26 September 2013

Risk blindness and the forthcoming energy crash

Filed under: books, carbon, chaos, climate change, Economics, irrationality, politics, risks, solar energy — David Wood @ 11:28 am

‘Logical’ is the last thing human thinking, individual and collective, is. Too compelling an argument can even drive people with a particularly well-insulated belief system deeper into denial.

JL in Japan 2The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, by Jeremy Leggett, is full of vividly quotable aphorisms – such as the one I’ve just cited. I see Jeremy as one of the world’s leading thinkers on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and the dysfunctional ways in which investment all-too-frequently works. The Observer has described him as “Britain’s most respected green energy boss”. A glance at his CV shows an impressive range of accomplishments:

Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s fastest growing renewable energy company since 2000, and founder and chairman of SolarAid, an African solar lighting charity set up with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits and itself parent to a social venture, SunnyMoney, that is the top-selling retailer of solar lights in Africa.

Jeremy has been a CNN Principal Voice, and an Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards. He was the first Hillary Laureate for International Leadership on Climate Change, chairs the financial-sector think-tank Carbon Tracker and is a consultant on systemic risk to large corporations. He writes and blogs on occasion for the Guardian and the Financial Times, lectures on short courses in business and society at the universities of Cambridge and St Gallen, and is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

On his own website, The triple crunch log, Jeremy has the following to say about himself:

This log covers the energy-, climate-, and financial crises, and issues pertinent to society’s response to this “triple crunch”…

Let me explain why am I worried about oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment.

I researched earth history for 14 years, and so know a bit about what makes up the climate system. I researched oil source rocks for several of those years, funded by BP and Shell among others, and I explored for oil and gas in the Middle East and Asia, so I have a background in the issues relevant to peak oil. And more recently I have been a clean-energy entrepreneur and investor for more than decade, as founder of a solar energy company and founding director of a Swiss venture capital fund, so I have seen how the capital markets operate close to. That experience is the basis for my concerns…

Many of the critics who comment on my blogs urge readers to discount everything I say because I am trying to sell solar energy, and so therefore must be in it for the money, hyping concerns about climate change and peak oil in the cause of self enrichment. (As you would). They have it completely the wrong way round.

I left a lucrative career consulting for the oil industry, and teaching its technicians, because I was concerned about global warming and wanted to act on that concern. I joined Greenpeace (1989), on a fraction of my former income, to campaign for clean energy. I left Greenpeace (1997) to set up a non-profit organisation campaigning for clean energy. I turned it into a for-profit company (1999) because I came to the view that was the best possible way I could campaign for clean energy – by creating a commercial success that could show the way. The company I set up gives 5% of its operating profit to a charity that also campaigns for clean energy, SolarAid. All that said, I hope Solarcentury makes a lot of money. It won’t have succeeded in its mission if it doesn’t. I’m hoping fewer people will still want to discount my arguments, knowing the history.

Today marks the UK availability of his book, The Energy of Nations. Heeding its own advice, quoted above, that there are drawbacks to presenting arguments in an overly rational or compelling format, the book proceeds down a parallel course. A large part of the book reads more like a novel than a textbook, with numerous fascinating episodes retold from Jeremy’s diaries.


The cast of characters that have walk-on parts in these episodes include prime ministers, oil industry titans, leading bankers, journalists, civil servants, analysts, and many others. Heroes and villains appear and re-appear, sometimes grown wiser with the passage of years, but sometimes remaining as recalcitrant, sinister (yes), and slippery (yes again) as ever.

A core theme of the book is risk blindness. Powerful vested interests in society have their own reasons to persuade public opinion that there’s nothing to worry about – that everything is under control. Resources at the disposal of these interests (“the incumbency”) inflict a perverse blindness on society, as regards the risks of the status quo. Speaking against the motion at a debate, This House Believes Peak Oil Is No Longer a Concern, in London’s Queen Elizabeth II Congress Centre in March 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis brought on by hugely unwarranted over-confidence among bankers, Jeremy left a trenchant analogy hanging in the mind of the audience:

I explain that those of us who worry about peak oil fear that the oil industry has lapsed into a culture of over-exuberance about both the remaining oil reserves and prospects of resources yet to be turned into reserves, and about the industry’s ability to deliver capacity to the market even if enough resources exist.

Our main argument is that new capacity flows coming onstream from discoveries made by the oil industry over the past decade don’t compensate for depletion. Hence projections of demand cannot be met a few years hence. This problem will be compounded by other issues, including the accelerating depletion of the many old oilfields that prop up much of global oil production today, the probable exaggeration by OPEC countries of their reserves, and the failure of the ‘price-mechanism’ assumption that higher prices will lead to increased exploration and expanding discoveries…

In conclusion, this debate is all about the risk of a mighty global industry having its asset assessment systemically overstated, due to an endemic culture of over-optimism, with potentially ruinous economic implications.

I pause to let that sentence hang in the air for a second or two.

Now that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?

This none too subtle allusion to the disaster playing out in the financial sector elicits a polite laugh from the audience…

Nowadays, people frequently say that the onset of shale oil and gas should dissolve fears about impending reductions in the availability of oil. Jeremy sees this view as profoundly misguided. Shale is likely to fall far, far short of the expectations that have been heaped on it:

For many, the explosive growth of shale gas production in the USA – now extending into oil from shale, or ‘tight oil’ as it is properly known – is a revolution, a game-changer, and it even heralds a ‘new era of fossil fuels’. For a minority, it shows all the signs of being the next bubble in the markets.

In the incumbency’s widely held view, the US shale gas phenomenon can be exported, opening the way to cheap gas in multiple countries. For others, even if there is no bubble, the phenomenon is not particularly exportable, for a range of environmental, economic and political reasons

This risk too entails shock potential. Take a country like the UK. Its Treasury wishes actively to suppress renewables, so as to ensure that investors won’t be deterred from bankrolling the conversion of the UK into a ‘gas hub’. Picture the scene if most of the national energy eggs are put in that basket, infrastructure is capitalised, and then supplies of cheap gas fall far short of requirement, or even fail to materialise.

As the book makes clear, our collective risk blindness prevents society as a whole from reaching a candid appraisal of no fewer than five major risks facing us over the next few years: oil shock, climate shock, a further crash in the global financial system, the bursting of a carbon bubble in the capital markets, and the crash of the shale gas boom. The emphasis on human irrationality gels with a lot of my own prior reading – as I’ve covered e.g. in Our own entrenched enemies of reasonAnimal spirits – a richer understanding of economics, Influencer – the power to change anything, as well as in my most recent posting When faith gets in the way of progress.

The book concludes with a prediction that society is very likely to encounter, by as early as 2015, either a dramatic oil shock (the widespread realisation that the era of cheap oil is behind us, and that the oil industry has misled us as badly as did the sellers of financial hocus pocus), or a renewed financial crisis, which would then precipitate (but perhaps more slowly) the same oil shock. To that extent, the book is deeply pessimistic.

