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Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

#186: Jan. - March 2023 (Non-Fiction)
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Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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Ch. 7: Understanding the Future


Please use this thread to discuss the above referenced chapter of How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going by Vaclav Smil.
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Re: Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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Smil's review of "the future" is dedicated to the idea that one can easily be too optimistic or too pessimistic, with some interesting cases to look at but also with plenty of rhetoric. His anchoring concept is that systems have a lot of inertia in the physical processes, so regardless of policy leanings, we won't change fast.

He applies this, in the middle part of the chapter, to climate change. It was not as frustrating as I expected, but the reader must realize that his take on it is not a thorough balancing of reasons for optimism and pessimism. Rather it is a reasonable appeal to the material constraints involved in actually changing trajectory.

He begins with a rhetorical flourish, citing apocalyptic doomsday scenarios on one side and the extravagant promise (under a term attributed to Ray Kurzweil) of Singularity, in which AI will make all things affordable. He then reviews a number of failed predictions either too optimistic or too pessimistic. In Smil's view there are now a plethora of extreme predictions which have no foundation in quantitative analysis but just spin qualitative narratives or pack in qualitative complications without realistic structure. He then rejects quantitative models which, due to extrapolating "outside the data set" (as my econometric friends would say) have too much uncertainty to be of value. So, he argues, forecasts must hew closely to the known.

He then turns to an interesting example: demographic forecasting of population size. This relatively predictable process, he argues, is more useful for forecasts than the typical set of assumptions that have been made about electric cars, for which we have very limited experience. He argues that excess optimism has characterized forecasts for shifts to electric cars, but his data as of 2020 is already slightly out of date as Tesla's order of magnitude drop in price has led to a significant surge in the EV market share.

In the next section, on failed predictions, he does not handle his data well. For example, in critiquing an early-60s forecast of extravagant acceleration in population growth, he simply notes that their incredible growth forecasts are impossible in a planet with finite space. Obviously this is true, but finite space is not the reason for the drastic fall in fertility rates since then. Instead, changing conceptions of family, and in particular an emphasis on (expensive) education rather than quantity of children, have dropped the birth rate to match the fallen death rate that was behind the loony forecasts. He scoffs at Peak Oil as yet another catastrophist misfire.

He then sideswipes warnings about catastrophes from climate change, arguing that they are just another case of exaggeration, Unfortunately he does not engage the actual science, so that when he disparages predictions of "passing a point of no return", for example, he does not recognize that this can happen due to tipping points without us being aware that we are beyond those points. So by waving his hands and repeating "catastrophists" he wants to make us believe that the predictions of climate models are exaggerations. But the predictions to date have largely been accurate, especially within the error bars that are normally included.
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Re: Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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The heart of the final chapter is a section entitled "Inertia, scale and mass". In this he argues that improvement in technical proficiency is likely to continue, and he uses the example of food production. He dismisses speculation about hydroponics replacing farmland and argues that the basic material demands of agriculture are not going to allow such a drastic replacement. His realism is laudable, but I often had the feeling he was jousting with straw men.

When he gets as far as admitting that some past transitions (e.g. from raising huge quantities of feed for horses and mules to using mechanized traction power) have been rapid, he argues this may have been because the quantities involved were comparatively small. It's an important point - we are now talking about a population of 8 billion humans, not 2 billion. His point about material inertia is well made by one comparison he makes: in the first 20 years of this century renewables supply rose 50-fold, but it translated into only a 2 percent change in fossil fuel reliance, from 87 percent of world energy supply at the beginning to 85 percent at the end.

He then turns to the optimism that has followed from the electronics revolution(s). All right for information flows, he argues, although the time lags between discovery and transformative roles have actually been quite long - often 50 or 60 years and sometimes 100. But information flows will not change the material needs to move things around, build things and grow food. And, as promising as I find Zoom meetings and the internet in general, I have to believe he is making an important point. The thing is, by the time policy-makers come to grips with this inertia, for example by actually requiring high standards of insulation rather than just giving tax breaks for it, it will be too late to avert climate disaster. Frankly it is pretty much already too late.

