Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Tesla Is Not Enough


What is wrong with this picture of two young, affluent Tesla buyers from today's New York Times?

Though they are young, they are noticeably overweight. They obviously would be healthier if they drove less and walked and bicycled more. Automobile dependence contributes to America's epidemic of obesity, and switching to a Tesla does nothing to help that problem. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

A Second Copernican Revolution

We have all heard this many times: In the middle ages, people believed that the Earth was in the center of the universe and the sun and stars revolved around it.  But Copernicus showed that the Earth revolves around the sun, taking it out of its central position. Now we know that it is 13 billion lights to the furthest stars, there are hundreds of billions - possibly trillions - of galaxies in the universe, and a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. Many of these stars have planets, there must be an immense number of planets that can support life, and intelligent life has probably evolved elsewhere. Far from being in the center of the universe, the Earth is the satellite of an undistinguished star at the edge of an undistinguished galaxy. 

But does that really make the Earth unimportant? Humans have consciousness, reason, and the ability to have some understanding of the nature of the universe, and that is more important than the sheer size and number of inanimate objects in the universe. Despite its small size, the human brain is the most complex object we know of. 

We talk about the number of stars in the universe to show that intelligent life must have evolved on other planets, which itself implies that intelligent life is the important thing, rather than size and number of inanimate objects.

We can test this implication by imagining what the universe will ultimately be like. Based on what we know, it seems that the universe will keep expanding forever, and that all the stars will ultimately burn out, leaving a much more immense but completely dead universe, unable to support life. There is much we do not know about the nature of the universe - we do not understand dark energy or dark matter - so this idea of the fate of the universe may be wrong.  But right or wrong, comparing today's universe with this dead universe should show us that sheer size is not the important thing: the dead universe would be much vaster than today's universe, but it would contain much less complexity, without life and without even the nuclear reactions that power the stars. And I think everyone would agree that that this vast, dead universe has less to offer than today's smaller and more complex universe. 

The Copernican revolution happened when scientists convinced us that the Earth is not in the center of the universe. We need a second revolution that happens when humanists convince us that physical location and size are not the most important thing. 

Pascal got it right in the seventeenth century, as modern science became dominant, when he said: "Man is only a reed ..., but he is a thinking reed. ... Even if the universe should crush him, man would still be more noble than that which destroys him, because he knows that he dies and he realizes the advantage that the universe possesses over him. The universe knows nothing of this."

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Mystery of Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe, in southeast Turkey, is the oldest monument in the world. The earliest layer dates back to 9000 BC, making it more than twice as old as the oldest pyramid. The pillars are up to twenty feet high and weigh up to ten tons.

Yet it was not discovered until 1994 because it was buried under debris some time after 8000 BC. Scientists do not know why is was buried, but the solution to this mystery should become clear when we think about how it fits into the history of religion.

This monument was built by the Natufian culture. In general, fixed settlements began when agriculture began, and the nomadic hunting and gathering people who lived earlier did not build permanent houses or monuments. But the Natufian culture was an exception. They were hunters and gatherers, and the mainstay of their diet was wild wheat, which was so abundant at the time that they were able to build permanent or semi-permanent settlements where it was found. This monument is so ancient because it was built before agriculture began.

After thousands of years of gathering wild wheat, people in the area began cultivating wheat - the earliest farming in the world. Farming probably began gradually. They carried wheat back to their settlements for processing and noticed that more wheat grew where they dropped grains by mistake. Then they began dropping grains deliberately.  Then they realized that the grain was even more likely to grow if they dug the ground before dropping it and watered it in dry times - at which point they were farmers. It probably took so long for them to begin farming because it was so much extra work that they did it only after population pressure made the supply of wild wheat inadequate for them. 

The religions of hunter and gatherer societies generally center on animals, who are treated as gods or totems. The pillars at Göbekli Tepe have many pictures of animals on them, such as this picture of a vulture, who may have been considered a god of the dead. 

But most early agricultural societies have religions that center on a mother goddess, representing the fertility of the earth. Çatalhöyük, an agricultural proto-city west of Göbekli Tepe that dates back to 7000 BC, is known for the many statues of mother goddesses found there, such as the goddess sitting on a throne flanked by two lionesses that is shown above. 

What is the most obvious reason that a religious site would be obliterated, as Göbekli Tepe was? Some new religion has taken over and wants to destroy all traces of the old religion, which it considers a heresy. 

Göbekli Tepe seems to be the earliest surviving evidence of a religious reformation that destroyed the old idols to promote the worship of its new idols. 