But there is plenty of optimism in the book too. The author believes – as do I – that provided suitable preparatory steps are taken (as soon as possible), society ought to be able to rebound from the forthcoming crash. He spends time explaining “five premises for the Road to Renaissance”:

  1. The readiness of clean energy for explosive growth
  2. The intrinsic pro-social attributes of clean energy
  3. The increasing evidence of people power in the world
  4. The pro-social tendencies in the human mind
  5. The power of context that leaders will be operating in after the oil crash.

But alongside his optimism, he issues a sharp warning:

I do not pretend that things won’t get much worse before they get better. There will be rioting. There will be food kitchens. There will be blood. There already have been, after the financial crash of 2008. But the next time round will be much worse. In the chaos, we could lose our way like the Maya did.

In summary, it’s a profoundly important book. I found it to be a real pleasure to read, even though the topic is nerve-racking. I burst out laughing in a number of places, and then reflected that it was nervous laughter.

The book is full of material that will probably make you want to underline it or tweet an extract online. The momentum builds up to a dramatic conclusion. Anyone concerned about the future should make time to read it.

Not everyone will agree with everything it contains, but it is clearly an honest and heartfelt contribution to vital debates. The book has already been receiving some terrific reviews from an interesting variety of people. You can see those, a summary, Chapter One, and links for buying the book here.

Finally, it’s a book that is designed to provoke discussion. I’m delighted that the author has agreed to speak at a London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October. Please click here for more details and to RSVP. This is a first class topic addressed by a first class speaker, which deserves a first class audience to match!

17 September 2013

When faith gets in the way of progress

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

The rise and fall of our health and vigour is depicted in this sketch from leading biogerontology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov:

Aging Decline

This diagram is taken from the presentation Alex made at a London Futurists event on 31st August. Alex used the same slide in his presentation, several days later, to the SENS6 conference “Reimage aging” at Queens’ College, Cambridge.


My impression from the attendees at SENS6 that I met, over the four days I spent at the conference, is that the vast majority of them would give a resounding ‘No’ as the answer to the question,

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

What’s more, they shared a commitment that action should be taken to change this state of affairs. In various ways, they described themselves as “fighters against aging”, “healthy longevity activists”, and as “campaigners for negligible senescence”. They share an interest in the declaration made on the page on the SENS Research Foundation website describing the conference:

The purpose of the SENS conference series, like all the SENS initiatives, is to expedite the development of truly effective therapies to postpone and treat human aging by tackling it as an engineering problem: not seeking elusive and probably illusory magic bullets, but instead enumerating the accumulating molecular and cellular changes that eventually kill us and identifying ways to repair – to reverse – those changes, rather than merely to slow down their further accumulation.

This broadly defined regenerative medicine – which includes the repair of living cells and extracellular material in situ – applied to damage of aging, is what we refer to as rejuvenation biotechnologies.

This “interventionist” approach, if successful, would lead to a line, on the chart of performance against age, similar to that shown in the bright green colour: we would retain our youthful vigour indefinitely. Mechanisms supporting this outcome were explored in considerable technical details in the SENS6 presentations. The SENS6 audience collectively posed some probing questions to the individual presenters, but the overall direction was agreed. Rejuvenation biotechnologies ought to be developed, as soon as possible.

But not everyone sees things like this. SENS6 attendees agreed on that point too. Over informal discussions throughout the event, people time and again shared anecdotes about their personal acquaintances being opposed to the goals of SENS. You can easily see the same kind of negative reactions, in the online comments pages of newspapers, whenever a newspaper reports some promising news about potential techniques to overcome aging.

For example, the Daily Mail in the UK recently published a well-researched article, “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life? Forget gastronomic indulgence, the crustacean can defy the aging process”. The article starts as follows:

They are usually associated with a life of gastronomic indulgence and heart-stopping excess. But away from the dinner table, lobsters may actually hold the secret to a long, healthy — and possibly even eternal — life.

For this crustacean is one of a handful of bizarre animals that appear to defy the normal aging process.

While the passing years bring arthritis, muscle loss, memory problems and illness to humans, lobsters seem to be immune to the ravages of time. They can be injured, of course. They can pick up diseases. They can be caught and thrown into a pot, then smothered in béchamel sauce.

But rather than getting weaker and more vulnerable over the years, they become stronger and more fertile each time they shed their shells.

The typical lobster weighs 1 to 2 lb. But in 2009, a Maine fisherman landed a colossus of 20 lb, which was estimated to be 140 years old. And that isn’t even the oldest lobster found so far. According to Guinness World Records, a 44 lb leviathan was caught in 1977, with claws powerful enough to snap a man’s arm.

The species belongs to an elite group that appears to be ‘biologically immortal’. Away from predators, injury or disease, these astonishing creatures’ cells don’t deteriorate with age…

For healthy longevity activists, there was lots of good news in the article. This information, however, was too much for some readers to contemplate. Some of the online comments make for fascinating (but depressing) reading. Here are four examples, quoted directly from the comments:

  1. How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?
  2. People have to die and they’re not dying quickly enough. Soon the earth will run out of water and food for the ever increasing masses.
  3. These “researchers” should watch Death Becomes Her
  4. The only guarantee of eternal life is to read your Bibles. Though even if you don’t, eternal life of another kind exists, though it’s not particularly appealing: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11).

To be clear, the goal of project such as those in the SENS umbrella is to extend healthy lifespans (sometimes known as “healthspans”) rather than simply extending lifespans themselves. Rejuvenation technologies are envisioned to undo tendencies towards unwelcome decrepitude, crabbiness, and so on.

As for the reference to the 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” featuring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in a frightful “living dead” immortality, I’ll get back to that later.

Infinite ResourceThe question of potential over-population has a bit more substance. However, the worry isn’t so much the number of people on the earth, but the rate at which everyone is consuming and polluting. With potential forthcoming improvements in harnessing solar energy, we’ll have more than enough energy available to look after a planet with 10 billion people. Arguably the planet could sustain at least 100 billion people. (That argument is made, in a well-balanced way, by Ramez Naam in his recent book “The infinite resource” – a book I thoroughly recommend. I’ve also covered this question from time to time in earlier blogposts – see e.g. “Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years”.)

However, I believe that there are deeper roots to the opposition that many people have to the idea of extending healthy lifespans. They may offer intellectual rationalisations for their opposition (e.g. “How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?”) but these rationalisations are not the drivers for the position they hold.

Instead, their opposition to extending healthy lifespans comes from what we can call faith.

This thought crystallised in my mind as I reflected on the very last presentation from SENS6. The speaker was Thomas Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, and his topic was “Understanding the paradox of opposition to long-term extension of the human lifespan: fear of death, cultural worldviews, and the illusion of objectivity”.

The presentation title was long, but the content was clear and vivid. The speaker outlined some conclusions from decades of research he had conducted into “Terror Management Theory (TMT)”. I’ve since discovered that the subject of “Terror Management Theory” has its own article in Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning…


Here’s the “paradox” to which Pyszczynski (pictured) referred: people oppose the idea that we could have longer healthy lives, because of the operation of a set of culture and philosophical ideas, which were themselves an adaptive response to the underlying fact that we deeply desire indefinitely long healthy lives. So the opposition is self-contradictory, but the people involved don’t see it like that.

