Friday, May 18, 2007

Climate crusader ... Rupert Murdoch?

Rupert Murdoch is going carbon neutral, and wants to take all of News Corp. with him. It's like waking up one morning to the headline, "World's Bunnies Picketing Major Cities: Demanding 40-hour Work Week, Carrots." It's as though the West Antarctic Ice Shelf of my brain has detached from the firm ground of reality, and is sailing off into the ocean of hallucination, to melt and raise the oceans of insanity until they drown this whole crappy analogy.

What I'm saying is, it was unexpected. In retrospect, it shouldn't have been. Murdoch is a businessman, and environmentalists have long argued that heading off climate change makes good business sense. Yet I find myself surprised that anyone was listening, much less someone with such a reputation for no-holds-barred right-wingery.

He's also an Australian, and as he mentions in the interview, Australia is in the middle of its worst drought in 100 years. That must hit close to home. He was also greatly influenced by his son, who has been arguing the issue with him for a while now.

News Corp going carbon neutral is laudable. But I'm more excited -- and more concerned -- that Murdoch wants to use his media outlets to give global warming greater coverage. I'm not worried that Fox News will take this as a directive to give more camera time to uber-skeptics like Richard Lindzen. In fact, I'm sure that this time media consolidation -- and FOX News' unique brand of "fair and balanced" journalism -- will work in my favor this time around. But it's a tiny bright spot amidst an overwhelmingly negative trend.

I, for one, look forward to seeing Sean Hannity call someone Un-American for driving a Hummer. It'll warm my heart.

Monday, May 14, 2007

First it's men marryin' men, then it's men marryin' goats.

I tried to post a response to Dinesh D'Souza's strange piece that seems to claim that gay marriage makes polygamy unavoidable, and somehow Mitt Romney is responsible for it all. I had trouble getting the posting to work (further evidence of the vast, right-wing conspiracy to silence me), so I'm reposting here (somewhat modified):

I would agree that, once gay marriage is widely accepted -- something I very much hope will happen -- it's a pretty short logical and ethical jump to get to polygamy. But in your lazy analysis, you're glossing over several factors that make it unlikely that polygamy is inevitable or even likely:

1) Whereas gay marriage simply requires a few deletions of gender references (as there is very little legal distinction between the "husband" and "wife" roles), polygamous marriage requires that every piece of legal code factor in the possibility of a third interested party.

2) Very few of the people fighting for gay marriage are taking up arms in defense of polygamy as well. In fact, many advocates are downright hostile to polygamy.

3) In turn, many of the most strident practitioners of polygamy (those who practice it out of a sense of religious duty) are hostile towards gay marriage, or any combination that involves more than one man.

In short, once gay marriage becomes a mainstream legal entity, polygamy will not simply be an unintended consequence. Despite being the next logical step, it would still face huge legal hurdles. You could just as easily say that, because most arguments for banning marijuana are equally applicable to cigarettes, we're just a razor's edge from legalizing the former or banning the latter.

Another problem with your simplistic, slippery-slope thinking: any such argument requires that you demonstrate that the bottom of the slope is a terrible place to wind up. If two men and three women did decide to enter into a lifelong, committed relationship, why is that horrible? It doesn't affect your relationship with Mrs. D'Souza. I don't see any widespread social ills arising. Hell, you can't even say that The Lord Almighty finds the practice offensive; there are just too many biblical counterexamples.

It's pure sophistry to pretend that the various restrictions on the practice of marriage are equally subject to revision. You list four:

1) "It requires that only two people be involved"

2) "It requires that they be adults"

3) "and not closely related"

4) "and (except in Massachusetts) it insists that one of the parties be male and one female."

Why not add some more?

5) "Marriage must be between members of species homo sapiens."

6) "Marriage must be entered into by the consent of both parties."

If gay marriage passes, are those two restrictions in imminent danger as well? Surely not. Allowing gay marriage won't open the floodgates for plural marriage, brother-sister marriages, man-on-child marriages, forced marriages, or marriage between a man and a box of pencils. Each is a different situation with different social and ethical ramifications, different supporters and detractors, and each would require separate changes to the law to enact. To pretend otherwise is just crap punditry.

I bid you adieu, and wish you nothing but poor luck in your defense of the Inviolable and God-Ordained Sanctity of the subset of possible marriage customs that were openly practiced and socially accepted in the 1950's-era U.S.

Though I failed to add it, I thought it was odd that homophobic views would be found 'neath a banner that says, "News Bloggers: Hard News, Raw Opinions, Penetrating Perspectives." Somebody over at AOL must have had trouble keeping a straight face when they pitched that slogan. Also, pay particular attention to comment #4 beneath the story; it contains some of the most insightful commentary on the sex-crazed gay menace that you'll ever see.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Rumblings from the icy fields of Greenland

The debate thus far: In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore popularized the rather alarming vision of a twenty foot rise in sea level. That's how much rise we'd get if the water tied up in either the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or the Greenland ice went into the oceans (or half of each). It's not easy to forget that graphic showing the water moving inland into Florida, or the idea that millions of senior citizens might have to move back in with their kids.

