Sunday, April 11, 2021

Climate change and the "law of acceleration"

When scientists reported that carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere reached a new record last week, I thought of American writer Henry Adams whose 1918 Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, included a chapter entitled "A Law of Acceleration."

Adams noted that "in the nineteenth century, society by common accord agreed in measuring its progress by the coal-output. The ratio of increase in the volume of coal-power may serve as dynamometer." He tells readers that the "coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power, for the ton of coal yielded three or four times as much power in 1900 as in 1840."

Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and the great grandson of John Adams, a celebrated Founding Father of the American republic and its second president. Henry knew something of the trajectory of American life and of the world as a whole.

Today, we mark both our progress and our peril through such observations. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is the keeper of what is known as the Keeling Curve which charts the rise in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii from 1958 onward. That rise is, of course, due primarily to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, something Adams tells us would be a barometer of improvement in his own age.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Geoengineering the climate: The zombie idea that just won't die

Just when you think the last boomlet for geoengineering the climate has expended itself and we might be rid of any serious consideration of it as a strategy for addressing climate change, it rises zombie-like from the dead and starts roaming the Earth again.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recommended spending $100 to $200 million over the next five years to study the idea—its feasibility, possible unintended consequences, and an ethical framework for governing it.

The most important thing you need to know about geoengineering the climate is that we humans have probably been doing it since at least the dawn of agriculture. What we need now it seems is an intervention from TV talk show psychologist Dr. Phil to ask us his favorite question, "How's that working for you?"

Sunday, March 28, 2021

COVID variants reach escape velocity

The dense worldwide transportation network constructed by humans is now powering so-called variants (mutations) of COVID-19 across the world from their countries of origin. The British variant (called B.1.1.7), the Brazilian variant (called P.1) and the South African variant (called B.1.351) are all racing across the globe. This shouldn't be surprising since all three are thought to be more contagious than the original virus.

The Brazilian variant is thought to be capable of reinfecting people who have already had the original virus. And, it may have greater capabilities to evade the protections created by vaccines.

That this is happening is no surprise to people who understand viruses, particularly those with knowledge of coronaviruses. Almost exactly one year ago I sat across  from a colleague at dinner who knows a lot about coronaviruses. Let me summarize what he told me:

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Variations on a theme: COVID-19 mutations turn problematic

We pandemic-weary humans are ready to be done with COVID-19. But apparently, it is not done with us. Our conversation with a coronavirus, as I dubbed it last year, continues as a growing number of variants of COVID-19 appear across the world.

Preliminary data suggest that some of the variants may evade the protections of existing vaccines and lessen the effectiveness of various treatments. So concerning are these variants that one of the world's leading epidemiologists is recommending a reversal of the recent re-opening steps being taken in the United States and elsewhere across the world.

Whether that advice will turn out to be warranted is likely to be tested in the next several weeks as U.S. states and foreign countries move forward with re-opening despite the rapid rise of new variants. This is all happening against the backdrop of Italy returning to a lockdown for much of the country due to the rapid spread of these COVID-19 variants.

Of even greater concern is the possibility that COVID-19 is here to stay and may continue churning out variants that defy our attempts to vanquish the virus. No one knows for certain what that might look like. It could be that COVID-19 becomes a seasonal disease returning each year like the flu. It could become milder in its effects. That would be an adaptive evolutionary strategy for the virus since killing one's host is not a good way to spread. COVID-19 could be banished in some places, only to pop up periodically.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Of semiconductors, water, Martian rovers and converging risks

If the Perseverance rover now exploring Mars finds substantial deposits of water under the Martian soil, perhaps it can send some to Taiwan. Taiwan—where so many of the world's semiconductors are manufactured, but probably not the ones guiding the Martian rover—is suffering its worst drought in 67 years. The Taiwanese drought illustrates converging risks that involve climate change, geographic concentration of a critical industry, outsourcing, international tensions and supply chain fragility.

The drought has been very bad for those Taiwanese farmers affected by a shutoff of irrigation water. So far the shutoff affects only 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres) or 6 percent of all irrigated land.

But now the drought is threatening a mainstay of the Taiwanese economy, semiconductor production. This matters to the rest of world because the island nation of Taiwan is home to more than 20 percent of the world's semiconductor manufacturing capacity, the largest percentage located in any one country.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Declining sperm counts: Nature's answer to overpopulation?

Epidemiologist Shanna Swan projects that on current trends sperm counts will reach zero by 2045. That shocking conclusion comes from a new book by Swan and her colleague Stacey Colino. Is this nature's way of bringing human population under control? (More on that later.)

In a 2017 study Swan and colleagues looked at "244 estimates of SC [sperm concentration] and TSC [total sperm count] from 185 studies of 42,935 men who provided semen samples in 1973–2011" in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Men elsewhere may fare better, but the causes of this trend suggest that it is worldwide.

Swan told The Guardian that she blames so-called "'everywhere chemicals', found in plastics, cosmetics and pesticides, that affect endocrines such as phthalates and bisphenol-A." She also pointed to unhealthy lifestyle choices including use of tobacco and marijuana and to rising obesity. Obesity itself has been linked to increasing human endocrine disruption from these same chemicals.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Things (nearly) fall apart: The year so far in electricity, finance and computer chips

We are less than two months into the new year and the news is full of stories about a system whose rivets are about to pop en masse and send us—the United States and maybe the world as whole—into a catastrophic systemic downward spiral in critical areas.

The first thing to understand is that these disparate calamities are all intimately related in that they arise out of system that applies certain "principles" across sectors of society. Those principles have their origin in rigid economic ideology, but their effect has been to further enrich those at the top—which is why elites keep defending these discredited approaches.

Let us take Texas utility customers who shivered through rolling electricity blackouts last week designed to keep the electric grid from cratering altogether under the strain of record demand. The demand resulted from a polar-vortex-induced cold snap that brought record low temperatures to much of the southern plains states and the Midwest. The reason for the spiking demand was simple: 60 percent of homes in Texas use electricity for heating.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Demateralizing the economy isn't happening (Hint: All that material is actually hiding in plain sight)

If you are trying to prove something is true and certain facts get in the way, it's almost always useful to exclude them. This is apparently what technology cheerleader Andrew McAfee has done in his recent book More from Less, which claims that advanced economies have been dematerializing for something like the last 40 years. Simply put, those economies are producing more output with little or no increase in physical resources.

There's just one little problem as anthropologist Jason Hickel points out in his review of More from Less: McAfee forgot to count the physical resources used in making products imported from other countries by all those advanced economies. McAfee only counts those resources extracted within the boundaries of the advanced countries.

I am highlighting Hickel's piece not so much as a book review. There are dozens of books making similar ridiculous claims that are contradicted by the facts. I am highlighting the piece because Hickel provides perhaps the clearest, most concise refutation of the nonsense that McAfee and others like him are peddling.

Let me touch on the high points though I encourage you to read the full article:

Sunday, February 07, 2021

The clickbait future of news and our crisis of consensus

It's often hard to distinguish between what has come to be known as "clickbait"—which according to Dictionary.com is "a sensationalized headline or piece of text on the internet designed to entice people to follow a link to an article on another web page"—and simply a clever headline.

What irks me about true clickbait headlines is that the story often contradicts or fails to mention the claim made in the headline. Of course, if the entire story is merely fabricated or exaggerated in ways that obscure what is actually going on, that is a problem, too.

News organizations are no strangers to sensationalized headlines. In fact, the newspaper business invented an entire category for what is called clickbait, namely, tabloids. The often repeated adage that "if it bleeds, it leads" is reaffirmed on a daily basis.