunity to dismiss scientific consensus, downplay the dangers of climate change, and promote fossil fuel use.

Canada’s Prime Minister, on the other hand, has been consistent in stating that the scientific consensus is undeniable, the danger is clear, and Canada must step up to the challenge of drastic carbon emissions reductions.

It was within the first few weeks of the Justin Trudeau administration that Canada surprised most observers by backing a call from island nations to hold global warming to 1.5°C, as opposed to the 2°C warming threshold that had been a more widely accepted official goal.1

Yet according to a new peer-reviewed study2 of countries’ pledged emissions reduction commitments following the Paris Agreement, Canada’s level of commitment would result in 5.1°C of global warming if all countries followed the same approach to carbon emissions. In this tally of the potential effects of national climate commitments, Canada ranks with the worst of the worst, a select club that also includes Russia, China, New Zealand and Argentina.

The actual carbon emissions policies of the US would result in a lesser degree of total calamity –  4°C of warming – if followed by all countries.

Behind this discrepancy between Canada’s professed goals and its actual policy is the lack of a global agreement on a fair method for allocating the remaining carbon emissions budget.

The Paris Agreement set a target for the limitation of global warming, and it was (relatively) straightforward to calculate how much more carbon can be emitted without blowing through that warming target. But countries remained free to decide for themselves what principles to follow in determining their fare share of emissions reductions.

The result?

Developed countries who committed to take the lead in reducing emissions and mobilizing finance for developing countries often submitted NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] that do not match the concepts of equity that they publicly supported.” (du Pont and Meinshausen, “Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges”, Nature Communications.)

A fair way to count to 10

An old joke provides a good analogy for the slipperiness inherent in divvying up the global carbon budget. (My apologies to accountants everywhere, especially the one who first told me this joke.)

You ask a mathematician, “how much is 3 + 3 + 4?” She punches the numbers into her calculator, and tells you “3 + 3 + 4 is 10”.

But when you ask an accountant “how much is 3 + 3 + 4?” he sidles up and whispers in your ear, “How much do you want it to be?”

Though climate scientists can provide a simple number for how much additional carbon can be emitted globally before we hit our agreed-on warming threshold, each country’s ruling party decides for themselves how much they want their share of that carbon budget to be.

And the radically different circumstances of countries has resulted in radically different positions on what is fair.

A 2016 study published in Nature gives us insight into Canada’s position.

Entitled “Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change”, the study categorizes countries into how drastically and immediately they are hit by the effects of climate change. While all countries are already being impacted, the study found that Canada is among the 20% of countries who are suffering least from climate change.

Countries are also categorized according to their responsibility for climate change, and Canada is among the 20% who have contributed the most (on a per capita basis) in causing climate change.

In economic terms, those who do most to cause climate change while suffering the least damage from climate change are “free riders”. Those who do the least to cause climate change, but suffer the most from it, are “forced riders”.

The study shows that Canada is among the 20 “free riders” now, and will still be one of 16 “free riders” in 2030. The “forced riders” in both 2010 and 2030 include many African countries and small island nations. (Yes, that would be the same island nations that Canada claimed to be backing in 2015 in the call to adopt a 1.5°C warming threshold.)

“Figure 1. Global inequity in the responsibility for climate change and the burden of its impacts” in “Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change”, by Glenn Althor, James E. M. Watson and Richard A. Fuller, Nature, 5 February 2016. Countries shown in dark brown are in the highest quintile in emissions and in the lowest quintile of vulnerability to climate change. Countries in dark green are in the lowest quintile of emissions, but in the highest quintile of vulnerability. The top map shows this mismatch in 2010, the bottom map the projected mismatch in 2030.

Is there evidence that the “free riders” are trying to maintain their free-riding status as long as possible? According to du Pont, Meinshausen and their research colleagues, the answer is yes: most countries have set carbon emissions commitments that reflect their immediate self-interests. In the case of the major fossil fuel producers and consumers, that means the sum of their commitments adds up to a woefully inadequate global carbon emissions reduction.

An equity framework that dares not speak its name

In their discussion of the emissions reductions pledges made by nations following the Paris Agreement, du Pont and Meinshausen try to match these pledges with various approaches to equity. They note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has listed five major equity frameworks. These frameworks are summarized in this table from an earlier paper:

Source: “Equitable mitigation to achieve the Paris Agreement goals”, by Yann Robiou du Pont, M. Louise Jeffery, Johannes Gütschow, Joeri Rogelj, Peter Christoff, and Malte Meinshausen, Nature, 19 December 2016

Of particular interest for our purposes is the final entry, CER or “Constant emissions ratio”. This has been defined as

[maintaining] current emissions ratios (‘constant emissions ratio’, or CER), so that each country continues to emit the same share of global emissions as it does at the moment, even as the total volume is cranked down.”3

In other words, those who have emitted an outsize share of carbon in the past get to preserve an outsize share of a shrinking pie in future, while those who have emitted very little carbon to date are restricted even more drastically in future.

If that sounds anything but fair to you, you are not alone. Du Pont and Meinshausen say the Constant Emissions Ratio “is considered unfair and not openly supported by any country.”

Yet when they looked at the Nationally Determined Contributions following the Paris Agreement, they found that the Constant Emissions Ratio “implicitly matches many developed countries’ targets”.

The Constant Emissions Ratio framework for these countries would be the least stringent of the IPCC’s equity frameworks – that is, it would impose the smallest and slowest cuts in carbon emissions.

In the case of Canada and other members of the climate rogues gallery, their post-Paris commitments turn out to be even weaker than commitments calculated by the Constant Emissions Ratio method.

Former ExxonMobil CEO and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Follow the money

Let’s take a closer look at some of the Nationally Determined Contributions – individual nations’ commitments towards the global goal of rapid decarbonization.

“Selected Country Pledges Under the Paris Agreement and GHG Emissions”, from “The Paris Agreement on Climate Change”, by Radoslav Dimitrov, published by University of Western Ontario, March 2018.

