Fertility: Screw Society, But Don’t Screw Yourself

Rhiannon Cosslett of the Guardian laments that Women are still being blamed for society’s problems with fertility. In the sage words of Turd Flinging Monkey, “women have the babies”. So how are women not to blame?

Female students at the single-sex Cambridge college Murray Edwards are to be given fertility seminars, because they “risk childlessness” if they leave motherhood “too late”. It’s irksome news – the seminars are only the latest example of the myth that women somehow need “reminding” our ability to procreate won’t last for ever, as though a baby were something we had simply lost down the back of the sofa.

And yet many women are waiting until their child bearing years are almost past, then freezing their ovum in the hope of conceiving via in vitro fertilization. The seminars were being given by a woman who had done exactly that, and hoped to prevent others from going through what she did.

This idea that women might “forget” to have a baby is perpetuated in modern culture. My generation spent much of their teenage years being told not to get pregnant lest it “ruin your life”. In our 20s, that changed almost overnight and we were told not to leave it too late, lest it (again) “ruin your life”. When women enter their 30s and 40s, they face a maelstrom of misogynist peer pressure, from “when are you going to have a second child” to “is it not unfair to have a baby in your 40s?”, not to mention the classic levied at the child-free: “but who will care for you when you’re old?”

Getting pregnant out of wedlock can ruin your life, assuming you keep the child, though it certainly doesn’t have to. If you have a child as a teenager, few men are going to want to partner with you to raise another man’s child. When a woman enters her thirties, she has a fairly short time to find a suitable mate. The more years she waits past her mid twenties, the harder she will find the search.

The head of Murray Edwards college said that asking a woman about plans to have children had become “almost forbidden”. It is true that asking a member of my generation about the inner workings of her uterus is considered poor form, because who is to know what private pains she may have suffered: miscarriage, stillbirth, IVF, mental health issues, to name just a few. It is unfair and unkind to put women and their partners on the spot in this way, not to mention that it’s no one’s business. Keeping one’s own counsel is not the same thing as being blissfully ignorant about the matter. We are all well aware that fertility does not last for ever, and that a significant proportion of women without children did not choose that situation.

Asking a woman about whether she plans to have children is hardly asking about the inner workings of her uterus. It is neither unfair or unkind to take an interest in a woman’s life. Women are free not to answer these questions. A significant portion of women without children did choose that situation, and then later regretted that decision. Not all women are truly aware how quickly their fertility will begin to fall.

Where does this patronising belief that women need teaching or reminding about their fertility come from? There are a number of factors, one of which is an overcorrection led by older women. My mother recalls that, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the newspapers were full of “career” women (as I always point out, the term “career man” does not exist), raised in the belief that they could have it all, lamenting that they had “left it too late” to have a baby. One only needs to reread Bridget Jones to understand the “post-feminist” cultural context of women’s lives then: increasing emancipation coupled with extreme social pressure to couple up and start a family.

Is it an “overcorrection” if older women (like the college head) were raised believing they could have it all, and then did lament after leaving children too late? Women do not desire to mate solely because of social pressure. Rather, it is often due to their instinctive biological drives.

As a result of this overcorrection, women of my generation were bombarded with the “fact” that your fertility “falls off a cliff” at the age of 35, though this statistic is based partly on a study of French peasant women living 300 years ago, which has been largely debunked.

Hardly. Here’s recent data from CCRM Fertility:

As you can see, at 35, women are only 60% as fertile as they are at 25, and by age 40, they are 80% less fertile. This means that on average, if a 40 year old woman tries to get pregnant every month for a year, she still only has a 60% chance of conceiving.

I do not know a single woman who has not internalised this piece of disinformation, which has caused fertility panic, and though we are well aware that fertility does decline into your 30s and 40s, we apparently still need reminding of it. It is not helped that the media narrative continues to be dominated by voices from the baby boomer generation; as a result, the barriers to parenthood that exist for younger adults, such as high property prices, zero-hours contracts and the extortionate costs of childcare, are not fully appreciated or talked about.

High housing prices and the cost of childcare dominate the mainstream media and are constantly harped on by the political class. If you don’t want a zero-hours contract (what we call a casual labour arrangement in Canada, which typically provides flexibility to both employer and employee), don’t accept one.

Another reason that women are routinely reminded of their fertility is an increasing panic about the birthrate, which has been framed in the media as a “baby shortage” with drastic economic consequences. Yet little effort is made to bring about the structural changes that could better support would-be parents. This fear is compounded by the increasing number of women who are choosing not to have children, and are refusing to be stigmatised for that fact.

Women should ignore the “growth at any cost” nonsense that drives the “fertility crisis” propaganda. Little can be done by government to better support would-be parents, other than getting out of the way of businesses that can provide well paid jobs. Many countries have now tried to increase their birthrates by offering financial incentives. These attempts have universally met with resounding failure.

There are far more fruitful discussions we could be having about why many young people feel unable to have children. Instead, the myth that women need reminding of their fertility keeps being perpetuated. The issue here is not the concept of a fertility seminar; giving women more information about their health is no bad thing. But no one ever seems to think that men might need speaking to about this too. Some scientists are concerned about declining sperm counts, while male factor infertility contributes to 40-50% of all infertility cases and declining sperm quality as men age has been implicated in a number of developmental problems. Many men – especially those with older mothers – seem to think that women can go on conceiving well into their 40s. What about the men? Where are their seminars?

According to the CDC, men are the sole cause of infertility 8% of the time, whereas woman are the sole cause 65% of the time, not 50-60% of the time as stated above. Most men know that women can’t reliably conceive well into their forties. This is why men almost always prefer women in their mid twenties when looking for a mate.

As usual, the burden of assuaging society’s concerns about fertility falls on women of reproductive age. If only people listened to us, they would hear that the question of whether or not to reproduce is an incessant background hum to women’s lives. The real conversation that needs to be had – about remedying the inhospitable society that has been created for young parents – continues to elude us. If there is one thing that is being left too late, it’s that.

You don’t need to bear that burden. You do have to live with the consequences of the choices you make. If you want to have children, it’s wise to consider doing so while you’re young. Yes, it will be hard, no doubt harder than it was 30 years ago, though we certainly had to be careful with money and endure excessive hours commuting from the towns we could afford to live in. I feel great sadness for women who don’t want children when they are young and realize that they desperately do once it’s too late.

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Who Will Been Right in the End?

According to Fatima Ibrahim, co-founder of Green New Deal Rising, Only noisy protest makes politicians take action to avoid climate catastrophe. What action are these noisy protests demanding? Before attempting to force politicians to take action (i.e. spend our money), you need to be very clear on what that action is. Otherwise, they will use your call to action as an excuse to take actions that benefit themselves or their donors.

From the Suffragettes to the anti-apartheid movement, people taking disruptive action have been on the right side of history.

In the case of apartheid, while I agree that apartheid South Africa was an immoral society, I’m not sure that life has really gotten better for the majority of its citizens.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, announced a string of new measures this week to restrict protests deemed to cause “noise and nuisance”. But such things have long been necessary features in fights for social change. They can stop destructive plans in their tracks or help shift public opinion. Noise and nuisance are among the few ways to actually force politicians to listen.

Remember the importance of fundamental rights like the right to peaceful protest when you back the removal of of rights like freedom of speech or freedom of association. Once you enable the government to trample on rights, yours will be next.

With the clock ticking on the climate crisis, the defining issue of our lifetime, many would say causing a nuisance is not only necessary, but a rational response to the inaction it is met with by our leaders.

Climate change is unlikely to be the defining issue of our lifetime. Artificial intelligence is a much greater threat to our way of life than global warming.

Disruptive action on climate issues has worked to force change in the past. In 2008, activists descended on the site of a proposed new coal-fired power station in Kent, the first in the UK in 30 years. A crowd of 100 people quickly grew to more than 1,000. It, too, triggered repressive policing practices, and while it upset some local people in the process, the camp successfully delayed the project and ultimately ensured it didn’t take place at all. It was a pivotal moment that sounded the death knell on new coal projects in the UK and helped push the national conversation towards renewable energy.

After moving away from coal as a source of power for generating electricity, the UK’s heavy reliance on wind power has led to record high prices. This hurts the poor the most.

