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The dark-colored peppered moth is on the verge of extinction. And it IS very likely because of human activity. Voila! Evidence that humans are bad for species and ecosystems!

Might I urge everyone to just take a deep breath and to think harder when information is presented to you?

It turns out that the dark colored peppered moth was likely a creation of human beings in the first place. Was its creation sustainable? Is its demise evidence of unsustainability? Well, this is why standard “definitions” of sustainability will lead us off into the vaguely phosphorescent recesses of the great grimpen mire. It turns out that the peppered moth is generally light colored. In the mid-19th century it began to turn black, and yes because of human activities coupled with the wonders of evolutionary processes. As cities in England got dirtier and dirtier, and the air and particulates coating all surfaces got darker and darker – the darker colored moths had an easier time hiding from predators, particularly when they were roosting in trees. Over time, evolutionary processes took over – being dark conferred an advantage and soon nearly all of the peppered moths in England were dark.

Not anymore. It is thought that the dark-colored strain of the moth is about to go extinct? Why?

The same human influences, this time running in reverse. We humans have managed to clean the air and particulate matter from London and many of our major cities. Things are lighter, brighter and healthier. As a result, the naturally lighter-colored moths now have an advantage in camouflage, and the darker ones now stand out in the clean skies and trees – so they are not very likely to have their genes passed onto the next generation.

Should we do the “sustainable” thing and ensure that future generations can enjoy what present generations enjoy? Should we dirty the air a bit so that this creature of dirty air can sustain itself? I don’t think many folks would suggest that. And in thinking more deeply about the meaning of sustainability, without being too moralistic here, I hope the story helps folks understand that the world and ecosystems are always changing, and adapting to hundreds and thousands of stimuli, some human created, some not – and that the very simplistic concept of sustainability is not well-suited to describing, and acting in, the very complex world we live in.

 

I am a fan of consensual capitalist acts. It would be wonderful if many more transactions people had a chance to engage with in their lives were ones where both parties had some agency about whether and how to enter such transactions. Sadly, and I am going to sound like some dour anti-capitalist nutcase now, I think that a larger and larger share of the engagements we have in this world are not consensual.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I feel like I am being “capitalistically molested.” The picture below gives yet one of many new examples:

 

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This was taken at a Sunoco station near by home in Rochester. The pump is a new one (incidentally, the third new one since I moved here). Notice the brand new television screen blaring at me. I cannot silence the screen, lower the volume, pause it, etc. As I stand there pumping gas (of course, we have to hold the pump handle because our betters think that allowing those neat little clickly devices that hold the pump for us is too dangerous), now no longer am I forced to just look at some print advertisements for Kool cigarettes and some two day old Churros in the nearby shop, not only am I inundated with inducements to secure a Sunoco credit card or to join some such gasoline club … NOW … I have to deal with the bleating of NBC news. God knows what NBC news paid to the Sunoco stations to be able to have the ear of every single driver (and passenger, these things are LOUD) of an automobile in America.

But I did not ask for this. There are so few places in this world now where you are not inundated with noise, advertising, banter, and all manner of distractions. I used to actually like some gas stations because while filling my car it was a few minutes of peace and quiet to have thoughts to myself as I listen to the droning of cars along the nearby expressways. Now, not even that place is “sacred.” Sunoco did not advertise that they would be adding this television feature, I also did not tell them I wanted it. Yet here we have it. That does not, to me, seem like a consensual capitalist act.

For now, I have the option of finding other gas stations that merely allow me to quietly pump my gas. Some of those have more ads and radio noise than others, and I will choose the quiet ones. But how long until the “force of competition” requires that ALL gas stations have these distractions? (And let’s not talk about the quality of the content on NBC news). So long as there is some form of easy exit opportunity from an engagement I will consider the engagement sort-of consensual, but boy oh boy, there seem to be a decreasing number of time-places where a truly consensual act is taking place.

One of the nice parts of the modern TV and radio scene is that you can structure your life to be more consensual than in the past. I watch far less media today and listen to far less radio today than in the past – but almost everything I watch is what I select, and almost everything I do is devoid of commercial interruption. As soon as the media I am enjoying veers off into non-consensual land, or non-interesting land, I find something else to do and/or drop the media relationship entirely.