Canada’s commitment ranks among the weakest of this lot for three reasons. First, the Reduction Target of 30% is near the low end of the scale, with several other industrial economies pledged to Reduction Targets of 40% or more. Second, the Target Year for achievement of the Reduction, 2030, is five years beyond the US and Brazil Target Dates of 2025. This matters, because every year that we continue to emit high amounts of carbon makes it that much more difficult to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Third, the Base Year is also very significant, and on this measure Canada also ranks with the poorest commitments. The European Union, for example, pledges to reduce from a Base Year of 1990, while Canada will work from a Base Year of 2005.

Between 1990 and 2005, Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose 25%,4 and so if Canada’s emissions in 2030 are 30% lower than in 2005, that is only about a 12% reduction compared to 1990.

Canada’s national government claims to understand that swift and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. So why would this government then commit to only a 12% emissions reduction, compared to 1990, as a target for 2030? Let’s follow the money, with a quick look at the relative influence of the fossil fuel industry in Canada.

Radoslav Dimitrov writes

the energy sector (oil, gas and electricity) is important to the Canadian economy, accounting for approximately 10% of national GDP in 2016, more than a quarter of public and private investment, and approximately 29% of exports.”5

Notably absent in the above paragraph is employment. Natural Resources Canada says that in 2017, only 5% of employment was either directly or indirectly within the energy sector, and that includes the electricity sector.6

Both of Canada’s traditional ruling parties like to talk about their commitment to “good middle-class jobs”. But given the scale of the environmental crisis we face, how big a challenge would it be to fund an immediate job retraining and investment program to start replacing fossil fuel jobs with renewable energy jobs? Couldn’t a committed government-and-industry program find new “middle-class jobs” for 3% or 4% of the working-age population?

I think the answer is yes … but as for capital investment, that’s another story. The fossil fuel industry accounts for closer to 25% of Canadian investment, and an immediate and sustained push to reduce the output of carbon-intensive fuels would result in a dramatic and immediate drop in the stock-market value of fossil-fuel corporations.  Those stocks are a big part of the portfolios of most people in Canada’s stock-owning class.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

A two-pronged strategy which starts with “dig the hole deeper”

Since before his election as national leader, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proclaimed the need to “balance the environment and the economy”. What has this meant in practice?

As the industry-friendly Financial Post put it in 2015,

The encouraging news — at least from the perspective of the energy sector — is that Mr. Trudeau seems onside with continued oil industry expansion and that his climate change program aims to support it rather than contain it.”7

Part of Trudeau’s program was a commitment to establishing a modest national price on carbon. He found a prominent early ally in an unlikely location, Alberta. There the NDP Premier Rachel Notley not only implemented a carbon price, but also announced a cap on carbon emissions from Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

Notably, however, that cap will start to reduce tar sands emissions only in 2030, and in the meantime emissions from that sector are projected to rise 50%, from 66 megatonnes/year to 100 megatonnes.

The Alberta plan thus mirrors Trudeau’s national policy. While championing a modest carbon tax, the Prime Minister has consistently pushed for the construction of major new pipelines – and the business case for these pipelines is that they are essential in the expansion of tar sands extraction.

On this front, at least, Trudeau is willing to put our money where his mouth is. Last summer, the Trudeau government invested $4.5 billion to buy the TransMountain Pipeline, with the prospect of spending at least several billion more in a much delayed project designed to almost triple the line’s bitumen-carrying capacity.

Meanwhile a national price on carbon emissions of $20/tonne is scheduled to be implemented in January 2019, rising to $50/tonne in 2022. While most environmentalists see this as a positive step, they also believe the price needs to be much higher if it is to result in dramatic emission reductions.

Setting a low bar and failing to clear it

As we have seen, the Nationally Determined Contribution that Canada has offered in response to the Paris Agreement is one of the world’s weakest.

The evidence to date suggests that Canada is on track to miss its own low target. Canada’s Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand concluded in March 2018 that Canada is making little progress and will miss its 2030 targets unless both the federal and provincial governments step up the pace.8 And just this week, the UN Environment Program said that Canada is on track to miss its emissions targets for both 2020 and 2030.9

That should come as no surprise: it’s hard to cut national emissions by 30%, when you’re also fully committed to the continued rapid expansion of the country’s most carbon-intensive industrial sector – tar sands extraction.

Photo credits: all photos are publicity photos released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Canada, taken by Adam Scotti, accessed at https://pm.gc.ca/eng/photos.


References

1  “Catherine McKenna pushes for 1.5 C target in Paris climate talks”, Globe & Mail, December 6, 2015

2  “Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges”, by Yann Roubiou du Pont and Malte Meinshausen, Nature Communications, accessed at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07223-9.pdf

3  In “US trying harder on climate change than ‘unambitious’ China, says study”, CarbonBrief, 20 December 2016

4  “Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose sharply between 1990 and 2005: study”, April 22, 2008, accessed at CBC News.

5  “Selected Country Pledges Under the Paris Agreement and GHG Emissions”, from “The Paris Agreement on Climate Change”, by Radoslav Dimitrov, published by University of Western Ontario, March 2018.

6  “Energy and the economy”, on the Natural Resources Canada website, accessed Nov 28 2018.

7  “Justin Trudeau aims to strike balance between environment, economy with carbon policy”, Financial Post, February 6, 2015

8  “Canada, provinces lack clear plan to adapt to climate change, auditors say”, by Mia Rabson, Canadian Press, 27 March 2018

9  “Canada set to miss C02 emissions target, UN says,” in Toronto Star, 28 November 2018, accessed in Pressreader.

Can nuclear power extend the economic expansion?

Also published at Resilience.org and BiophysEco.

Richard Rhodes’ new book Energy: A Human History does an excellent job of describing the scientific and technological hurdles that had to be cleared in the development of, for example, an internal combustion engine which can convert refined petroleum into forward motion.

But he gives short shrift to the social and political forces that have been equally important in determining how technological advances shape our world. That internal combustion engine might be a wonder of ingenuity, but was there any scientific reason we should make multi-tonne vehicles the primary mode of transportation for single passengers in cities, drastically reconfiguring urban landscapes in the process? When assiduous research resulted in more efficient engines, did science also dictate that we should use those engines to drive bigger and heavier SUV’s, and then four-wheel-drive, four-door pick-up trucks, to our suburban grocery superstores?