Around the same time, activists had set up camp next to Heathrow airport protesting at plans to build a third runway. Thousands joined the protest, resulting in round-the-clock media coverage. The fight against the third runway inspired creative actions and continues today. From stopping planes to creating a sustainable mini eco village on the site of the proposed runway, protesters made the third runway a defining climate issue in the UK. It has burdened successive governments, defined mayoral elections and resulted in a lengthy legal battle.

While blocking an airport expansion will likely inconvenience and annoy the business travelling class, it does seem to have relatively few consequences for most people.

In 2011, oil and gas company Cuadrilla suspended test fracking operations near Blackpool after they were thought to have caused earthquakes in the area. However, for many the first time they heard about fracking was in 2013, when grandmothers banded with schoolchildren and environmental campaigners to condemn local fracking sites. Things peaked when a fracking test site at Balcombe in West Sussex was blockaded that summer. A week of actions culminated in mass arrests including that of Green party MP Caroline Lucas. For years, similar blockades took the battle to the fracking industry, until in 2019 the government did a U-turn, withdrawing its support and announcing a moratorium.

If banning fracking is merely moving the source of oil from a local one to a foreign one, this increases emissions, as additional emissions result from shipping the oil. Fracking itself does have environmental impacts, of course.

In recent years disruption has played a huge role in animating public anger and dismay at the government’s lack of ambitious climate action. The sobering Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in late 2018 prompted schoolchildren to strike in their thousands. At the same time, Extinction Rebellion brought huge parts of London to a standstill. This wave of disruption galvanised public concern, leaving the government scrambling for an adequate response. Soon after, it passed a bill committing the UK to net zero emissions by 2050 – the first country in the G7 to do so. Parliament also declared a climate emergency and the UK’s first Climate Assembly was established. Direct action isn’t the only thing that makes change happen, but very few of these changes would have happened without it.

A commitment to net zero is not action.

While governments may eventually wind down fossil-fuel use, how quickly they do it and who stands to gain or lose from this transition are still to fight for. We could tackle the climate crisis in a way that puts power into the hands of communities, delivers millions of new green jobs, affordable and accessible public transport, and warm homes to tackle fuel poverty. The alternative is a slow transition that at worst misses the window to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown, and at best leads to millions of job losses, increases inequality by pushing the cost on to working people, and reserves any benefits for corporations and wealthy individuals.

Government intervention to ban fossil fuels has massive potential to hurt people. Electric vehicles are much more feasible in the UK than in Canada, but poor people are less able to afford to upgrade their vehicles. Will they simply lose their ability to drive? This will further stratify society.

That’s where a new wave of disruptive, solutions-based campaigns come in. Youth activist groups such as the Sunrise movement in the US are holding sit-ins in the offices of Democratic party leaders, while Green New Deal Rising here in the UK is doorstepping politicians to put them on the spot about how we should tackle this crisis. With time we may see these actions as defining moments that changed the trajectory of the fight against climate change.

Harassing politicians on their doorsteps is highly unlikely to make them sympathetic to your cause. Because Green New Deal Rising endorses ‘equity’, intersectionality, and other principles of the socialist left, politicians are likely to see your movement as purely political and therefore, if they of the Conservative stripe, ignore you as opposition.

For those who criticise direct action, not only have many interventions been successful, but polling shows 71% of people say they haven’t had their lives disrupted at all by protest in the past three years. Given the changes protesters seek to instigate, which can deliver positive outcomes for people across society, it’s no wonder that many climate protests eventually receive majority public support.

People generally support making the earth a better place (regardless of whether your actions have a chance of actually achieving that) until you inconvenience them. Banning gasoline powered vehicles is a far cry from blocking traffic in liberal London.

This is true not just for climate protesters but in the history of social change. From the Suffragettes to the anti-apartheid movement, people who took disruptive action are now considered to have been on the right side of history, despite often widespread opposition in their time.

The winners who write the history are always considered to have been on the right side of it. The communist government that was ushered in to South Africa when apartheid fell has done immense damage to the country, so while they may have been on the right side of the issue of apartheid, they are arguably on the wrong side history. Time will tell. The same can be said of the climate activist movement. If millions starve due to government intervention in the economy and climate change turns out to be fairly easy to adapt to, future generations will likely say that climate activists were on the wrong side of history.

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Stop Demanding Change Without Specifics

Heather Short writes Why I resigned from my tenured position teaching climate science in college. She repeats over and over the need to take decisive, systematic action, but never mentions what that would entail.

I have enjoyed my nearly 15 years of teaching students about geology, earth systems science, climate literacy and the present human-caused climate and ecological crises in my time at John Abbott College on the island of Montreal. My interactions with them have by far been the most rewarding part of my job.

OK, so why resign?

I will miss them, and miss seeing that spark of excitement when they’ve learned something new. However, it is clear to me now that teaching young people about these crises without a cohesive, science-informed institutional and cultural framework of climate-literate support does them more harm than good. Let me explain.

You’d better, because that sounds like a flipping word salad.

I arrived at this conclusion after many months of reflection, informed by teaching thousands of students about what the best available science predicts for their futures. Climate science consensus tells us that the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent of 2010 levels by the year 2030 in order to have a 66 per cent chance of avoiding a cascade of extreme climate events that will be unstoppable within their lifetimes.

No, it doesn’t. In the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, the SPP1-1.9 scenario (very low emissions) is the only one that will reduce emissions by 45% of 2010 levels by 2030. For scenario SPP2-4.5 (intermediate emissions), the report predicts:

  • Warming of 2.7C from preindustrial global average (1.2C from current level)
  • Wetter weather in the northern hemisphere, drier weather around the Mediterranean
  • 10 year hot weather events about 5x more likely
  • Heavy rains 70% more likely
  • Global ocean surface Ph level decreased by 1.5 over 1985 level
  • Sea level increased by 70cm (2’4″) over 1985 level

At present, countries have pledged to reduce emissions by a global total of 0.5 per cent by 2030.

If these commitments are met, this would match scenario SPP1-2.6 (low emissions), which would keep warming to 1.8C from preindustrial global temperatures and only 0.5C from the current level.

We (privileged people in wealthy countries) have a very short window of opportunity to take decisive, systemic action to avert the worst consequences of climate breakdown.

‘Privileged’ people in wealthy countries can do little beyond what we are doing. Canada is half way to its goal of eliminating coal and gas fired power plants. Electric vehicles are slowly becoming more affordable. If the government spent less, taxes could be lowered and more people would be able to buy electrics, which would then lower costs further.

Not only do our current emissions targets put us far behind where we need to be, our province’s 50-year-old education system lacks the support our students need to face this reality. Teaching this to an 18 year old is like telling them that they have cancer, then ushering them out the door, saying “sorry, good luck with that.”

If an 18 year old has cancer, you should tell them the unvarnished facts. Getting a death sentence requires a support system, and in Canada, we have support groups for people with cancer. Giving the news that in the future, the environment will be worse in some ways, seems like a walk in the park in comparison. Are our college students so weak that they can’t deal with hard truths? Doing so is a life skill that I wish I had learned in my time at university, instead of later in life.

It is also fundamentally unfair and unjust for us — part of the generations that have benefitted from unmitigated resource extraction and emissions — to drop the responsibility to fix (or adapt to) the climate crisis in their young laps.

Life isn’t fair or just. We should do what we can reasonably do. Canadians will likely fair very well even with significant warming (see Global Warming: Crisis? What Crisis?). The young will have to adapt to change, just as we have. The technological changes that have occurred in our lifetimes have exceeded any our parents had to cope with. I don’t get upset with them for benefiting from the slower pace of change that they enjoyed.

They deserve a livable future, and they deserve our apology, immediate action and emotional support to navigate an uncertain future. Honesty, transparency and open dialogue about these climate and ecological crises must form the core of our education.

What do I personally need to apologize for? Driving a car? Heating my home? Sorry, not sorry. What action am I expected to take? Do you expect me to support giving the government a blanket mandate to take action? The political class are not competent to do so. I firmly believe their green new deals will cause more problems than they solve.