For all of history up until the present age, the idea of having an indefinitely long healthy life was at stark variance to everything else that we saw around ourselves. Death seemed inevitable. In order to avoid collapsing into terror, we needed to develop rationalisations and techniques that prevented us from thinking seriously about our own finitude and mortality. That’s where key aspects of our culture arose. These aspects of our culture became deeply rooted.

Our culture operates, in many cases, below the level of conscious awareness. We find ourselves being driven by various underlying beliefs, without being aware of the set of causes and effects. However, we find comfort in these beliefs. This faith (belief in the absence of sufficient reason) helps to keep us mentally sane, and keeps society functional, even as it prepares us, as individuals, to grow infirm and die.

In case any new ideas challenge this faith, we find ourselves compelled to lash out against these ideas, even without taking the time to analyse them. Our motivation, here, is to preserve our core culture and faith, since that’s what provides the foundation of meaning in our lives. We fight the new ideas, even if these new ideas would be a better solution to our underlying desire to live an indefinitely long, healthy life. The new ideas leave us with a feeling of alienation, even though we don’t see the actual connections between ideas. Our faith causes us to lose our rationality.

Incidentally, similar factors apply, of course, when other things that have profound importance to us are challenged. For example, when we think we may lose a cherished romantic partner, we can all too easily become crazy. When your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes.

Ending AgingIt turns out that Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS, has already written on this same topic. In chapter two of his 2007 book “Ending aging”, he notes the following:

There is a very simple reason why so many people defend aging so strongly – a reason that is now invalid, but until quite recently was entirely reasonable. Until recently, no one has had any coherent idea how to defeat aging, so it has been effectively inevitable. And when one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging and about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than to spend one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it. The fact that, in order to sustain this state of mind, one has to abandon all semblance of rationality on the subject – and, inevitably, to engage in embarrassingly unreasonable conversational tactics to shore up that irrationality – is a small price to pay….

Aubrey continues this theme at the start of chapter three:

We’ve recently reached the point where we can engage in the rational design of therapies to defeat aging: most of the rest of this book is an account of my favoured approach to that design. But in order to ensure that you can read that account with an open mind, I need to dispose beforehand of a particularly insidious aspect of the pro-aging trance: the fact that most people already know, in their heart of hearts, that there is a possibility that aging will eventually be defeated.

Why is this a problem? Indeed, at first sight you might think that it would make my job easier, since surely it means that the pro-aging trance is not particularly deep. Unfortunately, however, self-sustained delusions don’t work like that. Just as it’s rational to be irrational about the desirability of aging in order to make your peace with it, it’s also rational to be irrational about the feasibility of defeating aging while the chance of defeating it any time soon remains low. If you think there’s even a 1 percent chance of defeating aging within your lifetime (or within the lifetime of someone you love), that sliver of hope will prey on your mind and keep your pro-aging trance uncomfortably fragile, however hard you’ve worked to convince yourself that aging is actually not such a bad thing after all. If you’re completely convinced that aging is immutable, by contrast, you can sleep more soundly.

Underwood_Mair_2013_smallAnother speaker from the final session of SENS6, Mair Underwood of the University of Queensland, provided some timely advice to the SENS6 community, that dovetails well with the discussion above. Underwood’s presentation was entitled “What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals”. The presentation pointed out the many ways in which popular films (such as “Death Becomes Her”, mentioned above) portray would-be life extensionists in a bad light. These people, the films imply, are emotionally immature, selfish, frustrated, obstructive, and generally unattractive. This is the pro-death culture at work.

To counteract these impressions, and to help free the broader community from its faith that aging and death are actually good things, Underwood gave the following advice:

  1. Assure that life extension science, and the distribution of life extension technologies, are ethical and regulated, and seen to be so
  2. Assuage community concerns about life extension as unnatural or playing god
  3. Assure that life extension would involve an extension of healthy lifespan
  4. Assure that life extension does not mean a loss of fertility
  5. Assure the community that life extension will not exacerbate social divides, and that those with extended lives will not be a burden on society
  6. Create a new cultural framework for understanding life extension.

This advice is all good, but I suspect that the new few years may see a growing “battle of faiths”, as representatives of the old culture fight harder in opposition to the emerging evidence that we we are on the point of possessing the technological means to extend human healthspans very significantly. This is a battle that may need more tools, to influence the outcome, than mere hard-honed rationality. At the very least, we’ll need to keep in mind how culture works, and the ways in which faith draws strength.

Follow ups: Several forthcoming London Futurists meetups address topics that are directly relevant to the above line of thinking:

  • Futurism, Spirituality, and Faith, in Birkbeck College on Saturday 21st September, discusses ways in which committed technoprogressives can best interact with faith-based movements, without these interactions leading to fruitless irrationality and loss of direction
  • Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity, a Google Hangout On Air (HOA) on Sunday 29th September, features a panel discussion on the question, “What are the most important ongoing projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity?”
  • Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan, another Google HOA, on Sunday 20th September, reviews a recently published novel about a possible near-future scenario of a growing battle between the old human culture and an emerging new culture that favours indefinitely long healthspans.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of whether solar energy will be able, as I implied above, to address pending shortages in global energy supplies, even as human population continues to increase, you should make it a priority to attend the London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October, The Energy of Nations, with Jeremy Leggett. The speaker on this occasion is one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment. The topic of the best energy systems for the decades ahead is, alas, another one in which faith tends to subvert reason, and in which we need to be smart to prevent our thinking being hijacked by adverse factors.

For more information about the evolution of London Futurists, you can take a peek at a new website which is in the process of being implemented, at http://londonfuturists.com/.

16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.

Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

27 February 2010

Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years

Filed under: books, Economics, green, Kurzweil, RSA, solar energy, sustainability — David Wood @ 3:23 pm

One reason I like London so much is the quality of debate and discussion that takes place, at least three times most weeks, at the RSA.

The full name of this organisation is “the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce“.  It’s been holding meetings since 1754.  Early participants included Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, and Richard Arkwright.

Recently, there have been several RSA meetings addressing the need for significant reform of how the global economy operates.  Otherwise, these speakers imply, the future will be much bleaker than the present.

On Wednesday, Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey led a debate on the question “Is Prosperity Without Growth Possible?”  Professor Jackson recently authored the book “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet“.  The book contains an extended version of his remarks at the debate.

I find myself in agreement a great deal of what the book says:

  • Continuous economic growth is a shallow and, by itself, dangerous goal;
  • Beyond an initial level, greater wealth has only a weak correlation with greater prosperity;
  • Greater affluence can bring malaise – especially in countries with significant internal inequalities;
  • Consumers frequently find themselves spending money they don’t have, to buy new goods they don’t really need;
  • The recent economic crisis provides us with an important opportunity to reflect on the operation of economics;
  • “Business as usual” is not a sustainable answer;
  • There is an imperative to consider whether society can operate without its existing commitment to regular GDP growth.

What makes this book stand out is its recognition of the enormous practical problems in stopping growth.  Both growth and de-growth face significant perils.  As the start of chapter 12 of the book states:

Society is faced with a profound dilemma.  To resist growth is to risk economic and social collapse.  To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy…  When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple‘ growth from its material impacts…

The sheer scale of this task is rarely acknowledged.  In a world of 9 billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it it today…

Never mind that no-one knows what such an economy looks like.  Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening on anything like that scale.  Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the wrong direction.  The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles.  Technology will save us.  Capitalism is good at technology…

This delusional strategy has reached its limits.  Simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will stabilise the climate and solve the problem of resource scarcity are almost literally bankrupt.  We now stand in urgent need of a clearer vision, braver policy-making, something more robust in the way of a strategy with which to confront the dilemma of growth.