I wished it were as easy to structure our physical reality in the same way we do it for our media and online lives.

… you may get hit in the head.

A perspective here:

During student teaching, whenever my lessons were observed or critiqued, the criticisms leveled were not focused on my command of the material, my presence, or my ability to convey information, nor were they questions about my ability to engage students or plan lessons. The criticisms I received were almost always about some “implicit bias” or slip of the tongue, some unconscious stereotype or microaggression. One example will suffice: While teaching S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to 8th graders, I introduced the class to the actor Paul Newman, a 1960s heart-throb and celebrity fixation for characters in the book. I then briefly mentioned his charity work with Newman’s Own. After the lesson, my professor told me that my comment may have referenced “privilege” and “alienated some of the students who were poor and likely could not afford to buy Newman’s Own products.” The irony is that the rural town in which I taught this lesson only has a few restaurants, the cheapest being McDonald’s–which exclusively serves Newman’s Own coffee and salad dressing. This punctilious language-policing was a daily regularity in our program, and our constant awareness of it produced a frustrated hesitancy in our teaching, as well as an Orwellian dullness in our verbal expression.

Now lest I sound like a disenfranchised conservative, I should add that I consider myself both a pluralist and a liberal democrat who is passionate about free speech and expression

 

The Origin of AIDS

Jacques Pepin’s Origin of AIDS is certainly a learning experience. While for many readers there is too much detail to make it worth plowing through, I really recommend it to anyone who appreciates the deep connections between social science, medical science, and human development. I won’t again comment on this book, just merely highlight a few interesting items from it.

  • There was once a man who conducted testicular transplants from chimpanzees to men. Read more here.
  • It was estimated that in the early 1980s in Nairobi (note, not the place where HIV first emerged or was transmitted from), sex workers had on average 1,400 paid intercourses per year.
  • On the treatment of women in Cameroon and Gabon: “The husband, especially if polygamous, could dispose of his property as he wished. One of the wives could be asked to have sex with a friend, a relative or visitor, often for payment to the husband in cash or in kind but sometimes for free, in what corresponded more to ‘sexual hospitality’ than prostitution. In the Belgian Congo … 20 young men might get together to hire a prostitute for up to two months and payment was made to the girl’s mother. The young woman would only do this once in her life, it was not considered dishonorable and would not decrease her chances of getting married later.
  • You’d be absolutely amazed at how much tropical diseases and viral disease transmission was likely due to poorly understood or hubristic medical practices.
  • On Belgian attitudes toward the Congolese: “Despite six years of post-secondary education, the highest level a Congolese could reach under Belgian rule was medical assistant. The Congolese were considered too primitive to become medical doctors, unable to understand the rules of professional conduct and ethics and the infinite value of human life. Strangely enough, at the same time there were already 600 Congolese priests, who had been through six years of university-level philosophy and theology. When the country became independent, only thirty or so Congolese held university degrees earned at home or abroad.”
  • I am sure you realized that while people, if they wish to give blood, must do it as a volunteer, if you wish to give up plasma, you can be paid. It is very well documented at how the sale of blood plasma likely was a key driver in the amplification of the disease once it made its way to the Caribbean and the rest of the West. One donation of plasma was often separated into thousands of treatments, so just one infected and untreated plasma donor could unleash a lot of HIV transmission on people, unknowingly.
  • “This is a reminder that the most dangerous threat to the long-term survival of the human species is the human race itself.”

Have a lovely weekend.

Begging the Question

In Nordhaus’s Climate Casino (recommended), in describing the problem when market prices do not fully capture all resource costs:

However, the unregulated invisible hand sets the prices incorrectly when there are important externalities. Therefore, governments must step in and regulate or tax activities with significant harmful externalities. Global warming is no different than other externalities; it requires affirmative governmental actions to reduce harmful spillovers.

As if other institutions “set” prices any better. The assumption of the Deus Ex Machina of government never ceases to amaze me, especially so given the sh!tstorms that have been in the news lately.

