Sunday, 14 September 2014

Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that Tesla in your hand?

Some notable environmentalists have been ‘against’ Hydrogen as a possible energy solution for a remarkably long time – Joe Romm’s ‘The Hype About Hydrogen’ goes back ten years now, to 2004. The RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute) isn’t keen. In the meantime, other energy solutions have made progress, in particular, as Romm points out in his recent series on ClimateProgress, in the field of personal transportation. But even on that site, Ryan Koronowski reports on developments at Toyota and Hyundai which look promising (here).
In 2006, Romm’s main criticism was summarised nicely in the Scientific American article ‘Hybrid Vehicles’, and usefully quoted by him in one of his articles;

For policymakers concerned about global warming, plug-in hybrids hold an edge over another highly touted green vehicle technology — hydrogen fuel cells. Plug-ins would be better at utilizing zero-carbon electricity because the overall hydrogen fueling process is inherently costly and inefficient. Any effective hydrogen economy would require an infrastructure that could use zero-carbon power to electrolyze water into hydrogen, convey this highly diffuse gas long distances, and pump it at high pressure into the car -– all for the purpose of converting the hydrogen back to electricity in a fuel cell to drive electric motor.
The entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel-cell conversion would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor. In a plug-in hybrid, the process of electricity transmission, charging an onboard battery and discharging the battery would leave 75 to 80 percent of the original electricity to drive the motor. Thus, a plug-in should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could.

Summarising the problems that all AFVs have, Joe usefully produces a list:

1. High first cost for vehicle
2. On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range)
3. Safety and liability concerns
4. High fueling cost (compared to gasoline)
5. Limited fuel stations: chicken and egg problem
6. Improvements in the competition (better, cleaner gasoline vehicles).
7. Problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions

Some recent research, though, has led me to question some of the assumptions which lead away from Hydrogen as a viable energy ‘solution’, and to reach the conclusion that, done in the right way, hydrogen has the potential to help move our society much closer to the ideal ‘zero carbon world’. Here is some of that evidence.

Before the detail, though, I should point out that there is no real disagreement with Romm’s arguments – he knows what he’s talking about – especially in respect to FCVs and FCEVs. And some of his criticisms may need to be fleshed out in more detail later, otherwise this piece could be endless. On the other side of the coin, as with electric hybrid technology, things have moved on a pace, and at least some of the problems are already close to resolution. Hyundai has the new ix35 FCEV, with a range of 360 miles. Nissan has new fuel cell stack technology, as do Hitachi, who are working on CHES storage (Carbon Hydride) amongst other things. There’s a new Honda on the way, too.

The biggest obstruction to generic hydrogen use is the problem of distribution. So let’s get rid of it. Instead of hydrolysing at a distance, follow the Toshiba model (below), and produce locally. As well as being a by-product of some existing factory processes, hydrogen can be produced direct at the site of a wind-farm (which also means the maximal use of the energy generated, in the sense that there is no distribution loss from the transformer to the end-use). A small (but commercially viable) local wind farm will be practicable in plenty of places (though not all – for example in Africa, where the long-term mean annual wind speeds in the centre of the continent just won’t do the job), where anything from 1-50MW capacity local farms will produce electricity almost as cost-effectively as on the really big ‘Texas-scale’ farms. For the majority of the time, the energy from these goes direct to a local ‘island’ or national grid infrastructure for direct use. But there are always times when supply exceeds demand. What to do with the excess? Store it as hydrogen.

Using a suitable piece of engineering, it is simple enough to then transfer the gas, suitably pressurised, into rail tenders purpose built for this. The tenders can then be towed down the line to a rail head or terminal where they can be simply linked up to the rolling stock. This means the expense and consumption implied in Romm’s model is reduced to a sufficiently low level that the relative inefficiencies are compensated for.

This is one area where I think hydrogen has real potential for solving some of the problems Joe and others bring up, in the rail network. Though it is underfunded and still not fully realised, some good work has been going on for years, and several projects are running around the world. Hydrail has a useful links page and some summaries of what is happening here. Or, you could look at this article from Future Rail magazine.

