Friday, September 12, 2014

Coming to an End

The Croods was an excellent movie.  This will matter later.

Sometimes, I forget what it's like to speak with the middle class.  This in spite of the fact that I have spent thousands of hours speaking with such people - and that I come from an upper middle-class background.  Yes, children, I was born in the suburbs, where I lived and died until I was 21, when I was free to seek more concrete-like pastures.  During these last thirty years (almost), I have done my best to avoid the entire class, preferring Bohemians and the like.

Yet, every once in a while I find myself in a disagreement with one of these bourgeois, reminding me within minutes how frightened they are.

I'm just finishing the 2009 book Superfreakonomics - which, point of fact, suffers a bit for being five years old.  There's economics for you.  Unlike the first book, there is more of a theme in the 'sequel,' as the culminating section of the book examines global warming strategies from a scientific perspective.  Fundamentally, the writers Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have collected a series of circumstances where the death of large numbers of people - associated with childbirth, traffic accidents, horse manure (resulting from horses used in cities for transportation) - was so common and expected that people simply accepted that nothing could be done.  Something was done, in each case, and it turned out to be something very simple: the use of handwashing and disinfectant to reduce hospital deaths in the 19th century, for instance.

Going forward, the argument is made that most of the huge framework solutions for global warming are causing as many troubles as they solve, whereas there are small groups of people who are investigating potential cheap and simple solutions based on silly things like science, fact, evidence and the like.

Without making any claims about success, I brought up the idea of simple solutions with a fellow yesterday - and ran smack into the terror & fear model that has been built into the middle-class homeowner's mind these past 20 years.  What is that model?  That we are in the trouble we're in because we invented things that had repercussions we didn't understand.  NOW, we must not invent anything else, because new things will clearly have repercussions we do not - and cannot - understand.

Take a suggestion from the book linked.  The stratovolcano Pinatubo erupted quite by surprise in 1991, proving to be the largest eruption  - to that time - since Krakatoa in 1883.  Afterwards, global temperatures dropped by about 0.5° on average, for reasons largely having to do with ejection of materials and gasses into the stratosphere, the layer of air above that which we normally use (the troposphere).  One of the interesting things about the stratosphere is that its layer of air does not mix easily with the troposphere - there is a specific boundary between the two layers having much to do with atmospheric thermodynamics that we don't have to investigate just now.  The ejection of SO2 (sulphur dioxide) into that higher atmosphere by Pinatubo produced a concealing layer above the earth that did not descend as time passed - though it did eventually dissipate throughout the entire stratosphere, that being an immense space.  Scientifically, this sort of thing happens whenever a very large volcano explodes.

Sadly, Superfreakonomics was released prior to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, so that volcano is not addressed in the book - but according to wikipedia, the Iceland volcano's eruption was not as powerful as Pinatubo.  It was the location of Eyjafjallajokull with respect to the rest of Europe that caused so much trouble, not the size of the eruption.

In any case, Superfreakonomics examines the possibility of purposefully releasing SO2 into the stratosphere (about 12 miles up) without intentionally causing a volcano to erupt to Pinatubo's degree (hard to do and undesirable) by scientific means, to potentially lower global warming.  Impossible? Perhaps.  But no one thought seat belts would save lives.  Or that it was possible to live in a world without horse manure.  Or that there were little microscopic things that were killing people.  Doubt, the theme goes, is the initial reaction that most everyone has where it comes to proposing a simple solution to what is believed to be an insurmountable problem.

There's no question that the insurmountability of that problem has been hammered into us these last two decades.  While I think the discussion about global warming's reality has been settled (there will always be kooks who don't agree - look at all the nuts who still believe in god), the campaign to settle that argument has left us with a disastrous legacy - a complete and total certainty that this is bigger than we are.  That there are no rational solutions, no possibilities, no further data to be collected, no possible direct ways to manage the problem.

The only thing we can do is junk our cars and our aircraft, eat local, cease to have children, eradicate at least half the population, stop all research, remove plastic from our existence, eliminate all technology that is post 18th century and then - once we've done all that - sit in the mud and wait to see who drowns when the ocean rises.

Faced with that prospect, the sentiment becomes, "Oh fuck it."

Bringing me back to my middle-class friend, who vehemently argued that we should absolutely NOT carefully release SO2 into the stratosphere because we don't know what will happen if we do.  Except that, you know, volcanoes occasionally do this and we know what happens.  And that we are deliberately, excessively, releasing SO2 into the troposphere, the air we actually breathe, with very little resistance or appropriate concern.  But, as they say, "Look what happened last time we didn't know!"

Putting me in mind of two quotes from The Croods, prior to where the characters learn anything. Prior to their world coming to 'an end.'

"Anything new is bad.  Curiosity is bad."

"Never not be afraid."


kimbo said...

Hi Alexis,
in relation to societal head-in-sand or oh-fuck-it attitudes to big things apparently beyond our control,
I'd like to bring to your attention, author Nassim Taleb (Black Swans and Anti-fragile)
I got onto him after reading Freakonomics.

He's an iconoclasitc anti-establishment , anti-economist, with deep knowledge and experience of trading, very sensible and logical about what to do now. If its any surprise to you, what is being done now is exactly wrong.

Right up your alley, I think.
anti fragile

black swans

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nassim has some things to say. However, I have long felt that his attitude towards economics and specifically debt shows a wilful ignorance that tends to undermine much of his credibility.