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The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.

In Conclusion… April 4, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in China, clean energy, environment.
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… either we help China build more wind farms faster, or we get environmental disaster trifectas! Thanks, I’ll take questions now. You, in the back.

P.S. Reader #0, is this what you meant by short?

China Wind-Power? Gimme More! April 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in China, clean energy, climate, sustainability.
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Recently, in several different places (Huffington Post, NYT, CNN), I’ve read laments that the US is “falling behind China in clean energy technology innovation/investment/capacity.” In 2009, China became the first nation to add more wind-power generation capacity than the US. And by the end of 2010, China will have more total wind-power generation capacity than the US. And presumably, that gap will continue to grow indefinitely.

Forget about the development of clean energy technology for a moment. From a climate perspective, it doesn’t matter which country develops the best technology as long as that technology is adopted and used to best effect. And in any case, statements about rates of innovation are fundamentally fuzzy and based on strange metrics. This one is based on number of patents issued which has more to do with a country’s patent laws than with actual innovation. Personally, I would strongly doubt that there is more innovation–in any field–going on in China than in the US seeing as of the top 100 research universities, 88 are in the US and only 1 is in China.

As for investment and capacity, if you are lamenting that the US is not investing enough in domestic wind and solar, then you would be right. But the fact that China is investing in these, especially in wind, is great news! In fact, if it were up to me (and of course, it is!), the US and other financially able developed countries, as well as the private sector, would actively help China ramp up its wind power generation capacity as fast as possible. At the expense of their own domestic efforts! That’s right! It is more important for the US to invest in wind in China, than it is to invest in domestic wind. The US and the rest of the developed world should actively help China become the leader in clean energy production! Why? Because if we don’t, China will become that anyways. Oh, and it will also become the leader in dirty energy!

Because of effective environmental resistance, the US hasn’t built a new coal-fired power plant in years, with many proposals being defeated and few current proposals standing even a slim chance of gaining an operating permit. Despite this, and despite relatively low penetration of clean energy domestically, electricity prices have stayed low because US electricity demand is simply not increasing that rapidly. The US doesn’t need more generating capacity, at least not until plug-in hybrids become common. It needs to convert its existing capacity to cleaner forms and to improve efficiency. China, on the other hand, needs as much new capacity as it can get its hands on. China is building one new coal-fired power plant a week!

The world’s goal should be to minimize the total number of coal-fired plants. And the most straightforward and efficient way of doing that is to prevent new ones from being built. It’s more efficient to build a wind-farm in China than it is to build a wind-farm in the US, shut down a coal-fired plant in the US and build a coal-fired plant in China. And it’s this more global view of efficiency that the US should strive for.

P.S. Some interesting analysis of Obama’s partial lift of the offshore drilling ban. Also, loved the use of “Palinized.”

P.P.S. You sir, are half of an oxymoron.

P.P.P.S. I tried to keep this post short because reader 0 (computer scientists start counting at 0) complained that my posts were too long. Resolved! Perhaps a blog post should be like a technical abstract, which is limited to 200 (sometimes 250) words. Of course, it usually takes six times as long to write a 250 word abstract than it is to write a 750 word one. See, the way you write a 250 word abstract is by first writing a 750 word one, then whittling it down to 500, 350, 300, 270, 262, 258, 255, 259 (dammit, undo), 252, 251, 251, 251, and 250 words. Unresolved!

Asia’s Double Tragedy March 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, China, society.
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I apologize to my lone reader for the six day post hiatus. I was “vacationing” with said reader and our children in WDW, i.e., DisneyWorld. I could write ten different posts about WDW, and I might, but for now let me just say that WDW would be much less crowded and much more pleasant if entry requirements included the company of at least one child under ten.