In Japan (where else?), several companies have been working on Hydrogen for a variety of purposes. Toshiba have an ongoing demonstration project in Kitakyushu, in which hydrogen as a by-product of steel production in a nearby factory services homes, fuel stations and local businesses. There’s a promotional demo here, which includes a grumpy kid and a cute puppy, so don’t switch it on if you’re easily nauseated. There’s a lot missing from the demo video, so let’s not pretend that all the answers are there now. But there’s more…

Here’s a pdf of a presentation on the work done recently at Ulsan and Insheon in Korea, with heavy involvement from Hyundai. It’s useful for some real numbers, demonstrations of distribution plans, and the absence of kids and puppies. In upstate New York, GE has a new domestic energy hydrogen research facility working to roll out products by 2017.
Which leads me to the ‘obvious’ link up. If it is possible and effective to generate at a wind farm, store in tenders, and link to the transport (rail) system, could we do the same for personal transportation? I see no reason why not. This is how it might work.

A hydrogen management system is installed (much as an oil tank or gas tank is put in already) outside the home. Solar panels (where wind is not practical) on the garage roof, or the house roof, generate electricity which can be switched on demand to the household system, battery backup systems, the hydrolysis ‘machine’, and, if relevant, the grid. The hydrogen ‘terminal’ contains loadable fuel cell units which can be transferred to a car/auto, a stove, or whatever. Plastic gas pipes can feed into the house, where a combined heating and ventilation system can be operated. There may even be a hose point to feed a car’s storage, so when you get home in the evening, you can fill it up in three minutes. All of the technology to deliver this (with some modification) already exists – nothing new has to be invented. Safety levels are now very high – probably better than domestic propane systems, at a guess – and the renewable energy generated is used where it is needed, when it is needed, without so much wastage or loss.

The novelty here, such as it is, lies in three elements – one, the synthesis of energy needs for the average person – home, heat, transport – two, the transferability of the energy storage medium between uses, and three, the removal or reduction of pretty much all of that list of reasons why it didn’t used to work, in particular the problems of distribution and infrastructure. And so the average Jo or Joe can maintain a modern lifestyle (whilst being energy efficient, of course), independence, and achieve some payback on energy saved, gas saved, utility and domestic costs.

Which leaves three unanswerable issues from the list. The initial cost, which is determined by the cost of technology and demand volume. Improvements in other technologies, which are happening all the time, but can be seen as complementary or alternative solutions which will work better in some cases. And, finally, the achievable cost-effectiveness of the whole package. Which I can’t answer. Because it depends on comparative energy costs, ratio of energy usage, which will vary depending on lifestyles, and other factors which as things stand are incommensurable.

It may not be the final word, but it really is starting to look, to me, like the day of Hydrogen is on the way, if not as the ‘magic bullet’, then at least as another in the mix of energy solutions which will help get us out of this mess.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

This is not a review of 'The Bone Clocks' by David Mitchell

Because other writers, experienced reviewers and interested parties, like Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian (here), will do a decent job of it; though I found the New Yorker's extended piece somewhat over the top, with too much in the way of spoiler, and possibly missing the point, though that's probably just me.

This is a blog about climate change, philosophy, and whatever I say it is about, so why the sudden urge to discuss literature? Like my previous discussion of the writing of James Morrow, the urge is because I think it is pertinent and useful to read David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian, though the comedian is my kind of amusing, too).

If you are reading this because you share my interest in the near future of humanity, read the book, with a focus on the last seventy or so pages, which paints a picture which is both credible and frightening; it contains what is for me the best description to date of what we might expect (included the fascinating but flawed vision offered by Kim Stanley Robinson in the recent '2312' (also worth a read).

The Bone Clocks is connected in a casual but conscious manner to some of Mitchell's previous writings, most notably for me, Cloud Atlas, but also Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. In both novels he plays with time and narrative, and incorporates two themes dear to my heart - the Future in a world changed by a changing climate, social order and politics, and Human Nature, in particular, the struggle to do good in a difficult world.

A part of Mitchell's appeal is that he is covering these subjects in ways which match mine to a large degree, so that, on these matters we share a vision of the future and our role in leading to it. There are times during reading when I stop and find myself thinking 'I could have written this' (which is not a presumption of talent on my part, but a recognition of material). The last time I had similar, regular experience of this was in the 1980's and early 90's, when I read a considerable amount of Michael Moorcock's work, and kept finding myself uncovering a narrative which I had just finished writing in my head a few weeks before - so frequent was this occurrence that it was almost spooky. When I told Moorcock about this, I think it freaked him out slightly, too.

