Warnings: Return of The Long Emergency

warnings

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

 

 

What if Africa had never been colonised by Europeans?

Africa_North_Up

What if the Black Plague had killed off almost all Europeans? Then the Reconquista never happens. Spain and Portugal don’t kickstart Europe’s colonization of other continents. And this is what Africa might have looked like.

Lovely alternative history long read postulating an Africa that had never undergone European colonisation.

Source: Africa, Uncolonized: A Detailed Look at an Alternate Continent | Big Think

Judas Goat

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/

 

 

Civilization building kit

Sci-Fi author David Brin links to a great project – Open Source Ecology  :

Following the DIY “maker” trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization — or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models.

The founder, Marchin Jabukowski (TED Senior Fellow) is a Physics Ph.D., who dropped out to work on this project. His orientation is post-scarcity society rather than disaster, but if one were wanting to create a generalized resiliency rather than prepare for specific movie scenario plots, it would be a good place to start. See his TED talk: Open Sourced Blueprints for Civilization .

And now, Open Source Ecology is teaming with WikiSpeed to build an open source, modular, configurable car with high fuel efficiency that meets U.S. safety standards.

The 2012 hippies are making everyone jumpy about societal collapse and the collapsitarian movement is still growing. Just yesterday I got a memo from Neil “The Game” Strauss with 13 hacks to survive a disaster.

I am not immune. I track this stuff….

More:

Imagining Life Without Oil, and Being Ready – NY Times

Apocalypse Ciao: Let the End Times Roll – Mother Jones

Robots and the Chinese

In a recent article ( Are jobs obsolete? – CNN.com) , Douglas Rushkoff points out that the reason for the US Jobless Recovery is that technology is replacing humans at a faster rate than jobs can be created.

New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures — from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

… am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

…Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

…we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

The communist answer to this question was just to distribute everything evenly. But that sapped motivation and never quite worked as advertised. The opposite, libertarian answer (and the way we seem to be going right now) would be to let those who can’t capitalize on the bounty simply suffer. Cut social services along with their jobs, and hope they fade into the distance.

But there might still be another possibility — something we couldn’t really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do — the value we create — is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

This sort of work isn’t so much employment as it is creative activity.

Its a fun argument. And it has broader consequences, particularly for China.

Over the last 20 years a massive shift in manufacturing took place from the West (in particular the USA) to the east, (in particular China).

This was driven by cheap Chinese labour and protectionism by the Chinese government. The costs of making things in China was so low, it destroyed the competition.

So millions of factories have sprung up, leading to massive increase in wealth and power for China, but also an environmental disaster as it has become the global smokestack industrial plant.

What will happen when the West finds even cheaper labour than Chinese migrants from the interior? It is already happening: Robots.

We all know China is sustained by thousands of loss making companies kept afloat by endless credit from the central government. Their banks are in a worse state than those in the west. It needs to maintain 8% GDP growth to absorb the workforce and preserve social order, and that is its over rising concern.

But it will not be able to continue to cheat forever. And soon robot technologies will start to replace unskilled or semi-skilled humans. And one day there will need to be accounting for these endless loans. When that day comes we might see the mighty Chine revealed to be much less powerful than most think.

And the USA…now written off by the foolish…is resurgent (not that it was anything less than a hyper-power recently).

Check out “World power swings back to America” in The Telegraph:

The American phoenix is slowly rising again. Within five years or so, the US will be well on its way to self-sufficiency in fuel and energy. Manufacturing will have closed the labour gap with China in a clutch of key industries. The current account might even be in surplus.

Meanwhile, the China-US seesaw is about to swing the other way. Offshoring is out, ‘re-inshoring’ is the new fashion.

“Made in America, Again” – a report this month by Boston Consulting Group – said Chinese wage inflation running at 16pc a year for a decade has closed much of the cost gap. China is no longer the “default location” for cheap plants supplying the US.

A “tipping point” is near in computers, electrical equipment, machinery, autos and motor parts, plastics and rubber, fabricated metals, and even furniture.

“A surprising amount of work that rushed to China over the past decade could soon start to come back,” said BCG’s Harold Sirkin.

The gap in “productivity-adjusted wages” will narrow from 22pc of US levels in 2005 to 43pc (61pc for the US South) by 2015. Add in shipping costs, reliability woes, technology piracy, and the advantage shifts back to the US.

The list of “repatriates” is growing. Farouk Systems is bringing back assembly of hair dryers to Texas after counterfeiting problems; ET Water Systems has switched its irrigation products to California; Master Lock is returning to Milwaukee, and NCR is bringing back its ATM output to Georgia. NatLabs is coming home to Florida.

Boston Consulting expects up to 800,000 manufacturing jobs to return to the US by mid-decade, with a multiplier effect creating 3.2m in total. This would take some sting out of the Long Slump.

As Cleveland Fed chief Sandra Pianalto said last week, US manufacturing is “very competitive” at the current dollar exchange rate. Whether intended or not, the Fed’s zero rates and $2.3 trillion printing blitz have brought matters to an abrupt head for China.

Fed actions confronted Beijing with a Morton’s Fork of ugly choices: revalue the yuan, or hang onto the mercantilist dollar peg and import a US monetary policy that is far too loose for a red-hot economy at the top of the cycle. Either choice erodes China’s wage advantage. The Communist Party chose inflation.

Foreign exchange effects are subtle. They take a long to time play out as old plant slowly runs down, and fresh investment goes elsewhere. Yet you can see the damage to Europe from an over-strong euro in foreign direct investment (FDI) data.

Flows into the EU collapsed by 63p from 2007 to 2010 (UNCTAD data), and fell by 77pc in Italy. Flows into the US rose by 5pc.

Volkswagen is investing $4bn in America, led by its Chattanooga Passat plant. Korea’s Samsung has begun a $20bn US investment blitz. Meanwhile, Intel, GM, and Caterpillar and other US firms are opting to stay at home rather than invest abroad.

The American Phoenix. Like it.

What is resilience?

Interesting look at What is resilience from Andy Summer.

In short – global shocks in economics, food security and fuel prices, together with chronic stressors relating to demographic pressure, climate change and resource scarcity – aka ‘the long crisis of globalisation’ or the ‘perfect storm’ of problems – are combining to produce complex, shifting configurations of vulnerability as experienced by households and communities. And all of this is leading to more interest in the ideas of resilience.

From  What is resilience? – Global Dashboard:

Doomsayers, is it time to retire?

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
time.”

You can appreciate the timesaving benefits through a measure devised by
the economist William D.
Nordhaus
: 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
self-sufficiency.

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