That picture acted as a great big two-by-four to the skull of America's collective consciousness, summing up in a few seconds the many varied potential devastations our inaction might cause. It was too effective to go unanswered. In the journalistic travesty that was "Exposed: Climate of Fear," Glenn "Prove to us that you're not working with our enemies" Beck tried to stem the damage[1]:

BECK: Now, what about that really cool animation of Florida and Manhattan drowning? Huh, cool, huh? You`ve seen these horrific scenarios everywhere based purely on catastrophic hypotheticals that dramatically exaggerate even what the U.N. says. It`s Al Gore`s best supporting actor, the word "if."

GORE: If we have an increase of five degrees, if Greenland broke up and melted...

... if this were to go, sea level worldwide would go up 20 feet.

MARIO LEWIS, PHD, GOVERNMENT POLICY ANALYST: Where he`s misleading is that he gives the impression that this is something that is likely to happen. The likelihood of this is next to nil.

DAVID LEGATES, PHD, CLIMATOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE: The IPCC report is that the upper limit of sea level rise by the year 2100 is going to be about 23 inches.

HORNER: That`s why Al Gore makes up 20 feet. The truth isn`t scary.

BECK: Just look at the difference between Greenland`s ice melt in Al Gore`s scenario when spread out over a century versus what the IPCC projects.

CHRISTY: To come up with 20 feet is really grasping at straws, I think, but it does make a dramatic image.
Indeed, the IPCC report does say that 23 inches of sea rise is the most we can expect, and 2100 seems awful far away. Time doesn't come to a stop at the end of this century, and sea rise would continue over several centuries, eventually leading to the rise that Gore reported in the movie. But twenty feet doesn't sound that dangerous, if we have a millennium to adapt or fix it.

But that's just the question: will it take millennia, or decades? We know that if present warming trends continue, we are eventually going to lose major portions of both ice shelves. The real controversy is exactly how long it will take and how much we will lose.

Enter the reassuring IPCC figures on global sea rise -- the only part of the IPCC report that climate skeptics seem to take seriously. Beck's posse wants us to believe that the twenty foot scenario is laughable to anyone who actually understands the issues. To do that, they fundamentally misrepresent the findings of the report.
(as always) does a great job reporting on this issue. It's especially interesting to see which contributions to overall sea level rise are factored into the IPCC figures.

But let's just focus on the critical weasel words:
Dynamical processes related to ice flow not included in current models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea level rise. Understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude. -- IPCC Report (Summary for Policy Makers)
In other words, the IPCC is being very conservative in their sea level estimations. In these words, we see that the IPCC recognizes that the ice shelves are not well understood, and may slide into the ocean far faster than their projections would indicate.

What the global warming deniers are contractually obligated never to acknowledge[2] is that these IPCC reports are very conservative documents. They do not go beyond the evidence available in the published literature, and in fact they have to set a date after which they don't accept new research (to avoid having to rewrite the report). New evidence -- which didn't make it into the report -- suggests that the Greenland shelf is becoming highly unstable.

Recently, geologists discovered an unusual class of earthquake, associated with the movements of ice sheets. In Greenland, they're highly seasonal (occuring mostly in the summer months), and -- more worryingly -- the number of incidents has more than doubled in the last few years.

More information can be found here. It's too soon to say whether the ice will melt gradually or crash into the ocean in a few sudden rushes. The science isn't in yet.

While we're waiting to find out exactly how bad it's going to be, and how quickly we'll have to rush to build twenty foot high walls around our coastal cities, everyone get out there and start shopping. For Hummers. Because the most important thing we can do to prepare for the future is to grow the economy so big that we can pay for any problems that arise. And keep watching Glenn Beck to get "the other side of the story." That boy's a straight shooter.


[1] Beck is far from a neutral source on the issue. Of the nineteen "experts" he's brought on his show to discuss global warming, only two of them supported the consensus position [source]. While he's hardly the first skeptic to take on the topic of sea levels, his approach is representative of the techniques used.

[2] Standard Noncorporeal Essence Transferrence of Ownership Contract, Article IV, subclause 3. Requests for sample copies of this contract can be made to the Legal Affairs Department of the Third Circle of Hell.

The steady-state economy

I'm mostly recovered from my carpal tunnel surgery. While I was busy being incapacitated, I got quite a few books read, including two books by an economist named Herman Daly, called For the Common Good and Steady State Economics. I highly recommend the first, as well as the first half of the second (the second half, consisting of several essays where Daly interacted with various critics, were a bit repetititititive, and therefore only recommended to the hardcore).