Ignorance, persistence and humility

In the next section he uses an extended analysis of missteps concerning COVID to argue that policy is likely to flub the task of foreseeing the needs of the future and preparing for whatever drastic collapses are headed our way. I find his basic point solid, and his examples highly suggestive. However, I also feel he almost ignores the innovative methods employed to generate vaccines in record time, and the research money that had been flowing into the new methods before this critically urgent use was experienced. In a similar way, he argues that the response to the financial crisis of 2008 was insufficiently thorough, as though Dodd-Frank and Basel III were mild and ineffectual. While I would agree that more should have been done both before and after the crisis, I don't see this as a persuasive argument that inertia should be considered baked into policy processes.

Finally he engages the failures of Fukushima (and overreaction against fission power afterward) and the 737-MAX to illustrate his themes of inertia and (foolish) persistence, readying for his most direct engagement with the issue of climate change.
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Re: Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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I would like to share my opinion on the discussion of Chapter 7 of Michio Kaku's The Future of Humanity. I agree with the author that the future of our civilization depends on our ability to adapt and use new technologies to solve the problems we face today. I found it particularly interesting to talk about the future of artificial intelligence, which, according to the author, will be the most powerful tool of our civilization. However, I also believe that we must be cautious in the development and use of artificial intelligence. We must not be oblivious to the potential negative consequences that may arise if we do not control the development of artificial intelligence. We may need to set rules and limits to ensure that artificial intelligence is used only for the good of our civilization. It was interesting to learn about how scientific discoveries in quantum physics might change our world in the future. I believe that science must continue to move forward and find new ways to improve people's lives, but we must also consider the ethical and social aspects of science and technology development. Overall, I found this chapter to be very interesting and informative. I look forward to continuing to discuss the future of our civilization.

Regards, AbrahamYokoyama
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Re: Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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In case you were wondering what the hollowing out of the human brain looks like, here is the answer I got about this chapter from our near future overlords.
ChatGPT wrote:Chapter Seven of Vaclav Smil's book "How the World Really Works" is titled "Understanding the Future". In this chapter, Smil examines various trends and patterns that have shaped the past and present, and considers their potential implications for the future.

One of the main themes of the chapter is the interconnectedness of different systems and processes in the world. Smil notes that many of the biggest challenges facing humanity - from climate change to resource depletion - are the result of complex and interrelated factors. He argues that in order to address these challenges, we need to adopt a more holistic and systems-oriented approach.

Another key theme of the chapter is the role of technology in shaping the future. Smil acknowledges that technology has the potential to drive progress and innovation, but also warns that it can have unintended consequences if not managed properly. He emphasizes the importance of carefully considering the risks and benefits of new technologies before implementing them on a large scale.

Smil also touches on the issue of global inequality, noting that while progress has been made in some areas, many people still lack access to basic necessities like food, clean water, and healthcare. He argues that addressing these inequalities is not only a moral imperative, but also essential for creating a more stable and sustainable global system.

Overall, the chapter is a call to action for individuals, organizations, and governments to think more deeply about the challenges and opportunities facing the world today, and to take a more proactive and collaborative approach to shaping the future.
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When Smil finally takes on Climate directly, his main conceptual tool is a study about the timing of the "net economic benefits" of an "optimal policy", which would only "breakeven" around 2080. Without laying it out explicitly, this discussion sets the matter entirely in terms of current costs against the "experience" of benefits. Another word for such costs is "investments", so he is essentially arguing that the "returns" on such investments take a very long time to be realized.

This is part of an overall argument that we tend to discount the future, due to uncertainty and simple preference for current enjoyment. While there is no doubt that is true, it is an argument about what democracies "will choose" rather than about what they should choose. We are too short-sighted to deal with a crisis that has its main effects in the distant future, essentially.

The nature of the crisis, as a diffuse environmental effect with slowly accumulating effects and no "national" government capable of imposing order, is well understood. Smil hedges around recognizing this, framing his discussion almost entirely in terms of the difficulties of getting a concerted program together, with comparisons to world wars, for example, that I find unpersuasive.