The starting point must be to unravel the forces that keep us in damaging denial.  Nature and structure conspire together here.  The profit motive stimulates a continual search for newer, better or cheaper products and services.  Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism.  Affluence itself has betrayed us.

Affluence breeds – and indeed relies on – the continual production and reproduction of consumer novelty.  But relentless novelty reinforces anxiety and weakens our ability to protect long-term social goals.  In doing so it ends up undermining our own well-being and the well-being of those around us.  Somewhere along the way, we lose the shared prosperity we sought int he first place.

None of this is inevitable.  We can’t change ecological limits.  We can’t alter human nature.  But we can and do create and recreate the social world. Its norms are our norms.  Its visions are our visions.  Its structures and institutions shape and are shaped by those norms and visions.  This is where transformation is needed…

As I said, I find myself in agreement a great deal of what the book says.  The questions raised in the book deserve a wide hearing.  Society needs higher overarching goals than merely increasing our GDP.  Society needs to focus on new priorities, which take into account the finite nature of the resources available to us, and the risks of imminent additional ecological and economic disaster.

However, I confess to being one of the people who believe (with some caveats…) that “technology will save us“.  Let’s look again at this figure of a 130-fold descrease needed, between now and 2050.

The figure of 130 comes from a calculation in chapter 5 of the book.  I have no quibble with the figure.  It comes from the Paul Ehrlich equation

I = P * A * T


  • I is the impact on the environment resulting from consumption
  • P is the population
  • A is the consumption or income level per capita (affluence)
  • T is the technological intensity of economic output.

Jackson’s book considers various scenarios.  Scenario 4 assumes a global population of 9 billion by 2050, all enjoying a lifestyle equivalent to that of the average EU citizen, which has grown by the modest amount of only 2% per annum over the intervening 40 years.  To bring down today’s I level for carbon intensity of economic level, to that seen by the IPCC as required to avoid catastrophic climate change, will require a 130-fold reduction in T in the meantime.

How feasible is an improvement factor of 130 in technology, over the next 40 years?  How good is the track record of technology at solving this kind of problem?

Some of the other speakers at the RSA event were hesitant to make any predictions for a 40 year time period.  They noted that history has a habit of making this kind of prediction irrelevant.  Jackson’s answer is that since we have little confidence of making a significant change in T, we should look to ways to reduce A.  Jackson is also worried that recent talk of a ‘Green New Deal’:

  • Is still couched in language of economic growth, rather than improvement in prosperity;
  • Has seen little translation into action, since first raised during 2008-9.

My own answer is that 130 represents just over 7 doublings (2 raised to the 7th power is 128) and that at least some parts of technology have no problems in improving by seven doubling generations over 40 years.  Indeed, taking two years as the usual Moore’s Law doubling period, for improvements in semiconductor density, would require only 14 years for this kind of improvement, rather than 40.

To consider how Moore’s Law improvements could transform the energy business, radically reducing its carbon intensity, here are some remarks by futurist Ray Kurzweil, as reported by LiveScience Senior Editor Robin Lloyd:

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is part of distinguished panel of engineers that says solar power will scale up to produce all the energy needs of Earth’s people in 20 years.

There is 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100 percent of our energy needs, he says, and the technology needed for collecting and storing it is about to emerge as the field of solar energy is going to advance exponentially in accordance with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. That law yields a doubling of price performance in information technologies every year.

Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity Is Near” and “The Age of Intelligent Machines,” worked on the solar energy solution with Google Co-Founder Larry Page as part of a panel of experts convened by the National Association of Engineers to address the 14 “grand challenges of the 21st century,” including making solar energy more economical. The panel’s findings were announced here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Solar and wind power currently supply about 1 percent of the world’s energy needs, Kurzweil said, but advances in technology are about to expand with the introduction of nano-engineered materials for solar panels, making them far more efficient, lighter and easier to install. Google has invested substantially in companies pioneering these approaches.

Regardless of any one technology, members of the panel are “confident that we are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels,” Kurzweil said, adding that it could happen within five years.

The reason why solar energy technologies will advance exponentially, Kurzweil said, is because it is an “information technology” (one for which we can measure the information content), and thereby subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

Other technologies that will help are solar concentrators made of parabolic mirrors that focus very large areas of sunlight onto a small collector or a small efficient steam turbine. The energy can be stored using nano-engineered fuel cells, Kurzweil said.

“You could, for example, create hydrogen or hydrogen-based fuels from the energy produced by solar panels and then use that to create fuel for fuel cells”, he said. “There are already nano-engineered fuel cells, microscopic in size, that can be scaled up to store huge quantities of energy”, he said…

To be clear, I don’t see any of this as inevitable.  The economy as a whole could falter again, jeopardising “Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns”.  Less dramatically, Moore’s Law could run out of steam, or it might prove harder than expected to apply silicon improvements in systems for generating, storing, and transporting energy.  I therefore share Professor Jackson’s warning that capitalism, by itself, cannot be trusted to get the best out of technology.  That’s why this debate is particularly important.

24 December 2009

Predictions for the decade ahead

Before highlighting some likely key trends for the decade ahead – the 2010’s – let’s pause a moment to review some of the most important developments of the last ten years.

  • Technologically, the 00’s were characterised by huge steps forwards with social computing (“web 2.0”) and with mobile computing (smartphones and more);
  • Geopolitically, the biggest news has been the ascent of China to becoming the world’s #2 superpower;
  • Socioeconomically, the world is reaching a deeper realisation that current patterns of consumption cannot be sustained (without major changes), and that the foundations of free-market economics are more fragile than was previously widely thought to be the case;
  • Culturally and ideologically, the threat of militant Jihad, potentially linked to dreadful weaponry, has given the world plenty to think about.

Looking ahead, the 10’s will very probably see the following major developments:

  • Nanotechnology will progress in leaps and bounds, enabling increasingly systematic control, assembling, and reprogamming of matter at the molecular level;
  • In parallel, AI (artificial intelligence) will rapidly become smarter and more pervasive, and will be manifest in increasingly intelligent robots, electronic guides, search assistants, navigators, drivers, negotiators, translators, and so on.

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

We’ll see the following applications of nanotechnology and AI:

  • Energy harvesting, storage, and distribution (including via smart grids) will be revolutionised;
  • Reliance on existing means of oil production will diminish, being replaced by greener energy sources, such as next-generation solar power;
  • Synthetic biology will become increasingly commonplace – newly designed living cells and organisms that have been crafted to address human, social, and environmental need;
  • Medicine will provide more and more new forms of treatment, that are less invasive and more comprehensive than before, using compounds closely tailored to the specific biological needs of individual patients;
  • Software-as-a-service, provided via next-generation cloud computing, will become more and more powerful;
  • Experience of virtual worlds – for the purposes of commerce, education, entertainment, and self-realisation – will become extraordinarily rich and stimulating;
  • Individuals who can make wise use of these technological developments will end up significantly cognitively enhanced.