Unfortunately, Rhodes presents the benefits of modern science as if they are all inextricably wrapped up in our current high-energy-consumption economy, implying that human prosperity must end unless we find ways to maintain this high-energy system.

In this second part of a look at Energy (first installment here), we’ll delve into these questions as they relate to Rhodes’ strident defense of nuclear power.

To set the context, Rhodes argues that the only realistic – and the most ethical – way forward is a gradual progression on the path we are already taking, and that means an “all energy sources except coal and oil” strategy:

“Every energy system has its advantages and disadvantages …. And given the scale of global warming and human development, we will need them all if we are to finish the centuries-long process of decarbonizing our energy supply – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, natural gas.”1

Three key points here: First, Rhodes recognizes the severity and urgency of the climate problem.

Second, he believes we have been “decarbonizing our energy supply” for centuries. That is true with respect to intensity: we now release fewer units of carbon for each unit of energy than we did in the 19th century.2 But in an overall sense, we emit vastly more carbon cumulatively (and vastly more carbon per capita) than we used to. It is the overall carbon emissions, not the carbon/energy intensity ratio, that matters to the climate.

Third, while energy production via natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions at the point of combustion, there is wide recognition that methane leaks throughout the production/transmission chain are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which may counteract the benefits of switching from coal to gas. Rhodes makes only an oblique reference to this critical problem in current natural gas usage.

It’s the issue of nuclear power, though, that really brings out Rhodes’ rhetorical heat. Consider this ad hominem attack:

“Antinuclear activists, whose agendas originated in a misinformed neo-Malthusian foreboding of overpopulation (and a willingness at the margin to condemn millions of their fellow human beings to death from disease and starvation), may fairly be accused of disingenuousness in their successive arguments against the safest, least polluting, least warming, and most reliable energy source humanity has yet devised.3

If someone warns that a social or technological development is likely to result in mass death, does that logically mean they want mass death, or that they are indifferent to it? Obviously not. They may well be sincerely motivated by a desire to save lives – just as those who promote the same social or technological development might sincerely believe that is the best way to save lives and promote prosperity.

So I think it is Rhodes who is being disingenuous with his ad hominem argument – even though I happen to agree with some of his substantive points on the relative safety of nuclear power.

What could go wrong?

As one who has lived for fifteen years just downwind of major nuclear facilities – first a uranium processing plant, more recently a nuclear power generator – I’ve had lots of incentive to study the potential safety hazards of the nuclear power industry. And on the issue of the relative operating safety of nuclear power generation, my conclusions have been much the same as those Rhodes puts forth.

I frequently take a short bike ride along the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail through the buffer zone around the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Is this a significant hazard to my health? Yes it is, but only because this route also requires me to share the road with trucks and cars for a few kilometers, and to ride right beside a stream of pollution-emitting traffic on Ontario’s busiest expressway.

As a close neighbour of nuclear facilities, my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic nuclear power accident is several orders of magnitude lower than my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic traffic accident. (Worldwide, well over a million people are killed in traffic accidents per year.4)

As for the health risk due to chronic exposure to the amounts of radiation that are emitted by a current Canadian nuclear generating plant, I fully concur with Rhodes’ more general conclusion: “Low doses of radiation are not only low risk; they’re also lost in the noise of other sources of environmental insult.”5

Likewise, I share Rhodes’ conclusion that shutting down our existing nuclear power plants for environmental reasons, while continuing to rely on coal for a significant part of electricity generation, is daft6 – we should replace carbon-emitting generating systems first.

In my region, I would be sorry to see Darlington Nuclear Station shut down if Ontario were still significantly reliant on gas-powered peaker plants, as it is now. And given that we have a very long way to go in electrifying personal transportation and home heating, our electricity demand may increase significantly, making the transition to a fully renewable electricity generation system that much farther down the road. In that context, I think our existing nuclear power plants are a better option environmentally than continued or increasing use of any fossil fuel, natural gas included, for generation of electricity.

But should we commission and build new nuclear power plants? That is a very different question. Rhodes recognizes that the economic viability of the nuclear power industry is very much in question, but he makes no significant attempt in Energy to resolve the economic question.

To adequately answer the economic viability question, we would need a much wider conception of science than the one that comes through in Rhodes’ book.7

Beyond physics and chemistry

The science Rhodes celebrates in Energy: A Human History falls almost entirely within very basic physics and chemistry. The discoveries and developments Rhodes discusses are highly significant, and they will always remain foundational – but they are not sufficient for a clear understanding of technological systems, which are also social phenomena.

A more recent scientific advance is essential in coming to grips with our current energy challenges. This is the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Over his long and distinguished career, ecologist Charles A.S. Hall posited that organisms, ecological communities, and human societies must derive more usable energy from their activities than the energy they invest in those activities. With this simple insight8, Hall gave economics a foundation in the very principles of thermodynamics that Rhodes reveres.

The resulting field of biophysical economics provides a deeper understanding of the socio-technological revolutions that Rhodes simply ascribes to “science”. After studying the Energy Return on Investment of major energy sources over the past 200 years, we can understand how the rapid exploitation of fossil fuels provided a huge boost in the the energy available to society, while simultaneously freeing the great majority of people from energy-procuring activities so that they could work instead at a wide variety of new activities and industries. We can understand that if any society is to use a high quantity of energy per person, while employing only a small number of people in its energy sector, then its energy sector needs a high rate of Energy Return on Investment.

With readily accessible supplies of coal, oil and natural gas, industrial civilization in the past 200 years has benefitted from a very high Energy Return on Investment. But with “sweet spots” exhausted or in depletion phases, the EROI of the fossil fuel economy has been in marked decline for the past few decades.

Thus one of the key questions about a supposed nuclear renaissance is, can the nuclear power industry achieve an EROI comparable to that of the fossil fuel economy we have known to date? Most published analyses say no9 – from an Energy Return On Investment standpoint, nuclear power generation is (at worst) not worth doing at all, or (at best) worth doing even though it will produce much more expensive energy than the energy we came to depend on during the twentieth century.

If nuclear power generation has a low EROI, in sum, it cannot and will not fuel a continued economic expansion.