It is interesting to note that the two authors share other features, most particularly, the persistence across time and narrative of certain core characters - metacharacters, consciously so, like Moorcock's Eternal Champion or Jerry Cornelius, or Mitchell's Dr Marinus - and the idea of the persistence of narrative patterns (in this, both are post-modern, post-deconstructionist writers).

Most significant, for this blog, is Mitchell's fairly consistent imagining, glimpsed in the background in Song Mi's story in Cloud Atlas, more fully rounded here in the Bone Clocks, in the later two chapters, set in 2025 and 2042 respectively. It is clear to me that I share something with David Mitchell here - our research, understanding, interpretation of the near future is very closely paralleled. We both imagine a future of bleaker weather, vastly divided social groups, and a strong distinction between life in the remnants of 'civilisation' (drawn out in Mitchell's more distant Shanghai, more proximate Iceland), and the residue of the 'uncontrolled' world, a place of violence and lawlessness. Much of the detail is inferred, hinted at, slightly nebulous - this isn't the epic prose of a vast sci-fi style future vision, but a more subtle, more open-ended imagining.

The other area of interest, and what lift's Mitchell's work into the traditional concept of the literary, is his concern with human nature, and the nature of good and evil. There are touches of this in his earlier work, but in The Thousand Autumns and here, the Bone Clocks, this is a pretty transparent theme. We know this from the presence of the narratives of the Horologists and the Anchorites. We can see it in the moral choices made by all of the characters, to whom (without presuming the author's intention) we can attribute certain internal dynamics which shape our empathy and their moral compass. Holly could said to stand for love, in particular, the love of the family, Hugo for the Ego - he could so easily have stepped out of 'Atlas Shrugg'd' - Crispin as the somewhat detached, ivory-tower self-isolator; they all have moral ambiguities, but there is no question about who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Reviewers (apart from Le Guin) seem to have struggled with the 'fantasy' element of the novel, but few have observed that this is a core metaphor - and Mitchell's decision to spell it out as narrative rather than leave it embedded in the text for the reader to puzzle out, is also a very post-modern approach to the concept of meaning in Narrative, something also featuring in Moorcock's writing. The reader is presented with at least three (I'll be honest, I can't really fathom out Ed's moral position, yet) different human ways of being - the loving, the distant, the selfish - seen in the context of a battle between the non-authoritarian, laissez-faire little acts of salvation undertaken by the Horologists, and the Murderous, self-perpetuating selfishness of the vampiric Anchorites.

There are other interesting sub-metaphors in play here, too ; science/reason vs mysticism, the other vs the self, lives lived conscious of meaning and its absence, engaged in the being lived. There is anough content and suggestion in the story, as there is in Mitchell's other work, to justify (and more or less, in my case, guarantee) a second or third reading.

So, if you want to know where much of my posting is directing itself towards over the past several years, read the book, and get a better, more engaging description than I could ever manage for myself. Just don't expect a happy ending.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Why has Hansen become an 'Advocate'?

One of the reasons its been quiet here is because yours truly has been busy mixing it at the Guardian. Occasionally, the odd little gem has poppped out of the cabbage patch and been reasonably well received.

Just now, someone else left a post on a John Abrahams article (here) which I felt the need to respond to. I'm quite pleased with the result, so here are the two comments:

Smith1867
In truth, I prefer the harder science, but frankly these do not get as many page views as the debunking posts.
Is how many page views your blog posts receive what you are interested in? Is that the primary reason for your participation in this blog? If so, then by all means follow more closely to your colleauge's approach. But beware that that is not a scientific blogging approach so much as it is a publicity approach in a sciency genre. Not really science communication in even a loose sense of the term.
A problem for all science communicators and the public who are their target, is that their scientific credentials are often projected onto their activist writings. Take Dr. Hansen for instance, a brilliant and well qualified atmospheric physicist he may well be, however his advocacy for, or protest against any given solution to the technical problem which is high atmosheric CO2 concentrations is no more qualified than any other intelligent layman. He is not a politician or an economist and solutions for the CO2 problem all require considerable expertise in these arenas. However, more often than not he is awarded the respect he has earned as a scientist for his socio-economic/political solutions. We are told we are not listening to "science" if we do not agree with his proposed solutions. Yet when discussing his solutions his scientific credentials hold no more weight than anyone else who accepts the concensus scientific position on AGW.
So you have to ask yourself, is this blog about science communication, which you are well qualified to author? Or is this blog about advocacy for or protest against highly complex socio-economic/political solutions, which you are no more qualified to author than any other intelligent layman?
If you choose the later, just remember that you are not communicating science and cannot project your scientific expertise onto your opinions about other matters.
  • Fergus Brown Smith1867
    First, I think it is important to point out that the blog is a part of John's journalistic work, into which his science work feeds. As a journalist, he needs to earn his crust by bringing an audience into the Medium that pays him, so hits matter.
    On the main points you make: Let's say for arguments' sake that you, a scientist, along with a number of colleagues, spend several years working on a hypothesis and reach the conclusion that it really is likely to change the World as we know it, and furthermore, that the consequences could be devastating, and beyond this, that a certain course of action could reduce risks and harm considerably.
    So, of course, you publish. Then, for twenty years, nobody does anything about your findings apart from whinge and get abusive. The evidence mounts up, but the clock is ticking. Your original conclusions have been validated many times over, but still nobody seems to want to do anything to stop the harm or the potential devastation.
    So, what do you do?
    Firstly, as a scientist, you keep on proving your point, testing your work, and keeping up to date. You develop some kudos. Then, as a human being, you start advocating loudly and publically. Because talking about it scientifically and reasonably didn't work. But it still matters. It matters more than ever. So you shout, you protest, you publish, you lobby, and you do everything in your power to get the message across that this is serious, and it ain't gonna go away.
    No, bollocks. If it was me, I would have lost my patience years before Hansen did. Any normal, rational human being would do the same.
    Along with which, I'd get really pissed off with people who told me I had no right to meddle in politics or that my opinions had no validity.
    I think I've made my point...

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Taking your mind for a walk on a Sunday Morning

Here is a logico-mathematical puzzle to entertain the idle on a Sunday morning:

A train leaves Moscow at 0800 on the 1st of January, its destination Vladivostok; a distance of is 9289 km. For the first part of the journey, it travels at an average speed of 60km/hr for 18 hours in every 24. The rest of the time it is stationary. The bridge over the Amur River, 8515 km into the journey, has been swept away. Between Krasnoyarsk, 4098 km into the journey and Vladivostok, the train starts to accelerate at a rate of 0.1 m/s2 for one hour in every three while it is moving, until it reaches its maximum velocity of 120kph, at which point it slows back down to 60 kph at the same rate; it then accelerates again.
  1. When will the train arrive at its destination?
  2. If the average speed for 18/24 hours is 70kph for the first part of the journey, when will it arrive?
  3. If the rate of acceleration and deceleration is 0.07 m/s2, how much longer will it take to arrive at its destination?
  4. If the rate of acceleration and deceleration is 0.2 m/s2, how much sooner would the train reach its destination?
  5.  On the same train, 500 passengers start the journey at Moscow. The train picks up new passengers at a rate of 20 per hour. The passengers alight on average at a rate of 18 per hour until Chita, 6199km into the journey, after which time the numbers joining and leaving the train are equal. The rate of acceleration changes by 0.01 m/s2 for every 100 extra/fewer passengers on board. What difference will this make to the total journey time?


Look forward to your answers.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

On the impossibility of dialogue

In the busy thread below, this extended comment appeared. It contains some thinking which requires extended response, so I’ve done a lift and here it is up front.

The context is that the correspondent is a regular presence on the internet, commenting on climate change and global warming. His view and mine are different.

In the comment, he tries to explain why he thinks the way he does, to which I offer my efforts to understand.

Please note that his first language is not English, and make allowance that some of the expressions, which might sound abrasive, may be a function of linguistic difference, not necessarily aggression.

Here we go:

Let me suggest something: Pull back and consider that I am convinced you act in good faith and are honest, but you have been brainwashed.
I too have been brainwashed. The only difference is that I´m aware of the brainwashing and you seem to be oblivious (like 99 % of the population).