In the world of politics, we’ll see more leaders who combine toughness with openness and a collaborative spirit.  The awkward international institutions from the 00’s will either reform themselves, or will be superseded and surpassed by newer, more informal, more robust and effective institutions, that draw a lot of inspiration from emerging best practice in open source and social networking.

But perhaps the most important change is one I haven’t mentioned yet.  It’s a growing change of attitude, towards the question of the role in technology in enabling fuller human potential.

Instead of people decrying “technical fixes” and “loss of nature”, we’ll increasingly hear widespread praise for what can be accomplished by thoughtful development and deployment of technology.  As technology is seen to be able to provide unprecedented levels of health, vitality, creativity, longevity, autonomy, and all-round experience, society will demand a reprioritisation of resource allocation.  Previous sacrosanct cultural norms will fall under intense scrutiny, and many age-old beliefs and practices will fade away.  Young and old alike will move to embrace these more positive and constructive attitudes towards technology, human progress, and a radical reconsideration of how human potential can be fulfilled.

By the way, there’s a name for this mental attitude.  It’s “transhumanism”, often abbreviated H+.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology, AI, and H+.

As for the question of which countries (or regions) will play the role of superpowers in 2020: it’s too early to say.

Footnote: Of course, there are major possible risks from the deployment of nanotechnology and AI, as well as major possible benefits.  Discussion of how to realise the benefits without falling foul of the risks will be a major feature of public discourse in the decade ahead.

29 November 2009

The single biggest problem

Filed under: green, solar energy, UKH+, vision — David Wood @ 2:35 pm

Petra Söderling, my good friend and former colleague on the Symbian Foundation launch team, raises some important questions in a blogpost yesterday, Transhumans H+.  Petra remarked on the fact that I had included the text “UKH+ meetings secretary” on my new business card.  A TV program she watched recently had reminded her of the topic of transhumanism (often abbreviated to H+ or h+) – prompting her blogpost:

…I haven’t changed my mind, David. I still think this is not pressingly important or urgent. In my view, the single biggest problem we have at hand is that people are breeding like rabbits, and the planet cannot feed us all. Us rich westerners consume so much natural resources that just supporting our lifestyle would be a burden. But, we are not only idiots in our own consumption manners, we are idiots in showing the rest of the world that this is the preferred lifestyle. Our example leads to billions of people in developing and underdeveloped countries pursuing our way of living. This is done by unprecedented exploitation of resources everywhere.

We’re in a process of eating our home planet away, and helping the richest of us to live healthier and longer is no solution. What’s the point of living 150 years if you’re breathing manufactured air, all migrated to north and south poles from desert lands, and eating tomatos that are clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone? As rich and clever as we are, I think we should solve first things first…

The mention of “first things first” and “single biggest problem” is music to my ears.  I’m currently engaged on a personal research program to try to clarify what, for me, should be the “first things” that deserve my own personal focus.  Having devoted the last 21 years of my work life to mobile software, particularly for smartphones, I’m now looking to determine where I should apply my skills and resources for the next phase of my professional life.

I completely agree with Petra that the current “western consumer lifestyle” is not sustainable.  As more and more people throughout the developing world adopt similar lifestyles, consuming more and more resources, the impact on our planet is becoming collosal.  It’s a very high priority to address this lack of sustainability.

But is the number of people on the planet – our population – the most important leverage point, to address this lack of sustainability?  There are at least four factors to consider:

  1. World population
  2. The resource consumption of the average person on the planet
  3. The outcome of processes for creating resources
  4. Side-effects of processes for creating resources.

Briefly, we are in big trouble if (1.)x(2.) exceeds (3.), and/or if the side-effects (4.) are problematic in their own right.

My view is that the biggest leverage will come from addressing factors (3.) and (4.), rather than (1.) and (2.).

For example, huge amounts of energy from the sun are hitting the earth the whole time.  To quote from chapter 25 of David MacKay’s first-class book “Sustainable energy without the hot air“,

…the correct statement about power from the Sahara is that today’s [global energy] consumption could be provided by a 1000 km by 1000 km square in the desert, completely filled with concentrating solar power. That’s four times the area of the UK. And if we are interested in living in an equitable world, we should presumably aim to supply more than today’s consumption. To supply every person in the world with an average European’s power consumption (125 kWh/d), the area required would be two 1000 km by 1000 km squares in the desert…

In parallel with thoughtfully investigating this kind massive-scale solar energy harvesting, it also makes sense to thoughtfully investigate massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere (the topic of a blogpost I plan to write shortly) as well as other geo-engineering initiatives.  In line with the transhumanist philoosophy I espouse, I’m keen to

support and encourage the thoughtful development and application of technology to significantly enhance human mental and physical capabilities – with profound possible consequences on both personal and global scales

There are, of course, large challenges facing attempts to create massive-scale solar energy harvesting and massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere.  These challenges span technology, politics, economics, and, dare I say it, philosophy.

In a previous posting, The trend beyond green, I”ve spelt out some desired changes in mindset that I see as required, on a global scale:

  • rather than decrying technology as “just a technical fix”, we must be willing to embrace the new resources and opportunities that these technologies make available;
  • rather than seeking to somehow reverse human lifestyle and aspiration to that of a “simpler” time, we must recognise and support the deep and valid interests in human enhancements;
  • rather than thinking of death and decay as something that gives meaning to life, we must recognise that life reaches its fullest meaning and value in the absence of these scourges;
  • rather than seeing the status quo as somehow the pinnacle of existence, we must recognise the deep drawbacks in current society and philosophies, and be prepared to move forwards;
  • rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”;
  • rather than seeking to limit expectations, with comments such as “this kind of enhancements might become possible in 100-200 years time”, we should recognise the profound possible synergies arising from the interplay of technologies that are individually accelerating and whose compound impact can be much larger.

Helping to accelerate these changes in mindset is one of the big challenges I’d like to adopt, in the next phase of my professional life.

Whatever course society adopts, to address our sustainability crisis, there will need to be some very substantial changes.  People embrace change much more willingly, if they see upside as well as downside in the change.  The H+ vision of the future I see is one of abundance (generated by the super-technology of the near future) along with societal harmony (peaceful coexistence) and ample opportunities for new growth and exploration.

To return in closing to the question raised earlier: what is the “single biggest problem” that most deserves our collective attention?  Is it population growth and demographics, global warming, shortage of energy, the critical instability of the world economic order, the potential for a new global pandemic, nuclear terrorism, or some other global existential risk?

In a way, the answer is “none of the above”.  Rather, the single biggest problem is that, globally, we are unable to collaborate sufficiently deeply and productively to develop and deploy solutions to the above issues.  This is a second-level problem.  The economic, political, and philosophical structures we have inherited from the past have very many positive aspects, but many drawbacks as well – drawbacks that are becoming ever more pressing as we see accelerating change in technology, resource usage, and communications.