Rhodes argues that nuclear power is vitally important because we really need it to extend our current model of prosperity to billions more people now and in coming generations, and he claims the mantle of science for this position. But a broader and deeper application of scientific analysis can deal with the economic viability questions about nuclear power that he simply sidesteps.

Illustration at top: high-voltage transmission lines on grounds of Darlington Nuclear Station, on north shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto

 


NOTES

1Energy: A Human History, page 337 (return to text)

2This is a point explained in more detail by Vaclav Smil, who also gives a perspective on the relative degree of decarbonization. From 1900 to 2000, he says, “the average carbon intensity of the world’s fossil fuel supply kept on declining: when expressed in terms of carbon per unit of the global total primary energy supply, it fell from nearly 28 kg C/GJ [GigaJoule] in 1900 to just below 25 in 1950 and to just over 19 in 2010, roughly a 30% decrease; subsequently, as a result of China’s rapidly rising coal output, it rose a bit during the first decade of the twenty-first century.” Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, page 270. (return to text)

3Energy: A Human History, page 336 (return to text)

4World Health Organization says there were 1.25 million traffic deaths in 2013. (return to text)

5Energy: A Human History, page 324 (return to text)

6This general statement must be qualified, of course, by noting that some particular nuclear plants should be shut down because their designs were inherently flawed to begin with, or because they have aged beyond the point where they can be maintained and operated safely. (return to text)

7Even if one accepts that the operating safety record of nuclear power stations is exemplary, there are the major issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the long-term storage of highly radioactive wastes. Rhodes doesn’t mention weapons proliferation, and he cavalierly dismisses the long-term disposal issue: “The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce. We usually bury it, but we also discount its future risk, on the reasonable grounds that we owe concern to one or, at best, two generations beyond our own …” (Energy: A Human History, page 337, emphasis mine). Yes, that’s what we usually do, but in what sense is that “reasonable”? (return to text)

8Though the basic insight is simple, measuring and calculating EROI can be anything but simple. A key issue is deciding how far out to draw the boundaries of an analysis. As Hall, Lambert and Balogh noted in “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society” in 2014, “Societal EROI is the overall EROI that might be derived for all of a nation’s or society’s fuels by summing all gains from fuels and all costs of obtaining them. To our knowledge this calculation has yet to be undertaken because it is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the variables necessary to generate an all-encompassing societal EROI value”. (return to text)

9In Scientific American (April 2013) Mason Inman cited an EROI of 5 for nuclear electricity generation – lower than photovoltaic or wind generators, and only a small fraction of the EROI of 69 that Inman cited for global conventional oil production in 2011. In 2014 a meta-review of studies, EROI of different fuels and the implications for society, gave a mean EROI of 14 for nuclear power. A paper by the World Nuclear Association cites outliers among the published studies, highlighting a conclusion that nuclear generation of electricity has a higher average EROI than hydro or fossil fuel generating systems, and is “one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power”. (return to text)

A measured response to surveillance capitalism

Also published at Resilience.org.

A flood of recent analysis discusses the abuse of personal information by internet giants such as Facebook and Google. Some of these articles zero in on the basic business models of Facebook, and occasionally Google, as inherently deceptive and unethical.

But I have yet to see a proposal for any type of regulation that seems proportional to the social problem created by these new enterprises.

So here’s my modest proposal for a legislative response to surveillance capitalism1:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to sell advertising, nor allowed to sell data collected about the service’s users.

We should also consider an additional regulation:

No company which operates an internet social network, or an internet search engine, shall be allowed to provide this service free of charge to its users.

It may not be easy to craft an appropriate legal definition of “social network” or “search engine”, and I’m not suggesting that this proposal would address all of the surveillance issues inherent in our digitally networked societies. But regulation of companies like Facebook and Google will remain ineffectual unless their current business models are prohibited.

Core competency

The myth of “free services” is widespread in our society, of course, and most people have been willing to play along with the fantasy. Yet we can now see that when it comes to search engines and social networks, this game of pretend has dangerous consequences.

In a piece from September, 2017 entitled “Why there’s nothing to like about Facebook’s ethically-challenged, troublesome business model,” Financial Post columnist Diane Francis clearly described the trick at the root of Facebook’s success:

“Facebook’s underlying business model itself is troublesome: offer free services, collect user’s private information, then monetize that information by selling it to advertisers or other entities.”

Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, John Naughton concisely summarized the corporate histories of both Facebook and Google:

“In the beginning, Facebook didn’t really have a business model. But because providing free services costs money, it urgently needed one. This necessity became the mother of invention: although in the beginning Zuckerberg (like the two Google co-founders, incidentally) despised advertising, in the end – like them – he faced up to sordid reality and Facebook became an advertising company.”

So while Facebook has grandly phrased its mission as “to make the world more open and connected”, and Google long proclaimed its mission “to organize the world’s information”, those goals had to take a back seat to the real business: helping other companies sell us more stuff.

In Facebook’s case, it has been obvious for years that providing a valuable social networking service was a secondary focus. Over and over, Facebook introduced major changes in how the service worked, to widespread complaints from users. But as long as these changes didn’t drive too many users away, and as long as the changes made Facebook a more effective partner to advertisers, the company earned more profit and its stock price soared.

Likewise, Google found a “sweet spot” with the number of ads that could appear above and beside search results without overly annoying users – while also packaging the search data for use by advertisers across the web.

A bad combination

The sale of advertising, of course, has subsidized news and entertainment media for more than a century. In recent decades, even before online publishing became dominant, some media switched to wholly-advertising-supported “free” distribution. While that fiction had many negative consequences, I believe, the danger to society was taken to another level with search engines and social networks.

A “free” print magazine or newspaper, after all, collects no data while being read.2 No computer records if and when you turn the page, how long you linger over an article, or even whether you clip an ad and stick it to your refrigerator.

Today’s “free” online services are different. Search engines collate every search by every user, so they know what people are curious about – the closest version of mass mind-reading we have yet seen. Social media not only register every click and every “Like”, but all our digital interactions with all of our “friends”.

