Friday, March 21, 2014

Mordor Of Our Own Making

Now some, not Eli may consider Eli to be a bit, shall we say sardonic and prone to look through a glass darkly.  Eli knows this is not the case, because he has a friend Dano who makes Eli look like the Easter Bunny spreading cheer.  Dano writes

Bunnies may have sensed a disturbance in the force (no, not the gravitational waves from inflation after the Big Bang) surrounding a foofaraw over some negative comments about the meaning of several recent papers on future resource trends, and especially a paper discussed at The Guardian and elsewhere.  That paper** is, of course, Motesharrei et al. A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction.. It is a first attempt to try and find parameters for a model that can describe the events in, say, Jared Diamond’s Collapse

After turning on the Interwebs and seeing the garment-rending, Dano is inclined to wonder where the intersection of techno-optimist and modeler-computer scientist-physicist lies. Being an. . .erm...sotto voce, urban ecologist does make one grumpy and perhaps understanding of the task of modeling complex socio-ecological systems, but it sure sounds to me like some folks don’t want to hear the message from these papers.

That is: the authors themselves – in their paper – state:

…results of our experiments…indicate that either one of the two features apparent in historical societal collapses - over-exploitation of natural resources and strong economic stratification - can independently result in a complete collapse. [pg. 28] .
The latter assertion about collapse due to economic stratification is essentially the thesis of Thomas Piketty’s new work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, where he argues capitalism may inevitably lead to unsustainable inequality and collapse. There have been lots of people having a sad about this book, as it argues for a suboptimal possible outcome of basic human nature over a large scale (and refudiation of a particular ideology, but still)1.

Motesharreiharrei et al. are not the first to argue over-exploitation of natural resources can … result in a complete collapse [of societies], so what’s the problem? Did they put a graph on it that upset folks? Too many simple equations? Another work that explains a suboptimal possible outcome of basic human nature over a large scale?

What I think is upsetting to non-ecologists/biologists/natural sciency-types is the authors don’t recommend technology to reverse course, but rather
… collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion. [pg. 28]
Say what?!? Lessen resource extraction? Human nature must utterly change and people must cease to want more? Societies must embrace change, re-do their basic infrastructure quickly and make wholesale changes in how the economy is considered? Well, good news: to do societal change, all we have to do is have leaders lead and giant multinational corporations change their ways and people cease to want more. And also easy as pie: much investment must happen to harden, update, make efficient, make cooler cities. And profit may be foregone for some multinational corporations. It’s solvable.

One other thing to consider. Jared Diamond argues collapse has much historical precedent and tries to tease out the reasons why this is so. He argues that in general it is resource depletion and an inability to respond. But why? And is he a doomer? Geoffrey West argues in this TED talk about the conditions surrounding urban and societal growth, and at the end outlines the conditions leading to collapse – but no one is harshing on his buzz. Why? Because he sugar-coated it?

And our current direction, with big changes on the horizon including technology changing monitoring and photography paradigms and technology maybe making some labor go away, doesn’t offer the common folk a lot of hope. Techno-optimists have a long row to hoe (hopefully not for Bt corn that was poorly managed and has bred resistant pests) and not much time before the (CO2-fueled) weeds grow high. Plenty of historical instances to learn from to turn the societal ship around.

In short, as the Kevin Anderson argues in this compelling video that Eli embedded earlier, we have even less time for a technical solution that hasn’t been tested yet. And human nature is very resistant to change. Why wouldn’t garments be rent? It’s hard to be an optimist when looking at the daunting problems in the human socio-ecological system. But shooting the messenger won’t make things better. Leaders leading and basic human nature changing can help us learn from history. But maybe we should have a spoonful of sugar at the ready just in case.

** Well, that was my bookmark, it may have been taken down. I’m glad I know someone who may know someone who may have a hard copy.

1. I understand Krugman is working on a review for the so he may correct my argument soon.NYTRB


Russell Seitz said...

Come the Zombie Apocalypse I plan to remove to Easter Island with five thousand remaindered copies each of Collapseand and found a biodegradable papier mache moai industry to serve the ecotourist trade.

Russell Seitz said...

Blogger Russell Seitz said...

Pardon the Typocalypse Eli:

The preceeding ( SNIP SNIP s'il vous plait) sould read :

Come the Zombie Apocalypse I plan to remove to Easter Island with five thousand remaindered copies each of Collapse and The Singularity Is Near, and found a biodegradable papier mache moai industry to serve the ecotourist trade.

