Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

/rant on

MAD is a term I haven’t thought about for a good long while. No illusions here regarding that particularly nasty genie having been stuffed back into its lamp. Nope, it lingers out there in some weird liminal space, routinely displaced by more pressing concerns. However, MAD came back into my thoughts because of saber-rattling by U.S. leadership suggesting resumed above-ground nuclear testing might be just the ticket to remind our putative enemies around the world what complete assholes we are. Leave it to Americans to be the very last — in the midst of a global pandemic (that’s redundant, right?) — to recognize that geopolitical squabbles (alert: reckless minimization of severity using that word squabble) pale in comparison to other looming threats. Strike that: we never learn; we lack the reflective capacity. Still, we ought to reorient in favor of mutual aid and assistance instead of our MAD, insane death pact.

The authoritative body that normally springs to mind when MAD is invoked is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Ironically, it appears to be an independent, nonprofit 501(c)(3) entity, a media organization, not an actual collection of atomic scientists. (I’ll continue to italicize Bulletin as though it’s a publication like the New York Times even though it’s arguably something else.) I’ve blogged repeatedly about its iconic Doomsday Clock. In an otherwise astute post against sloppy appeals to authority using the increasingly meaningless term expert, Alan Jacobs takes to task the Bulletin for straying out of its lane to consider threats that are political in nature rather than scientific. Reminded me of when Pope Francis in his encyclical deigned to acknowledge climate change, recognizing that Mother Earth is our “common home” and maybe we shouldn’t be raping her. (OK, that coarse bit at the end is mine.) What? He’s not a climatologist! How dare he opine on something outside his official capacity? Go back to saving souls!

At the same time we desperately need expertise to accomplish things like building bridges that don’t fall down (yet still do) or performing an appendectomy without killing the patient, it’s inevitable that people form opinions about myriad subjects without the benefit of complete authority or expertise, if such a thing even exists. As students, citizens, and voters, we’re enjoined to inform ourselves, discuss, and learn rather than forfeit all opinion-making to, oh I dunno, the chattering classes. That’s intellectual sovereignty, unless one is unfortunate enough to live in a totalitarian regime practicing thought control. Oh, wait … So it’s a sly form of credentialing to fence off or police opinion expressed from inexpert quarters as some sort of thought crime. Regarding MAD, maybe the era has passed when actual atomic scientists assessed our threat level. Now it’s a Science and Security Board made up of people few have ever heard of, and the scope of their concern, like the Pope’s, is wide enough to include all existential threats, not just the one assigned to them by pointy-headed categorists. Are politicians better qualified on such matters? Puhleeze! (OK, maybe Al Gore, but he appears to be busy monetizing climate change.)

As a self-described armchair social critic, I, too, recognized more than a decade ago the existential threat (extinction level, too) of climate change and have blogged about it continuously. Am I properly credentialed to see and state the, um, obvious? Maybe not. That’s why I don’t argue the science and peer-reviewed studies. But the dynamics, outlines, and essentials of climate change are eminently understandable by laypersons. That was true as well for Michael Ruppert, who was impeached by documentarians for lacking supposed credentialed expertise yet still having the temerity to state the obvious and sound the alarm. Indeed, considering our failure to act meaningfully to ameliorate even the worst case scenario, we’ve now got a second instance of mutually assured destruction, a suicide pact, and this one doesn’t rely on game-theoretical inevitability. It’s already happening all around us as we live and breathe … and die.

/rant off

Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.


I’ll try to be relatively brief, since I’ve been blogging about industrial and ecological collapse for more than a decade. Jeff Gibbs released a new documentary called Planet of the Humans (sideways nod to the dystopian movie franchises Planet of the Apes — as though humans aren’t also apes). Gibbs gets top billing as the director, but this is clearly a Michael Moore film, who gets secondary billing as the executing producer. The film includes many of Moore’s established eccentricities, minus the humor, and is basically an exposé on greenwashing: the tendency of government agencies, environmental activists, and capitalist enterprises to coopt and transform earnest environmental concern into further profit-driven destruction of the natural environment. Should be no surprise to anyone paying attention, despite the array of eco-luminaries making speeches and soundbites about “green” technologies that purport to save us from rendering the planet uninhabitable. Watching them fumble and evade when answering simple, direct questions is a clear indication of failed public-relations approaches to shaping the narrative.