This is not a promising start. You set out by claiming your intellectual superiority to me, in that you have a privileged (and superior) epistemic status, because I am not aware that the world as I understand it is relative. I might be inclined to disagree with this.

The brainwashing isn´t the result of an overarching conspiracy. Some of it is genetic, some of it is deeply ingrained culture, some is early education, and some of it is impressed on you by the media, your friends, and your enemies.
Being brainwashed seems to be a positive survival trait in homo sapiens. Although many brainwashed populations were defeated and driven to extinction, others which practiced brainwashing as a higher art form, or got a bit luckier seem to have survived more often thanks to this brainwashing, which aligned most of society with the leadership, and moved them to perform as requested.

This is somewhat helpful. You are trying to describe your hypothesis, that our perception of reality is conditioned. In particular, you emphasise the social context of individual development (or call it the means by which I form my Weltanschauung (‘World-view’).

Thus my position is that a lot of what we believe is real isn´t really there. As my grandchildren would say, it´s all bogus.

Though your expression is a little clumsy, what is coming out seems to be a much simplified version of the ideas of Paul Feyerabend, for example, in ‘Against Method’. Feyerabend’s views are well summarised in Wkipedia (here).

So how does this impact the way I absorb information about global warming? First, I know there are actors trying to manipulate me to behave in a certain way. Why? Because whenever an issue arises which involves government decisions, subsidies, taxes, putting a drilling rig on the public library grounds, and moves like that I have to be manipulated to accept such decisions.

The position gets a bit more complicated here. This is because you introduce the Political realm. What you seem to be saying is that the information which is available about global warming has the same epistemological status as the information which we get from politicians or their employees. I think some people might object to this.

Do you see why you really can´t change my mind? As far as you are concerned I´m a ghost. I live in a different universe. You are trying to debate global warming, and I debate the way "they" manipulate us.

A part of the complexity is that you seem to have thoroughly mixed your resistance to political manipulation and your view of the nature of scientific endeavour. To you, these are manifestations of the same phenomenon – the untrustworthiness of given knowledge – and therefore they are the same thing. You reject Science as a whole, wholesale.

And why do you think you avoided the subject when I tried to use Kosovo and Iraq as talkng points? Because your comfort zone is in global warming and the associated science. You want to feel comfortable surrounded by your friends, sitting in a tall stone tower from which you can fling arrows and stones at the enemy trying to scale your walls.

Here, you are making presumptions about me which are not justified. I avoid discussing Kosovo or Iraq because I do not believe I have sufficient knowledge or understanding to comment on these subjects; I have no expertise or opinion which I trust.

And your characterisation of me in the second sentence is laughable. I have spent considerable time addressing your point of view and defending your right to express yourself, even when you have been illogical and inconsistent, yet you accuse me of attacking you. If you still see me as your enemy I would suggest that the problem lies not in my attitude but in yours. You have already decided that we must be enemies, so I cannot have any understanding of you or any human compassion. This means I cannot win. Your mind is closed to my humanity and identity; to you, I am just ‘one of them’. So who is acting in bad faith, you, or me?

On the other hand, I see this behavior as normal, quite human, and also misguided.
How very patronising and wise of you.
Almost everybody is the same. And this is why in the 21st century we see children being slaughtered with laser guided bombs in Palestine, and we look the other way. We have been brainwashed to accept this, and we can´t even bring ourselves to discuss it. And the odds are this post may even be censored, isn´t it?

Since I have both permitted every statement you have made on this blog, and defended your right of comment, even when it pushed libellous status, you have no grounds whatsoever to imply I might censor you, so this is just a personal insult.

To sum things up as best I can. You claim to be my intellectual superior. You set out a view of how the world (of understanding, or knowledge) is constructed. In this, you explicitly reject Science wholesale; to you, it is just as much in error as political propaganda. You frequently draw parallels between political events and scientific knowledge. You then remind me of why I am ignorant and accuse me first of being your enemy, then of repressing you, in spite of the visible contradiction of these in this blog.

