Smaller government, smaller dreams, smaller people

The Weather Channel last night failed in its duty to help me drift off to sleep, instead showing a fascinating documentary on the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

I was dimly aware of the historical fact that such a storm had occurred, and recalled seeing it at the top of those grim lists of American natural disasters, but I hadn’t ever heard a complete telling of this story. And I had never been even dimly aware of the remarkable story of what Galveston, Texas, did to rebuild after the devastation of that Great Storm.

As it happens, among the items in my newsreader this morning was this story on a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute: “Poll: Most in U.S., except evangelicals, see no divine sign in disasters“:

Nearly six in 10 evangelicals believe God can use natural disasters to send messages — nearly twice the number of Catholics (31%) or mainline Protestants (34%). Evangelicals (53%) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll found that a majority (56%) of Americans believe God is in control of the earth, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38% of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29%) has less support.

That 29 percent — close to the baseline crazification factor — still apparently believes in the abusive-parent God with really bad aim. Sigh.

So Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are still with us. Still foolishly wrong, but still with us after all these thousands of years. The book of Job does such a thorough job of mocking this view into silence that it’s a wonder it still lives on. Yet apparently it does.

I would invite the 38 percent who believe God dispenses judgment through natural disasters to read this account of The Sisters of Charity Orphanage and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900:

More than 6,000 men, women and children lost their lives. Among the dead were 10 sisters and 90 children from the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum, operated by the Sisters of Charity. …

At the orphanage, the children and sisters heard the crash of the boys dormitory as it collapsed and was carried away by the flood waters.

The sisters cut the clothesline rope into sections and used it to tie the children to the cinctures which they wore around their waists. Each Sister tied to herself between six to eight children. … Eventually the dormitory building that had been the sanctuary for the children and sisters was lifted from its foundation. The bottom fell out and the roof came crashing down trapping those inside.

Only three boys from the orphanage survived: William Murney, Frank Madera and Albert Campbell. Miraculously all three ended up together in a tree in the water. After floating for more than a day, they were eventually able to make their way into town where they told the sisters what had happened at the orphanage. One of the boys remembered a sister tightly holding two small children in her arms, promising not to let go.

The sisters were buried wherever they were found, with the children still attached to them. Two of the sisters were found together across the bay on the Mainland. One of them was tightly holding two small children in her arms.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar would say that those 10 sisters and the 90 orphans lost in the storm had it coming for some reason. That is why the Bible regards Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar as fools.

More astonishing, and just as moving, was the end of this documentary on the Galveston Hurricane — the account of the city’s audacious plan to rebuild and the execution of that plan. This story is inspiring and depressing.

It’s inspiring because they did this — real people really did this. They built a 17-foot-tall seawall along the Gulf side of the island.

And then they raised the entire city.

More than 500 city blocks. They raised it 17 feet higher nearest the seawall, gradually sloping downward from their all the way to the other side of the island. This involved jacking up every building in the city — mostly by hand. That included a massive stone church, which they lifted with mulepower. Then, with hundreds of buildings raised up to the proper height according to their location in the slope, they pumped in more than 16 million cubic yards of sand and slurry from the shipping channel in the Gulf.

This was an amazing feat of engineering and muscle, accomplished more than 100 years ago with hardly any of the technology we would employ if we were ever to attempt such a thing today.

And that’s the depressing part. We would never attempt such a thing today. We’re no longer capable of pulling it off. We’re no longer capable of even trying.

Consider this account of the rebuilding and re-engineering of Galveston. Consider the scope and audacity of the project — the cost, the labor, the years it took. Does any American city, or America itself, still have the courage, vision or capacity to attempt such a thing? I don’t know. I doubt it.

We seem to have become a small-minded people obsessed with smaller government, smaller visions, smaller aspirations — a crimped, cramped people from whom it seems unimaginable to expect or ask for this kind of hard work and investment and long-term foresight.

Here is Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang, concluding an excellent, helpful post about the perils of nuclear energy by placing those dangers in their proper context:

We have lots of good reasons to be appropriately afraid of [nuclear power]. The problem with energy and the environment — as I see it — is that we aren’t afraid enough of coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which are worse for the environment than nuclear. …

But if I were in charge, and I had my choice of how to power the world, what would I do? … Let’s take a good look at what solar panels are actually out there. The best ones can get about 19 percent of the incident solar energy converted into electricity. At sea level, that means about 19 percent of 700 Watts for every square-meter of solar panels we have.

See the “A” on the map above? Make a solar array about that size — 35 miles by 35 miles — and you can power the entire United States. Period. Day or night, winter or summer, rain or shine. No emissions, no pollution, no risk of radiation, no dependence on oil, coal, gas, no damage to the environment.

And if we did it — if we invested in it and made it happen — I think it would fix a huge number of our domestic problems: the economic ones, the employment ones, the manufacturing ones, etc.

But that’s never going to happen. Won’t even be tried.

We have better tools than the rebuilders of Galveston had. We know more. And we are far, far wealthier as a nation. But we seem to lack their courage, their will, their vision and their determination to make the world better.

We seem to have become a shallow, convenience-obsessed people supporting the kind of shallow, convenience-obsessed leadership that will allow us to lead shallow, convenience-obsessed lives uninterrupted by concern for the future or any attempt to be better than that.

It’d be really cool if we did or at least tried to do something to prove me wrong about that.

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  • Kevin Alexander

    I am an atheist who believes that Jesus was one of the smartest, wisest men who ever lived. One of the things that convinces me that he died two thousand years ago and didn’t rise again is this peculiar form of American theodicy. In the Fox News version of reality, Jesus somehow morphed into Ayn Rand, obsessed with punishing the mortal sin of misfortune.