Turns out that those ballyhooed energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, biofuel, biomass) ride on the back of fossil fuels and aren’t any more green or sustainable than the old energy sources they pretend to replace. Again, no surprise if one has even a basic understanding of the dynamics of energy production and consumption. That admittedly sounds awfully jaded, but the truth has been out there for a long time already for anyone willing and able to confront it. Similarly, the documentary mentions overpopulation, another notorious elephant in the room (or herd of elephants, as aptly put in the film), but it’s not fully developed. Entirely absent is any question of not meeting energy demand. That omission is especially timely given how, with the worldwide economy substantially scaled back at present and with it significant demand destruction (besides electricity), the price of oil has fallen through the floor. Nope, the tacit assumption is that energy demand must be met despite all the awful short- and long-term consequences.

Newsfeeds indicate that the film has sparked considerable controversy in only a few days following release. Debate is to be expected considering a coherent energy strategy has never been developed or agreed upon and interested parties have a lot riding on outcomes. Not to indulge in hyperbole, but the entire human race is bound up in the outcome, too, and it doesn’t look good for us or most of the rest of the species inhabiting the planet. Thus, I was modestly dismayed when the end of the film wandered into happy chapter territory and offered the nonsensical platitude in voiceover, “If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible.” Because we’ve passed and in fact lapped the point of no return repeatedly, the range of possibilities has shrunk precipitously. The most obvious is that human population of 7.7 billion (and counting) is being sorely tested. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we also know that post-pandemic there can be no return to the world we’ve known for the past 70 years or so. Although the documentary could not be reasonably expected to be entirely up to date, it should at least have had the nerve to conclude what the past few decades have demonstrated with abundant clarity.


This review provides support for my assessment that “green” or “sustainable” energy cannot be delivered without significant contribution of fossil fuels.

Here’s a rather strange interaction: destruction budgets and moral license. The former refers to a theoretical or proposed budget for allowable environmental destruction. The latter refers to how doing something good allows rationalization of doing something bad as though one offsets (recognize that word?) the other. A familiar example is a physical workout that justifies a later sugar binge.

So just maybe some (outside executive offices anyway) are coming round to the idea that ongoing destruction of nature ought to be curtailed or better regulated. That’s the thrust of an article in Nature that mentions emissions budgets, which I’ve renamed destruction budgets. The article provides a decent overview of the largest threats, or environmental tipping points, that lead to an uninhabitable Earth. Human activity isn’t only about greenhouse gas emissions, however. Because industrial civilization has essentially had an unlimited destruction budget in the past, we’ve depleted and toxified air, soil, and water at such an alarming rate that we now have a limited number of harvests left and already face fresh water shortages that are only expected to worsen.

Turning to the viral pandemic, large segments of the population kept at home on lockdown triggered a different sort of destruction budget that didn’t exist before it suddenly did: economic destruction, joblessness, and financial ruin. For many Americans already stretched thin financially and psychologically, if the virus doesn’t get you first, then bankruptcy and despair will. Several rounds of bailouts (based on money that doesn’t exist) followed the economic slowdown and are freighted with moral hazard and moral license. Prior bailouts make clear where most of the money goes: deep corporate pockets, banks, and Wall Street. According to this unsophisticated poll, a clear majority do not want banks and financial institutions bailed out. There is even stronger public support for conditions on corporate bailouts, especially those conditions designed to protect employees.

Since we’re in wildly uncharted terrain from only 1.5 months of whatever this new paradigm is, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will occur by summertime or the fall. We’ve blown way past any reasonable destruction budget. In truth, such budgets probably never existed in the first place but were only used as metaphors to make plans no one expects to be binding, much like the toothless 2016 Paris Agreement. Every time we set a hypothetical self-imposed limit, we exceed it. That’s why, to me at least, is such a cruel joke: the target ceiling was breached decades before the organization was even founded in 2009 and hasn’t slowed its rate of increase since then. In effect, we’ve given ourselves license to disregard any imaginary budgets we might impose on ourselves. The pertinent question was raised by Thomas Massie (KY-Rep.) in the first new bailout bill when he openly challenged the number: “If getting us into $6 trillion more debt doesn’t matter, then why are we not getting $350 trillion more in debt so that we can give a check of $1 million to every person in the country?” How weird is it that both issues cite the number 350?


