Sunday, November 27, 2022

Path to extinction? Sperm count accelerates its decline

For the second time in five years, scientists are warning about declining human sperm counts. (I wrote about this issue in "Declining sperm counts: Nature's answer to overpopulation?" early last year.)

Besides confirming the results of an important 2017 study, the authors now note an acceleration in the decline of sperm counts. In other words, whatever is causing that decline is getting worse. The rate of decline has doubled since 2000.

It's important to remember that when the fertility rate declines below replacement—currently 2.1 births per woman in so-called developed countries—populations shrink. This may not be a bad thing at first since overpopulation and overconsumption are huge barriers to building sustainable societies. But there comes a point when if fertility rates don't level off and then rise to replacement, extinction become a possibility.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 27.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

What I learned from steady-state economist Herman Daly

Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists, died recently at age 84. His view that the Earth could only support a steady-state economy in the long run—rather than the perpetual growth economy imagined by most of those alive today—was based on an understanding he came to early in his career. As a doctoral student Daly became convinced that the economy was a system like any other in the universe and therefore governed by physical laws.

So here are three important things I learned from reading Herman Daly and hearing him once at a conference long ago:

  1. The economy is a subset of the natural world and as such is governed by the laws of the natural world. Daly was particularly focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Entropy Law, which establishes that we live a universe in which the distribution of energy and matter are becoming more and more disordered. That is the meaning of entropy, and this disorder will ultimately lead to the heat death of the universe. (Don't worry; this scary-sounding heat death is theorized to be 10100 years away.)

    The practical significance of this realization is that human society is "using up" Earth's nonrenewable resources in the sense that resources:

    • Are being made into objects or products which erode and deteriorate over time thus scattering nonrenewable resources unintentionally.

    • Are scattered intentionally (think: phosphate rock fertilizers).

    • Are burned (think: fossil fuels).

    Once scattered or burned, they cannot be economically retrieved for reuse. That is, these processes cannot be reversed (except locally by creating more entropy).

    To build a civilization that could remain functioning indefinitely, we humans would have to 1) live in a way that does not exploit renewable resources faster than they can be replenished (think: trees and fish), 2) use nonrenewable resources at a rate that does not surpass our ability to find renewable substitutes before these nonrenewable resources become prohibitively expensive or inaccessible altogether, and therefore 3) limit consumption (and thus ultimately population) to a level that will allow this balance. This would be the steady-state economy.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Life (sort of) imitates art: Russian provocations in Norway

The 2015 Norwegian television series "Occupied" has what will strike viewers today as an upside down premise. In the fictional series Russia invades Norway on behalf of the European Union to restore oil and gas production shut down by Norway's new environmentally conscious government. Despite its odd premise, I found the series to be a gripping drama when I watched it a few years ago.

At that time the real Russian government was outraged by the suggestion that Russia would ever have any designs on Norwegian sovereignty. In a statement the Russian government said: "It is certainly regretful that in the year when the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War is celebrated, the series’s creators decided to scare Norwegian viewers with a non-existing threat from the East in the worst Cold War traditions."

Fast forward to today and there is plenty for Norwegians to worry about. As the largest supplier of natural gas to an energy-starved Europe, the Norwegians now consider themselves a prime target for Russian sabotage of the country's oil and gas infrastructure as drones presumed to be Russian visit Norwegian offshore production platforms.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

East vs West, 'Stuff' vs 'Finance'

As a military conflict rages in Ukraine between Russia and what the Russian government calls "the West" (apparently meaning NATO allies and particularly the United States), there is a parallel economic battle between "stuff" and "finance." Both categories are affected by economic sanction regimes imposed by each side. But there is a striking difference in what each side has to sell.

In advanced countries, the percentage of the total economy devoted to services has long exceeded that devoted to goods. This is a reflection of the increasing productivity of those working in manufacturing, mining, agriculture, forestry and fishing who make it possible for so many people to work in service industries. These raw materials and goods industries provide all the stuff those of us in the service economy require to stay alive and perform our services.

It is a testament to the remarkable rise in productivity of the raw materials and goods industries that in the United States, for example, the service sector accounts for almost 77 percent of all economic activity. In France, the percentage is about 70 percent. In Russia the percentage is a little lower, about 68 percent, which may reflect Russia's relatively large mining, forestry, and agriculture inputs to its economy.