I know this will not be easy. Denial is a human and understandable response to extremely upsetting information. But as the adults with agency in our students’ lives, we need to understand — at the bare minimum — the climate science that they learn in school so that we can lend a sympathetic ear to their concerns about their futures, and offer practical, well-informed advice about what to do.

My practical advice is try new things, find what you love to do, and do it. If you’re so inclined, starting a family can be rewarding, though these days, it’s very easy to have someone take advantage of you, so be careful. If you can, give to charity.

The younger generations need to hear from us that they are not alone, that we’ll work for them to mitigate emissions as quickly as possible. They need us to demonstrate that we will give up some of our own security and privilege in a system that is not adapting to the demands of the scientific consensus on the climate emergency, in order to change that system.

We are doing much of what we can. I would be willing to pay more for goods due to tariffs against big polluters like China. I would be happy to see existing carbon tax revenues be put toward green power and transit.

To address this need, I proposed a job-restructuring as a climate literacy specialist that admittedly was not one that fit readily into the current hiring/employment structure (or the collective agreement) at the college. That was rather the point. It was conceived in the context of repeated calls — from thousands of scientists — for immediate transformative, systemic change.

Instead of teaching the science, you wanted to preach activism.

This kind of change must happen in all aspects of society, including educational institutions. Clearly this can only come to pass under leadership prepared to be bold and brave in response — to think and act outside of the norms that have led to tenured, comfortable jobs and a state of the world in which this past year of pandemic, fire, floods and heat waves will be the best scenario we can hope for from now on.

No, it must not. Creating an army of climate extremists will merely fuel divisive politics. If you advocate for immediate elimination of all emissions, as many climate extremists do, you will create a backlash from people who see that you’re being unreasonable, and they will then ignore all calls to change.

My resignation is my act of conscientious objection to educational business-as-usual with a “green” twist, couched in the assumption of a forever-growing economy on a physically finite planet. The science clearly shows us that the future our students are headed for will be radically different from one that can be met by the incremental changes and technological solutions we are currently engaged in.

Technological solutions take time. The government can do little to change their pace, other than to slow things down with bureaucracy. Eliminating fossil fuels from our electrical grid may be an incremental step, but it’s a huge one. Electrification of vehicles will take time. Right now, electric vehicles are only affordable by the wealthy and are still impractical for many of them. We don’t have practical solutions for home heating, long haul transport, and farming yet. If we develop the means to produce green hydrogen in large quantities, some of those remaining sources of emissions can be addressed.

As education stands now, we are not preparing our students to be successful in their futures, and by not admitting to that, we are failing them.

In Canada, the impact of climate change will be largely positive. This means once students learn enough about the expected changes in our climate to avoid buying homes in low lying areas that are subject to flooding, they should then focus on figuring out their own personal goals if they want to be successful.

As a scientist and educator, I must speak the scientific truth no matter the personal, social or economic consequences. I will now endeavour to educate decision-makers, politicians, voters and in general those who have the economic and political agency to contribute to the transformative systemic changes that need to be made.

Seems like a good choice.

There is still time to lock in a future climate similar to what the world experienced this past year. The longer we delay, the more unrecognizable our children’s and grandchildren’s futures become. The climate of our youth may be gone, and that is reason to grieve — but not to give up.

Barring geoengineering, I don’t think we have a hope of “locking in a future climate”. We can limit human contributions to climate change. Who is delaying? I am doing my part. Twenty years ago, I drove to work every day. Two years ago, I took a train to work. Today, I work from home. All call to action with no plan is a waste of time. Carbon taxes alone are not a plan. They are a wealth transfer to the political class and their donors.

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Fusion, Safe Reliable Green Energy, is Coming

Andy Cobley, writing for the Good News Network, states that a Canadian Startup is to Build a $400M UK Plant to Harness Nuclear Fusion in an Entirely New Cost-Effective Way. Why is no one in the mainstream media covering this? Would it hurt their doom and gloom climate apocalypse coverage’s ability to generate rage clicks?

A Canadian nuclear fusion power company has garnered a $400 million investment to build a demonstration energy plant in the UK. They will showcase their proprietary method for generating electricity through the fusion of hydrogen atoms in the hopes of attracting private investors that can kickstart the last great revolution in energy technology.

And this couldn’t come at a better time. Such a technology would make coal and gas fired power plants obsolete and eliminate the need to build new nuclear fission power plants, which, although they don’t emit any CO2, do produce radioactive waste in the form of spent rods that need to be carefully disposed of.

The Fusion Demonstration Plant will verify that General Fusion’s MTF technology can create fusion conditions in a practical and cost-effective manner at power plant relevant scales, as well as refine the economics of fusion energy production, leading to the subsequent design of a commercial fusion pilot plant.

So its a proof of concept.

A field that twenty years ago was exclusively the domain of government-funded research has blossomed into a budding private industry rapidly growing in size, variation, and opportunity.

Awesome. When there is only a single approach, like the massive Tokamak type plants being experimented with in the US and Europe, there is more chance of a scalable solution being delayed or failing to emerge entirely.

While the Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems uses enormous superconducting magnets, and the inter-governmental fusion program called ITER uses magnets as heavy as passenger aircraft and cooled by the world’s largest cryogenic freezer, Canada’s General Fusion company uses much more modest and cheaper existing technology in the form of steam-powered pneumatic pistons.

Interesting. The ITER program seeks to build a Tokamak type plant.

The fusion requires temperatures of at least 100 million Celsius, and existing fusion technologies are struggling to find a way to keep the plasma at that temperature for long periods. For other methods and companies, it’s not a question of “can we generate electricity from fusion,” or even one of “can we keep the plasma heated to generate electricity continuously,” but “how can we generate more electricity than we use?”

These challenges are why fusion has been nothing more than a promising technology since the 1950s.

General Fusion has focused on commercializing the technology which, for example, cost ITER over $20 billion for a prototype.

The next Tokamak prototype, DEMO, is being built in Europe and was originally expected to be complete in 2020.

Instead of using magnets to heat and contain the plasma, General Fusion uses a plasma injector—a separate machine—to create a plasma under more economic conditions, and inject it into the fusion reactor’s main chamber.

Economic here is referring to how much less expensive the equipment to create the plasma is than the Tokomak. Efficiency of plasma generation is also incredibly important. The less energy used to heat the plasma, the easier it is to surpass the break even point.

Inside the chamber is a spinning wall of liquid lithium, which is compressed into a tiny sphere by the pistons. The compression heats the plasma to fusion temperatures, releasing huge amounts of heat, which the liquid metal absorbs easily. It is that heat that is exacted to create steam, which is used to power a turbine, which creates electricity with only helium as the waste product.

The Tokamak uses ceramic tiles cooled by liquid lithium to absorb the heat of the reaction. It’s interesting that lithium, a fairly rare earth, is vital storage and, if either approach to fusion is successful, generation as well.

Christofer Mowry, CEO of General Fusion, predicts the fusion market to be worth $1 trillion in the next decade.

I wouldn’t bank on his timelines. Let’s hope that he’s right.

One of the best parts of fusion is it’s completely safe, as there’s no radioactive anything, and helium is the only byproduct. While 100 million Celsius seems dangerous, “if you were to blow on this thing, it just turns itself off,” Dennis Whyte, a Canadian scientist who is director of plasma science fusion center at MIT, explained to the Financial Post.

Helium is actually a useful byproduct, and is in short supply worldwide. For example, helium is essential in the manufacture of semiconductors. The reaction also produces heavy isotopes of water, which are fairly safe and are fed back in to the reactor, and consumes small amounts of the lithium used to capture the energy.

Furthermore, it uses a tiny amount of fuel, which is just seawater anyway. One cup of it would generate enough electricity to take care of the power usage of one human for their entire lifetime, and just 70 grams of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium captured during the fusion reaction is enough to power a small city.

And this is why we’ve been chasing the dream of fusion power for seventy years. Once it arrives, natural gas will likely be relegated to heating houses and powering non-electric vehicles like transport trucks and farm vehicles. As more capacity is built, there may be sufficient electricity to use some of it to produce hydrogen, which could then be used in place of natural gas in its remaining applications.