To proclaim that there is no truth, that there is not even a scintilla of objective reality, is to exercise a phenomenal degree of privilege, no? This is to suggest that there is no way to obtain more knowledge about a topic. So when it comes to the workings of the price system and a system of property rights, folks who claim to speak on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed do not seem to take the intellectual effort or physical effort to actually examine what abolishing prices and property actually does to the lives and fortunes of the poor, of the mentally afflicted, of the disaffected and “forgotten.” They have not walked in the shoes of someone who is excluded by the abolition of prices and property.

Sad.

To retire.

The goal should really be the goal, right? While there will always be issues to fight for, if your goal is, for example, to “save the whales” we should aim to make sure whales are healthy and happy and numerous. Then the activism is over, no? Don’t get me wrong, this is not to suggest people should rest on their laurels or forget about issues, but activism, true and good activism, is not supposed to be a sustained, indefinite and bitter fight over identity issues.

 

I tend to think this is a major problem on college campuses, but suspect it is a more general problem. Briefly, if you think about how progressively liberal a college campus is, and the human tendency to want to be accepted, it should not be a shock that you do not often see lots of vociferous non-progressive voices. But that is not the point I want to make. For a long time I have suspected that a lot of the newsworthy (and cringeworthy) stuff that you see on campuses is actually driven by a very small number of students. More on that in a bit. But think of what this may in fact reveal.

In my view, I do not think “good, moral” people want to be seen as not good and immoral. Thus, on a college campus, it is imperative that students, many of whom are already lacking severely in various aspects of self-confidence, do not alienate themselves from “the group.” What this means is that in an effort to not be seen or misinterpreted as a racist, or lacking sufficient progressive credentials, those folks who are interested in exploring topics of race, inequality, gender, progressivism, or even “worse” who have some doubts about various ideas in these areas, are going to seriously or entirely censor their opinions on these matters – particularly when speaking and appearing in public, but even privately.

I am not suggesting here that there is a policy solution or that something needs to be done about this, not at all. I just think it is good to keep in mind when you get hysterical about what is happening in the world and on campus, whether on one side of the “arguments” or the “other.”  Really, no matter what issue we are talking about and no matter what the setting, my sense is that there are very strong social pressures to conform, even if they are simply in our own imaginations, and if this is the case then people are going to be basing their levels of support for policies and ideas not on the actual merits or logic in any of those positions, but rather on what others are saying and doing about it, which itself may in fact be a function of what everyone else thinks everyone else thinks they should be saying and thinking about it.

The result is a sort of an ideas trap, where all kinds of ideas become very much embedded in the institutional culture you are a part of, and perhaps of societal culture at large – but it is hard to tell from this information alone if in fact these ideas and feelings are truly felt.  I think this is yet another reason for all of us to simply be more humble. Of course, I may only be saying that because I want to be “liked” by my readers and my readers’ friends.

We here at T.U.W. hope you are enjoying your celebration of the original Brexit.

The following post is admittedly crude, and will be put into extreme amounts of detail should I ever get my global warming work done. But as you light off your sparklers, firecrackers, M-80s, cherry bombs, pineapples, roman candles and the like on this festive day, I wanted to have you get a sense for just how much you are likely contributing to the boiling off of the world’s oceans and the ultimate baking of the planet.

Now, you are going to see estimates with a wide range of variability around them, so keep that in mind as I put out these numbers.  We’ll light our 4th of July fireworks with a Socratic fuse today.

 

How much carbon dioxide has “humanity” emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels since the 18th century?

This is where you will see varying data, but the best I can surmise is that the amount of fossil fuels burned between, say, 1750 and 2015 have released about 1,500 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere. Remember a couple of things. First, is that the Earth’s carbon budget is fixed, and that there is a long-run planetary carbon cycle that is eventually going to take most (not all) of the CO2 that we put into the atmosphere, put it back into the oceans, and eventually back into rocks, and then back into carbon dioxide and then back to the ocean, then rocks, and so on. And while this may be cause for comfort, of course the carbon cycle takes place on geologic scales that make human civilization’s time on earth seem tiny in comparison, so we can’t just let'”nature take its course” to solve our climate issue. Second, “we” emit about 35-40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today through our activities. The total amount we have emitted, 1,500 gigatons, is 1,500 billion tons. That’s just some perspective.