In the context of the overall argument of the book, that material requirements create a lot of inertia in a system, I find this more or less tragic. The material effects of climate change are already substantial, and deserve to be reflected in prices (and not just by unaffordable flood insurance in Florida). They will become catastrophic long before the 2080 date of "breakeven" proposed in the single study he cites. But his picture of inertia is likely accurate, in the minds of those who choose ostrich mode, for totally non-material reasons.
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Re: Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 9:49 pm Smil's review of "the future" is dedicated to the idea that one can easily be too optimistic or too pessimistic, with some interesting cases to look at but also with plenty of rhetoric. His anchoring concept is that systems have a lot of inertia in the physical processes, so regardless of policy leanings, we won't change fast.
I am now spending much of my time debating climate change with various expert groups. Smil’s idea that planetary physical inertia will prevent rapid change is invalid when it comes to systemic risk of tipping points. For example, melting of Arctic sea ice could cause a range of cascading tipping points, including methane release and slowing of ocean currents, while also worsening extreme weather due to destabilisation of the jet stream swapping weather conditions between the pole and temperate latitudes. These changes could happen suddenly, like an earthquake after sufficient tectonic pressure builds up.

We do have a lot of inertia in human psychology, apparent in the broad reluctance to engage with evidence. My view is that Smil’s perspective reflects this excessive caution, although of course the problem is that those who understand the need for a paradigm shift in climate policy have not explained it adequately. A focus on safely increasing planetary albedo would be the best application of the precautionary principle in climate policy.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 9:49 pm
He applies this, in the middle part of the chapter, to climate change. It was not as frustrating as I expected, but the reader must realize that his take on it is not a thorough balancing of reasons for optimism and pessimism. Rather it is a reasonable appeal to the material constraints involved in actually changing trajectory.
Smil very accurately explains that the idea of preventing global warming by cutting CO2 emissions is a laughable fantasy. Not only is it politically and economically impossible, as he explains, but as well even drastic decarbonisation would not prevent tipping points.

It is like if you have a river that is threatening a twenty foot flood. Cutting emissions is like agreeing to build a two foot levee.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 9:49 pm
He begins with a rhetorical flourish, citing apocalyptic doomsday scenarios on one side and the extravagant promise (under a term attributed to Ray Kurzweil) of Singularity, in which AI will make all things affordable. He then reviews a number of failed predictions either too optimistic or too pessimistic. In Smil's view there are now a plethora of extreme predictions which have no foundation in quantitative analysis but just spin qualitative narratives or pack in qualitative complications without realistic structure. He then rejects quantitative models which, due to extrapolating "outside the data set" (as my econometric friends would say) have too much uncertainty to be of value. So, he argues, forecasts must hew closely to the known.
My climate friends have been debating this principle in regard to climate modelling, with the view that computer models are too complacent about climate risk. The problem is that models only include what can be readily quantified. As a result, high impact medium likelihood risks are discounted, such as sudden methane release or slowing of ocean currents or collapse of ice sheets. These could have cascading effects that are as hard to predict as the timing of an earthquake, but which could be prevented by increasing albedo at low cost.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 9:49 pm He then turns to an interesting example: demographic forecasting of population size. This relatively predictable process, he argues, is more useful for forecasts than the typical set of assumptions that have been made about electric cars, for which we have very limited experience. He argues that excess optimism has characterized forecasts for shifts to electric cars, but his data as of 2020 is already slightly out of date as Tesla's order of magnitude drop in price has led to a significant surge in the EV market share.
EVs are an essentially religious cult. They actually warm the planet, largely due to their high opportunity cost, crowding out recognition of the need to increase albedo. They provide religious emotional comfort through the fantasy that switching away from fossil fuels will have a more than marginal effect on the temperature, and by assuaging the irrational sense of moral evil associated with having CO2 come out of your car tail pipe. Their advocates thoroughly avoid all systematic scientific understanding of climate.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 9:49 pm In the next section, on failed predictions, he does not handle his data well. For example, in critiquing an early-60s forecast of extravagant acceleration in population growth, he simply notes that their incredible growth forecasts are impossible in a planet with finite space. Obviously this is true, but finite space is not the reason for the drastic fall in fertility rates since then. Instead, changing conceptions of family, and in particular an emphasis on (expensive) education rather than quantity of children, have dropped the birth rate to match the fallen death rate that was behind the loony forecasts. He scoffs at Peak Oil as yet another catastrophist misfire.
I expect that today’s emission reduction cult will soon be seen as just as absurd as the population bomb ideas of the 1960s.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 9:49 pm He then sideswipes warnings about catastrophes from climate change, arguing that they are just another case of exaggeration. Unfortunately he does not engage the actual science, so that when he disparages predictions of "passing a point of no return", for example, he does not recognize that this can happen due to tipping points without us being aware that we are beyond those points. So by waving his hands and repeating "catastrophists" he wants to make us believe that the predictions of climate models are exaggerations. But the predictions to date have largely been accurate, especially within the error bars that are normally included.
Many scientists are saying impacts of climate change are coming bigger and faster than models have predicted. Smil is completely wrong on this.
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Re: Ch. 7: Understanding the Future