This surveillance-for-profit is wonderfully useful for the purpose of selling us more stuff – or, more recently, for manipulating our opinions and our votes. But we should not be surprised when they abuse our confidence, since their business model drives them to betray our trust as efficiently as possible.

Effective regulation

In the flood of commentary about Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, two themes predominate. First, there is a frequently-stated wish that Facebook “respect our privacy”. Second, there are somewhat more specific calls for regulation of Facebook’s privacy settings, terms of sale of data, or policing of “bot” accounts.

Both themes strike me as naïve. Facebook may allow users a measure of privacy in that they can be permitted to hide some posts from some other users. But it is the very essence of Facebook’s business model that no user can have any privacy from Facebook itself, and Facebook can and will use everything it learns about us to help manipulate our desires in the interests of paying customers. Likewise, it is naïve to imagine that what we post on Facebook remains “our data”, since we have given it to Facebook in exchange for a service for which we pay no monetary fee.

But regulating the terms under which Facebook acquires our consent to monetize our information? This strikes me as an endlessly complicated game of whack-a-mole. The features of computerized social networks have changed and will continue to change as fast as a coder can come up with a clever new bit of software. Regulating these internal methods and operations would be a bureaucratic boondoggle.

Much simpler and more effective, I think, would be to abolish the fiction of “free” services that forms the façade of Facebook and Google. When these companies as well as new competitors3 charge an honest fee to users of social networks and search engines, because they can no longer earn money by selling ads or our data, much of the impetus to surveillance capitalism will be gone.

It costs real money to provide a platform for billions of people to share our cat videos, pictures of grandchildren, and photos of avocado toast. It also costs real money to build a data-mining machine – to sift and sort that data to reveal useful patterns for advertisers who want to manipulate our desires and opinions.

If social networks and search engines make their money honestly through user fees, they will obviously collect data that helps them improve their service and retain or gain users. But they will have no incentive to throw financial resources at data mining for other purposes.

Under such a regulation, would we still have good social network and search engine services? I have little doubt that we would.

People willingly pay for services they truly value – look back at how quickly people adopted the costly use of cell phones. But when someone pretends to offer us a valued service “free”, we endure a host of consequences as we eagerly participate in the con.
Photos at top: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (left) and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO. Left photo, “A surprise guest at TED 2010, Sergey spoke openly about Google’s new posture with China,” by Steve Jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons. Right photo, “Mark Zuckerberg, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Facebook, USA, captured during the session ‘The Next Digital Experience’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009”, by World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons.

 


NOTES

1 The term “surveillance capitalism” was introduced by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in a perceptive article in Monthly Review, July 2014.

2 Thanks to Toronto photographer and writer Diane Boyer for this insight.

3 There would be a downside to stipulating that social networks or search engines do not provide their services to users free of charge, in that it would be difficult for a new service to break into the market. One option might be a size-based exemption, allowing, for example, a company to offer such services free until it reaches 10 million users.

The climate revolution: a manual for head, hands and heart

Also published at Resilience.org.

How many people in North America and Europe have known for at least 15 years that climate change is dangerous, that it is caused mostly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we must drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption?

That would be most of us.

And how many of us have drastically reduced our fossil fuel consumption?

Not so many of us.

Mostly, our actions proclaim “We’ll cut back our fossil fuel use when everybody else does … or when the government forces us … or when hell freezes over – whichever comes last!”

Physicist and climatologist Peter Kalmus found the gulf between his beliefs and his lifestyle to be deeply unsatisfying, and he set out to heal that rift.

The result, he says, has been a dramatically richer life for him and his family.

His book Being The Change (New Society Publishers, 2017) outlines the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of his family’s reduction of their fossil fuel consumption by 90% in just a few years. His discussion ranges from climate science to economics, from bicycling to beekeeping, from community networks to meditation, in a deeply inspiring narrative.

Waves of gravity

Kalmus didn’t begin his scientific career in climatology. With a PhD in astrophysics, his speciality was gravitational waves and his day job was working through the data that would, in 2016, confirm Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.

But he was also learning about the onrushing catastrophe of climate change, and as a young parent he was deeply worried for the world his children would inherit. Motivated by a desire to work on problems closer to home, he switched his professional focus, taking a new job at NASA studying the role of clouds in global warming.

Kalmus describes Being the Change as a book for the head, the hands and the heart. Wearing his scientist hat, he lucidly lays out the science of climate change. These chapters don’t require more than a high-school science background to understand, but even those who have read many books and articles on the subject are likely to learn something. For those who have read little or nothing on this subject, a good beginning would be to read Kalmus’ chapters on climate science three or four times over – he packs a lot of information into 50 pages.

His sobering conclusion is that we have already stalled too long to have any reasonable chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. Within two or three decades, the mean global temperature will be higher than in any record-warmth year in human experience so far. That new climate era will last centuries, challenging the resiliency of not only human civilization but global biodiversity.

The key uncertainty, he says, is the temperature at which global warming will peak. None of us alive today will be here to experience that peak, but our actions this generation will have a major influence on that peak. A higher peak will cause a spike in the rate of species extinctions, and if and when global warming slows or stops, it will take far longer for biodiversity to recover.

“A good overarching goal for today’s civilization would be to minimize global warming and its concomitant biodiversity loss for the sake of the next few hundred thousand human generations.” (Being the Change, page 69)

Fear of not flying

Climate science gives us clear warning of the disaster we are bequeathing our descendants if we don’t change our way of life, fast. Kalmus concludes, “it’s critical we begin saying that burning fossil fuels is causing real harm and needs to stop. It’s even more important to begin living this message.” (Being the Change, page 120 – italics mine)

A second major focus of the book is “hands-on” – the many ways people can change their own lives to join the movement away from fossil fuels. Kalmus relates his personal experiences here, but he also provides valuable suggestions to help others estimate their consumption of fossil fuels and reduce that consumption in meaningful ways.

Kalmus found that one category of fossil fuel consumption outweighed all others in his life: long-distance travel by air. Much of this consumption happened in traveling to distant conferences where delegates would warn of the dangers of climate change. Kalmus’ decision to stop taking these flights led to a more satisfying life, he says – though this was a rejection of one of the signature privileges of a global elite.