They must have been dedicated to their new religion, since it was hard work to bury the old religion: archeologists estimate that they covered it with about 500 cubic yards of rubble.  But it was successful: the site remained hidden and unknown for 9,000 or 10,000 years. 

photos of Göbekli Tepe by:
Teomancimit - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17377542
Sue Fleckney - https://www.flickr.com/photos/96594331@N03/20385309880/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93559558

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

GDP and Well-Being

Poorer nations obviously need economic growth, but the evidence shows that economic growth itself does little or nothing to increase well-being after a nation reaches the level of middle-class economic comfort that America reached decades ago.

In 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin was the first to notice that surveys showed Americans had not become any happier since the 1950s, despite decades of growth and rising income across all economic classes. This finding still holds up today: American’s self-reported happiness peaked in 1958, and it has jogged up and down a bit but has never reached that peak again. Our per capita GDP has more than tripled since the 1950s, but we are no happier than we were then. In other developed countries, also, economic growth does not increase happiness over the long term.

International comparisons let us see what income level is needed before growth stops increasing happiness. Beginning in 1990, the World Values Survey asked people in many nations how happy they are and how satisfying their lives are, and Gallup began asking a similar question in 2012. The graph compares the results of recent Gallup surveys with the per capita GDP of each nation. 

 We can see that, in lower income countries, the happiness rating generally increases as income increases: there is a strong increase when per capita GDP is less than $20,000 per year and a modest increase between $20,000 and $40,000 per year. But above $40,000 per year or so, happiness does not increase significantly as per capita GDP increases. There are still very small increases of happiness at these high income levels, and some economists have used mathematical tricks to make them visible, but they are so small that they are not visible at all on an ordinary graph like this one. At this point, it seems people would increase their happiness more by increasing their free time than by increasing their income.

This result is not surprising. In poor countries, more income is needed to provide people with decent housing, food, education, health care, and other essentials; it makes sense that people will become happier as they can afford more of the necessities and basic comforts of life. But when people reach about two-thirds of America’s per capita GDP, they have enough to make them comfortable, and there is relatively little benefit to consuming even more.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Affluent World

We are used to thinking of the world as a sea of poverty with just a few islands of affluence in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and so on - but that has begun to change and will change dramatically in the coming decades. 

This graph projects the growth of per capita Gross World Product in recent decades to the end of this century. Notice that, in about ten years, the world will reach the level that the United States reached in 1960, a time when we were calling ourselves "The Affluent Society" and when we were building freeways and oversized cars with tail-fins to absorb consumers' surplus purchasing power.  And before the end of this century, the world on the average will reach the level of the United States today. 

The change is already well under way. The "global middle class" is large and is growing rapidly.  According to a study by the Brookings Institution, we recently reached the tipping point where, for the first time in history, more than 50% of the people in the world are either rich or "global middle class," defined as people who have discretionary income to spend on entertainment, household appliances, motorcycles and possibly vacations and who are confident they can get through economic disruption without falling into extreme poverty. Currently, 3.59 billion people are in the global middle class, and Brookings projects that will grow to 5.3 billion by 2030, well over half of the world’s population. 

It will put immense strain on the global environment if the world goes the way that the United States went in the 1960s, rebuilding cities around the automobile to promote rapid economic growth. Most likely, ecological collapse would throw much of the world back into poverty. 

But if the world tries to achieve the best possible quality of life rather than the fastest possible rate of economic growth, people will be able to emerge from poverty, have all the middle class comforts needed to live a good life, and have abundant free time. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Multiple Emission Offsets

 From my new book, The ABCs of Global Warming: What Everyone Should Know About the Science, the Dangers, and the Solutions

Multiple Emission Offsets

Multiple emission offsets can reduce emissions more quickly by letting businesses get out of paying the price for one ton of their own emissions if they reduce emissions somewhere in the world by, say, two tons or five tons. 

Multiple emission offsets are economically feasible, since the costs of offsets are well below the costs that are charged by plans that put a price on emissions. For example: 

● Under California’s cap-and-trade plan, it costs businesses $17.45 to emit one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent.167 

● Under the European Union’s emission trading system, it costs over $25 to emit one ton of carbon dioxide from larger factories and power plants.168 

● A recent German law begins by charging 10 Euros (about $11) to emit one ton of carbon dioxide from transportation and heating, with the price increasing to 35 Euros by 2025.169  

By contrast, the average price in the private market for carbon offsets is $3.30 per ton,170 though prices vary. 