I am half-way through my experiment of reading four books simultaneously: Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, John Brockman’s “The Next Fifty Years”, Max Brockman’s “What’s Next”, and Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball”.  “Next” is my nightstand book, “Basketball” is my bathroom book, “Next 2.0” is my travel book, and “Crowded” is my downstairs chair book. I was going to do a giant joint book review, but “Crowded” and “Basketball” are much longer. Also, I’ve spent more time traveling and sleeping the past few weeks than sitting downstairs (ostensibly working) or going to the bathroom. And so here is a mini-review of “Nexts”. Briefly, 1.0 is a collection of essays by the leaders of individual scientific fields (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Roger Schank, Rodney Brooks) about their visions for their respective fields in the year 2050. It was compiled in 2001. This being 2010, none of the predictions have come 20% true yet as far as I can tell. Although I did learn the fascinating fact that the human genome contains only 35,000 genes, fewer than the genome of a potato and many other “simpler” life forms. 35,000 genes? That’s all it takes to make a human? What the hell took so long? 2.0 is a collection of essays by scientific wunderkinds, 75% of whom received their PhDs after I received mine, about their current research. By the way, the editor, Max Brockman, graduated from Penn in 2002, a year after I started working there.  I learned several things from this book. First, there are many brilliant young people in this world (well, at least 20) and some of them spend their time thinking about truly nutty things. Second, dropping people from a height of 15 stories into a net is accepted methodology in neuroscience research. Third, humans would be much better off if we adopted the same caste-like eusocial structure that ants and bees do. And fourth, Max Brockman is John Brockman’s son. Sometimes the apple doesn’t fall from the tree at all.

Speaking of eusocial societies, it appears that some Asian countries notably China and India are slowly moving towards this model with a small number of child-bearing women surrounded by armies of men, some of which get to mate but most of which perform work for the benefit of the colony. If you think this is a joke, you should read the lead article in last week’s The Economist. It is awful. But you should read it anyway. People should occasionally read awful things because awful things exist and should be acknowledged. Asian societies–and perhaps societies the world over–have long preferred sons to daughters. Sons can help more on the farm. Sons receive rather than give dowries. Sons stay with their parents and support them in their old age. Sons can grow up to play in the NFL. Historically, the only ways to affect this preference have been abandonment and outright infanticide. And these were morally objectionable enough that their incidence was low and the boy to girl ratio stayed about even. But increased availability of early-pregnancy sex-determination via ultrasound has opened up a much more morally palatable option–sex-selective abortion. In some northern India provinces there are now 130 boys born for every 100 girls, with doctors advertising “pay 5,000 rupees now (for the ultrasound) save 50,000 rupees later (for the dowry)”. In China, the ratio is 123 boys to 100 girls driven by boy preference and the “one child policy” and its variants. In some Chinese provinces, a couple is allowed a second child if the first one is a girl and in most provinces a couple is allowed two children if both parents are only children, effectively making “one child” alternate generations and strangely giving only children incentives to marry other only children.

I am pro-choice and certainly pro-family planning. But I consider the selective-abortion of hundreds of millions of girls to be a human tragedy. It’s actually a double tragedy. For every girl that never will be, there is a boy that will grow up alone. By 2020, there will be 30 million Chinese men age 20-30 with no prospects for marriage, family, or a path to social acceptance. In China, there is a name for these men–“bare branches.” There will be tens of millions more bare branches in India. South Korea. Singapore. Armenia. Georgia. And likely more to come in lesser developed country as ultrasound technology spreads there. In 10 years, there could be 100 million single young men in Asia. How’s that for a recipe for social unrest?  You think young Chinese men are frustrated and restless because they can’t perform politically subversive Google searches? Try seeing how frustrated they get when they can’t find anyone to have sex with! China is definitely going to have to uncensor porn then! Some way, some how, the cultural Asian boy preference has to end. Or eventually, they will have to reproduce by cloning. The good news is, it may be starting to. The bad news is, for this generation of “bare branches”, it’s already too late.

What’s a blog post without a P.S.? My cats’ “Temptations” treats have “Free Range Chicken Flavor.” Not just “Chicken Flavor.” “Free Range Chicken Flavor.” I don’t know whether to be amused or insulted. What premium am I paying for this luxury? And do my cats, who otherwise eat stuff that looks and smells like vomit, actually appreciate the difference?