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Saving the World by Making Us All Poor

Guardian writer George Monbiot claims that ‘Green growth’ doesn’t exist – less of everything is the only way to avert catastrophe. How does he propose bringing this change about?

It is simply not possible to carry on at the current level of economic activity without destroying the environment.

I would add that, since we expect the global population to continue to grow for the immediate future, it is not possible to carry on at the current level of economic activity. Two billion more people will require even more resources on top of those already being consumed by our current billions.

There is a box labelled “climate”, in which politicians discuss the climate crisis. There is a box named “biodiversity”, in which they discuss the biodiversity crisis. There are other boxes, such as pollution, deforestation, overfishing and soil loss, gathering dust in our planet’s lost property department. But they all contain aspects of one crisis that we have divided up to make it comprehensible. The categories the human brain creates to make sense of its surroundings are not, as Immanuel Kant observed, the “thing-in-itself”. They describe artefacts of our perceptions rather than the world.

Looking at any one aspect of the environment does provide a limited view. The gestalt however, is so complex as to be almost incomprehensible. Analyses is always easier than synthesis.

Nature recognises no such divisions. As Earth systems are assaulted by everything at once, each source of stress compounds the others.

This is an oversimplification, but there are certainly major interactions between different parts of the environment, some of which we almost certainly remain unaware of.

Take the situation of the North Atlantic right whale, whose population recovered a little when whaling ceased, but is now slumping again: fewer than 95 females of breeding age remain. The immediate reasons for this decline are mostly deaths and injuries caused when whales are hit by ships or tangled in fishing gear. But they’ve become more vulnerable to these impacts because they’ve had to shift along the eastern seaboard of North America into busy waters.

While the loss of this species would be a shame, the question of why right whales are dying out, and whether this reveals a danger to humanity as well, is a more important question.

Their main prey, a small swimming crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus, is moving north at a rate of 8km a year, because the sea is heating. At the same time, a commercial fishing industry has developed, exploiting Calanus for the fish oil supplements falsely believed to be beneficial to our health. There’s been no attempt to assess the likely impacts of fishing Calanus. We also have no idea what the impact of ocean acidification – also caused by rising carbon dioxide levels – might be on this and many other crucial species.

From the fossil records of past CO2 maxima, we know that acidification is very hard on animals that produce their shells from water born calcium, like shellfish and coral. The ocean survived the massive global warming that occurred in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. The difference this time around, where expected warming is relatively less, is the rate at which the change is occurring. The PETM’s 5-8C warming occurred over a period of at least 20000 years.

As the death rate of North Atlantic right whales rises, their birthrate falls. Why? Perhaps because of the pollutants accumulating in their bodies, some of which are likely to reduce fertility. Or because of ocean noise from boat engines, sonar, and oil and gas exploration, which may stress them and disrupt their communication. So you could call the decline of the North Atlantic right whale a shipping crisis, or a fishing crisis, or a climate crisis, or an acidification crisis, or a pollution crisis, or a noise crisis. But it is in fact all of these things: a general crisis caused by human activity.

Loss of a whale species is not a crisis in itself. The important question is, is it a symptom of an ecological crisis in the entire ocean food web. That would be an existential threat to much of humanity.

Or look at moths in the UK. We know they are being harmed by pesticides. But the impact of these toxins on moths has been researched, as far as I can discover, only individually. Studies of bees show that when pesticides are combined, their effects are synergistic: in other words, the damage they each cause isn’t added, but multiplied. When pesticides are combined with fungicides and herbicides, the effects are multiplied again.

Bees are essential to food production, so of course they are being much more closely studied than moths, which are often pests when in their larval forms.

Simultaneously, moth caterpillars are losing their food plants, thanks to fertilisers and habitat destruction. Climate chaos has also knocked their reproductive cycle out of sync with the opening of the flowers on which the adults depend. Now we discover that light pollution has devastating effects on their breeding success. The switch from orange sodium streetlights to white LEDs saves energy, but their wider colour spectrum turns out to be disastrous for insects. Light pollution is spreading rapidly, even around protected areas, affecting animals almost everywhere.

If only moths are affected, this seems like a small loss. But are these moths part of a beneficial food web? For example, are they feeding bats that at other times are preying on disease transmitting mosquitoes?

Combined impacts are laying waste to entire living systems. When coral reefs are weakened by the fishing industry, pollution and the bleaching caused by global heating, they are less able to withstand the extreme climate events, such as tropical cyclones, which our fossil fuel emissions have also intensified. When rainforests are fragmented by timber cutting and cattle ranching, and ravaged by imported tree diseases, they become more vulnerable to the droughts and fires caused by climate breakdown.

Both coral reefs and rain forests are well studied ecosystems.

What would we see if we broke down our conceptual barriers? We would see a full-spectrum assault on the living world. Scarcely anywhere is now safe from this sustained assault. A recent scientific paper estimates that only 3% of the Earth’s land surface should now be considered “ecologically intact”.

By “intact”, you would presume that they mean not altered by humanity. This is not the case. The 3% figure is the amount of unaltered habitat that maintains the fauna that existed in it before humans arrived. I.e. the 3% is measuring pockets of extreme biodiversity. These are valuable, to be sure, but are only a tiny fraction of the wild areas that still exist.

The various impacts have a common cause: the sheer volume of economic activity. We are doing too much of almost everything, and the world’s living systems cannot bear it. But our failure to see the whole ensures that we fail to address this crisis systemically and effectively.

The reason that we have this volume of activity is that there are too many people. We are already systematically addressing this problem by decreasing birthrates throughout the developed world, and by bringing birth control and family planning to the third world. How can we do more to address overpopulation? By sterilization? Mass genocide? Neither option seems appealing.

When we box up this predicament, our efforts to solve one aspect of the crisis exacerbate another. For example, if we were to build sufficient direct air capture machines to make a major difference to atmospheric carbon concentrations, this would demand a massive new wave of mining and processing for the steel and concrete. The impact of such construction pulses travels around the world. To take just one component, the mining of sand to make concrete is trashing hundreds of precious habitats.

What kind of a lunatic would do this? We already have CO2 capture machines that don’t require steel or concrete. They’re called trees.

It’s especially devastating to rivers, whose sand is highly sought in construction. Rivers are already being hit by drought, the disappearance of mountain ice and snow, our extraction of water, and pollution from farming, sewage and industry. Sand dredging, on top of these assaults, could be a final, fatal blow.

Sand dredging of river deltas is essential to prevent them from silting up due to natural erosion. As long as fish habitat isn’t being destroyed, dredging seems like a minor issue when compared with disappearing snow packs.

Or look at the materials required for the electronics revolution that will, apparently, save us from climate breakdown. Already, mining and processing the minerals required for magnets and batteries is laying waste to habitats and causing new pollution crises. Now, as Jonathan Watts’s terrifying article in the Guardian this week shows, companies are using the climate crisis as justification for extracting minerals from the deep ocean floor, long before we have any idea of what the impacts might be.

Mining does indeed destroy habitat, but without the copper and lithium needed for electrification, we will continue to burn fossil fuels, which in Canada are also being mined on a massive scale from the Athabasca oil sands. This is a case weighing the costs and benefits and choosing the best option. I agree that the idea of unscrupulous corporations mining the ocean floor, doing who knows what damage to the oceans, is indeed frightening.

This isn’t, in itself, an argument against direct air capture machines or other “green” technologies. But if they have to keep pace with an ever-growing volume of economic activity, and if the growth of this activity is justified by the existence of those machines, the net result will be ever greater harm to the living world.

Growth is tied to population. Green technologies are unlikely to have significant impact on population. The average person does not justify their energy use by the existence of green technology. The average person assumes that the environment is someone else’s problem. As long as people blindly consume, the governments they elect will be ones that allow them to do so.

Everywhere, governments seek to ramp up the economic load, talking of “unleashing our potential” and “supercharging our economy”. Boris Johnson insists that “a global recovery from the pandemic must be rooted in green growth”. But there is no such thing as green growth. Growth is wiping the green from the Earth.

If economic growth is achieved by improved productivity, that is indeed good, and can be considered green growth. Growth that comes by increasing population (via immigration or lack of birth control) increases the load we’re putting on the planet and is bad.