Where does this leave me? If, as you say, all science is deception, then we cannot talk about science – not at all – by your terms there is nothing meaningful to say about it. But neither can we talk about anything which we might think of as being a shared human experience. So we cannot have any dialogue. Besides this, you have demonstrated that you do not respect me as an individual or as a human being; in particular, to you I am an inferior being. So you deny me any motivation to continue the effort to engage with you. Finally, you have established that, whatever I say and however I say it, you have determined that I am your enemy. I don’t need enemies, I want friends.

In conclusion, by your terms and rules, since there is nothing ‘true’ to say about science, every comment you make on science is a piece of hypocrisy. Furthermore, on your terms, nobody understands how things really are better than you, so you will never consider the possibility that you might be wrong, or the possibility that anyone else might have anything valid to say. This, too, given your views on propaganda, is hypocrisy. You deny the subject, the means, and the motivation to engage in dialogue. You have determined that discourse is impossible, so, unless you give me some reason to believe otherwise, I can do nothing better than remain silent.


For now, that is all I have to say on the subject.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Whistling at a different pitch

Having exorcised Mrs Merkl’s Swabian housewife, let’s get back to some more thinking.
I want to explore a sample explanation of why the Farmer and the Cowboy can’t be friends. Obviously, this is apropos of my concern over the effective communication of climate issues and environmental issues in general.
We recently discussed Truth – it’s easy to agree that this takes us in tricky directions. It can be hard to agree what makes a truth, and hard to agree the specific cases of whether something is true or not. So I’m going to move the focus on to the notion of Understanding, instead.
However and whatever forms of ‘knowledge’ we acquire (or, reducing it further, form of meaningful communication with which we agree), we tend to come to an understanding of reality, truth, fact, whatever, from two distinctive and often contradictory ways of understanding things. This is what Wikipedia says about Reason:
Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, for establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.[1] It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, mathematics, and art, and is normally considered to be a definitive characteristic of human nature.[2] The concept of reason is sometimes referred to as rationality and sometimes as discursive reason, in opposition to intuitive reason.[3]
Reason or "reasoning" is associated with thinking, cognition, and intellect. Reason, like habit or intuition, is one of the ways by which thinking comes from one idea to a related idea. For example, it is the means by which rational beings understand themselves to think about cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and what is good or bad. It is also closely identified with the ability to self-consciously change beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and institutions, and therefore with the capacity for freedom and self-determination.[4]