“The act of flying is an exercise of privilege. Globally, only about 5% of humans have ever flown.” (Being the Change, page 151)

Even the average American spends relatively little time in the air. Kalmus writes that “The average American emits about 1,000 kg CO2 per year from flying, which is roughly equivalent to one 4,000-mile round-trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.” But in 2010, Kalmus’ carbon emissions due to flying were 16 times that average – and so it was obvious where he had to make the first change to align his lifestyle with his knowledge.

Kalmus’ graph of his greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 – 2014. Source: Being the Change, page 144. (click graph for larger view)

For the average American, Kalmus says, the “largest climate impact is from driving.” He largely eliminated those CO2 emissions from his life too, through routine bicycling, driving a car that he converted to run on used vegetable oil, and taking a bus or trains for occasional long-distance trips.

Each person’s CO2 emission profile, and therefore their opportunities for emission reductions, will be different.

But Kalmus hopes others will share his experience in one key respect – a greater peace with their own lives and their own surroundings.

“I think most people are afraid of a low-energy lifestyle because we equate quality of life with quantity of energy use,” he says. “My experience has been the opposite: low-energy living is more fun and satisfying.”

Reading about his new-found love of gardening and beekeeping, and the strength of the local community bonds he and his family have developed, it’s easy to understand the richness of this low-energy lifestyle.

He also makes clear that he doesn’t believe that purely individual actions are sufficient to halt the fossil-fuel juggernaut. In the realm of public policy, he pens an excellent advocacy for his preferred fiscal approach to reducing national and international CO2 emissions – Carbon Fee And Dividend (CFAD). He also discusses his work with one group working on the CFAD option, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Finding a lifestyle that matches his principles brings joy and a significant measure of peace of mind. At the same time, finding peace of mind is key in giving him the energy to embark on all those personal changes. That brings us to a third major focus of Being the Change: meditation.

“As part of my daily work, I look directly at the truth of global warming, and what it’s doing to the inhabitants of the Earth. Meditation gives me the strength and the courage to keep interacting with this truth, as it is – not only to cope, but to be happy and as effective as possible in enacting positive change.” (Being the Change, page 203)

As one who has never been attracted to the practice of meditation, Kalmus’ story here left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, his discussions of dissolving the ego and escaping all wants were, for this reader, just about the only parts of the book that weren’t wholly convincing. On the other hand his life story so far is truly moving, and if he says meditation has been central to that journey then I can only celebrate the strength and peace that meditation gives him. More than that, his book has made me ask whether I want to introduce meditation into my own life in a concerted way; better late, perhaps, than never.

Science and love

Peter Kalmus has written a profound book about the science of global warming, and a profound book about love:

“These two seemingly disparate things – reducing my own fossil fuel use and increasing my ability to love – are actually intimately interconnected.”

In the process he grapples with three of the most troublesome questions facing the environmental movement. Can we convince people it’s essential to eliminate fossil fuel use, when our own lifestyles say that fossil fuel use is no problem? Can we convince people that a high-energy lifestyle is unnecessary and destructive, when we act as if our lives depend on that lifestyle? Can we be happily productive agents of change, while we are caught up in the high-energy whirl of consumptive capitalism? It’s hard to answer those questions except with “No, no and no.” And yet Kalmus’ personal message is deeply positive and deeply hopeful:

“On my own path, as I continue to reduce, I’m actually experiencing increasing abundance. It’s a good path.”

 

Photo at top: Peter Kalmus, photo by Alice Goldsmith, courtesy of New Society Publishers

The unbearable cheapness of capitalism

Also published at Resilience.org.

René Descartes, Christopher Columbus and Jeff Bezos walk into a bar and the bartender asks, “What can I get for you thirsty gentlemen?”

“We’ll take everything you’ve got,” they answer, “just make it cheap!”

That’s a somewhat shorter version of the story served up by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. Their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, illuminates many aspects of our present moment. While Jeff Bezos doesn’t make it into the index, René Descartes and Christopher Columbus both play prominent roles.

In just over 200 pages plus notes, the book promises “A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet.”

Patel and Moore present a provocative and highly readable guide to the early centuries of capitalism, showing how its then radically new way of relating to Nature remains at the root of world political economy today. As for a guide to the future, however, the authors do little beyond posing a few big questions.

The long shadow of the Enlightenment

Philosopher René Descartes, known in Western intellectual history as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, helped codify a key idea for capitalism: separation between Society and Nature. In 1641,

“Descartes distinguished between mind and body, using the Latin res cogitans and res extensa to refer to them. Reality, in this view, is composed of discrete “thinking things” and “extended things.” Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things, Nature was full of extended things. The era’s ruling classes saw most human beings – women, peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples – as extended, not thinking, beings. This means that Descartes’s philosophical abstractions were practical instruments of domination ….”

From the time that Portuguese proto-capitalists were converting the inhabitants of Madeira into slaves on sugar plantations, and Spanish colonialists first turned New World natives into cogs in their brutal silver mines, there had been pushback against the idea of some humans owning and using others. But one current in Western thought was particularly attractive to the profit-takers.

In this view, Nature was there for the use and profit of thinking beings, which meant white male property owners. Patel and Moore quote English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who expressed the new ethos with ugly simplicity: “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her,” and the “empire of man” should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.”

The patriarchal character of capitalism, then, is centuries old:

“The invention of Nature and Society was gendered at every turn. The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup. … Through this radically new mode of organizing life and thought, Nature became not a thing but a strategy that allowed for the ethical and economic cheapening of life.”

Armored with this convenient set of blinders, a colonialist could gaze at a new (to him) landscape filled with wondrous plants, animals, and complex societies, and without being hindered by awe, respect or humility he could see mere Resources. Commodities. Labour Power. A Work Force. In short, he could see Cheap Things which could be taken, used, and sold for a profit.

Patel and Moore’s framework is most convincing in their chapters on Cheap Nature, Cheap Work, and Cheap Care. Their narrative begins with the enclosure movement, in which land previously respected as Commons for the use of – and care by – all, was turned into private property which could be exploited for short-term gain.