19 November 2009

ELF09: energy, sustainability, and more

Filed under: Economics, Energy, green, solar energy — David Wood @ 3:12 am

On Tuesday I attended the ninth Business Week “European Leadership Forum”, also known by its Twitter hash tag #elf09Business Week are to be congratulated for bringing together a fascinating group of industry leaders.

Here are a few of the points from the course of the day that made me think.

The threat of a new economic crisis

Professor Urs Muller, Managing Director and Chief Economist at BAK Basel Economics, had some worrying thoughts about the state of the global economy:

The good news is that the economic crisis is over.  The bad news is that the conditions responsible for the crisis are still intact, and the next crisis is already brewing.

Like various other speakers and panellists, Professor Muller was concerned about the state of regulation of banking activities.  As we discussed afterwards: “Who would be a regulator?”

It’s hard to identify and agree which elements of banking need new regulation regimes, and which don’t.  However, action by one country alone (for example, by the UK) would fail, since it would merely drive key lines of business elsewhere.  Coordination is needed – but hard!

I asked, how much time do we have?  Do governments have around ten years to reach agreement and take action, or are things more urgent?  Professor Muller replied that if matters were not resolved during 2010, it might already be too late.  Unfortunately, the side effect of the current crisis appearing to be over, is that government attention is liable to diminish.  Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief, prematurely.

This ominous discussion reminded me of remarks made by eminent economist and FT columnist John Kay a few days earlier, at a lunchtime meeting at the RSA, “Banking in the Wake of the Crisis: how will confidence be restored?”  That meeting addressed the questions:

  • Have banks and bankers have really learned the lessons of the crisis?
  • Are we in danger of falling into a dangerous cycle once more?

John Kay gave the answers No and Yes.

On a more positive note, Professor Muller highlighted the FSB (Financial Stability Board) as a cross-border organisation with a strong potential to address banking system vulnerabilities and to develop and implement strong regulatory, supervisory and other policies in the interest of financial stability.  John Kay’s recommendations – in favour of what is called “Narrow banking” – are contained in a 95-page PDF “The Reform of Banking Regulation” available from his website.

In search of the European Bill Gates

Earlier in the day, INSEAD Professor Soumitra Dutta and serial technology entrepreneur Niklas Zennström led a discussion “INNOVATION – What is the next generation? The next wave?”

Questions posed included why there was no real equivalent, in Europe, to Bill Gates, and which field of technology is likely to prove the most important in the near-term future.

I liked the answer given by Professor Dutta:

The next big wave of hitech innovation is improving the quality of life – including both improving the environment, and improving healthcare.

However, these technologies should not be viewed as alternatives to ICT (Information and Communications Technology).  Instead, these technology areas will succeed by implementing the next wave of ICT.  But instead of just experiencing “the Internet of websites”, we will see “the Internet of things”.

Alternatives to dependency on growth

Running near the surface of much of the discussion during the day was the theme of growth and sustainability.

Opening keynote speaker Stephen Green, Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings Plc, put it as follows:

The biggest change arising from the economic crisis is that companies must stop focussing on short-term value maximisation, and should instead focus on sustainable value maximisation.

Later, from the floor, Professor Dutta posed the simple question,

Is growth good?

I didn’t hear a satisfactory answer.  I did hear the answer that “business needs growth”, but that just skirts the issue.

Interestingly, Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the same issue in his keynote address at the General Assembly conference of the Club of Rome on 26 October 2009, in Amsterdam.  Here’s an extract:

A low-carbon economy is only a part of this new economic model we need so badly today. The model that has been around for the past five decades should be replaced. Of course, it cannot be achieved overnight, but I think we can already discuss reference points and general contours of this new model.

It means, above all, the overcoming of the economy’s ‘addiction’ to super-profits and hyper-consumption, which is not possible unless societies reshape their values. It means shifting of the increasingly larger swaths of the economy to production of ‘social goods’, among which the sustainable environment takes a centre stage.

These social goods also include human health in the broad sense of the word, education, culture, equal opportunities, and social unity, including the elimination of the glaring gaps between the rich and the poor.

Society needs all this not only because ethical imperatives dictate it. The economic benefits to be brought by these “goods” are enormous. However, economists are yet to learn how to measure them. An intellectual breakthrough is needed here. A new model of economy can not be built without it.

Energy and sustainability

The #elf09 gathering split up during the afternoon into a series of six parallel discussions.  Along with around 40 other people, I took part in a roundtable discussion on “Energy and sustainability”.

The discussion was led by Mark Williams, Downstream Director of Royal Dutch Shell, and Sophia Tickell, Executive Director of SustainAbility.

Mark Williams made the following points (I apologise in advance for condensing a much richer set of messages):

  • Almost certainly, the total energy needs of the world will double by 2050;
  • It seems highly unlikely that this vast energy requirement can be met by non-fossil fuels;
  • We need to prepare for a scenario in which at least 70% of the world’s energy needs in 2050 will still be met by fossil fuels;
  • In other words, “we have to come to grips with carbon”;
  • Even as we continue to rely on fossil fuels, we have to “decarbonise” the system;
  • There’s no reasonable alternative to developing and deploying technology for widespread CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage);
  • It’s already possible to store CO2 underground, safely, “for geological amounts of time”;
  • It’s true that there is public concern over the prospect of leaks of stored CO2, and over failures in warning systems to detect leaks, but “governments will have to take the lead in public education”.

Timescales to adopt new sources of energy

Mark Williams made the point that, so far, it has taken any new source of energy at least 25 years to achieve 1% of global energy delivery.  That point should be kept in mind, to avoid anyone becoming “too optimistic about new energy sources”.

In response, people around the table asked:

  • Would the equivalent of a war-time situation provide a different kind of reaction from both markets and governments?  Do we have to accept that we’ll have the same mindsets as before?

Mark answered:

  • Don’t underestimate “the tyranny of the installed base”;
  • Alternative energy sources have to face very significant issues with storage and transport: “electricity is not easily stored”.

I tried a different tack:

  • Consider the fact that, 25 years ago, there were virtually no mobile phones in use.  Over that timescale, enormous infrastructure has been put in place around the planet, and nowadays more than half of the world’s population use mobile phones.  Countless technical difficulties were solved en route;
  • Key to this build-out has been the fact that many companies were prepared to make huge financial investments, anticipating even larger financial paybacks as people use mobile technology;
  • If energy pricing is set properly (including full consideration for “negative externalities“), won’t companies find sufficient incentives to invest heavily in sustainable energy sources, and develop solutions – roughly similar to what happened for the mobile industry?
  • As a specific example, what about the prospects for gigantic harvesting of solar energy from a scheme such as Desertec (as described here)?

Mark answered:

  • The investment needed for new energy sources (at the scale required) dwarfs the investment even of the mobile telephony industry;
  • New energy sources have too much ground to catch up.  For example, every year, China installs as many additional coal-based energy generators as the entire existing UK installed base of such generators.

Around the table, it seemed generally agreed that we do need to prepare for a scenario in which fossil fuels remain in very substantial use over the decades ahead.

The role of green subsidies

Sophia Tickell raised the question of whether government subsidies could make a significant difference to the speed of transition to renewable energy sources.  South Korea is perhaps the leading example of where a government green stimulus package is having a significant effect.

