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The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 1) State of the Species 
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Post Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 1) State of the Species
DWill wrote:
I've wanted to read this book since hearing about it a couple months ago. In talking about the fate of our species with Robert, it seemed that he was on the side of humans continuing to beat the odds against continuing to expand our economies and populations, through technical/industrial innovation. I, on the other hand, most often spoke about the dim prospects of humans becoming ever more dominant as a species. That, I thought (and still tend to think) just won't work; we'll collide with natural limits and completely degrade the planet in the process. Robert is set up to take the wizard's side, played by Norman Borlaug in Mann's book, and I'm representing the prophet, played by William Vogt. Unless, that is, either of us change our minds!

Time permitting, I may pick up a copy and contribute what I can to this discussion. I’m at least familiar with Robert’s thoughts on the subject. I have disagreed with him in the past on some of the particulars, which I guess puts me on the “prophet” side.

It seems to me the wizard-prophet dichotomy may have its roots in an age-old philosophical question: what is (hu)man’s place in nature? Stephen Jay Gould discusses this question in an essay he wrote in the 1980s called “Our Natural Place.”

Gould identifies two basic philosophies that try to put man in his place, so to speak. The zoocentric idea that sees humans as “nothing more” than animals. And the anthropocentric one that sees humans as the pinnacle of evolution. (For the sake of brevity, I’m sort of presenting the extremes of both sides, knowing that most people will fall somewhere between.) But it sounds like the prophet’s position may be rooted in zoocentrism and the wizard’s position in anthropocentrism? Maybe?

I’m more zoocentric than anthropocentric and probably more prophet than wizard. Through my study of evolution, I understand that human beings are very much part of the natural world, and that all life is intrinsically connected. And, yet, humans are also more than “just animals.” We’re special in the sense, as Sagan once said, as a way the universe can know itself. But with sentience and our position at the very top of the food chain comes a very grave responsibility to NOT muck the planet up for the rest of God’s creatures. In sheer numbers we are doing just that. We occupy an ever-expanding niche, displacing other life in the process. At the same time, I don’t believe we have any control over population growth unless we go to a one-world totalitarian government. Our numbers will rise until some catastrophic event, war, famine, etc. Until then, I can’t help but wonder if a world of 10 billion people will be a catastrophe of a different kind. But it’s it’s an important discussion nonetheless. As Gould says, “we live in an essential and unresolvable tension between our unity with nature and our dangerous uniqueness. Systems that attempt to place and make sense of us by focusing exclusively either on the uniqueness or the unity are doomed to failure. But we must not stop asking and questing because the answers are complex and ambiguous.”

Sorry if this is way out in left field. I think I just like quoting Gould. :-D


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DWill, Robert Tulip
Thu Dec 26, 2019 9:59 am
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Post Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 1) State of the Species
No, you're right in the ballpark, and I hope you do chip in, regardless of whether you get the time to read the book. What I'd add to your excellent take on the philosophical poles via Gould, is that the things we humans want are, by and large, good things in themselves. Sure, there's some consumerism that we might criticize, but otherwise, nice, comfortable homes and convenient machines; the ability to travel to distant places to see family or just to widen horizons; better medical treatments to enjoy health into old age--these are worthy things to want. But do they, in aggregate, place an impossible burden on the planet's resources or dangerously raise the temperature of the planet? Can we really say no to these things, or will we say yes and trust the wizards to solve the dilemma?



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Thu Dec 26, 2019 1:40 pm
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Post Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 1) State of the Species
Climate change: ‘We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself – I’m terrified’, writes Earth scientist

This is a challenging article on climate politics. The author, James Dyke, lectures in Global Systems, and presents a generally logical perspective on the planetary peril, opening with a comment from a senior IPCC scientist that current trends will cause large scale death, meaning “untold devastation awaits us if radical action is not taken.”

The line I found most interesting was that “We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.”

This framing of climate solutions as a problem of imagination is essential. My sense is that Dyke sets out the challenge well, with his explanation that the technosphere has become a planetary system that is out of control, making collective action to cut emissions impossible.

However, I want to challenge his argument that “we know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.” This is certainly the conventional wisdom within climate science, but Dyke has correctly explained that emission reduction on the scale required is simply impossible, due to the inertia within global politics. It is a contradiction for something to be both necessary and impossible. That means we have to find alternatives.

Geoengineering by increasing albedo is no answer either, since as Dyke explains it fails to address the problem of ocean acidity. But does that mean catastrophe is inevitable? No.

Dyke says nothing about the potential for carbon removal at large scale. I know this seems equally impossible as emission reduction at first glance, but perhaps more detailed analysis will show carbon removal is actually possible, making it a necessary focus for restoring planetary stability, seeing climate change as the real primary security problem for the planet.

Looking at the numbers, the world now emits about 15 gigatonnes of carbon per year, and the most optimistic scenarios would scale that increase back by just a few gigatons. For reference, a gigaton of water is a cubic kilometre. But the underlying real problem is that global warming is caused by past emissions, now totalling about 635 gigatons of carbon.

The extra 15 GT we add per year is marginal to the scale of the warming driver, just about 2% of the problem. To actually fix global warming, the world has to mainly focus on the elephant in the room, the committed heat from past emissions.

My view is that it is possible for the capitalist system to invest in new technology with potential to remove carbon from the air at much larger scale than current emissions. That means that if we work out how to convert say 100 GT of carbon to useful products every year – food, feed, fish, forests, fabric, fuel, fertilizer – then it actually would be okay to keep emitting more carbon, since the world would be on a trajectory back to climate stability, climate repair and climate restoration.

