Sunday, September 30, 2018

U.S. government embraces climate catastrophe, but is it a 'crisis'?

The United States government has now officially embraced climate change as a catastrophe in the making. Only it contends that the catastrophe is now inevitable no matter what humans do...and so, we should do nothing at all since whatever we do won't matter much.

That, at least, was the justification offered for freezing fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles after 2020. For the National Transportation Safety Board which issued a report containing the justification, the phrase "Every little bit helps" has morph into "Every little bit won't matter."

The problem, of course, is that if this becomes the attitude of everyone trying to mitigate climate change, almost nothing will get done.

But the report does highlight one very important problem for those who desperately want to address climate change: Climate change is no longer a "crisis."  As French thinker Bruno Latour reminds us in his book Facing Gaia, climate change is not really a "crisis," at least not anymore. A crisis comes and goes. Climate change isn't going anywhere except toward a place which is much worse. It isn't going to pass. It is going to endure.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The problem with getting stuck on just one

Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, first uttered what must now seem like a well-worn phrase: "The map is not the territory." And yet, I don't think this view has yet been well-incorporated into human culture.

In a time when social media outlets are trying to sort what is "fake" from what is "genuine" or "true," very little thought is being put into what we even mean by "fake," "genuine" or "true." Facebook, for example, has resorted to third-party fact-checkers, a mix of news organizations and fact-checking nonprofits. It is also hiring thousands of new employees to check what it calls "non-news" information posted on Facebook pages.

A lot of checking revolves around whether someone said or did what is claimed. That's not too hard. The next level involves the effect of a policy or position. That's more difficult since some of the policies in question aren't in effect and even for those that are, it is always hard to trace cause and effect from a policy to a specific result.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

'The Expanse' is a story about systemic ruin

"The Expanse" is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today's so-called less developed countries).

But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of "The Expanse" previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I've come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.

Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

A kinder, gentler GMO; what could possibly go wrong?

The so-called CRISPR technique for editing the genes of plants and animals is being hailed as a more acceptable face of genetic engineering. After all, it doesn't rely on the insertion of genes from one species into another—which is what previous techniques allowed and what alarmed critics.

No, this technique can cut out precisely an offending gene and let the cell sew things up like new afterwards. No chance of strange interspecies complications. No random mutations created by gene guns that can never shoot straight by design. Just a little editing of an existing gene to subtract what we do not want from a plant or animal (including ourselves).

Hence, the breathless coverage.

But as with practically every biologically driven endeavor these days, we are forgetting first principles as explained by pioneering ecologist Garrett Hardin who tells us that "[t]he science of ecology is founded on this generalization: We can never do merely one thing."

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Climate change, water and the infrastructure problem

I was watching an episode of the science-fiction noir thriller "The Expanse" recently. Set hundreds of years in the future, the United Nations has now become the world government and its main rival is Mars, a former Earth colony. The UN is still in New York City and a new fancier UN building is now tucked safely behind a vast seawall that protects the city from rising water resulting from climate change.

It's a world that looks like an extension of our own, but one that has survived the twin existential threats of climate change and resource depletion. But will it be so easy to update our infrastructure to overcome these threats?

The naive notion that we can, for example, "just use more air conditioning" as the globe warms betrays a perplexing misunderstanding of what we face. Even if one ignores the insanity of burning more climate-warming fossil fuels to make electricity for more air-conditioning, there is the embedded assumption that our current infrastructure with only minor modifications will withstand the pressures placed upon it in a future transformed by climate change and other depredations.