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Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 10:22 pm The heart of the final chapter is a section entitled "Inertia, scale and mass". In this he argues that improvement in technical proficiency is likely to continue, and he uses the example of food production. He dismisses speculation about hydroponics replacing farmland and argues that the basic material demands of agriculture are not going to allow such a drastic replacement. His realism is laudable, but I often had the feeling he was jousting with straw men.
Failure to understand inertia, scale and mass is a key problem in climate policy. The inertia and scale of fossil energy systems means the ability to transition to renewable energy is far slower than its advocates tend to dream. The inertia is as much cultural and political as economic or technological. People simply cannot imagine how rapid change can be achieved in a voluntary way where their economic interests are against it. This explains why higher albedo should become the main focus of climate policy, accepting that carbon reform will be slower.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 10:22 pm
When he gets as far as admitting that some past transitions (e.g. from raising huge quantities of feed for horses and mules to using mechanized traction power) have been rapid, he argues this may have been because the quantities involved were comparatively small. It's an important point - we are now talking about a population of 8 billion humans, not 2 billion. His point about material inertia is well made by one comparison he makes: in the first 20 years of this century renewables supply rose 50-fold, but it translated into only a 2 percent change in fossil fuel reliance, from 87 percent of world energy supply at the beginning to 85 percent at the end.
The reason past changes have been rapid – in land transport, aviation, telephony, chemicals, medicine, the internet, etc – is that they have been driven by individual interests. Climate change is entirely different, in that no individual interests are sufficient to motivate change at the speed and scale required. Climate security is a public good that can only be delivered by coordinated collective global action. That is not unprecedented. The 1944 Bretton Woods Conference established the IMF and World Bank in order to prevent a repeat of the systemic imbalances that produced the Depression. We have equivalent systemic imbalances in the climate that could be managed through a similar international climate authority, but in my view the focus would need to shift solely onto albedo, leaving carbon based measures to national and firm level action.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 10:22 pm He then turns to the optimism that has followed from the electronics revolution(s). All right for information flows, he argues, although the time lags between discovery and transformative roles have actually been quite long - often 50 or 60 years and sometimes 100. But information flows will not change the material needs to move things around, build things and grow food. And, as promising as I find Zoom meetings and the internet in general, I have to believe he is making an important point. The thing is, by the time policy-makers come to grips with this inertia, for example by actually requiring high standards of insulation rather than just giving tax breaks for it, it will be too late to avert climate disaster. Frankly it is pretty much already too late.
The main climate problem is a failure of thinking. Because the debate is forced into the old left right thinking of building a united front of progressive forces to capture the state, the idea that fossil fuel companies could be allies in increasing albedo is excluded, even though this is the only possible way to prevent collapse of world civilization. Climate activists prefer collapse to realism.
Harry Marks wrote: Sat Apr 29, 2023 10:22 pm Ignorance, persistence and humility
In the next section he uses an extended analysis of mis-steps concerning COVID to argue that policy is likely to flub the task of foreseeing the needs of the future and preparing for whatever drastic collapses are headed our way. I find his basic point solid, and his examples highly suggestive. However, I also feel he almost ignores the innovative methods employed to generate vaccines in record time, and the research money that had been flowing into the new methods before this critically urgent use was experienced. In a similar way, he argues that the response to the financial crisis of 2008 was insufficiently thorough, as though Dodd-Frank and Basel III were mild and ineffectual. While I would agree that more should have been done both before and after the crisis, I don't see this as a persuasive argument that inertia should be considered baked into policy processes.
The climate problem is primarily one of paradigm shift, that elites cannot abide the intense embarrassment of proof that the policies they have advocated cannot work, and prefer stubbornly to stick with the decarbonisation path even though its inevitable results are steadily worsening extreme weather, species loss, sea level rise and systemic instabilities, all of which could readily be fixed by rapid implementation of albedo measures. The idea that cutting emissions could fix the climate is an ethical scandal and monstrous stupidity of the first order that will soon come to be seen as akin to supporting slavery or believing the world is flat.

