01 May, 2010

Recommended reading

Just how much of a parasite is the casino capitalism of the modern financial system?  See John Robb, Global Guerrillas: JOURNAL: The Financial Oligarchy Tax (and don't skip the comments, there are some interesting ideas there).

One of the best recent overviews of the problems of contemporary intelligence analysis, by some of the best scholars in the field, is available here.  Beware--it's a long .pdf file--but it's worth it.

Another long and valuable file the Joint Operating Environment 2010, from the American Joint Forces Command.  Wide-ranging forecasts, plus a healthy humility about the limits of forecasting.

Game over. (Time for a new game.)

Today I've been rereading James Lovelock's 2008 comments on responding to potential global environmental collapse.  Monday I go into class again, and try to give my students (1) an accurate assessment of what we do and don't know, and (2) a sense that their decisions can have some effect.  I think it's possible, but it isn't easy.  The interview with Lovelock:

In 1965 executives at Shell wanted to know what the world would look
like in the year 2000. They consulted a range of experts, who speculated
about fusion-powered hovercrafts and "all sorts of fanciful
technological stuff". When the oil company asked the scientist James
Lovelock, he predicted that the main problem in 2000 would be the
environment. "It will be worsening then to such an extent that it will
seriously affect their business," he said.

"And of course,"
Lovelock says, with a smile 43 years later, "that's almost exactly
what's happened."

Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from
his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s,
the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of
Britain's most respected - if maverick - independent scientists. Working
alone since the age of 40, he invented a device that detected CFCs,
which helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer, and introduced
the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a
self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists
as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all
climate science.

For decades, his advocacy of nuclear power
appalled fellow environmentalists - but recently increasing numbers of
them have come around to his way of thinking. His latest book, The
Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm,
causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be
Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater. The most recent
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report deploys less
dramatic language - but its calculations aren't a million miles away
from his.

As with most people, my panic about climate change is
equalled only by my confusion over what I ought to do about it. A
meeting with Lovelock therefore feels a little like an audience with a
prophet. Buried down a winding track through wild woodland, in an office
full of books and papers and contraptions involving dials and wires,
the 88-year-old presents his thoughts with a quiet, unshakable
conviction that can be unnerving. More alarming even than his
apocalyptic climate predictions is his utter certainty that almost
everything we're trying to do about it is wrong.

On the day we
meet, the Daily Mail has launched a campaign to rid Britain of plastic
shopping bags. The initiative sits comfortably within the current canon
of eco ideas, next to ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling
and so on - all of which are premised on the calculation that individual
lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock
says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do
might make us feel better, but they won't make any difference. Global
warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable.

just too late for it," he says. "Perhaps if we'd gone along routes like
that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don't have time. All these
standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are
just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me
saying you can't say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on
the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of
things you want to do."

He dismisses eco ideas briskly, one by
one. "Carbon offsetting? I wouldn't dream of it. It's just a joke. To
pay money to plant trees, to think you're offsetting the carbon? You're
probably making matters worse. You're far better off giving to the
charity Cool Earth, which gives the money to the native peoples to not
take down their forests."

Do he and his wife try to limit the
number of flights they take? "No we don't. Because we can't." And
recycling, he adds, is "almost certainly a waste of time and energy",
while having a "green lifestyle" amounts to little more than
"ostentatious grand gestures". He distrusts the notion of ethical
consumption. "Because always, in the end, it turns out to be a scam ...
or if it wasn't one in the beginning, it becomes one."

unexpectedly, Lovelock concedes that the Mail's plastic bag campaign
seems, "on the face of it, a good thing". But it transpires that this is
largely a tactical response; he regards it as merely more rearrangement
of Titanic deckchairs, "but I've learnt there's no point in causing a
quarrel over everything". He saves his thunder for what he considers the
emptiest false promise of all - renewable energy.

"You're never
going to get enough energy from wind to run a society such as ours," he
says. "Windmills! Oh no. No way of doing it. You can cover the whole
country with the blasted things, millions of them. Waste of time."

is all delivered with an air of benign wonder at the intractable
stupidity of people. "I see it with everybody. People just want to go on
doing what they're doing. They want business as usual. They say, 'Oh
yes, there's going to be a problem up ahead,' but they don't want to
change anything."

Lovelock believes global warming is now
irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet
becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass
migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat
for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on
wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the
logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can
save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will
come not from less technology, but more.

Nuclear power, he
argues, can solve our energy problem - the bigger challenge will be
food. "Maybe they'll synthesise food. I don't know. Synthesising food is
not some mad visionary idea; you can buy it in Tesco's, in the form of
Quorn. It's not that good, but people buy it. You can live on it." But
he fears we won't invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects
"about 80%" of the world's population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets
have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, he says. "But this
is the real thing."

Faced with two versions of the future -
Kyoto's preventative action and Lovelock's apocalypse - who are we to
believe? Some critics have suggested Lovelock's readiness to concede the
fight against climate change owes more to old age than science: "People
who say that about me haven't reached my age," he says laughing.

when I ask if he attributes the conflicting predictions to differences
in scientific understanding or personality, he says: "Personality."

more than a hint of the controversialist in his work, and it seems an
unlikely coincidence that Lovelock became convinced of the
irreversibility of climate change in 2004, at the very point when the
international consensus was coming round to the need for urgent action.
Aren't his theories at least partly driven by a fondness for heresy?

a bit! Not a bit! All I want is a quiet life! But I can't help noticing
when things happen, when you go out and find something. People don't
like it because it upsets their ideas."

But the suspicion seems
confirmed when I ask if he's found it rewarding to see many of his
climate change warnings endorsed by the IPCC. "Oh no! In fact, I'm
writing another book now, I'm about a third of the way into it, to try
and take the next steps ahead."

Interviewers often remark upon the
discrepancy between Lovelock's predictions of doom, and his good
humour. "Well I'm cheerful!" he says, smiling. "I'm an optimist. It's
going to happen."

Humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, he
explains, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but
didn't know what to do about it". But once the second world war was
under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do,
it was one long holiday ... so when I think of the impending crisis now,
I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want."

moments I wonder about Lovelock's credentials as a prophet. Sometimes
he seems less clear-eyed with scientific vision than disposed to see the
version of the future his prejudices are looking for. A socialist as a
young man, he now favours market forces, and it's not clear whether his
politics are the child or the father of his science. His hostility to
renewable energy, for example, gets expressed in strikingly Eurosceptic
terms of irritation with subsidies and bureaucrats. But then, when he
talks about the Earth - or Gaia - it is in the purest scientific terms

"There have been seven disasters since humans came on the
earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think
these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually
we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can
live with it properly. That's the source of my optimism."

would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy
life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years
before it hits the fan."

He and I may quibble on the details, but I suspect he's closer to the truth than most others are.  Change is coming, and to paraphrase Winston Churchill on Americans, we're going to do the right thing--after we try everything else.

'Enjoy life while you can' | Environment | The Guardian