Attractive beneficiaries for government subsidies (to recap earlier discussion) would presumably include products for electrical storage and CCS.

On the other hand, it’s possible for governments to pick losers as well as winners, with consequent waste of public funds.  Also, government subsidies can in some cases lead to technology failing to develop as efficiently and as innovatively as it ought to.  For this reason, it was suggested that “the environmental movement may have oversold the idea of a Green New Deal”.

Discussion continued:

  • Government should be putting the right framework in place, for market mechanisms to drive the selection and development of desirable products.  This includes identifying and allocating the costs of negative externalities, and establishing a proper “level playing field”;
  • When a desirable momentum is emerging in the marketplace, governments should be getting behind it.

I asked: is it already clear what is this “desirable momentum” that governments should be getting behind?  People around the table started listing options.  It quickly became a long list.  This provoked the following insightful comment from Juan Pablo Crespi, COO Europe of Alkol – to whom I’ll give the final word:

There are too many momentums – but not enough permanentums!

9 November 2009

Sustainable energy without the hot air

Filed under: books, Energy, Nuclear energy, solar energy — David Wood @ 1:00 am

Over the last ten days, I’ve been reading “Sustainable energy – without the hot air“.

It’s no surprise that the reviews for it on Amazon.com are, at time of writing, 95% 5-star, and only 5% 4-star.  In many way, this an exemplary book:

  1. The book is made up of easily digestible chunks;
  2. Each chunk contains numbers.  Anyone who disagrees with the conclusions of the book is therefore invited to identify the numbers that they disagree with;
  3. In each case, the author explains where the various numbers come from;
  4. The author makes the numbers seem plausible, but also provides copious references for people to investigate by themselves;
  5. Mathematical formulae are provided too – but separated into appendices at the end of the book, to avoid detracting from the main flow of the argument;
  6. The author punctures a lot of what might be called “hot air” – which he also calls “twaddle”: wishful thinking about how sustainable energy might be achieved;
  7. There are many “mythconceptions” sections where various widespread notions are gently but firmly dismantled;
  8. The text is accompanied by a set of very clear diagrams;
  9. The author sets out a range of possible solutions, rather than identifying a single way forwards;
  10. The author makes it clear that none of the solutions are going to be easy, and each will require substantial (“country-sized”) changes.

Since publishing the book, the author – David JC MacKay, physics professor at Cambridge University – has been appointed Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change – an appointment that took effect on 1st October 2009.

The author says he seeks to avoid being labelled as “pro-wind” or “pro-nuclear”, declaring instead that he wishes to be known as “pro-arithmetic”.  Whatever solutions are contemplated, he says, must meet the test of adding up.  He disagrees with those who say that “if everyone does a little, it will add up to a lot”.  Instead, he says, if everyone does a little, it will add up to a little.  That’s because of the scale of the total amount of energy used by an entire country.  Actions need to be effective:

Here are two simple individual actions. One is useless, one is very effective.

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

In contrast, turning the thermostat down (or the air-conditioning in hot climates) is the single most effective energy-saving technology available to a typical person.

Every degree you turn it down will reduce your heating costs by 10%; and, speaking of Britain at least, heating is likely to be the biggest form of energy consumption in most buildings.

The entire book is available free online.  The online summaries (eg page 238239) reiterate the following point:

We have a clear conclusion: the non-solar renewables may be “huge,” but they are not huge enough. To complete a plan that adds up, we must rely on one or more forms of solar power. Or use nuclear power. Or both.

Any viable solar power solutions need to consider collecting energy from sunnier climates, and then transporting huge amounts of that energy to sun-deprived countries like the UK.  From page 178:

…focusing on Europe, “what area is required in the North Sahara to supply everyone in Europe and North Africa with an average European’s power consumption? Taking the population of Europe and North Africa to be 1 billion, the area required drops to 340 000 km2, which corresponds to a square 600 km by 600 km. This area is equal to one Germany, to 1.4 United Kingdoms, or to 16 Waleses.

The UK’s share of this 16-Wales area would be one Wales: a 145 km by 145 km square in the Sahara would provide all the UK’s current primary energy consumption.

Backing up this idea, David MacKay speaks favourably about the Desertec concept.  From the Desertec website:

In the upcoming decades, several global developments will create new challenges for mankind. We will be confronted with problems and obstacles such as climate change, population growth beyond earth’s capacity, and an increase in demand for energy and water caused by a strive for prosperity and expansion.

The DESERTEC Concept provides a way to solve these challenges…

The DESERTEC Concept describes the perspective of a sustainable supply of electricity for Europe (EU), the Middle East (ME) and North Africa (NA) up to the year 2050. It shows that a transition to competitive, secure and compatible supply is possible using renewable energy sources and efficiency gains, and fossil fuels as backup for balancing power.

A close cooperation between EU and MENA for market introduction of renewable energy and interconnection of electricity grids by high-voltage direct-current transmission are keys for economic and physical survival of the whole region. However, the necessary measures will take at least two decades to become effective. Therefore, adequate policy and economic frameworks for their realization must be introduced immediately. The role of sustainable energy to secure freshwater supplies based on seawater desalination is also addressed.

David MacKay’s chapter on nuclear energy is also an eye-opener.  It ably addresses the objections that have been made against nuclear energy.  Among the positive messages in this chapter:

…the nuclear energy available per atom is roughly one million times bigger than the chemical energy per atom of typical fuels. This means that the amounts of fuel and waste that must be dealt with at a nuclear reactor can be up to one million times smaller than the amounts of fuel and waste at an equivalent fossil-fuel power station.

…I conclude that ocean extraction of uranium would turn today’s once-through reactors into a “sustainable” option

…Japanese researchers have found a technique for extracting uranium from seawater at a cost of $100–300 per kilogram of uranium, in comparison with a current cost of about $20/kg for uranium from ore. Because uranium contains so much more energy per ton than traditional fuels, this 5-fold or 15-fold increase in the cost of uranium would have little effect on the cost of nuclear power: nuclear power’s price is dominated by the cost of power-station construction and decommissioning, not by the cost of the fuel. Even a price of $300/kg would increase the cost of nuclear energy by only about 0.3 p per kWh. The expense of uranium extraction could be reduced by combining it with another use of seawater – for example, power-station cooling.

…we must not let ourselves be swept off our feet in horror at the danger of nuclear power. Nuclear power is not infinitely dangerous. It’s just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories, fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous. Even if we have no guarantee against nuclear accidents in the future, I think the right way to assess nuclear is to compare it objectively with other sources of power. Coal power stations, for example, expose the public to nuclear radiation, because coal ash typically contains uranium. Indeed, according to a paper published in the journal Science, people in America living near coal-fired power stations are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants.

…Spurred on by worries about nuclear accidents, engineers have devised many new reactors with improved safety features. The GT-MHR power plant, for example, is claimed to be inherently safe; and, moreover it has a higher efficiency of conversion of heat to electricity than conventional nuclear plants

…the volumes are so small, I feel nuclear waste is only a minor worry, compared with all the other forms of waste we are inflicting on future generations. At 25 ml per year, a lifetime’s worth of high-level nuclear waste would amount to less than 2 litres. Even when we multiply by 60 million people, the lifetime volume of nuclear waste doesn’t sound unmanageable: 105 000 cubic metres. That’s the same volume as 35 olympic swimming pools. If this waste were put in a layer one metre deep, it would occupy just one tenth of a square kilometre.