You’ll note that the article distinguishes between DISCURSIVE and INTUITIVE reason. This is what the Wiki says about Intuition:
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.[1] The word intuition comes from Latin verb intueri which is usually translated as to look inside or to contemplate.[2] Intuition is thus often conceived as a kind of inner perception, sometimes regarded as real lucidity or understanding. Cases of intuition are of a great diversity; however, processes by which they happen typically remain mostly unknown to the thinker, as opposed to the view of rational thinking.
Intuition provides views, understandings, judgements, or beliefs that we cannot in every case empirically verify or rationally justify. For this reason, it has been not only a subject of study in psychology, but also a topic of interest in various religions and esoteric domains, as well as a common subject of writings.[3] The right brain is popularly associated with intuitive processes such as aesthetic or generally creative abilities.[4][5][6] Some scientists have contended that intuition is associated with innovation in scientific discovery.[7]
Both Reasoning and Intuition are legitimate ways of reaching understanding. Further, there is often reasoning embedded in intuition, and intuition likewise informs reasoning.
Science in general, say Mathematics as a paradigm, is basically rational; it has rules, structure, processes, precedents and checks. Without necessarily being complete or absolute, Mathematics is a profoundly rational activity. If you have learned the rules and the conventions, you can apply them to any number of problems of increasing complexity. It is largely consistent and logical. The ‘truths’ of Mathematics are results derived from within the syntax and semantics of the system, and their value is a function of their formulation, which is neither arbitrary nor contradictory. In other words, within Mathematics, 2 + 2 always = 4. The only way you can change this ‘truth’ is to change the rules or convention by which you understand the expression.
On the other hand, many people have an understanding of their world from an intuitive perspective, of which religion is an example. Let’s consider Buddhism as the paradigm. A person who ‘understands’ the underlying truths in Buddhism, the ‘Four Noble Truths’, does not necessarily understand them in a consciously rational manner. But this does not imply that her understanding is inferior to the understanding of a mathematician of the truth of the axioms of number or addition.
These are different ways of ‘understanding’. But they may not be quite so contradictory as you might think. For example, to reach a new solution or hypothesis, the mathematician may well start by having an intuition that something is wrong, that a certain type of procedure might correct the error, or have an insight into the nature of a problem which informs new possible resolutions. And the four noble truth of Buddhism can be laid out in a strictly formal logical ‘proof’, which suggest that, though understanding them may be intuitive, their meaning has a formal structure which allows them to make sense to our thoughts.
Religions have a long history of Reasoning associated with them in East and West. Some of the great thinkers in history were dealing with problems arriving not from science, but from a religious, intuitive source. But many religions also recognise, implicitly or explicitly, that understanding, or wisdom, about the world in the context of the religious system concerned, comes to the individual from a deep personal insight or understanding. Furthermore, this understanding is often opaque to communication; ‘The way that can be spoken of is not the true way’. Can we argue that wisdom is impossible under these conditions? Can we argue that the understanding of the Buddha is a false understanding? We can’t, for two reasons; firstly, because we have not nor can we ever strictly reach the same understanding that the Buddha has. Our insight must be our own, a personal understanding which might parallel what we have learned or experienced. Secondly, because the full detail of the nature of the understanding is beyond language (any language); it is a lived experience.
What am I getting on to? Well, obviously, people ‘understand’ Global Warming in different ways. A lot of people reach their understanding by reasoning, analysis, interpretation and evaluation of evidence, argument, and by testing the mechanisms and processes. Why would anyone look at it any other way?
I am speculating that one of the reasons why people might look for a different way of understanding Global warming is because they don’t trust what science is. Sometimes, the contradiction of the science is simply fuelled by ignorance – it is easy to distrust what you don’t understand, especially if you feel threatened by it. Sometimes a person can have such a strong negative prejudice about a message that they choose to contradict irrespective of understanding – this is why such behaviour is often labelled as ‘denial’.
But there are other people who are otherwise reasonable who turn away from the evidence and the arguments because they believe that science is something they cannot trust.
The problem is, Science is an institution as much as anything else. It works in relation to rules and conventions, exists within other institutions, is paid for by institutions. Science, it seems, has authority because it is an Authority – in this sense, it is a part of the ‘System’. More than this, Scientific argument is often derived from an apparent appeal to authority –precedence, existing assumptions, previous work, peer-review. It is an ‘Institution’ par excellence.
And a lot of people don’t trust Authority, They don’t trust Institutional models or processes, they see an underlying circularity in the self-justifications of scientific ideas, and they believe that, since Science is about authority, it suffers from the same weaknesses as other forms of authority.
This association is the problem. A person who is consistently ‘let down’ by a social or legal system, who is not protected but persecuted, who experiences injustice or repression at first hand by the hand of the System, learns in real experience that Authority and The System are inherently untrustworthy. This understanding is intuitive as well as evidential, so it has a strong force in the understanding. For such a person it is probably quite natural to mistrust and be cynical about anything which makes claims to authority. The natural default based in the understanding which exists is that first you assume the authority is either wrong or is lying, then you assume the authority has a self-serving intent and is indifferent to you, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt.
For young people, who often have an innate mistrust of the system in some form, or for those whose experience has led them to believe that no-one can be trusted, asking them to see things from a rational point of view has limited use. It is not the way their understanding has been formed. For ignorant people with strong prejudices it has no use, because they cannot even acknowledge the possibility that another understanding can exist at all. But it doesn’t mean that discussion is impossible.
Even the most intuitive person recognises the underlying formal structures which allow meaningful discourse to happen. They can accept the idea that an effect must have a cause, that if you add something to something you end up with something ‘more’. An ‘intuitive understander’ can be quite sophisticated, and even see the logical inconsistencies of their understanding. Simple logic and simple reasoning can work within a discourse to the point where a person can recognise contradictions and inconsistencies and acknowledge that these might undermine their understanding, so that, even if they sustain their understanding from intuition, they can agree that their understanding is irrational. It doesn’t mean, to them, that they are wrong.
So, can the Farmer and the Cowboy ever be friends? I would suggest yes, this is possible, but first they need to accept that what is already understood does not rest on mutually agreed conventions. But for a discourse to happen at all, there must be the possibility of logic. To start a discourse, to establish the conventions and terms of dialogue, the most important thing is to listen first, and avoid passing judgment based on your own conventions or understanding.
Possibly there will be more on this later, it depends.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Wealth comes from not spending, but saving


British MP Chris Huhne put in an interesting article last week in The Guardian: 'Don't fear Growth, it's no longer the enemy of the planet...' (link here).