We have no hope of emerging from this full-spectrum crisis unless we dramatically reduce economic activity. Wealth must be distributed – a constrained world cannot afford the rich – but it must also be reduced. Sustaining our life-support systems means doing less of almost everything. But this notion – that should be central to a new, environmental ethics – is secular blasphemy.

There are a few actions that can be taken to minimize the damage the load of too many people is doing to the earth. Those should be taken. Hopefully, technological advances like those that saved us from the Malthusian catastrophe predicted by Ehrlich in the sixties–for example, nuclear fusion–will help further reduce the need for fossil fuels. Eventually, global population will begin to decrease.

Holding up communist wealth redistribution as the solution won’t win you many friends. On the other hand, communists have certainly proven their ability to decrease populations. And so, we return to mass genocide. Hopefully, saner heads that Monbiot’s will prevail, and we won’t be off to the gulag any time soon.

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Government Putting Their Citizens First is not Greed

Nick Cohen of the Observer asks Why can’t we tackle Covid and climate heating? His answer? “Nationalism and stupidity”. I certainly agree with the second one.

Even if you think humans are nothing more than a selfish, tribal species who care little for anyone beyond our clans and ourselves, the failure to vaccinate the world remains astonishing. It is not only a moral affront that rich nations are leaving millions to die needless deaths but an assault on our own self-interest.

Greed is not a moral affront. Rich nations are not responsible for people who live in other nations. Nations are responsible for their own citizens. Most humans are selfish and tribal.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the world economy risks losing $4.5tn (£3.3tn) by 2025 if Covid-19 spreads unchecked. Gordon Brown, the World Health Organization’s new ambassador for global health financing, tells me the cost of supplying enough vaccines to inoculate all poor nations is about £70bn.

Reducing CO2 emissions will cost the world economy much more than this. Why is the IMF not calling out the green movement if they are concerned about the world economy?

In countries with rudimentary health services the usual problems of delivery remain, but no one doubts that trillions of dollars could be unlocked by the spending of a sum that is trifling in comparison. Yet the rich world won’t spend. Nor will it act to squash the small risk that the virus will mutate into a variant that can evade vaccines.

Governments don’t create wealth. They take wealth from their citizens. Governments are already foolishly overspending in their own countries during the pandemic. If they spend freely overseas as well, they risk being punished by the citizens they are responsible to. As vaccines bring the pandemic under control in the west, there is already more thought being given to helping others, some of it doubtless due to self interest in reducing new variants.

Covid has torn up our lives and haunted our dreams. If you live in the UK or US, you are fortunate if you do not know someone who has died from the virus. Yet, when faced with a peril everyone acknowledges, whose consequences are devastating, the world cannot act.

I know someone who died from Covid-19. In Canada, the government has done fairly well for us, in my opinion, though my expectations of government are always low.

If the response to the pandemic is a guide, the grand promises governments are making to prevent climate catastrophe will come to little. If they cannot take seriously an immediate danger staring them in the face, how will they manage to take sustained and expensive countermeasures against climate change that require sacrifices and commitments over decades?

If governments were serious about climate change, they would be investing in nuclear power now. If science and industry are able to find a cost effective way of generating “green” hydrogen in large amounts, it could become a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel where electricity isn’t, but there is little government can do to help. Government does not innovate.

The nationalism is honeyed over by supposed progressives. Last week, Joe Biden hosted a Covid summit where he announced he would donate an extra 500m vaccines to middle- and low-income countries. He sounded impressive. But so did President Emmanuel Macron in 2020 when he said we should not tolerate “a two-speed world where only the richer can protect themselves”. Every leader in the west has said much the same. Notwithstanding their fine sentiments, less than 2% of the population of low-income countries has received even one dose.

Governments are responsible to their own citizens first.

Everyone suspects that rich countries are paying for sweetheart deals with vaccine manufacturers. Officials at the WHO-led Gavi alliance, which is trying to buy vaccines for poor countries, tell me manufacturers won’t say where their orders are in the queue or whether they would consider giving them priority.

Governments are responsible to their own citizens. I want my government to do whatever it can to protect Canadians first. The Americans got vaccines months before we did because they funded the development of the vaccines, and they deserved early access for that reason.

For all the cooing and kind words, promises from Biden and his counterparts cannot be believed. As the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said last week, the triumph of science in producing vaccines had been undone by “lack of political will, selfishness and mistrust”.

Nonsense. The vaccines are a scientific triumph. They were developed in record time and, in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, using an entirely new technology. The fact that not all countries are able to gain equal access to them does not reflect on this.

What he called the “obscenity” of rich world indifference comes in two parts. First, promised deliveries of vaccines to the poor world have never arrived. Oxford University data analysts found the UK had delivered less than 7% of the vaccines it has promised developing countries. Overall, of the 554m doses promised by the richest nations, only 90.8m, or 16%, had reached their destination. Those that did came in dribs and drabs, making planning vaccination campaigns impossible.

Promises were made before the facts of the pandemic were known. One of the largest sources of vaccine for the third world was to have been India. Instead, due to a terrible outbreak there, much of the vaccine was used locally. Of course planning vaccination campaigns during a worldwide pandemic is hard.

Arguments about whether it is right for rich countries to engage in medically dubious initiatives to vaccinate teenagers or give booster jabs to the vulnerable are almost beside the point. By February 2022, 15bn doses will have been produced: more than enough to vaccinate the world. Governments, however, have allowed neurotic nationalism to turn them into misers who hoard more vaccines than they could possibly need.

Is vaccinating teenagers “medically dubious”? Giving booster shots to the vulnerable certainly isn’t. The median age of fully vaccinated people in intensive care in one Canadian study was 80. Canadians at high risk should be given boosters with vaccines bought with Canadian tax payer’s money before we give vaccines to charity. Calling it obscene is a pure shaming tactic. Next, we will be called Nazis.

The second obscenity lies in the fate of their hidden treasure. Airfinity, a science analytics company, estimates that by the end of 2021, G7 countries may throw away 241m vaccines that have passed their expiry date. Brown describes their destruction as “unconscionable” and says he will send the projections to Biden, Johnson and EU leaders.

The Pfizer vaccine requires storage at extremely low temperatures, and so is especially vulnerable. In any large scale endeavour like a national vaccination campaign, there is bound to be some unavoidable waste. Since the government bureaucracy is running these campaigns in Canada, avoidable waste is sadly not surprising. Our entire medical system is extremely wasteful. I agree that, where possible, we should donate vaccines that we are able to use in time. I expect governments to be far less than 100% competent to do this.

It is a cliche of western responses to see the poor world as filled with corrupt and failed states. Imagine what African and Asian news teams could now say about us. Camera crews might film vaccines being crushed into landfill sites, as the reporters intoned that, though it was harsh to admit it, the truth was that childish and irresponsible westerners were so prone to wastefulness they could not be trusted to govern themselves.

The third world does have many corrupt and failed states; this is not a cliche. It is not childish to take care of our own citizens, and it is the opposite of irresponsible. I would rather we waste some vaccine if doing so meant saving Canadian lives.

Rational self-interest is the best form of selfishness and it is clearly absent today. More common is an embittered parochialism, which begins by not wanting to think about the rest of humanity and ends by hating them. God knows but I had my disagreements with Brown when he was in government. But there is no greater sign of the triumph of stupid nationalism than the replacement of Brown and politicians who could rise to a crisis with the babbling, play-acting, post-Brexit caricatures. They took power by saying that foreigners were trying to swindle honest Brits and cannot now show generosity to the rest of the world.

Putting your own country first does not mean not thinking of others, and certainly doesn’t mean hating them. When your own children are hungry, you should not be expected to give alms. As for governments, I’d rather they not be generous with my money, since I know how wasteful and foolish they are. I would rather they not tax us in the first place. It’s only charity when you are giving away what is yours to begin with.

The knowledge that we will not be safe until everyone is safe has aroused a determination among the worst of nationalists not to be driven by science or bow before multinational institutions. The know-nothing spirit that animated the Trump and Brexit movements has survived into the pandemic. The Trump administration withdrew from the World Health Organization. The Johnson government cut the foreign aid budget in the middle of an emergency when poor countries needed help most and the UK needed the epidemiological protection and economic stimulus that a global effort to contain Covid would bring.

