Warnings: Return of The Long Emergency

by Limbic on June 25, 2017


James Kunstler’s 2005 book “The Long Emergency” made a huge impression on me when I read it in 2006. In fact, it was one of the reasons I found myself pursuing a career in cloud computing in 2007. Partly thanks to this book and a former boss from British Telekom, my business partner and I were convinced that peak oil and climate change would create a huge demand for energy efficient, carbon neutral compute resources, and cloud computing was the future.

The Long Emergency was primarily concerned with America’s oil addiction and ill-preparedness for what looked at the time to be the coming energy (oil) shock, but it also examined other threats to civilization:

  • Climate Change
  • Infectious diseases (microbial resistance)
  • Water scarcity
  • Habitat destruction
  • Economic instability
  • Political extremism
  • War

Every one of those is still an enormous threat.

A new book by national security veteran Richard Clarke and R.P Eddy called “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes” updates The Long Emergency with some new features of the threat landscape.

The book starts off by asking how we can reliably spot Cassandras – people who correctly predict disasters but who were not heeded – so that we can prevent future disasters.

They examine recent disasters – like 9/11, the Challenger space shuttle disaster and Hurricane Katrina, then examine the people who predicted these events, looking or patterns. They come up with some stable characteristics that allow us to score people on their Cassandra Quotient.

The second part of the book looks at current threats, and their doomsayers, to see if any have a high Cassandra Quotient and thus should be heeded.

The threats are:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Pandemic Disease
  • Sea-Level Rise
  • Nuclear Ice Age
  • The Internet of Everything
  • Meteor Strike
  • Gene Editing (CRISPR)

The bad news is that they all have high Cassandra Quotients and the scenarios in the book are plausible, science-backed and terrifying.

Artificial Intelligence as a threat hs been on my radar for a year or so thanks to Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawkins and Sam Harris warning of the risks of intelligent machines that can design and build ever moire intelligent machines.

Pandemic Disease has worried me since reading The Long Emergency, but I thought there had been better global awareness, especially since the world took the 2011 flu scare seriously, and Ebola and Zika.  Unfortunately, we are – as a planet – woefully ill-prepared for a global pandemic. A high fatality airborne flu could kill billions.

Sea-Level Rise genuinely surprised me, especially since the Cassandra in question – James Hansen – predicted the current melting and ice shelf break-offs we see in the Arctic today…30 years ago. I even googled how high my home is above sea level after being convinced we could see 7m rises within my lifetime.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, nuclear horror is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I thought the risk of a Nuclear Ice Age was a pretty low risk. It turns out you do not need a large-scale nuclear exchange between the US and Russia to cause global climate chaos. A limited exchange between India and Pakistan could be sufficient to kill billions though global starvation. I was also surprised to learn that Pakistan moves its nuclear arsenal around to thwart attacks my Indian commandos in the event of a war. This raises the risk of terrorists intercepting on of these weapons on the move, and using it for nuclear terrorism.

The book does a good job of examining the incredible fragility of out interconnected IT systems in the chapter on The Internet of Everything. As an IT professional I know the reality of how fragile these systems are and we are right to be scared of dire consequences of a serious cyber war.

I do not really think about Meteor Strikes, as there is little we can do about them and they are now part of popular culture.

The final worry in the book is about Gene Editing, especially CRISPR. CRISP has absolutely marvelous potential, but it also has many people worried. Daniel Saurez even has a new book on the topic called “Change Agent“. CRISPR is could be the mother of all second order effects. Take “off target events” for example:

Another serious concern arises from what are known as off-target events. After its discovery, researchers found that the CRISPR/Cas9 complex sometimes bonds to and cuts the target DNA at unintended locations. Particularly when dealing with human cells, they found that sometimes as many as five nucleotides were mismatched between the guide and target DNA. What might the consequences be if a DNA segment is improperly cut and put back together? What sorts of effects could this cause, both immediately and further down the road for heritable traits? Experimenting with plants or mouse bacteria in a controlled laboratory environment is one thing, but what is the acceptable level of error if and when researchers begin experimenting with a tool that cuts up a person’s DNA? If an error is in fact made, is there any potential way to fix the mistake?