Enclosure in turn led to proletarianization, resulting in landless populations whose only method of fending off starvation was to sell their labour for a pittance. The gendered nature of capitalism, meanwhile, meant that the essential role of bringing new generations of workers into life, and caring for them until they could be marched into the fields or factories, was typically not entered into the economic ledger at all. The worldwide legacy remains to this day, with care work most often done by women either egregiously under-paid or not paid at all.

Yet as the book goes on, the notion of “cheap” grows ever fuzzier. First of all, what’s cheap to one party in a transaction might be very dear to the other. While a capitalist gains cheap labour, others lose their cultures, their dignity, often their very lives.

Other essential components in the system often don’t come cheap even for capitalists. In their chapter on Cheap Money, Patel and Moore note that the European powers sunk tremendous resources into the military budgets needed to extend colonial domination around the world. The chapter “Cheap Lives” notes that “Keeping things cheap is expensive. The forces of law and order, domestic and international, are a costly part of the management of capitalism’s ecology.” The vaunted Free Market, in other words, has never come free.

A strategic definition

How can the single word “cheap” be made a meaningful characterization of Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy and Lives? The authors promise at the outset to tell us “precisely” what they mean by “cheap.” When the definition arrives, it is this:

“We come, then, to what we mean by cheapness: it’s a set of strategies to manage relations between capitalism and the web of life by  temporarily fixing capitalism’s crises. Cheap is not the same as low cost – though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work – human and animal, botanical and geological – with as little compensation as possible. … Cheapening marks the transition from uncounted relations of life making to the lowest possible dollar value. It’s always a short-term strategy.”

Circular reasoning, perhaps. Capitalism means the Strategies of getting things Cheap. And Cheap means those Strategies used by Capitalism. Yet Moore and Patel use this rhetorical flexibility, for the most part, to great effect.

Their historical narrative sticks mostly to the early centuries of capitalism, but their portrayals of sugar plantations, peasant evictions and the pre-petroleum frenzies of charcoal-making in England and peat extraction in the Netherlands are vivid and closely linked.

Particularly helpful is their concept of frontiers, which extends beyond the merely geographic to include any new sphere of exploitation – and capitalism is an incessant search for such new frontiers. As a result, it’s easy to see the strategies of “cheapening” in the latest business stories.

Jeff Bezos, for example, has become the world’s richest man through a new model of industrial organization – thousands of minimum-wage workers frantically running through massive windowless warehouses to package orders, with the latest electronic monitoring equipment used to speed up the treadmill at regular intervals. Life-destroying stress for employees, but Cheap Work for Bezos. Or take the frontier of the “sharing economy”, in which clever capitalists find a way to profit from legions of drivers and hotel-keepers, without the expense of investment in taxis or real estate.

Patel and Moore note that periods of financialization have occurred before, when there was a temporary surplus of capital looking for returns and a temporary shortage of frontiers. But

“there’s something very different about the era of financialization that began in the 1980s. Previous financial expansions could all count on imperialism to extend profit-making opportunities into significant new frontiers of cheap nature. … Today, those frontiers are smaller than ever before, and the volume of capital looking for new investment is greater than ever before.”

Thus the latest episode of financialization is just one of many indicators of a turbulent future. And that leads us to perhaps the most glaring weakness of Seven Cheap Things.

The subtitle makes a promise of a guide to “the future of the planet”. (In fairness, it’s possible that the subtitle was chosen not by the authors but the publishers.) The Conclusion offers suggestions of “a way to think beyond a world of cheap things ….” But in spite of the potentially intriguing headings Recognition, Reparation, Redistribution, Reimagination, and Recreation, their suggestions are so sketchy that they end a solid story on a very thin note.


Top photo: “The boiling house”, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823, by William Clark, illustrates a step in the production of sugar. Image from the British Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Super-size that commodity

Also published at Resilience.org.

A review of ‘A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism’

Don’t expect a whole lot of taste when you sit down to a plateful of commodities.

That might be a fitting but unintended lesson for foodies who work through the new book by Eric Holt-Giménez. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism will reward a careful reader with lots of insights – but it won’t do much for the taste buds.

While A Foodie’s Guide is lacking in recipes or menu ideas, it shines in helping us to understand the struggles of the men and women who work in the farms and packing plants. Likewise, it explains why major capitalists have typically shown little interest in direct involvement in agriculture – preferring to make their money selling farm inputs, trading farm commodities, or turning farm products into the thousands of refined products that fill supermarket shelves.

Fictitious commodities

Karl Polanyi famously described land, labour and money as “fictitious commodities”. Land and labour in particular come in for lengthy discussion in A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. In the process, Holt-Giménez also effectively unmasks the myth of the free market.

“Markets have been around a long time,” he writes, “but before the nineteenth century did not organize society as they do today.” He shows how capitalism in England arose concurrently with vigorous state intervention which drove people off their small farms and into the industrial labour pool. Meanwhile overseas both the slave trade and settler colonialism were opening critical parts of global markets, which were anything but “free”.

Nevertheless the takeover of food production by capitalism has been far from complete.

“Today, despite centuries of capitalism, large-scale capitalist agriculture produces less than a third of the world’s food supply, made possible in large part by multibillion-dollar subsidies and insurance programs. Peasants and smallholders still feed most people in the world, though they cultivate less than a quarter of the arable land.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide To Capitalism, Monthly Review Press and FoodFirst Books, citing a report in GRAIN, May 2014)

There are a lot of reasons for this incomplete transition, but many are related to two of the “fictitious commodities”. Let’s start with land.

While land is the most important “means of production” in agriculture, land is of course much more than that. For people throughout history, land has been home, land has been the base of culture, land has been sacred. Even today, people go to great lengths to avoid having their lands swallowed up by capitalist agriculture – especially since this transition typically results in widespread consolidation of farms, leaving most former farmers to try to earn a living as landless labourers.

Autumn colours in the Northumberland Hills north of Lake Ontario, Canada

Likewise labour is much more than a commodity. An hour of labour is a handy abstraction that can be fed into an economist’s formula, but the labourer is a flesh-and-blood human being with complex motivations and aspirations. Holt-Giménez offers a good primer in Marxist theory here, showing why it has always been difficult for capitalists to extract surplus value directly from the labour of farmers. He also builds on the concept of the “cost of reproduction” in explaining why, in those sectors of farming that do depend on wage labour, most of the wage labourers are immigrants.