The Trump administration’s project Warp Speed is part of the reason why we have effective vaccines. The World Health Organization is a corrupt institution, which did it’s best to downplay the danger of SARS-2 early on in the pandemic. When dealing with a crisis in its own country, a responsible government should stop foreign aid while it prioritizes helping its citizens. Giving money to other countries does not stimulate your economy; just the opposite, as the government is removing money that would be spent locally. Cohen claims to have studied Economics at Oxford. I would have thought he would understand something so fundamental.

It did so safe in the knowledge that the majority of the public would not care. Since the start of the pandemic, news bulletins have repeated the number of Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. When the regulators approved vaccines, the numbers of those who had received one and then two jabs were added. But at no point do we hear how many vaccines are going to countries that cannot afford to buy them. Until that changes, there will be no hope of tackling Covid, let alone the catastrophic climate crisis that is rushing towards us like an unstoppable storm.

The SARS-2 coronavirus will likely become endemic, as the flu has long been. Scientists have been saying this from the beginning. Naturally, people want to know about what will affect them. A news outlet that spent all of its time covering Covid-19 in other countries could not compete against one that gave local coverage priority. The majority of the public are selfish idiots, so it’s no surprise that they don’t care about people living in other countries.

Governments can do little about climate change, but what they can do, which is to build nuclear power stations and mass transit, they aren’t. The government should not tax us in the name of being green unless they commit to spending the proceeds on such infrastructure. Carbon taxes that go into general revenue are a wealth transfer from the poor and the middle class to the political class and their donors.

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Cultural Relativism Excuses Evil

In a recent interview with Jordan Peterson, Steven Fry, who has made some of the most powerful arguments against the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity (see The Problem of Evil), makes some staggeringly bad arguments for moral relativism. Like Dawkins blindness to the evils of the state, this shows once again how people can be brilliant in one area and complete boneheads in another.

Let’s say we’re going to defend the values of the west to the degree that they’re worth defending. Then we are making a claim that the inheritors of a particular tradition have something valid morally on their side, or we cannot defend the position there’s something that’s happening in our culture that’s not … right. How do you defend the damn culture against it without making the claim that we do have something of … higher value that is the consequence of following a particular tradition. Because without that you … lose the argument instantly.

Here Peterson sets out the biggest problem of cultural relativism: If culture is all relative, how can you argue that anything is bad? How will Fry weasel out of this?

Morality is is a question of manners

Wrong. Murdering someone is not ‘bad manners’. If you excuse execution of homosexuals by religious extremists because it’s ‘part of their culture’, you are condoning evil.

If the word immoral was used in a newspaper or by a person then that person’s immoral it would have a sexual meaning it would mean that they lived with someone with whom they weren’t married or they lived with someone of the same sex.

Sure, what people might call immoral is subject to the whims of the times. This in no way changes the fact that some things are inherently immoral. Fry has cherry picked some obvious examples of aesthetic preferences here. Immorality requires harm. A much more interesting case is adultery. Is such a betrayal of trust inherently immoral? The adulterer has not physically harmed their partner, or their property. Still, I’d say a case could be made that adultery is always immoral.

The idea of ‘the culture’ is a false one there is no ‘the culture’.

Culture is always changing, and differs from person to person. This is just like science. Our idea of what is true is constantly evolving, and at any given time, scientists disagree on many things. Does that mean there is no science? Of course not. Another rubbish statement by Fry.

Everything is redefined in each generation so what is left that is absolute? This is where religion has an argument with intellectual progress because it wants to hang on to something that it believes is eternal and and and permanent and utterly always true but there is no such thing.

More bullshit. The principles of Mathematics and Logic have remained for millennia, though of course they have been refined. Just because aesthetic preferences can and do change does not mean there aren’t moral principles that do not. The ability to understand this is what Jim Collins calls the ‘Genius of the And’. One can simultaneously stick to principles while changing practices that prove outdated.

I like Stephen Fry, but I find his ability to argue for this nihilistic rubbish in such a calm, sensible sounding way a little frightening. Either he truly believes that not murdering is just a social preference, or he is one of the greatest sophists that ever lived. Cultural relativism is a way of condoning evil, which I would say is itself evil.

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Leftist Feels Entitled to Jeff Bezos’s Personal Wealth

Marina Hyde of the Guardian writes Jeff Bezos is on a quest for eternal life – back on Earth, we’re searching for Amazon’s taxes. What has Bezos done this time? I will edit out some of Hyde’s snark out of kindness to my readers.

On the one hand, it makes huge sense for Jeff Bezos to pour millions into a company seeking the secret to eternal life. Bezos was this month reported to be a significant investor in Altos Labs, an age-reversal firm which is on the scientific quest for immortality. Among other expansions, it is thought the firm will now open a lab within the UK.

Prolonging human life is not a bad cause. Bezos has more than earned the right to spend his personal fortune on whatever he wants.

Further developments in fauxlanthropy for the Amazon overlord, then, who has decided that death is as inevitable as taxes. Which is to say: not at all inevitable for the likes of him. I think you’ll agree [the new Altos lab] means so much more to our nation than a fair tax contribution from Amazon. You know we’d only spend that shit on social care or the NHS or something, when Jeff can see it’s far better for us to get people on ordinary incomes to pay extra for all that, so that guys like him are freed up to spaff their money on Earth’s most preposterous midlife crises. How else to interpret the fact that this eternal-life news emerged in the very week it was revealed that despite Amazon UK sales increasing by £1.89bn last year, the firm paid just £3.8m more corporation tax?

Bezos is not Amazon. If Amazon isn’t paying its fair share of taxes, that’s on your government, not Amazon, and certainly not Bezos personally.

Anyway, you’ll be aware that the old immortality game is already being played by a number of other tech bros, from Google co-founder Larry Page to Peter Thiel, both of whom have siphoned serious millions into the idea that “death is a problem that can be solved”.

Spending one’s own money is not “siphoning”. Siphoning is what the government does when it dips into my bank account to fund developers to the tune of billions of dollars to create a few thousand homes.

As for his other hedges, the form book shows us that Bezos loves to make splashy charity announcements at times he senses a kind of planetary disdain being levelled at him. A couple of months ago, he got straight off his little space rocket and declared that he’d be graciously parting with $200m to launch some new initiative called the Courage and Civility award, which will reward “unifiers and not vilifiers”, and “never ad hominem attacks”. What can you say, other than: well I should hope so, sir! To put things into perspective, Bezos’s wealth increased by $13bn on the single calendar day before he popped to the edge of space for four minutes. Even allowing for the $5.5bn he’d spent on getting his space operation to that point, giving away a couple of hundred million dollars is the equivalent of someone on the average UK salary parting with about £1.30 for charity.

If someone donates $200 million, don’t spit in their face. Bezos has every right to spend billions on space travel. If you want to donate billions to the charity of your choice, you’re welcome to start your own company.

Then again, he has long tended toward what Charles Dickens called telescopic philanthropy – a convenient focus on faraway “good causes” as opposed to the ones on his own doorstep he could fix pretty much immediately. Incredible, really, that a man who steadfastly refused to pay so many of his workers a living wage could ever publicly utter the words: “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.” Yet here we are.

Bezos is not Amazon. As long as Amazon is complying with the law and people are working for them voluntarily, they are doing nothing wrong. If you want to give people a “living wage”, feel free to donate your own money to them.

We must hope the boffins do manage to grant him eternal life. At his current rate of personal growth, it feels like it will take Jeff that long to work out that charity begins on his home planet – and that philanthropy starts with paying tax.

Philanthropy has nothing to do with paying tax. Taxation is theft by the majority at gunpoint. Philanthropy is giving one’s own property to others. I hope Bezos continues to do whatever he wants with his wealth. He took an online bookstore and turned it into one of the world’s greatest companies. He deserves to enjoy himself.

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Climate Fearing Useful Idiots Welcome Authoritarianism

George Monbiot writes in the Guardian that Earth’s tipping points could be closer than we think. Our current plans won’t work. His qualifications as a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and a political activist seem to give his opinion on the matter little sway, and he fails to cite any papers or expert opinions. What arguments does he make?