So we have planet-scale problems, ingenious solutions. Instead of feeling paralysis or resignation we should accept Peter Thiel’s challenge to find the big breakthroughs, 0 to 1 intensive progress:

Progress comes in two flavors: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive. Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.” Consider what China will be like in 50 years. The safe bet is it will be a lot like the United States is now. Cities will be copied, cars will be copied, and rail systems will be copied. Maybe some steps will be skipped. But it’s copying all the same.

Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.” Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization). We see much of our vertical progress come from places like California, and specifically Silicon Valley. But there is every reason to question whether we have enough of it. Indeed, most people seem to focus almost entirely on globalization instead of technology; speaking of “developed” versus “developing nations” is implicitly bearish about technology because it implies some convergence to the “developed” status quo. As a society, we seem to believe in a sort of technological end of history, almost by default.

It’s worth noting that globalization and technology do have some interplay; we shouldn’t falsely dichotomize them. Consider resource constraints as a 1 to n subproblem. Maybe not everyone can have a car because that would be environmentally catastrophic. If 1 to n is so blocked, only 0 to 1 solutions can help. Technological development is thus crucially important, even if all we really care about is globalization.

…Maybe we focus so much on going from 1 to because that’s easier to do. There’s little doubt that going from 0 to 1 is qualitatively different, and almost always harder, than copying something times. And even trying to achieve vertical, 0 to 1 progress presents the challenge of exceptionalism; any founder or inventor doing something new must wonder: am I sane? Or am I crazy?

From Blake Masters notes




Sated and placated and engaged and outraged

by Limbic on November 10, 2016

“America is completely bewitched by a completely manipulative and deceptive veil of identity politics that appeal to the surface of people’s consciences….There are two currents. There is this popular current that’s used to keep us sated and placated and engaged and outraged. Then there is this deeper current that actually much closer to the source of our lives, which is about the destruction and depletion and extraction of wellness from the earth, and that is the conversation we are still incapable of having.” – Anohni, in episode “The Great Derangement” on Open Source with Christopher Lydon


Judas Goat

by Limbic on October 1, 2014

Heard about these curious creatures on RadioLab’s Galapagos feature.

According to Wikipedia:

A Judas goat is a trained goat used in general animal herding. The Judas goat is trained to associate with sheep or cattle, leading them to a specific destination. In stockyards, a Judas goat will lead sheep to slaughter, while its own life is spared. Judas goats are also used to lead other animals to specific pens and onto trucks.

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judas_goat

One of the most effective uses of Judas Goats was in the Galapagos islands, where they were trying to eradicate them as an invasive species. They did so by shooting the goats from helicopters…

After endless planning and meetings, we commenced project Isabella…In under a year, through an aerial attack [by helicopter], we ended up wiping out 90 percent of the goats on Isabela. But to give an example of the nature of this business, its relatively easy to remove 90 percent of a goat population from an island. As they become rarer and rarer, they become harder to detect. The become educated. So the goats start hiding. You end up flying around in an expensive helicopter not finding any goats.

So the way we deal with that is an interesting technique called Judas goats. Goats are gregarious and like being in groups. They’re herd animals. The technique we would use was you fire up the helicopter, capture goats live, take them back to base camp, unload them, put a radio collar on them, and then throw them back on the island. Instinctively, that goat will go find other goats. A week, two weeks go by. You fire up the helicopter and…start tracking the Judas goats until you spot it with other goats. And then everyone gets shot except the Judas goat. And then they do it again. Every two weeks for a year.

From:  http://onward.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/02/on-the-galapagos-the-betrayal-of-judas-goats/




Debt and the story of civilisation

by Limbic on March 16, 2012

Last Autumn, whilst rumbling across Belgrade on one of the city’s ancient trams, I listened to an interview on Tech Nation  with Anthropologist David Graeber , about his book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years“.

It is undoubtedly of of the best podcasts I heard last year.

The type of debt and financial structures that a civilisation adopts will dictate its fate.

Listen to the podcast for a quick but thorough introduction to the ideas in the book.

Here is an interview with the author on Naked Capitalism.

Bookforum also has fine review.

Neuroanthropology blog has a very details and brilliant overview.An excerpt, addressing one of the most interesting parts of Graeber’s thesis:

Graeber suggests that the ‘language of debt’ is a ‘moral’ one, not just an economic one. I would also add that we are told that debt default is an apocalyptic scenario, more dangerous than gutting social programs, disinvesting in infrastructure, making health care inaccessible, and bringing about all the slow moving catastrophes that often accompany austerity programs designed to increase states’ ability to pay their debts.