Posted: January 6, 2020 in Artistry, Corporatism, Culture, Science
Tags: ,

Something I read somewhere (lost track of what and when) sparked some modest inquiry into the mathematical concept of magnitude, or more specifically, the order of magnitude. I suspect, consistent with the doomer themes of this blog, that it was a statement to the effect that the sixth extinction (or Holocene extinction if you prefer) is proceeding at some order of magnitude faster than previous mass extinction events.

Within various scientific fields, magnitude has specific and specialized meanings. For instance, the Richter Scale, used to denote the power of earthquakes, is a familiar though poorly understood measure reported in the aftermath of an event. Magnitudes of distance and time are more immediately understood in the mundane sense of how far/long to travel somewhere (via foot, bicycle, car, train, plane, etc.) and more exotically outside Earth orbit as depicted in science fiction. Perhaps the most cognitively accessible illustration of magnitude, however, is scale. Arguably, size (absolute?) and scale (comparative?) are intertwined with distance, or even more broadly, time-space. I’ll leave that discussion to someone who knows better than I do.

All that said, I recalled from boyhood a short film depicting scale in terms of Powers of Ten. Unsurprisingly, I found it on YouTube (embedded below).

Perhaps it’s just my refurbishing of memory, but this film (now video) has a sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like how Disney properties (e.g., films, TV shows, theme parks, merchandise) from the 1960s and 70s retained an innocence from the time when Walt Disney himself was in charge. Early NASA orbital missions and moonshots had that quality, too, but NASA’s wonder years dissipated around the time space shuttles went into service, demonstrating that NASA’s primary objective was neither technical innovation nor exploration anymore but rather commerce, namely, putting satellites into orbit for communications services. Just this past year, the risible U.S. Space Force, wished into existence by 45 single-handedly over all reasonable objections (not unlike the border wall with Mexico), demonstrates a similar loss of innocence. It’s essentially an attempt to patrol and/or weaponize the commons. I’d like to believe that military personnel are dutifully obeying a pointless command from the commander-in-chief and will abandon or scuttle the new military branch once 45 is out of office. Time will tell.

Loss of innocence may be inevitable in the postmodern world given our jadedness, cynicism, and oh-so-hip ironic detachment. It’s not a good look on us. For instance, once Disney went corporate, the aesthetic pioneered and guided by old Walt changed for the worse. Relatively recent acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars (among others) and expansion of theme parks and resorts reveal an entertainment behemoth geared more cynically toward money-making than artistry or inspiration. The apparent insufficiency of earlier incarnations of NASA and Disney find a parallel with an updated version of Powers of Ten (not embedded), narrated by Morgan Freeman (because … why not?) and using the same basic script but employing whiz-bang graphics considerably enhanced over their 1977 counterparts. Even the pop-culture digital network Buzzfeed (not exactly a venerated news source) gets some action with its derivative, examination-lite of cosmic scale (ignoring the microscopic and subatomic):

Going back to the idea of magnitude, I’m aware of four time-scales in common use: human history, evolutionary time, geological time, and cosmic time. Few contextualize the last 2–3 centuries this way, but human activity has had substantial effects that collapse events usually occurring over evolutionary or geological time into human history. We unwittingly launched a grand terraforming project but have yet to demonstrate overriding care for the eventual outcomes. The, um, magnitude of our error cannot be overstated.

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy is past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.

Periodically, I come across preposterously stupid arguments (in person and online) I can’t even begin to dispel. One such argument is that carbon is plant food, so we needn’t worry about greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, a byproduct of industrial activity. Although I’m unconvinced by such arrant capsule arguments, I’m also in a lousy position to contend with them because convincing evidence lies outside my scientific expertise. Moreover, evidence (should I bother to gather it) is too complex and involved to fit within a typical conversation or simple explanation. Plus, evidence relies on scientific literacy and critical reasoning often lacking in the lay public. Scientific principles work better for me rather than, for example, the finely tuned balances Nature is constantly tinkering with — something we humans can hope to discover only partially. Yet we sally forth aggressively and heedlessly to manipulate Nature at our peril, which often results in precisely the sort of unintended consequence scientists in Brazil found when mosquitoes altered genetically (to reduce their numbers as carriers of disease) developed into mosquitoes hardier and more difficult to eradicate than if we had done nothing. The notion that trees respond favorably to increased carbon in the atmosphere has been a thorn in my side for some time. Maybe it’s even partly true; I can’t say. However, the biological and geophysical principle I adhere to is that even small changes in geochemistry (minute according to some scales, e.g., parts per million or per billion) have wildly disproportionate effects. The main effect today is climate changing so fast that many organisms can’t adapt or evolve quickly enough to keep up. Instead, they’re dying en masse and going extinct.