 

How much carbon dioxide remains in the ground embedded in burnable fossil fuels?

Aha it is interesting to see discussions here, because it tends to pit one brand of Malthusians against another. I tend to think that there is a lot more fossil fuel energy in the ground than even our best estimates suggest, but that is another story for another day. As best as I can tell, folks seem to think that the amount of CO2 embedded in all current reserves held by fossil fuel companies, in all expected reserves that those companies may access in the future, and all other non-traditional reserves including those owned by governments are somewhere in the 3,000 billion ton range.

 

What will happen if we burn all of this?

Well, remember that burning all of this will take a long time, and that while fossil fuel resources are cheap, they still will be competing with developing energy technologies in the future. It is hard to think that we will burn them all in the next couple decades, my bet would be closer to the multi-century time scale, but for fun let us assume we will burn ALL of the stuff in the coming decades. I’d like to NOT rely on models and hyperbole for the time being, so our guess about what this will do is going to come from what has happened in the data, in the real world, in the past.

 

Since 1750, the globe has warmed to the tune of about 0.8 degrees Celsius on average. Over that time, we have burned 1,500 billion tons of CO2. For argument’s sake, let us foresake the data just a little bit. Let us say that we have warmed by a full degree, and let us also say that the CO2 that we have tossed into the atmosphere has not yet brought us to full thermal equilibrium, so that we can expect, even if we stopped adding CO2 entirely today, to see the world warm by another 0.5 degrees by the time I have great grandchildren. In other words, by moving 1,5000 billion tons from beneath the ground and into the atmosphere faster than the earth would have done so on its own, we have warmed the planet, on average, by 1.5 degrees. NOTE that to this day, we have seen only 0.8 degrees of warming, so this is a pretty conservative assumption that again relies on some scientific models. The global thermometer only reads 0.8 degrees higher today, not 1.5.

 

Be that as it may, if we instantly add 3,000 billion more tons of fossil fuel CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, based on how the climate of the past has responded to past CO2 additions, then it appears that we will, at most, increase the temperature of the planet by another 3.0 degrees Celsius. This is about 5 1/2 degrees F — or about the difference between the temperature of New York City and Oklahoma City. Note that this would imply that the TOTAL amount of warming we would get from burning every single molecule of fossil fuels in the Earth’s crust would be about 4.5 degrees C. If you were to look at the high end estimates from the “middle” scenarios of the climate change models, this is actually the amount of warming that the models would predict, at the 95th percentile, from a doubling of CO2 from pre-indusrial levels, not from burning every ounce of fossil fuels there is. We will cover later what it would take to hit the CO2 scenarios from the scary RCP8.5 scenarios from the IPCC global warming science.

 

Note that I am not saying that we can or will burn all of these fossil fuels. Note that I am not saying anything about the climate models. Note that I am not saying anything about projected climate sensitivity and what and where the climate feedbacks come from. Rather, I am sort of doing what the Club of Rome folks (and many before them) pioneered before them. I am looking at past trends in temperatures as they relate to CO2 emissions by humans, and I am asking, as they often do, if present trends continue … 

And what do we find? If we burn all of the fossil fuel that we can possibly burn (and I am ignoring all of the related pollution and air quality and other problems with this), which as I said is highly unlikely, then even a generous and conservative estimate of how much warming we will get suggests at most 4 and a half degrees of total warming above where we were at the start of the industrial revolution, or only another 3 degrees above where we are today. If you take the historical relationship more literally, and again there is no scientific reason to either do it or not do it, it is a simply algebraic exercise, then we would expect to see only another 1.6 degrees Celsius of warming if we burn every single molecule of fossil fuels.

Again, this is amateur stuff, but the question is worth asking nonetheless: can we burn the planet, even if we wanted to do so? It is not clear.

 

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