What makes Graeber’s analysis so interesting is that, because of his extensive historical research, he can actually trace how the current economic cosmology of debt arose, and point to periods when debt threatened to cause similar crises.  Specifically, he argues that the fluctuation historically back and forth between debt-backed or credit money (as we’ve essentially had since 1971) and bullion or commodity-backed money, is accompanied by larger shifts in patterns of warfare, slavery and debt bondage. Specifically, Graeber suggests that the expansion of debt is part and parcel of a virtual money system, one that has been dealt with before in human history. – Neuroanthropology blog

For another round up of links and videos, see  Book of the year: Debt (2011) by David Graeber

Coincidentally, David Brin recently blogged about Robert Wright’s new book “Nonzero” . In it he completely agrees with Graeber that the super rich are at war with the rest of us (also a view shared by Essential Intelligence ).

Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero . Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.
Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours… but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs – who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.  If liberals would only read the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.

From http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2012/03/contemplating-civilization-rise-fall.html



Disaster porn

by Limbic on June 10, 2011

Really enjoyed  2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming by James Powell. It is classic disaster porn, but makes a great fictional companion piece to The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.


Its a gas

by Limbic on May 8, 2011

Strange coincidence.

Was clearing out old notes (part of a move from Confluence personal wiki to Notational Velocity for most of my notes) and found a  kte called “Gas Hydrates the new energy solution?” with two links:

http://marine.usgs.gov/fact-sheets/gas-hydrates/ <– No longer works

They are several years old.

The same day I settled in to read the Times and came across Matt Ridley’s long piece on…Gas hydrates!

The world will use about 450 exajoules (billion billion joules) of fossil fuel energy this year and has so far used less than 20,000 exajoules since the Industrial Revolution began. Total oil, gas and coal resources in the Earth’s crust are estimated at more than 570,000 exajoules. So if energy use was a journey from St Pancras to Istanbul by train, we have not yet reached the Channel Tunnel. Resources can be finite yet effectively inexhaustible or, like dodos and forests, infinitely renewable yet easily exhausted.

Quantity is not really the point; price is. Most fossil fuels are impossibly hard to extract at a reasonable price. More than half the reserves consist of methane clathrates hydrated gas found mostly on the seabed near the margins of the continents in vast quantities. Nobody knows how to turn them into fuel except at huge cost, although the Japanese are on the case. So the question is not whether we run out of fossil fuels but whether we run out of cheap fossil fuels.


Read it, its part of his Rational Optimist series, and very good.


Doomsayers, is it time to retire?

by Limbic on June 5, 2010

Good one from the New York Times on Matt Ridley’s new book “The Rational Optimist“:

Long before “sustainable” became a buzzword, intellectuals wondered how
long industrial society could survive. In “The
Idea of Decline in Western History,”
after surveying predictions
from the mid-19th century until today, the historian Arthur Herman
identifies two consistently dominant schools of thought.

The first school despairs because it foresees inevitable ruin. The
second school is hopeful — but only because these intellectuals foresee
ruin, too, and can hardly wait for the decadent modern world to be
replaced by one more to their liking. Every now and then, someone comes
along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on
prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy
talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also
pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list.

“The Rational Optimist,”
by Matt Ridley. It does much more than debunk the doomsaying. Dr.
Ridley provides a grand unified theory of history from the Stone Age to
the better age awaiting us in 2100.
It’s an audacious task, but he has the intellectual breadth for it… he takes on all of human history, starting with our mysteriously
successful debut. What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues
that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too.
Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other
social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

…“Forget wars, religions, famines and poems for the moment,” Dr. Ridley
writes. “This is history’s greatest theme: the metastasis of exchange,
specialization and the invention it has called forth, the ‘creation’ of

You can appreciate the timesaving benefits through a measure devised by
the economist William D.
: how long it takes the average worker to pay for an hour of
reading light. In ancient Babylon, it took more than 50 hours to pay
for that light from a sesame-oil lamp. In 1800, it took more than six
hours of work to pay for it from a tallow candle. Today, thanks to the
countless specialists producing electricity and compact fluorescent bulbs, it takes less
than a second. That technological progress, though, was sporadic.
Innovation would flourish in one trading hub for a while but then
stagnate, sometimes because of external predators — roving pirates,
invading barbarians — but more often because of internal parasites, as
Dr. Ridley writes:

“Empires bought stability at the price of creating a parasitic court;
monotheistic religions bought social cohesion at the expense of a
parasitic priestly class; nationalism bought power at the expense of a
parasitic military; socialism bought equality at the price of a
parasitic bureaucracy; capitalism bought efficiency at the price of
parasitic financiers.”

Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that,
as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and
underestimating innovative responses.

“The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and
mutating,” Dr. Ridley writes. “And the reason that economic growth has
accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas
have been mixing more than ever before.”

Our progress is unsustainable, he argues, only if we stifle innovation
and trade, the way China and other empires did in the past. Is that
possible? Well, European countries are already banning technologies
based on the precautionary principle requiring advance proof that
they’re risk-free. Americans are turning more protectionist
and advocating byzantine restrictions like carbon tariffs.
Globalization is denounced by affluent Westerners preaching a return to

Findings – Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons – NYTimes.com


Deepwater Horizon Response

by Limbic on May 8, 2010

Many people are unaware of just how dangerously destructve the Deepwater Horizon blowout is.

Most of the media are playing along with a low key story, in which BP are about to solve the problem of escaping oil with the cofferdam whilst Gulf Coast communities brace for the economic and environmental impact of the oil spill.

The Long Emergency communities (Oil peakers, collapsarians etc) are meanwhile heralding doom. They point out that we have an unprecedented engineering event – losing a well head – leading to potentially 10,000,000 gallons of oil gushing into the ocean from a hole in the earth’s crust so deep undersea that is at the very edge of human engineering capabilities.

On the Life After The Oil Crash forums there is speculation that this gusher is unstoppable and may cause unprecedented damage to the entire global oceanic ecosystem.

Oilprice.com has a grim article that reports

WMR has been informed by sources in the US Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Florida Department of Environmental Protection that the Obama White House and British Petroleum (BP), which pumped $71,000 into Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — more than John McCain or Hillary Clinton, are covering up the magnitude of the volcanic-level oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and working together to limit BP’s liability for damage caused by what can be called a “mega-disaster.”

Obama and his senior White House staff, as well as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, are working with BP’s chief executive officer Tony Hayward on legislation that would raise the cap on liability for damage claims from those affected by the oil disaster from $75 million to $10 billion. However, WMR’s federal and Gulf state sources are reporting the disaster has the real potential cost of at least $1 trillion. Critics of the deal being worked out between Obama and Hayward point out that $10 billion is a mere drop in the bucket for a trillion dollar disaster but also note that BP, if its assets were nationalized, could fetch almost a trillion dollars for compensation purposes. There is talk in some government circles, including FEMA, of the need to nationalize BP in order to compensate those who will ultimately be affected by the worst oil disaster in the history of the world.

Plans by BP to sink a 4-story containment dome over the oil gushing from a gaping chasm one kilometer below the surface of the Gulf, where the oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and killed 11 workers on April 20, and reports that one of the leaks has been contained is pure public relations disinformation designed to avoid panic and demands for greater action by the Obama administration, according to FEMA and Corps of Engineers sources. Sources within these agencies say the White House has been resisting releasing any “damaging information” about the oil disaster. They add that if the ocean oil geyser is not stopped within 90 days, there will be irreversible damage to the marine eco-systems of the Gulf of Mexico, north Atlantic Ocean, and beyond. At best, some Corps of Engineers experts say it could take two years to cement the chasm on the floor of the Gulf.

I am dearly hoping these people are simply alarmists and/or wrong. The cofferdam has been successful lowered onto the main leak now, but it will not be operational until Sunday or Monday.

Right now the spill is comparatively small, not even as big as 1989’s Exxon Valdez spill, but it has the potential to be massively worse.

For the official version of events and regular updates, keep and eye on:

Official Deepwater Horizon Response site http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/

Deepwater Horizon YouTude channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/DeepwaterHorizonJIC

Twitter: http://twitter.com/Oil_Spill_2010

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DeepwaterHorizonResponse

Good Breaking News Coverage from Nola.com: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/breaking_news/index.html