The best analogy is the narrow range of healthy human body temperature centered on 98.6 °F. Vary not far up (fever) or down (hypothermia) and human physiology suffers and become life threatening. Indeed, even in good health, we humans expend no small effort keeping body temperature from extending far into either margin. Earth also regulates itself through a variety of blind mechanisms that are in the process of being wrecked by human activity having risen by now to the level of terraforming, much like a keystone species alters its environment. So as the planet develops the equivalent of a fever, weather systems and climate (not the same things) react, mostly in ways that make life on the surface much harder to sustain and survive. As a result, trees are in the process of dying. Gail Zawacki’s blog At Wit’s End (on my blogroll) explores this topic in excruciating and demoralizing detail. Those who are inclined to deny offhandedly are invited to explore her blog. The taiga (boreal forest) and the Amazonian rainforest are among the most significant ecological formations and carbon sinks on the planet. Yet both are threatened biomes. Deforestation and tree die-off is widespread, of course. For example, since 2010, an estimated 129 million trees in California have died from drought and bark beetle infestation. In Colorado, an estimated more than 800 millions dead trees still standing (called snags) are essentially firestarter. To my way of thinking, the slow, merciless death of trees is no small matter, and affected habitats may eventually be relegated to sacrifice zones like areas associated with mining and oil extraction.

Like the bait “carbon is plant food,” let me suggest that the trees have begun to rebel by falling over at the propitious moment to injure and/or kill hikers and campers. According to this article at Outside Magazine, the woods are not safe. So if mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, or bears don’t getcha first, beware of the trees. Even broken branches and dead tree trunks that haven’t fallen fully to the ground (known as hung snags, widow-makers, and foolkillers) are known to take aim at human interlopers. This is not without precedent. In The Lord of the Rings, remember that the Ents (tree herders) went to war with Isengard, while the Huorns destroyed utterly the Orcs who had laid siege to Helm’s Deep. Tolkien’s tale is but a sliver of a much larger folklore regarding the enchanted forest, where men are lost or absorbed (as with another Tolkien character, Old Man Willow). Veneration of elemental forces of nature (symbols of both life and its inverse death) is part of our shared mythology, though muted in an era of supposed scientific sobriety. M. Night Shyamalan has weak explorations of similar themes in several of his films. Perhaps Tolkien understood at an intuitive level the silent anger and resentment of the trees, though slow to manifest, and their eventual rebellion over mistreatment by men. It’s happening again, right now, all around us. Go ahead: prove me wrong.

“Come with me if you want to live.” That’s among the quotable lines from the latest movie in the Terminator franchise, though it’s not nearly so succinct or iconic as “I’ll be back” from the first Terminator. Whereas the latter has the quality (in hindsight) of slow, implacable inevitability (considering the Terminator is literally a death-bringer), the former occurs within the context of a character having only just traveled back in time, not yet adequately reoriented, and forced to make a snap decision under duress. “I’ll be back” might be easy to brush off as harmless (temporary denial) since the threat recedes — except that it doesn’t, it’s merely delayed. “Come with me …” demands a leap of faith (or trust) because the danger is very real at that instant.

Which quote, I must ask, better characterizes the threat of climate change? My answer: both, but at different times. Three to four decades ago, it was the “I’ll be back” type: building slowly but inevitable given the underlying structure of industrial civilization. That structure was known even then by a narrow circle of experts (e.g., engineers for Big Oil and at the Dept. of Energy) to be a heat engine, meaning that we would ultimately cook our own goose by warming the planet, altering the climatic steady state under which our most recent civilization has flourished and producing a steady loss of biodiversity and biomass until our own human habitat (the entirety of the planet by now) becomes a hostile environment unable (unwilling if one anthropomorphizes Mother Nature) to support our swollen population. All that was if we stayed on course and took no corrective action. Despite foreknowledge and ample warning, that’s precisely what occurred (and continues today).