Climate policies commit us to a calamitous 2.9C of global heating, but catastrophic changes can occur at even 1.5C or 2C.

According to the IPCC’s Climate Change 2021, The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers, the intermediate scenario, SSP2-4.5, which is that emissions remain close to their current levels until 2050, does not even predict 2.9C of warming by the turn of the century. Presumably Monbiot is assuming the scenario where we double our CO2 emissions by the turn of the century is a sure thing. This seems pessimistic to me.

If there’s one thing we know about climate breakdown, it’s that it will not be linear, smooth or gradual. Just as one continental plate might push beneath another in sudden fits and starts, causing periodic earthquakes and tsunamis, our atmospheric systems will absorb the stress for a while, then suddenly shift. Yet, everywhere, the programmes designed to avert it are linear, smooth and gradual.

We don’t know that climate change won’t be largely gradual, though I agree that we’re likely to see some sudden changes, like the change in the polar vortex that froze Texas in February or the heat dome that broke the temperature record in Litton. The only way to “avert” climate change is via technological advancement, unless you plan to impose authoritarian control over the world, in which case, a mass genocide could do it. Innovation goes at the pace it wants to, and progress is often gradual. Government programs don’t do shit.

Current plans to avoid catastrophe would work in a simple system like a washbasin, in which you can close the tap until the inflow is less than the outflow. But they are less likely to work in complex systems, such as the atmosphere, oceans and biosphere. Complex systems seek equilibrium. When they are pushed too far out of one equilibrium state, they can flip suddenly into another. A common property of complex systems is that it’s much easier to push them past a tipping point than to push them back. Once a transition has happened, it cannot realistically be reversed.

What “current plans”? You mean government plans to faze out coal and gas fired electrical plants? Canada has eliminated much of our coal power and halved the amount of electricity that we’re generating with gas. That’s far from gradual. If you mean government’s plans to eliminate gasoline powered vehicles, these programs are laughable, seemingly consisting only of adding taxes or threatening bans. This will lead to the same kind of protests that Macron saw from the Gillette Jaunes when he tried to raise fuel taxes. You need a viable alternative, like rapid transit.

The old assumption that the Earth’s tipping points are a long way off is beginning to look unsafe. A recent paper warns that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation – the system that distributes heat around the world and drives the Gulf Stream – may now be “close to a critical transition”. This circulation has flipped between “on” and “off” states several times in prehistory, plunging northern Europe and eastern North America into unbearable cold, heating the tropics, disrupting monsoons.

While it’s true that such changes are possible, and that it would likely be difficult to do anything about them if they occur, this doesn’t mean that we can stop using fossil fuels overnight.

A common sign that complex systems are approaching tipping points is rising volatility: they start to flicker. The extreme weather in 2021 – the heat domes, droughts, fires, floods and cyclones – is, frankly, terrifying. If Earth systems tip as a result of global heating, there will be little difference between taking inadequate action and taking no action at all. A miss is as good as a mile. Sudden changes of state might be possible with just 1.5C or 2C of global heating.

And its also possible that 2.7C won’t make a huge difference. According to the IPCC report, sea level is likely to rise by only 0.75m (2′ 6″). It also predicts with high confidence that all areas will experience less episodes of extreme cold.

So the target that much of the world is now adopting for climate action – net zero by 2050 – begins to look neither rational nor safe. It’s true that our only hope of avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown is some variety of net zero. What this means is that greenhouse gases are reduced through a combination of decarbonising the economy and drawing down carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere. It’s too late to hit the temperature targets in the Paris agreement without doing both. But there are two issues: speed and integrity. Many of the promises seem designed to be broken.

Only the IPCC’s most extreme scenario, which is new in the 2021 report, involves actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Scenario SSP1-2.6, which assumes that CO2 emissions will be rapidly reduced, does not include removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and yet predicts only 1.8C warming (.5C over the current average temperature) by the turn of the century. Since the Chinese made no promises to even slow their increases in CO2 emissions, are already responsible for 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and are signatories to the Paris agreement, the fact that countries that did promise reductions might miss their targets seems like a moot point.

At its worst, net zero by 2050 is a device for shunting responsibility across both time and space. Those in power today seek to pass their liabilities to those in power tomorrow. Every industry seeks to pass the buck to another industry. Who is this magical someone else who will suck up their greenhouse gases?

Government has no magic wand to replace existing technologies without hurting the people they are responsible to. If governments actually cared about reducing CO2, they would be building nuclear power plants and electrified rapid transit projects, not taxing emissions, which amounts to a massive tax increase on everyone, including the poor, because carbon taxes increase the cost of everything. Of course corporations are passing the buck. Corporations exist for profit, and if emitting CO2 allows profit to be made, they will do it. That’s why shipping companies cross the oceans at high speeds, burning more fuel than they would if crossing more slowly: because it’s more profitable.

Their plans rely on either technology or nature to absorb the carbon dioxide they want to keep producing. The technologies consist of carbon capture and storage (catching the carbon emissions from power stations and cement plants then burying them in geological strata), or direct air capture (sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and burying that too). But their large-scale use is described by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints”. They are unlikely to be deployed at scale in the future for the same reason that they’re not being deployed at scale today, despite 20 years of talk: technical and logistical barriers. Never mind: you can keep smoking, because one day they’ll find a cure for cancer.

Why capture carbon? Nuclear power stations emit no CO2 and are reliable sources of power, and they are completely feasible now.

So what’s left is nature: the capacity of the world’s living systems to absorb the gases we produce. As a report by ActionAid points out, there’s not enough land in the world to meet the promises to offset emissions that companies and governments have already made. Even those who own land want someone else to deal with their gases: in the UK, the National Farmers’ Union is aiming for net zero. But net zero commitments by other sectors work only if farmland goes sharply net negative. That means an end to livestock farming and the restoration of forests, peat bogs and other natural carbon sinks. Instead, a mythical other will also have to suck up emissions from farming: possibly landowners on Venus or Mars.

Reforestation isn’t a bad idea, but it is not going to move the needle toward net zero by more than a few percentage points at best.

Even when all the promised technofixes and offsets are counted, current policies commit us to a calamitous 2.9C of global heating. To risk irreversible change by proceeding at such a leisurely pace, to rely on undelivered technologies and nonexistent capacities: this is a formula for catastrophe.

You can’t speed up technological progress. People need to eat, and they need shelter and heat to survive. Today, we have the technology to generate electricity without emissions, but the political will to implement it is not there. There is currently no competitive alternative to diesel for shipping, though hydrogen would be a possible fuel if there were a cheap way to produce it without emitting CO2. Today’s farms are also heavily dependent on fossil fuels and fertilizers.

If Earth systems cross critical thresholds, everything we did and everything we were – the learning, the wisdom, the stories, the art, the politics, the love, the hate, the anger and the hope – will be reduced to stratigraphy. It’s not a smooth and linear transition we need. It’s a crash course.

Better start building the gas chambers, eh? I think not. A 2.7C increase from preindustrial average temperatures seems likely. This will be catastrophic for low lying countries that can’t adapt to sea levels increasing by 2′ 6″, as well as to equatorial countries in areas like the Persian Gulf, which may become uninhabitable, but northern countries will actually benefit economically, and developed countries can afford to adapt.

The more I see fear mongering being used to justify the need for authoritarian government, the more I say “If you aren’t building nuclear power stations to reduce emissions, shut up”. Carbon taxes don’t in themselves reduce emissions, they just siphon money from the poor to the government. If 100% of that money was going to programs to help reduce emissions, there would still be massive waste: government bureaucracy is inefficient. The fact that in most case, money from carbon taxes is not being earmarked for emission reduction is convincing evidence that those in government are using them instead as a way to siphon money from the people to government contractors and donors.

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Artificial Intelligence’s Inexorable Advance

There’s an interesting article in SFGate titled Do we need humans for that job? Automation booms after COVID. I’m going to comment on it.

Ask for a roast beef sandwich at an Arby’s drive-thru east of Los Angeles and you may be talking to Tori — an artificially intelligent voice assistant that will take your order and send it to the line cooks.