A government program to let business avoid paying fees would have to set standards for projects that qualify as offsets171 and presumably would have stricter standards than some of these private programs, so let’s assume that offsets would initially cost $5 per ton. And let’s assume that, to give businesses an incentive to use offsets, they should cost about 80% to 90% as much as paying the fee for emissions. California could require businesses to buy offsets that reduce emissions by 3 tons to avoid paying for 1 ton of emissions, the EU could require 4.5 tons of offsets, and Germany could begin with 2 tons and work its way up to 6 tons of offsets to avoid paying the fee for 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions. 

This sort of program could jump-start global emission reductions, as businesses rush to pay for the cheapest emission reductions all over the world in order to avoid paying fees. They would still have a strong incentive to reduce their own emissions, since the offsets would cost almost as much as the fee, but they would also be reducing global emissions dramatically by paying for offsets. 

It is not possible to offset all emissions. If it were, we could shift to net-zero emissions immediately, but there are obviously not enough offsets available to balance all of the world’s emissions. Initially, we might let businesses offset, say, 10% of their emissions by reducing emissions anywhere in the world. 

Over time, allowing offsets would have two opposite  economic effects: 

● Cheaper opportunities to offset emissions would be used up, driving up the price of offsets. For example, one cheap source of offsets involves sealing landfills and burning the methane that escapes, so the landfill emits carbon dioxide rather than methane. But there are only so many landfills in the world, and if a major economy let business use offsets, it would not be long before methane emissions were eliminated from all these landfills. 

● Businesses would invest in developing emission-negative technologies, potentially driving down the price of offsets. Currently there is no economic incentive to develop these technologies, but once the emission reduction can be sold to businesses to use as offsets, we would expect many start-ups to begin developing these technologies and reducing their costs. 

Because these two effects are opposite and because we cannot predict what technologies will be developed, we do not know whether offsets would become more or less available over time and whether their cost go up or go down.

As years go by and the price of offsets changes, governments would have to vary the multiple so businesses always have to buy offsets that cost 80% or 90% of the fees they are avoiding. As the availability of offsets changes, governments would also have to change the percent of their emissions that businesses can offset. 

In the longer run, as the fee for emissions goes way up and emissions go way down, we will have to set the multiple at a level that avoids hardship and severe economic dislocation. For example, we would not want to set the price for emissions from nitrogen fertilizer so high that we drive up the price of food to the point where we cause hunger, so we would set the multiple for these emissions so offsets cost less than the full 80% or 90% of the emissions fee. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Empiricism and Proprioception

There is a long tradition of British empiricist philosophy, going back to Locke, Berkeley and Hume, that claims that the only direct knowledge we have is of our own sense perceptions and that is often skeptical about whether there are objects outside of us that cause these perceptions. These philosophers ignore our proprioceptions: we have direct knowledge about our own bodies that is as certain as our direct knowledge of our sense perceptions.

For example, Bertrand Russell was working in the empiricist tradition when he wrote:

Anything intervening between ourselves and what we see must be invisible: our view in every direction is bounded by the nearest visible object. It might be objected that a dirty pane of glass, for example, is visible although we can see things through it. But in this case we really see a spotted patchwork: the dirtier specks in the glass are visible, while the cleaner parts are invisible and allow us to see what is beyond. Thus the discovery that the intervening medium affects the appearances of things cannot be made by means of the sense of sight alone. [Our Knowledge of the External World, Allen & Unwin, 1922 p.78]

This is an accurate description of how we see things if we have one eye closed, but it is clearly wrong about how we see with both eyes.

If I am near a window with some dirt on it and I am looking out the window with both eyes open, my actual experience is that I can focus my eyes on the specks of dirt on the window and see a blurry, unfocused version of the scene outside, or I can focus on the scene outside and see a blurry unfocused version of the specks. If I want, I can deliberately shift my focus from one to the other, and I have a direct proprioception that I am shifting my focus. If I keep coming closer to the window, it becomes harder to focus on the specks, and I can feel the strain in my eyes. If I keep coming closer, I will eventually come too close to focus on the speck: at first, I will feel the strain increasing as I come closer and keep my eyes focused, and finally I will reach a point where I cannot focus and will see two specks. Then, if I close one eye, I will see only one speck, and if I close the other eye I will see one speck in a different position; I will be able to close one eye and then the other and see the speck move from one position to another or to open both eyes and see the speck in both positions. 

It is not true, as the empiricists claim, that we only have direct knowledge of our sense perceptions and deduce from our perceptions that there is an external world causing them.  In the case of vision, we focus on objects in the external world that are more or less distant in order to have the sense perception. The proprioception that we are focusing on objects outside ourselves is just as basic a bit of knowledge as the visual perceptions.