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in particular, the threat has for roughly a decade shifted over to “Come with me ….” It’s no longer possible to put things off, yet we continue to dither well beyond the tipping point where/when we can still save ourselves from self-annihilation. Although scientists have been gathering data and evidence, forming an overwhelming consensus, and sounding the alarm, scientific illiteracy, realpolitik, journalistic malpractice, and corporate greed have all conspired to grant the illusion of time to react we simply don’t have anymore (and truth be told, probably didn’t as of the early 1980s).

I’m aware of at least three journalists (relying on the far more authoritative work of scientific consensus) who have embraced the message: Dahr Jamail, Thom Hartmann, and David Wallace-Wells. None to my knowledge has been able to bring himself to admit that humanity is now a collection of dead men walking. They can’t muster the courage to give up hope (or to report truthfully), clinging to the possibility we may still have a fleeting chance to avert disaster. I heard Ralph Nader on his webcast say something to the same effect, namely, what good is it to rob others of hope? My personal values adhere to unstinting truth rather than illusion or self-deception, so I subscribe to Guy McPherson‘s assessment that we face near-term human extinction (precise date unknown but soon if, for example, this the year we get a blue ocean event). Simply put, McPherson is professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona [note my emphasis]. I trust his scholarship (summarizing the work of other scientists and drawing necessary though unpalatable conclusions) more than I trust journalistic shaping of the story for public consumption.

The obvious metaphor for what we face is a terminal medical diagnosis, or if one has hope, perhaps a death sentence about to be carried out but with the possibility of a last-minute stay of execution via phone call from the governor. Opinions vary whether one should hope/resist up to the final moment or make peace with one’s fate. By not telling the truth, I daresay the MSM has not given the public the second option by using the “I’ll be back” characterization when it’s really “Come with me ….” Various authors on the Web offer a better approximation of the truth (such as it can be known) and form a loose doomer network (a/k/a collapsniks). This blog is (an admittedly tiny) part of that doomersphere, which gives me no pleasure.

I’ve written a different form of this blog post at least once before, maybe more. Here’s the basic thesis: the bizarro unreality of the world in which we now live is egregious enough to make me wonder if we haven’t veered wildly off the path at some point and now exist within reality prime. I suppose one can choose any number of historical inflections to represent the branching point. For me, it was the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. (The 9/11 attacks and “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq had already occurred or commenced by then, and it had already revealed as well that lies — Saddam had WMDs — that sold the American public on the Iraq “war” were effective and remain so today.) Lots of other events changed the course of history, but none other felt as much to me like a gut punch precisely because, in the case of the 2004 presidential election, we chose our path. I fantasized waking up from my reality-prime nightmare but eventually had to grudgingly accept that if multiverses exist, ours mine had become one where we chose (collectively, and just barely) to keep in office an executive who behaved like a farce of stupidity. Well, joke’s on us. Twelve years later, we chose someone even more stupid, though with a “certain serpentine cunning,” and with arguably the worst character of any U.S. executive in living history.

So what to do in the face of this dysfunctional state of affairs? Bret Weinstein below has ideas. (As usual, I’m quite late, embedding a video that by Internet standards is already ancient. I also admit this is equivalent to a smash cut because I don’t have a particularly good transition or justification for turning so suddenly to Weinstein.) Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist, so no surprise that the approach he recommends is borne out of evolutionary thinking. In fairness, a politician would logically recommend political solutions, a financier would recommend economic solutions, and other professionals would seek solutions from within their areas of expertise.

The title of the interview is “Harnessing Evolution,” meaning Weinstein suggests we use evolutionary models to better understand our own needs and distortions to guide or plot proper path(s) forward and get back on track. Never mind that a healthy minority of the U.S. public rejects evolution outright while an additional percentage takes a hybrid stance. While I’m impressed that Weinstein has an answer for everything (pedagogue or demagogue or both?) and has clearly thought through sociopolitical issues, I daresay he’s living in reality double-prime if he thinks science education can be a panacea for what ails us. My pessimism is showing.

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies are commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans to and reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.