But regardless of the percentage, all service industries remain completely dependent on the raw materials and manufactured goods sectors to function. That has become even more apparent in the wake of price increases on essential goods and disruptions of trade that have resulted from the Russia-Ukraine conflict due to economic sanctions by both sides in the contest.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Bruno Latour: A philosopher for our perilous times

French philosopher Bruno Latour died earlier this month at age 75. Those who are regular readers will know that he deeply influenced my thinking and honed my perceptive abilities. He was trained as an anthropologist and has been variously described a "science studies" scholar, a philosopher of science, a sociologist and just a plain old philosopher.

Of the many insights I absorbed from his work I mention four here which have been explicit or implicit in my regular pieces over the last 20 years. They are as follows:

1. Nature and culture are not two things; they are one. In his book We Have Never Been Modern Latour adopts the rather clumsy construction of "nature-culture." But such a lens enabled him to see that every era has had a nature-culture and that our "scientific" culture was not different in kind from societies of the past. These societies always had systems for understanding nature which were used by culture to integrate with the natural world. These societies were not "primitive" in the sense that they had no "science." They had what we would regard as a less sophisticated science. The discarding of the past, however, has left us poorer for we have thrown out the useful along with the outmoded—particularly some useful ways of seeing the world around us wholistically.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 23.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Dutch dilemma: What is Europe willing to do for more natural gas?

Modern global society is steeped in the idea of trade-offs, the notion that one must suffer losses to obtain desired gains. This prepares the way for disingenuous leaders to explain why sacrifices are necessary to reach supposedly exalted goals. Usually those sacrifices are made by the powerless in society; they are certainly not made by the leaders who call for sacrifices nor by the wealthy and powerful who benefit from them.*

This coming fateful winter season in Europe is likely to include a lively debate about whether the Dutch should make a perilous trade-off on behalf of an energy-starved Europe. So far, the Dutch have been firm about closing one of the world's largest natural gas fields, Groningen, no later than 2024—even in the face of severe European gas shortages resulting from the loss of gas from Russian pipelines.

The reason for that firmness has to do with the damage earthquakes are inflicting on the buildings located above and around the field, earthquakes related directly to withdrawal of Groningen's gas. In the northeastern part of the country, some 1200 earthquakes have severely damaged 27,000 buildings to the point that they are uninhabitable. About 3,300 structures have been demolished. A 2015 study reported that 152,000 homes need to be reinforced. As a result the government has been reducing gas withdrawals to mitigate the problem with an eye toward closing the field. Closing the field also comports with the government's greenhouse gas reduction goals.

But, will the Dutch be able to withstand calls for increasing production from Groningen as the European winter arrives?

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Ukraine, Russia and the blindness of war

Some things are easy to predict, the orbit of planets, for example. They adhere to well-established physical laws not subject to alterations by the whim of humans.

But any forecast that has to do with humans and the complex systems within which they live is bound to be problematic if not downright wrong. When humans engage in billions of daily interactions with other humans and the physical world, they become surprisingly unpredictable, especially when novel or unexpected interruptions interfere with the smooth operation of those interactions.

It might be simpler to say that peace is more predictable than war, and that would capture most of what global society is feeling today in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Each side in the conflict—and we must now include NATO countries on the side of Ukraine against Russia—has made decisions based on expectations that proved to be utterly mistaken. Each side assumed that we live in something like a billiard-ball world in which a single action has a precise and foreseeable reaction.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

In extremis: The world at the edge of a cliff

Geopolitical risk took center stage last week when Russia announced it would annex the Ukrainian territory it has seized—after holding "referendums," of course, in those areas. Any attack on what would now become Russian territory would be met by all means necessary including nuclear weapons. Presaging this development, I wrote the following in a piece from March entitled, "World War III is here, but it's not what we expected":

[I]f Russia ultimately feels backed into a corner, the Russian leadership may see no alternative but to draw its main competitors into a wider war with the hope of instilling enough fear of a nuclear confrontation that both sides relent and a political settlement and security guarantees follow that include an agreement to end all economic warfare.

It is in just such circumstances that both sides may miscalculate or may misconstrue the words of the other and choose to escalate the conflict in a way that will make prophets out of all the screenwriters and novelists who depicted World War III as the end of civilization.

It seems "such circumstances" have arrived and both sides are choosing escalation. I am not predicting "the end of civilization." But I'm more worried than I was a week ago.