“It doesn’t call sick,” says Amir Siddiqi, whose family installed the AI voice at its Arby’s franchise this year in Ontario, California. “It doesn’t get corona. And the reliability of it is great.”

And 10 MacDonald’s restaurants in Chicago are also testing AI drive-through ordering, with the company looking to roll the technology out nationwide in the US.

The pandemic didn’t just threaten Americans’ health when it slammed the U.S. in 2020 — it may also have posed a long-term threat to many of their jobs. Faced with worker shortages and higher labor costs, companies are starting to automate service sector jobs that economists once considered safe, assuming that machines couldn’t easily provide the human contact they believed customers would demand.

Economists are idiots. Artificial intelligence (AI) has been improving ever since computers were invented. Expert systems that can deal with specific problem domains (like taking orders) have existed since the 1980s. Speech recognition is also a decades old technology. It was only a matter of time until neural networks and machine learning advanced to the point where machines would be capable of doing simple repetitive tasks like order taking as well as people can.

Past experience suggests that such automation waves eventually create more jobs than they destroy, but that they also disproportionately wipe out less skilled jobs that many low-income workers depend on. Resulting growing pains for the U.S. economy could be severe.

I’m less sure that this wave of automation will produce as many new jobs as previous ones have, but it may well be true. Spreadsheets didn’t kill of the accounting department, computer aided design (CAD) didn’t make draftsmen completely obsolete. This time, I do think the shift will be more tectonic. The authors are bang on that the bottom rung jobs that provide the entry point for unskilled workers are the ones being lost this time around, and that adapting to this change will likely be painful.

If not for the pandemic, Siddiqi probably wouldn’t have bothered investing in new technology that could alienate existing employees and some customers. But it’s gone smoothly, he says: “Basically, there’s less people needed but those folks are now working in the kitchen and other areas.”

The pandemic merely accelerated the change. MacDonald’s was working on automating drive-thru order taking long before Covid arrived.

Ideally, automation can redeploy workers into better and more interesting work, so long as they can get the appropriate technical training, says Johannes Moenius, an economist at the University of Redlands. But although that’s happening now, it’s not moving quickly enough, he says.

You can’t force people to train for new careers. Governments can offer opportunities and incentives to take them, but individuals choose for themselves whether to do so.

Worse, an entire class of service jobs created when manufacturing began to deploy more automation may now be at risk. “The robots escaped the manufacturing sector and went into the much larger service sector,” he says. “I regarded contact jobs as safe. I was completely taken by surprise.”

Economists are idiots. Do they not look at the world around them? Ten years ago Watson, an artificial intelligence created by IBM, defeated the human champion in Jeopardy. This was a clear sign that learning machines had arrived, and would soon be doing these kind of jobs.

Improvements in robot technology allow machines to do many tasks that previously required people — tossing pizza dough, transporting hospital linens, inspecting gauges, sorting goods. The pandemic accelerated their adoption. Robots, after all, can’t get sick or spread disease. Nor do they request time off to handle unexpected childcare emergencies.

Robots are still relatively expensive (though many are available at lower cost via leasing). They do also require maintenance, and some level of expertise in operating them.

Economists at the International Monetary Fund found that past pandemics had encouraged firms to invest in machines in ways that could boost productivity — but also kill low-skill jobs. “Our results suggest that the concerns about the rise of the robots amid the COVID-19 pandemic seem justified,’’ they wrote in a January paper.


The consequences could fall most heavily on the less-educated women who disproportionately occupy the low- and mid-wage jobs most exposed to automation — and to viral infections. Those jobs include salesclerks, administrative assistants, cashiers and aides in hospitals and those who take care of the sick and elderly.

And this is merely the first wave. Are our ever more intelligent machines headed toward the AI singularity?

Employers seem eager to bring on the machines. A survey last year by the nonprofit World Economic Forum found that 43% of companies planned to reduce their workforce as a result of new technology. Since the second quarter of 2020, business investment in equipment has grown 26%, more than twice as fast as the overall economy.

Smart companies are always looking for ways to increase productivity. Those who don’t will be less profitable and competitive. We don’t need the technocratic World Economic Forum to tell us this.

The fastest growth is expected in the roving machines that clean the floors of supermarkets, hospitals and warehouses, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a trade group. The same group also expects an uptick in sales of robots that provide shoppers with information or deliver room service orders in hotels.

The simplest and least desirable tasks, like floor cleaning, are of course the first to be automated. irobot launched the Roomba in 2002. During the pandemic, one of our favourite resort hotels began delivering room service in bags that were hung on the doorknob. You would receive a knock letting you know your meal had arrived. I’d think robot delivery could easily offer a superior experience.

It’s not just robots, either — software and AI-powered services are on the rise as well. Starbucks has been automating the behind-the-scenes work of keeping track of a store’s inventory. More stores have moved to self-checkout.

And stores that don’t do so will have to find other ways to compete or risk becoming unprofitable. Notice that Starbucks supports ordering via their automated app, but still retains intelligent, friendly staff who offer excellent customer service. They are clearly using research to determine what should be automated and what should not.

Scott Lawton, CEO of Bartaco, was having trouble last fall getting servers to return to his restaurants when they reopened during the pandemic, so he decided to do without them. With the help of a software firm, his company developed an online ordering and payment system customers could use over their phones. Diners now simply scan a barcode at the center of each table to access a menu and order their food without waiting for a server. Workers bring food and drinks to their tables. And when they’re done eating, customers pay over their phones and leave.

Online ordering works reasonably well if you have a small menu without many options for customization. Machines will have to get much more sophisticated before they can come close to replicating the experience of being served by a well trained waiter who comes to know you personally. This will remain a differentiator for high end restaurants whose margins let them afford to pay human staff.

The innovation has shaved the number of staff, but workers aren’t necessarily worse off. Each Bartaco location — there are 21 — now has up to eight assistant managers, roughly double the pre-pandemic total. Many are former servers, and they roam among the tables to make sure everyone has what they need. They are paid annual salaries starting at $55,000 rather than hourly wages.

This seems like a smart way of dealing with the lack of the human touch in ordering. If the managers are able to influence change in the automated systems when systematic problems with them are identified, I could see this being a reasonable approach for the middle tier “family restaurants” to take.

For now, the short-term benefits of the economic snapback [from the pandemic shutdowns] are overwhelming any job losses from automation, whose effects tend to show up gradually over a period of years. That may not last. Last year, researchers at the University of Zurich and University of British Columbia found that the so-called jobless recoveries of the past 35 years, in which economic output rebounded from recessions faster than employment, could be explained by the loss of jobs vulnerable to automation.

Innovation is always the driver of increase productivity. When wages become the dominant cost of business, innovations that reduce labor requirements will be those that are the most beneficial.

Despite strong hiring since the middle of last year, the U.S. economy is still 5.3 million jobs short of what it had in February 2020. And Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, calculated last month that 40% of the missing jobs are vulnerable to automation, especially those in food preparation, retail sales and manufacturing.

With Covid unemployment benefits set to expire in the US this month, we’ll see how many of the positions that employers are trying to hire for can be filled. The fact that employers are having a hard time filling jobs will certainly act as an accelerant for their automation.

Some economists worry that automation pushes workers into lower-paid positions. Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University estimated in June that up to 70% of the stagnation in U.S. wages between 1980 and 2016 could be explained by machines replacing humans doing routine tasks.

I find that very difficult to believe. I would have bet that the massive shift from manufacturing to the service sector was due far more to offshoring of manufacturing jobs to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and China, where lower wages, not automation, allowed the eastern Asian countries to do what American companies could at lower cost. What were their estimates based on?

“Many of the jobs that get automated were at the middle of the skill distribution,” Acemoglu says. “They don’t exist anymore, and the workers that used to perform them are now doing lower-skill jobs.”

While this may have been true in the past–for example, I’m sure many autoworkers displaced by robots moved into lower paying jobs–it won’t be true when automation comes for the unskilled jobs that unskilled workers rely on as their entry into the world of work. If we avoid the AI singularity, will machines lead to further class stratification, where the middle class do the jobs that humans can do better than machines, and the lower class become a permanent welfare class who cannot compete? Let’s hope neither outcome prevails.

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