There are already plenty of places that are off-limits to humans. I may not trespass in your garden. Nor should you in mine. We are neither of us welcome in Balmoral. “Keep out” signs are everywhere. Downing Street, Heathrow airport, military facilities, disused mines – they’re all off limits. Is it impossible to imagine making another one-square-kilometre spot – perhaps deep underground – off limits for 1000 years?

…the assertion that “civil nuclear construction on this scale is a pipe dream, and completely unfeasible” is poppycock. Yes, it’s a big construction rate, but it’s in the same ballpark as historical construction rates.

So far, I haven’t found any significant criticism of the points made in this book.  It’s highly recommended.  You may also enjoy David MacKay’s blog.

Footnote: for further reading on nuclear energy, take a look at “10 reasons to support nuclear power“; and for more about Desertec, see their FAQ.

25 June 2008

A tale of two meetings

Filed under: climate change, collaboration, Nuclear energy, SitP, solar energy, Spiked — David Wood @ 10:31 pm

In the past, I’ve enjoyed several meetings of the London Skeptics in the Pub (“SitP”). More than 100 people cram into the basement meeting space of Penderel’s Oak in Holborn, and listen to a speaker cover a contentious topic – such as alternative medicine, investigating the paranormal, the “moon landings hoax”. What’s typically really enjoyable is the extended Q&A session in the second half of the meeting, when the audience often dissect the speaker’s viewpoint. Attendee numbers have crept up steadily over the nine years the group has existed. It’s little surprise that the group was voted into the Top Ten London Communities 2008 by Time Out.

Last night, the billed speaker was the renowned (many would say “infamous”) climate change denier, Fred Singer. The talk was advertised as follows:

Global Warming: Science, Economics, and some Moral Issues: What Al Gore Never Told You.

The science is settled: Evidence clearly demonstrates that carbon dioxide contributes insignificantly to Global Warming and is therefore not a ‘pollutant.’ This fact has not yet been widely recognized, and irrational Global Warming fears continue to distort energy policies and foreign policy. All efforts to curtail CO2 emissions, whether global, federal, or at the state level, are pointless — and in any case, ineffective and very costly. On the whole, a warmer climate is beneficial. Fred will comment on the vast number of implications.

Since this viewpoint is so far removed from consensus scientific thinking, I was hoping for a cracking debate. And indeed, the evening started well. Singer turned out to be a better speaker than I expected. Even though he’s well into his 80s, he spoke with confidence, courtesy, and good humour. And he had some interesting material:

  • A graph that seemed to show that global temperature has not been rising over the last ten years (even though atmospheric CO2 has incontrovertibly been rising over that time period)
  • A claim that all scientific models of atmospheric warming are significantly at variance with observed data (and therefore, we shouldn’t give these models much credence)
  • Suggestions that global warming is more strongly influenced by cosmic rays than by atmospheric CO2.

(The contents of the talk were similar to what’s in this online article.)

So I eagerly anticipated the Q&A. But oh, what a disappointment. I found myself more and more frustrated:

  • Quite a few of the audience members seemed incapable of asking a clear, relevant, concise question. Instead, they tended to go off on tangents, or went round and round in circles. (To my mind, the ability to identify and ask the key question, without distraction, is an absolutely vital skill for the modern age.)
  • Alas, the speaker could not hear the questions (being, I guess, slightly deaf from his advanced age); so they had to be repeated by the meeting moderator, who was standing at the front next to the speaker
  • The moderator often struggled to capture the question from what the audience member had said, so there were several iterations here
  • Then the speaker frequently took a LONG time to answer the question. (He was patient and polite, but he was also painstakingly SLOW.)

Result: lots of time wasted, in my view. No one landed anything like a decisive refutation of the speaker’s claims. There were lots of good questions that should have been asked, but time didn’t allow it. I also blamed myself, for not having done any research prior to the meeting (but I had been pretty busy on other matters for the last few days), and for not being able to do my usual trick of looking up information on my smartphone during a meeting (via Google, Wikipedia, etc) because network reception was very poor in the part of the basement where I was standing. In conclusion, although the discussion was fun, I don’t think we got anything like the best possible discussion that the speakers’ presentation deserved.

I mention all this, not just because I’m deeply concerned about the fearsome prospects of runaway global warming, but also because I’m interested in the general question of how to organise constructive debates that manage to reach to the heart of the matter (whatever the matter is).

As an example of a meeting that did have a much better debate, let me mention the one I attended this evening. It was hosted by Spiked, and was advertised as follows:

Nuclear power: what’s the alternative? The future of energy in Britain

As we seek to overcome our reliance on fossil fuels, what are the alternatives? Offshore turbines and wind farms are often cited as options but can they really meet more than a fraction of the UK’s energy needs? If not, is nuclear power a viable alternative? Public anxieties about nuclear plants’ safety, their susceptibility to terrorist attacks, and the problem of safely disposing of radioactive waste persist. But to what extent are these concerns justified? Is the real issue the public’s perception of both the risks and potential of nuclear energy? Ultimately, does nuclear energy, be it the promise of fusion or the reality of fission, finally mean we can stop guilt-tripping about energy consumption?

Instead of just one speaker, there were five, who had a range of well-argued but differing viewpoints. And the chairperson, Timandra Harkness (Director of Cheltenham Science Festival’s Fame Lab) was first class:

  • She made it clear that each speaker was restricted to 7 minutes for their opening speech (and they all kept to this limit, with good outcomes: focus can have wonderful results)
  • Then there were around half a dozen questions from the floor, asked one after the other, before the speaker panel were invited to reply
  • There were several more rounds of batched up questions followed by responses
  • Because of the format, the speakers had the option of ignoring the (few) irrelevant questions, and could concentrate on the really interesting ones.

For the record, I thought that all the speakers made good points, but Keith Barnham, co-founder of the solar cell manufacturing company Quantasol, was particularly interesting, with his claims for the potential of new generation photovoltaic concentrator solar cells. (This topic also featured in a engrossing recent Time article.) He recommended that we put our collective hope for near-future power generation “in the [silicon] industry that gave us the laptop and the mobile phone, rather than the industry that gave us Chernobyl and Sellafield”. (Ouch!) Advances in silicon have time and again driven down the prices of mobile phones; these benefits will also come quickly (Barnham claimed) to the new generation solar cells.

But the conclusion I want to draw is that the best way to ensure a great debate is to have a selection of speakers with complementary views, to insist on focus, and to chair the meeting particularly well. Yes, collaboration is hard – but when it works, it’s really worth it!

Footnote: the comparision between the Skeptics in the Pub meeting and the Spiked one is of course grossly unfair, since the former is run on a shoestring (there’s a £2 charge to attend) whereas the latter has a larger apparatus behind it (the entry charge was £10, payable in advance; and there’s corporate sponsorship from Clarke Mulder Purdie). But hey, I still think there are valid learnings from this tale of two different meetings – each interesting and a good use of time, but one ultimately proving much more satisfactory than the other.

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