The Panic Point

By now, it’s effectively unrealistic to expect we’re going to succeed at reigning in our carbon dioxide emissions within the next few years, at a rate sufficient to maintain a temperature increase beneath two degree Celsius. A good concise explanation of the crisis can be found here. Vaclav Smil has devoted much of his career to pointing out that energy transitions tend to take a very long time. In a recent interview he pointed out the world was more dependent upon fossil fuels in the year 2018 than in the year 2000. The reason for this is due to the limits we reached in regards to nuclear energy and hydropower. Hydropower provides the vast majority of our clean energy and simply can’t be scaled up due to natural limits. Nuclear energy is being phased out globally and few new nuclear power plants are being built.

I’m overall not a big fan of nuclear energy, because I’m wary of mankind’s faith in high-tech solutions to problems that originate from our inability to utilize the resources we have in a sane manner. However, I’m coming around to the idea that it may be necessary to have a nuclear infrastructure as a form of base load capacity, simply because I don’t envision the kind of renewable utopia some have predicted coming around anytime soon. There are numerous problems with nuclear energy of course, none of which I plan to dispute here, but I do think it’s necessary to dispute the idea that if somehow the whole world came around to understanding our problem, we could transition to a renewable energy grid overnight.

What I think is more likely by now however, is that we’re unfortunately going to witness a situation of panic and subsequent repentance. I expect that between five to fifteen years from now, we’re going to witness consequences of our failure to address this crisis, so catastrophic that people will be lulled out of their complacency. It could be an ice-free Arctic, it could be heatwaves that kill a lot of people, it could be famines, enormous forest fires, or perhaps even the decomposition of large amounts of methane clathrates. This seems to be part of human nature. We don’t address simmering problems until they become overwhelming.

The insistence of some people on sticking their heads into the sand is going to have political consequences too. To start with, it’s going to lead to the demise of the Republican party. Just as the traditional European left has witnessed its demise as a consequence of its failure to acknowledge the problems caused by mass immigration, the traditional American right is going to witness its demise because of its free market fundamentalism and its denial of the existence of ecological limits. I expect that Trump will be the last Republican president.

This doesn’t mean that what are now perceived as right-wing policies are going to die out. Gaylord Nelson, the Democratic founder of Earth day, pointed out on a regular basis that environmental sustainability can’t be achieved without stabilizing the population, which inevitably means clamping down on immigration too. Advances in genetic research are similarly going to uncover a soft white underbelly that not everyone will feel happy about. These advances will revive a few ideas that some had believed they had successfully relegated to the dustbin of history.

The politically correct consensus at the moment is that the theory of evolution is correct and you’re a primitive redneck troglodyte if you deny its validity, but it somehow came to a screeching halt once anatomically modern humans came into existence and from that point onward we all remained equal for the next two hundred thousand years. Science in practice tends to function through the emergence of a rigid consensus, that only fades away once the evidence against it becomes overwhelming.

We’ll witness a very painful moment at some point in the future, when it becomes impossible to maintain the illusion that we all somehow ended up equal. It won’t be in universities in America or Europe where this cultural taboo will be violated, it will most likely be Chinese scientists who will shatter our illusions. By the time people figure out the problem, Western Europe and North America won’t be recognizable as first world nations any longer. Until that time, you had best keep quiet about the emperor’s lack of clothes. If you’re bold enough to mention the elephant in the room, you won’t save the world, but you might render yourself unemployable.

What I’m trying to propose here, is that you need to look at the world from a rational perspective. The universe simply doesn’t bend to our desires. Believing that something is “fair” or that we “deserve” it won’t be sufficient to bring it about. We live in a world where some people are born with deformities that will forever prohibit them from leading happy productive lives. That’s unfair, but it’s the reality we’re dealing with. The fact that not everyone has an equal chance at birth of becoming a Nobel prize winner, a skilled computer programmer or a gifted chess grandmaster is not fair either, but it’s nonetheless the reality we’re dealing with.

I’m also proposing to you that you’ll find yourself isolated from the people around you, if you’re honest to them about these type of problems. Human beings are irrational, they’re guided by a desire to belong to a group and enjoy having simple rules by which to guide their actions. Consider the following example: The year is 1992, when the Irish government attempts to stop a suicidal fourteen year old girl who was raped by her neighbor, from travelling abroad to have an abortion.  Two subsequent referendums were held with support from the Catholic church, in 1992 and in 2002, in an effort to remove the risk of suicide as legal grounds on the basis of which a woman can have an abortion. There is a lot to say on this subject, but I would like to keep it to a bare minimum for now.