So, what is The Steady State Economy? I think the best way to start is by describing the neoclassical model, to which the SSE is intended to be an alternative. In the standard model, you have consumption and production, with an arrow going from production to consumption, and another going from consumption to production. When you buy something that has been produced, you're consuming, and the money you pay goes to finance more production. It's kind of like The Circle of Life you saw in The Lion King, if Disney had hired Milton Friedman to write the screenplay.

The first thing that Daly points out is that the diagram shows a perpetual motion machine, which thing cannot exist according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law says that you can never get as much useful work out of a system as you put into it[1]. So if you find a system that gives the appearance of running forever, you have to look and figure out where new useful energy is being fed into it, and where the waste energy is being deposited.

The Steady State model does exactly that, adding two more arrows and two more nodes. An arrow points from resources to production (because you need to obtain natural resources from the environment in order to produce), and another points from consumption to "waste sinks", because you cannot consume any service without some amount of waste to the environment.
These two additions don't just save the model from charges of blasphemy by physicists; it also returns the concept of "environment" to the field of economics, which has otherwise been sluggish to pay attention to the ecological supports that prop up our economic activity.

In the neoclassical picture, economic growth is an easy sell; why have less when you can have more? Choosing less economic activity is tantamount to choosing poverty. Resource limits are unimportant, because a lack of natural capital can always be offset by greater intellectual capital. In other words, if there is a shortage of some resource X, we can overcome it merely by devoting more study to the problem of making Y perform the same function.

This is the core of the problem: while relative prices is a great mechanism for optimally distributing a given set of resources among a set of people, it has no way of regulating the total resources to be distributed. Say you have an ocean that can produce a thousand tons of herring every year without impacting future catches. What happens to the price of an additional ton of herring once the quota is caught? The price goes down a bit, but certainly nothing in the price of ton 1001 indicates that any sort of important limit has been reached.

To put it another way: if there were but one breeding pair of Bengal tigers left in the world, if there was just one acre of forest left, there would still be a market-induced incentive for harvesting them.

Daly compares the economy to a cargo ship. The market distributes resources relatively efficiently, which is akin to loading the ship evenly to prevent it from tipping and capsizing. But no matter how perfectly the weight is distributed, the ship can only carry so much.

The main question that needs to be asked is: which of the two economic visions can best provide for human happiness? Daly argues that his model is better, and I'm inclined to agree simply because it better represents the physical reality of our situation. But he made one point that really drove me to his side on this question: future people cannot bid in current markets. No matter how useful a member of the graduating class of 2107 might find a certain barrel of oil in the ground (say they'd be willing to pay $500 for it) they can't actually make that exchange, because somebody from the present bought it out from under them for $50.

For any given resource that future humans might need, the only way to ensure that it will be there for them is for present humans to draw from the resource pool at a rate that can be sustained into the indefinite future.

But that leaves us with far fewer resources to work with in the here and now, and that will have a huge impact on our current standards of living. I see that as a problem with the lifestyle itself, not for the economic theory. Still, Daly proposes the beginnings of a solution, which derives from his distinction between growth (aggregate size of the economy, as measured by resource use) and development (an increase in the fulfillment of human desires). Using a given resource stream, development occurs when manufacturers find ways to make their goods more durable, more recyclable, and more efficient at delivering the intended service. The circle in the middle of the diagram is still expanded, but without altering the flows that enter or leave the system.

Unlike the neoclassical model, the steady-state economy requires that an upper limit be placed on the number of people that can be allowed to share the globe at the same time. Just like the last paragraph, this fact makes steady state a tougher sell, but doesn't alter its fundamental truthfulness. Daly supports a plan by one of his fellow travelers, which suggests that each woman be given a certain number of credits, each bestowing the ability to bear one tenth of a child. Collect ten, and The Man won't give you any grief about your spawn.

It's certainly better than, say, a strict "one child per family" policy, which doesn't make any allowances for personal preferences. It also encourages the blessed state of affairs where children are being raised by the people who most want to take on the role. But lots of people find any sort of government meddling intolerable when it comes to such deeply personal choices. Of course it's a deeply personal choice with society-wide implications. I certainly sympathize. However, if population limits are needed (and it's hard to argue otherwise), this plan seems to offer the best hope for allowing people to make the choices that best suit them.

Steady-state Economics is an amazing book, and I don't think I'll look at economics quite the same way again.[2]


[1] I don't remember where I read it, but I once came across a very handy shorthand for the Laws: 1) You can never win. 2) You can never break even. 3) You can never leave the game.

[2] For the Common Good also touches on this topic, but in addition it provides interesting material about politics and community. I should probably address it in another post.