Before people can be hired at wages, they need to be born, cared for as infants, fed through childhood, provided with some level of education. These “costs of reproduction” are substantial and unavoidable. A capitalist cannot draw surplus value from labour unless some segment of society pays those “costs of reproduction”, but it is in the narrow economic self-interest of capitalists to ensure that someone else pays. Consider, for example, the many Walmart employees who rely on food stamps to feed their families. Since Walmart doesn’t want to pay a high enough wage to cover the “cost of reproduction” for the next generation of workers, a big chunk of that bill goes to taxpayers.

In industrialized countries, the farm workers who pick fruit and vegetables or work in packing plants tend to be immigrants on temporary work permits. This allows the capitalist food system to pass off the costs of reproduction, not to domestic taxpayers, but to the immigrants’ countries of origin:

“the cost of what it takes to feed, raise, care for and educate a worker from birth to working age (the costs of reproduction) are assumed by the immigrants’ countries of origin and is free to their employers in the rich nations, such as the United States and the nations of Western Europe. The low cost of immigrant labor works like a tremendous subsidy, imparting value to crops and agricultural land. This value is captured by capitalists across the food chain, but not by the worker.” (Holt-Giménez, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism)

Farmstead in the Black Hills, South Dakota, USA

The persistence of the family farm

In the US a large majority of farms, including massive farms which raise monoculture crops using huge machinery, are run by individual families rather than corporations. Although they own much of their land, these farmers typically work long hours at what amounts to less than minimum wage, and many depend on at least some non-farm salary or wage income to pay the bills. Again, there are clear limitations in a capitalist food system’s ability to extract surplus value directly from these hours of labour.

But in addition to selling “upstream” inputs like hybrid and GMO seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery, the capitalist food system dominates the “downstream” process of trading commodities, processing foods, and distributing them via supermarket shelves. An important recent development in this regard is contract farming, which Holt-Giménez refers to as “a modern version of sharecropping and tenant farming”.

A large corporation contracts to buy, for example, a chicken farmer’s entire output of chickens, at a fixed price:

“Through a market-specification contract, the firm guarantees the producer a buyer, based on agreements regarding price and quality, and with a resource-providing contract the firm also provides production inputs (like fertilizer, hatchlings, or technical assistance). If the firm provides all the inputs and buys all of the product, it essentially controls the production process while the farmer basically provides land and labor ….”

The corporation buying the chickens gets the chance to dominate the chicken market, without the heavy investment of buying land and buildings and hiring the workforce. Meanwhile farmers with purchase contracts in hand can go to the bank for operating loans, but they lose control over most decisions about production on their own land. And they bear the risk of losing their entire investment – which often means losing their home as well – if the corporation decides the next year to cancel the contract, drop the price paid for chicken, or raise the price of chicken feed.

Contract farming dominates the poultry industry in the US and the pork market is now rapidly undergoing “chickenization”. Holt–Giménez adds that “The World Bank considers contract farming to be the primary means for linking peasant farmers to the global market and promotes it widely in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.”

Farm field in springtime, western North Dakota, USA

Feeding a hungry world

In North America the conventional wisdom holds that only industrial capitalist agriculture has the ability to provide food for the billions of people in today’s world. Yet on a per hectare basis, monoculture agribusiness has been far less productive than many traditional intensive agricultures.

“Because peasant-style farming usually takes place on smaller farms, the total output is less than capitalist or entrepreneurial farms. However, their total output per unit of land (tons/hectare; bushels/acre) tends to be higher. This is why, as capitalist agriculture converts peasant-style farms to entrepreneurial and capitalist farms, there is often a drop in productivity ….”

Marxist political-economic theory provides a useful basis for Holt-Giménez’ explorations of many aspects of global food systems. Among the topics he covers are the great benefits of the Green Revolution to companies marketing seeds and fertilizers, along with the great costs to peasants who were driven off their lands, and potentially catastrophic damages to the ecological web.

But an over-reliance on this theory, in my opinion, leads to an oversimplification of some of our current challenges. This is most significant in Holt-Giménez’s discussions of the overlapping issues of food waste and the failure to distribute farm outputs fairly.

In recent decades there has been a constant surplus of food available on world markets, while hundreds of millions of people have suffered serious malnutrition. At the same time we are often told that approximately 40% of the world’s food goes to waste. Surely there should be an easy way to distribute food more justly, avoid waste, and solve chronic hunger, no?

Yet it is not clear what proportion of food waste is unavoidable, given the vagaries of weather that may cause a bumper crop one year in one area, or rapid increases in harvest-destroying pests in response to ecological changes. It is easy to think that 40% waste is far too high – but could we reasonably expect to cut food waste to 5%, 10% or 20%? That’s a question that Holt-Giménez doesn’t delve into.

On the other hand he does pin food waste very directly on capitalist modes of production. “The defining characteristic of capitalism is its tendency to overproduce. The food system is no exception.” He adds, “The key to ending food waste is to end overproduction.”

Yet if food waste is cut back through a lowering of production, that in itself is of no help to those who are going hungry.

Holt-Giménez writes “Farmers are nutrient-deficient because they don’t have enough land to grow a balanced diet. These are political, not technical problems.” Yes, access to land is a critical political issue – but can we be sure that the answers are only political, and not in part technical as well? After all, famines predated capitalism, and have occurred in widely varying economic contexts even in the past century.

Particularly for the coming generations, climatic shifts may create enormous food insecurities even for those with access to (formerly sufficient) land. As George Monbiot notes in The Guardian this week, rapid loss of topsoil on a world scale, combined with water scarcity and rising temperatures, is likely to have serious impacts on agricultural production. Facing these challenges, farming knowledge and techniques that used to work very well may require serious adaptation. So the answers are not likely to be political or technical, but political and technical.

These critiques aside, Holt-Giménez has produced an excellent guidebook for the loose collection of interests often called “the food movement”. With a good grasp of the way capitalism distorts food production, plus an understanding of the class struggles that permeate the global food business, foodies stand a chance of turning the food movement into an effective force for change.