To start with, this case shows to us how dangerous religious fundamentalism can be and how susceptible human beings are to irrational behavior. A series of simple moral rules, proclaimed as absolute by a couple of guys with fancy hats who pretend their own mediocre insights are derived from a supreme deity, are sufficient to lead people to impose the most vile and miserable conditions upon each other. If you wonder how people can commit suicide bombings on behalf of Allah, consider that anywhere from a third to half of the Irish public apparently seems to have no qualms with forcing a fourteen year old girl to give birth. To recycle an old paraphrase of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

People are afraid of speaking out against this, because it threatens to isolate them from their peer group. If you can’t swallow archaic religious dogmas as if you were dealing with a jug of beer, you had best simply not speak about it. If you bring up the fact that it’s insanity to force underage girls to give birth because the alternative would involve removing an embryo the size of a tadpole from their bodies, you may find that you’ll lose friends. The most courageous response in such a situation would be to embrace the isolation, but most people are not capable of this. Their peer group visits church, they might have a career intertwined with their faith and they simply have too much invested in the whole affair to give up on the whole thing.

In a similar manner, I have attended Bitcoin conferences where I would ask, in as polite of a manner as I can, to some of the main developers in the space if they would agree with me that we should look towards some better method of validating transactions, rather than simply spending as much money on electricity as the rate of inflation allows. A single Bitcoin transaction has a carbon footprint so enormous by now you would have to abstain from eating meat for half a year, to compensate the emissions. It also means the average Bitcoin transaction now has an electricity cost of roughly fifty dollars. This is of course a resource footprint so massive that it can never properly function as a payment protocol.

Without exception of course, the faithful will insist to me this is simply the only practical manner to go about the whole ordeal, as all alternatives are inferior. They will then type “proof of stake flaws” into Google and parrot whatever comes up, before putting the whole issue out of their minds. Once again, the price you pay for honesty is isolation. I’m willing to bet I would face isolation too, if I would ask an ecological party whether importing more people from low-consuming countries to Europe and assimilating them into our consumerist lifestyle is really a good thing for our environment. Every subculture seems to have its own elephant wandering around in the room. Once we pick the particular subculture we wish to belong to, we then try to have the choice we made fit into our head, by coming up with excuses that would otherwise have seemed ridiculous to us.

Human beings are irrational. We may try to act and think rationally, but we’re guided by a mentality that emerged when we lived in small bands of people, a time when simple heuristics often worked better than a complex rational and nuanced judgement of our predicament. As an example, you don’t win a tribal war by informing your peers that both parties in the conflict have inflicted injustices upon each other. That’s how you marginalize yourself within your tribe. At a global level, our decisions are a product of this collective irrationality that afflicts us. For this reason, issues like climate change are not properly addressed.

This doesn’t mean the issue will never be addressed. It simply means that we’re now going to find ourselves dependent on solutions we would have rather avoided, once we hit a moment of collective panic that leads us to take the issue seriously. As an example, it’s possible to trigger artificial algae blooms in the ocean that suck up vast amounts of carbon dioxide, by spraying comparatively modest amounts of iron dust in the right locations. This will have some negative side-effects without a doubt, but for people a decade or two from now faced with an urgent climate crisis, the side-effects will not outweigh the risk of doing nothing. The same principle applies to stratospheric sulfate engineering. We’ll find ourselves faced with a situation where the weather will increasingly be micro-managed by human beings, as we can no longer rely on the boons of a stable climate that we once took for granted. If you’re young today and looking for a career path that leads to prominence, life extension and climate engineering are fields worth looking into.

How come you don’t recognize this face? Some ideas simply cease to be relevant.

Today’s neopagans, deep ecologists and segments of the alternative right will be perceived in a few decades in a manner similar to how we look today at the American transcendentalists or at the French enlightenment philosophers. They’ll be interpreted as visionaries who anticipated a crisis that most people ignored. The social justice left and the economic fundamentalists of the right will end up intellectually obsolete, in a similar manner to how none of us today have any insight into the theological philosophers who battled each other over competing interpretations of religious sects we no longer adhere to. Calvin, Arminius and Kuyper are irrelevant to us today, their relevance was possible only under conditions in which we took the Christian religion itself for granted and our disagreement was limited to how we should interpret and practice it. This doesn’t mean your life will be easy. However, if your attitude is polite, your actions benevolent and your arguments lucid, you will eventually be vindicated.

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