Dano said...

Dano ...makes Eli look like the Easter Bunny spreading cheer.

Hey - most papers out there discussing the challenges to reducing emissions say that all we need to do is have everyone change and get some leadership and a bunch of businesses on board and we can turn this ship. I said it's solvable.

And I see I need to fire my editor, apologies folks.



Oale said...

though you likely know it already your blog is referred to in

Steve Bloom said...

Current link for the paper:

Pete Dunkelberg said...

Paper? What paper? Could it be just some unpublished musings?

Dano said...

Thanks for the new link Steve Bloom!

I see there is another write-up in The Guardian about how the garment-renders are having a sad.

I think it is important to remember that we can picture transition (maybe not quite like the Transition Town movement) as a hard landing or soft landing [ugh, I can't B-quote]:

"I close with the conclusions of Dr Rodrigo Castro's paper on the HANDY model:

"Although models presented in this paper are from different classes (minimal Handy vs. more complex, realistic world model, World3), their conclusions are similar. In the long run, not so far into the future, humanity must change to living sustainably on planet Earth. This change can occur either as a planned gradual transition, preserving well-functioning societies, or as a more disruptive, unplanned transition resulting in a less pleasant society with a reduced ecological capacity."

That is: as long as we change ourselves, we can manage change.



Hank Roberts said...

An interesting tidbit -- people have been smart in the past:

-----excerpt follows-----
It is interesting to note that something very similar (overfishing – conflicts – trawl ban – fish biomass increase) took place in the same area about one hundred years earlier, when a three-year trawling ban was imposed in the Gulf of Castellammare with a Royal decree in October 1896 (Anon, 1899). The decision of imposing the ban was triggered by symptoms of overfishing and by a sudden increase of fishing effort due to trawlers displaced from the Gulf of Termini Imerese, an area located 100 km eastwards where a trawling ban had been imposed in August 1896.

The fishery tax collector of Terrasini – the main fishing harbour in the Gulf of Castellammare – wrote: “I wish to declare that the Gulf of Castellammare, once full of all species of fish, started to get depleted since fishermen from Terrasini and from other harbours in the Gulf began to use the pernicious trawlers. This is so true that the same fishermen, foreseeing the harm they were bound to meet, asked the abolition of their own trawlers and gave them to the flames. Later on, after the turbulent fishermen of Solunto and Porticello depleted the rich Gulf of Termini Imerese with their trawls and dredges, and dared bring the destruction up to here (i.e., in the Gulf of Castellammare), Terrasini arose as one man to protest against those vandals of the sea, and turned complaints to the Royal Government; which, making the best of the Terrasinean reasons, extended to our Gulf the experiment zone (i.e., the trawling ban) established with the Decree of 18 October 1896 in the Gulf of Termini Imerese” ( Anon, 1899).

Conflicts and overfishing due to intensive use of bottom-towed gear and to exploitation of costal nurseries had already been denounced before 1896, and limitations to the use of trawl nets in Sicily date back to the beginning of 17th century (Lentini, 2010). Following the 1896 ban, the average value of yearly landings in Terrasini increased from Euro 41,273 ± 6423.71 in the seven years before the ban to Euro 287,806 ± 56,360.05 in the first two years after the ban (present value).

The 1896 trawling ban was not renewed, maybe due to industrial lobbying. More than one century later history repeats itself and, despite scientific evidence, trawl fishermen push to have the ban lifted, thus venturing the benefits achieved with a twenty-year long ban (Fiorentino et al., 2008 and Pipitone et al., 2000).

The Sicilian experience gives us a few lessons

Hank Roberts said...

And for those who like that sort of thing, there's more:

The news isn't all bad.

Steve Bloom said...

Passed through peer review and accepted for publication, which you would have known had you been paying attention, Pete.

Pete Dunkelberg said...

Thanks Steve, I have now paid more attention and have the revised copy as well as the old one. I'm also starting to like it more.

Anonymous said...

Krugman's up with that today. I'd read it, except the NYTimes irked me when it took an excessive time to cancel my subscription when I was relocating and did not have a new address.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to compare the actual data with the predictions of World3 modelling. See An update of data for World3. World3 was a more sophisticated model than HANDY.

The data suggest that the next 5 years will be make or break tim for the model.