Here are some simple numbers that challenge the Rapid Retirement Hypothesis, the belief that decarbonisation is the key to climate stability.

It is widely believed that the rapid retirement of fossil fuels is necessary to indefinitely defer triggering cascading tipping points.
Let us call this the RR hypothesis, for Rapid Retirement. The RR hypothesis is the scientific consensus. Challenge to it is the object of derision. However, I think this deserves a serious debate based on earth system numbers rather than politics.
The key problem is the relation between warming from new emissions and the committed warming from past emissions. People often find arithmetic challenging, but please bear with me as these sums are fairly simple. The problem is that the Emission Reduction Alone approach that underpins RR just ignores committed warming,
Committed warming comes from the 670 Gt C (Gigatonnes of Carbon) already emitted. New emissions are about 15 Gt C/y, worsening the forcing by 2.5% each year. C incorporates CO2 equivalents such as methane, and is used here to refer just to the current anthropogenic load of greenhouse gases.
Realistic projections suggest it will take until about 2060 to double C without RR, leaving aside complicating factors such as ocean balance.
Let’s consider the three scenarios shown in this table,

Gigatonnes Carbon - Gt Realistic Projection Rapid Retirement Very Rapid Retirement
Emissions to date 670 670 670
Emissions 2023 to 2060 592 370 185
Annual 16 10 5
Cumulative 2060 Total 1262 1040 856
Radiative Forcing 2060/2023 1.88 1.55 1.28

Realistic Projections are that emissions will average 16 GtC/y for the next few decades, based on Paris pledges. Rapid Retirement might hypothetically cut emissions to about 10 Gt C/y net, with aggressive carbon dioxide removal. The Very Rapid Retirement scenario would require carbon storage with something like a million square km of industrial algae production on the ocean, something that seems more in the realm of science fiction than an achievable goal.

Rapid Retirement still leaves the world with more than 1.5 times current radiative forcing in 2060. That is high risk for tipping points.

Contrary to the claim that rapid retirement of fossil fuels can do much to defer tipping points, what is actually needed to achieve deferment is to cut the 2060 Radiative Forcing number close to zero. Rapid Retirement could at best deliver about one tenth of the required forcing cut from 2 to 0 watts per square metre. That amount is marginal, and highly risky. The heavy lifting has to be done mainly with Albedo Enhancement, supported by Greenhouse Gas Removal , with emission reduction trailing a distant third.

A realistic deferment of tipping points would be better achieved by a grand bargain with the fossil fuel industry, accepting that emissions will continue while investing heavily in Albedo Enhancement. The rationale for this bargain is to get emitters on side with climate science, with a realistic path to stability and security, instead of the grudging and largely illusory acceptance of retirement that we now see. Pushing rapid retirement is a dangerous strategy, essentially making collapse inevitable.
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We need both.

I am becoming quite cynical about the issue. The most important inertia is in minds, as you (Robert) repeatedly make clear. Engineers arguing that we need to try drastic geoengineering because changing technology and incentivizing alternatives is too (politically) difficult, and purist environmentalists arguing that geoengineering is dangerous and distracts from the needed lifestyle changes, are not much better than the ignoramuses who simply deny that the problem is serious. While all the bickering is going on, the problem keeps getting worse.
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