We need the imagination to envisage a world where we remove more carbon from the air than we add, converting carbon into profitable commodities to make carbon mining the main new industry of this century. My view is that the only way this is possible is to harness the immense area, energy and resources of the world ocean, to shift the existing economy toward a sustainable direction, addressing climate change through peaceful cooperation rather than through confrontation.


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Tue Dec 31, 2019 8:39 am
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Post Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 1) State of the Species
Robert Tulip wrote:
However, I want to challenge his argument that “we know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.” This is certainly the conventional wisdom within climate science, but Dyke has correctly explained that emission reduction on the scale required is simply impossible, due to the inertia within global politics. It is a contradiction for something to be both necessary and impossible. That means we have to find alternatives.

When our insatiable demand for hydrocarbons finally depletes this reserve of stored solar energy, then we will in fact have "succeeded" in cutting our emissions. The chaos this will cause for 10 billion or more people is unimaginable (speaking of imagination), unless on the way to ending the fossil fuel era we have replaced that energy source with others. There is no path forward without having an answer to that problem in mind.

But must we say goodbye to hydrocarbons, or can we continue to benefit from that useful molecule? That is the question to answer when proposing that biofuels of various types take over. The claim that such production would be carbon neutral now gives biofuels credibility as a candidate, but the claim has been challenged. Of course, other objections can be raised against biofuels, such as their taking land out of food production.

Nuclear must be a bigger part of the energy future, despite its horrible associations for prophets. The threat nuclear plants pose isn't as great as that posed by warming, simple as that. And somehow, we need to be able to entertain both wizard- and prophet-scale solutions: centralized power for industrial production along with decentralized power for heating and cooling homes.
Quote:
Geoengineering by increasing albedo is no answer either, since as Dyke explains it fails to address the problem of ocean acidity. But does that mean catastrophe is inevitable? No.

Dyke says nothing about the potential for carbon removal at large scale. I know this seems equally impossible as emission reduction at first glance, but perhaps more detailed analysis will show carbon removal is actually possible, making it a necessary focus for restoring planetary stability, seeing climate change as the real primary security problem for the planet.

A Swiss company has demonstrated mechanical removal of carbon, which would be acceptable to citizens if it could be deployed widely enough to make a difference. Unfortunately, the technology isn't powerful enough to be a practical solution. One problem with other "imaginable" solutions is that many would have the same drawback to people as nuclear power has--they fear them. We fear them enough to prefer taking chances on what we see as the less immediate threat of warming. Psychologically, we can pretend not to see that we are risking the planet through the overall working of our economy, while we balk at doing anything intentional as too risky.
Quote:
My view is that it is possible for the capitalist system to invest in new technology with potential to remove carbon from the air at much larger scale than current emissions. That means that if we work out how to convert say 100 GT of carbon to useful products every year – food, feed, fish, forests, fabric, fuel, fertilizer – then it actually would be okay to keep emitting more carbon, since the world would be on a trajectory back to climate stability, climate repair and climate restoration.

We need the imagination to envisage a world where we remove more carbon from the air than we add, converting carbon into profitable commodities to make carbon mining the main new industry of this century. My view is that the only way this is possible is to harness the immense area, energy and resources of the world ocean, to shift the existing economy toward a sustainable direction, addressing climate change through peaceful cooperation rather than through confrontation.

By this point, has any product actually been extracted from atmospheric carbon? I don't ask to express skepticism to your idea, but only to specify that we need to know what that stuff is, in order to know what industries could be built upon it. I did some research into one use you suggested, using the carbon as biochar (I hadn't even heard of biochar before then). If atmospheric carbon contains contaminants, I would think its usefulness in soil restoration would be in doubt. It wouldn't be charcoal, anyway, which is what gives biochar its effect.

The largest question of all might be the effectiveness of proposing visionary solutions, as discouraging as it sounds to say that. Is there is any precedent for the world acting in such foresightful ways, taking such leaps all at once? The devil known has the upper hand. Maybe the treaty to mend the ozone hole can be used as a model, but the level of complexity in that effort was nothing compared to what climate repair requires.

Late edit: I'm reading along, enjoying Mann's survey of the wizard/prophet conflict through history. In the chapter that discusses "peak oil" (6), Mann goes through the succession of pronouncements of oil's demise, which began right at the start of the industry. He finds credible an MIT economist's verdict that the world's oil supply will "never" run out. Seems incredible, doesn't it? Even the oil industry itself was spooked by the predictions of the end of oil. That was a reason that the first big producers of solar panels were oil companies! I suppose the figures on proven reserves that indicate oil/gas lasting less than a century more are always reviseable, as new extraction and exploration techniques are tried. How do we decide if infinite oil is good news or bad? I wonder by the way if the same inexhaustibility could apply to coal. I suspect that it doesn't. Britain, for example, has probably almost run out of its once-abundant coal. It produces very little of it today. Part of this could be that getting to coal reserves is too expensive, dangerous, and destructive, compared to oil drilling.



Last edited by DWill on Wed Jan 01, 2020 11:06 am, edited 1 time in total.



Tue Dec 31, 2019 10:55 am
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Post Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 1) State of the Species
Damn. Double post.



Last edited by DWill on Tue Dec 31, 2019 10:57 am, edited 1 time in total.



Tue Dec 31, 2019 10:56 am
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