Among the take home points were:

"For centuries, the rise of GDP has gone hand-in-hand with the burning of fossil fuels. But technology has now broken that link" ...

"For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy."

"...This is why so many green thinkers have rightly been suspicious of economic growth: the curve of rising living standards has been tracked by the curve of rising energy use from coal, oil and gas. The simple answer was green puritanism: change our lifestyle. Don the hair-shirt..."

"Businesses are bound to be early adopters of energy-saving technologies, because retailers and distribution firms can spend a fortune on energy. They are used to assessing investment and returns, whereas householders are often put off by the higher initial cost, and poorer households simply cannot afford the switch of energy efficient products even though they pay back quickly. Poorer householders simply cannot afford the up-front cost. That is why it is so crucial for government to encourage household energy saving.

It is also why one of the most short-sighted decisions of this government was to halve the amount of support for energy saving through the Eco subsidy, and just this summer to end the cashback scheme for the energy-saving green deal because it was too successful. The £120m budget allocated until next spring was exhausted in six weeks."


None of this is news to yours truly: having worked in an engineering firm supplying energy-efficient systems for lighting and air conditioning, and for several years in Renewable Energy, one of the key selling points of our services was that the cost-return equation could be highly advantageous for the adopter, though this often depended on the existence of other benefits to the client, including tax breaks and subsidies.

An important feature of the decision-making process for businesses was confidence - many clients were suspicious of the technology and highly risk-averse about the processes and potential returns, not least the banks who ended up lending the money for the work to be done. Not a problem which exists in several EU countries, or among large institutional energy users, but particularly prevalent at smaller scales and where the returns were more marginal or more dependent on 'pure' subsidies.

For me, the important message is these figures demonstrate that reducing energy use is NOT harmful to Economies and NOT a threat to a way of life in itself - in fact, the truth is quite the reverse. This means that there is no credence to be given to ideas that living/ doing business more effectively somehow commits us to the 'hair shirt, greeny, degrowthy' future that seems to scare some people so much.

But, whilst Huhne's article makes its points well and emphasises an important feature of the relation between economy and energy, it doesn't address some deeper issues such as sustainability, pollution, trade equity (TBF, it isn't meant to). There is the ongoing presumption that 'growth is good', difficult to argue against for the whole globe, but problematic.

If economic growth can be achieved while using fewer resources and making less waste and pollution, without putting the planet and future generations in resource-debt, then it looks attractive. In a sense, it is inevitable, as population rises, that markets will grow naturally. The argument for energy efficiency also applies to resource efficiency, hence the popularity of schemes like Ellen MacArthur's Circular Economy, which focuses on the whole product life cycle and the resource life cycle, rather than the 'Stuff' approach, where resources are inputted, processed, sold, used, then trashed.

But it is important not to be naive about the problems of Consumerism and Markets. The products of large corporates such as P&G, Unilever and Nestle (the 'big three') are not always amenable to recycling - soaps, oil-based products, luxury foods, etc - these can have potentially toxic outputs on large scales (constituent chemicals sent into the water supply, packaging...). The social impacts are sometimes significant, for employees in some countries, for outcomes such as obesity and landfill.

It is important to see that the world does not need to be overthrown by bloody revolution in order to move in a better direction for society and the environment, and useful to recognise that our fortunes are not tied to energy in the way some have suggested, but the other bottom line that should be pushed here is that, in the real world, we make and buy a whole lot of crap - genuinely useless, unhealthy, unnecessary 'stuff' - and for individuals, getting past the efforts of marketing to convince us that we 'must have' this stuff for our own well-being, is still important. The example from the larger economy should inform our personal economies; more judicious use of our resources (earnings), less profligacy and a bit of prudence, these qualities will make our income 'grow', give us more resources to put aside, or use to create our own capital, and, as a result, make us 'happier', wealthier people with cleaner consciences.