Saturday, 1 October 2016

James Lovelock (of 'Gaia' fame) going strong at 97, but is he right to call it quits on saving the planet...?

Screenshot of referenced Guardian article.
In response to this article in the Guardian online:

Yeah, when any headline attempts to be scary by talking of catastrophic climate change consequences by 2100, I personally tune out. All bets are off anything past mid century (see "The Singularity is Near" [2005])... Unless one believes advances in computing/AI and other information technologies are all about to come to an abrupt halt. Well within this century the game will have changed so drastically that additional atmospheric carbon will just be a handy resource for nanotechnological mass fabrication, or an irrelevance.

So I personally identify with much of Lovelocks irreverence, here, regarding the meaning of climate change. Particularly the fantastically flawed ideological foundation of the Greens, which may be badly in need of a rude wakeup call: expecting anything remotely like a return to nature and balance to be plausible?! Anything less than full steam ahead exponential technological progress would be like dabbing the motorbike brakes at the point of daredevil jump takeoff. Steady state 'sustainability' is civilisational suicide. (But as a political party they've otherwise had the best policies I've seen on offer in recent times.)

I don't think that building new nuclear is viable stop-gap anymore, though, we've as good as missed that juncture already. Perhaps a big push in 2004, back when he wrote this linked article: Nuclear power is the only green solution. But by mid 2020s, when the UK's Hinkley point B comes online, it's probably going to seem even more overpriced and ill fitting. (Against the background of plummeting clean energy generation and storage installation costs.)

Coving "100 sq miles of the Sahara in solar panels" as a monolithic solution to all EU's electricity needs is obviously just a mental figure for imagination's sake, so presumably it's just off-handed remark to talk of it being too "easy for terrorists to go and bugger it up". Obvious there's a several fold efficiency benefit to that latitude and local whether. But smaller scale, more localised production will, I expect, win out, in small part because of the security/stability benefits. (Given PV price efficiency continues to improve to the point of making locational efficiency secondary.)

Spiraling out: animated gif, from here.
"A timeline of Earth's average temperature"
XKCD comic 1732.
What does worry me most about climate change is the "20 years before it hits the fan" part (which would be 12 years now, as of 2016), with regards to the truly mass migrations this will force and how politically catastrophic that's likely to be. That is, given how divisive the relatively small number (few million) from Syria, and the regional cluster-fuck, have been for Europe thus far (playing into the Brexit vote). How much war is there going to be?

A definitive end to the 'long peace' (since WWII) is a scary prospect. Even before considering all the (tactical ) nuclear weapons lying about. The horrendous suffering for countless humans (quite possibly even those of us currently living in complacency) is an aside that Lovelock's enthusiasm for the big picture fails to register. So too here, pretty much - ultimately, what matters most is only how much conflagrations might derail technological progress (or wipe us out entirely).

Last year, Venkatesh Rao wrote (in The Atlantic) of how a sufficiently coordinated, effective response to climate change would require a literal war footing, with the kind of personal sacrifice of living standards and freedoms that has previously involved. As for it being "so much cheaper to air-condition the cities [than the whole planet]" (Lovelock Guardian interview 2012) - sure, I love that kind of enthusiasm for minimal effort adaptable ingenuity as the kind of inevitable compromise outcome. ) But where will we be growing the vast majority of our crops for the next few decades? That long tail-off before true factory (vertical) farming production scales up enough? (Or more radical solutions kick in - like Kurzweil's wholesale replacement of human digestive organs.)

Finally, talking about "robots taking over" only in the context of Earth makes very little sense. We squishy, slow meatbags are already aiming at interplanetary colonization, starting in a decade (well, you know, that one guy has certainly been saying so this week). So the meager terrestrial resources that 'robots' who think "one million times faster" that us might command down the bottom of this gravity (an empire of dirt) are likely to be a pretty niche concern by comparison to what already floating around out there...

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