  • http://joshbarkey.blogspot.com/2011/03/kingdom-of-heaven-is-spike-in-back-of.html josh barkey

    Legitimate question (as in, I’m not trying to argue with you – just curious): If one of the reasons that convinces you Jesus was just an amazing dude who died and stayed dead is a view of reality that you acknowledge as warped and out of keeping with who Jesus was, then why is it still one of your reasons?

  • Kevin Alexander

    Josh, I’m not sure that I understand your question. I don’t just think that Jesus was ‘an amazing dude’. I think that he hit upon something, possibly the most important thing in the evolution of human thought. The whole three billion year old story of life on this planet is about dog eat dog then along comes some dude who says that the way off this endless, pointless cycle is sometimes maybe dog doesn’t eat dog. It’s such a revolutionary idea that it’s easy to see why some find him divine.
    That he died and stayed dead takes nothing from the truth of what he said. That he stayed dead seems indicated by the fact that he has no influence (apart form Fred and others) on so many savages that invoke his name.

  • http://joshbarkey.blogspot.com/2011/03/kingdom-of-heaven-is-spike-in-back-of.html josh barkey

    fair enough

  • Anonymous

    Kevin Alexander: I think that he hit upon something, possibly the most important thing in the evolution of human thought. The whole three billion year old story of life on this planet is about dog eat dog then along comes some dude who says that the way off this endless, pointless cycle is sometimes maybe dog doesn’t eat dog. It’s such a revolutionary idea that it’s easy to see why some find him divine.

    Jesus was hardly the first person to express such ideas though. Mozi was preaching similar ideas of universal love in China 400 years earlier, and those ideas are also prevalent in Jainism, founded 900-600 years before Jesus. I’ve also heard there were rabbis prior to Jesus who taught the same thing, and may have directly influenced him.

  • Anonymous

    Still, I think ol’ Josh makes the short list.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Spalanzani “Jesus was hardly the first person to express such ideas…….”
    Thanks for that. I usually use the Jesus example because I’m usually talking to Christians.
    I think that altruism is as old as humanity, maybe older. When people try to argue that there is no morality without god I counter by asking if they think that morality makes no sense. If humans can think and if humans can learn then morality will happen, the only alternative is dog eat dog and that can’t work in the long run.

  • Sarah Jane

    I think this kind of storytelling may in fact be a part of the answer, Fred. It seems like almost nobody believes anymore that we even HAVE the ability to make our world a better place. Every generation needs to hear these stories — and hear them again and again — to remind us that hope exists to bring about change, and not just to crush us under disappointment.

  • Jay in Oregon

    Apparently we’re supposed to rely on the profit motive to get big things done in America nowadays.

    If you can’t make a buck off of it — sorry, if you can’t make wheelbarrows full of money off of it — then what’s the point in doing it?

  • http://twitter.com/scyllacat Scyllacat

    @Jay in Oregon in re: Profit motive: I agree. The thing that has been driving me UP The Wall in late conversations with conservative/republican/tea party/”libertarian” folks is they way they scoff at anything that’s not “profit.”

    Teachers don’t make much money because they’re lazy s.o.b.’s who wanted summers off, ya know. Doctors are in it for the money, ENTIRELY, even though the the Insurance for Buckets of Profit was the driving force that put affordable medical care on the chopping block.

    And any urge I, or anyone else, makes toward charity is “stealing” Someone Else’s Money for people who didn’t earn it. Because I didn’t give away my spare change or donate blood or answer phones …. and if I DID, I just did it to “look” like I cared. Really, that was the moment. The moment someone said I was “pretending” to care about unfortunate people so I would look good. I thought I was arguing in good faith about what would be better. I thought we all had the same concerns, just differently prioritized. but I see people completely disregarding the social contract (Ayn Rand talked about it a LOT, why I hear crickets nao?); the obligation to provide quality, value, and durable products for your money; and the benefits of cooperative effort (which they seem to think is something about the weak and slow being eaten by lions so THEY can survive). And I Just Don’t Get It.

    Do I care more NOW that I might be sliding off into the abyss? Yes, it’s more personal. Did I decide years before that I was obliged to put forth effort for my community, and did I discover that it was enriching, loving, nourishing, and possibly Even Better Than Money? Yes.

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    Teachers don’t make much money because they’re lazy s.o.b.’s who wanted summers off, ya know.

    While at the same time they are greedy and exploit the system to make more money than anyone else while only working 6 hours a day, 9 months a year.

  • Anonymous

    Problem is that people think the only alternative is pointing guns at other people to MAKE them get things done. It’s a false dichotomy.

  • Froborr

    You’re right, we could also not have a government! Somalia’s trying it out, why don’t you go visit and then report back to us how it’s going.

    Bloody stupid anarchists…

  • Loki100

    Problem is that people think the only alternative is pointing guns at other people to MAKE them get things done. It’s a false dichotomy.

    Or, possibly, just possibly, hire people at fair compensation with fair benefits and they might get things done without any guns involved at all. In fact, I believe that is how the vast majority of our day-to-day economy runs.

  • Anonymous

    Well actually, that’s what I have in mind. It’s just that the people around here tend to be hostile to market transactions in general, so I was taking a different tack.

  • Loki100

    Well actually, that’s what I have in mind. It’s just that the people around here tend to be hostile to market transactions in general, so I was taking a different tack.

    No, people around here have no problem with market transactions (if there are a large number of communists that read Fred, I am unaware of it). People around here have a problem with exploitation. People around here are also aware that the market has limitations in both what is possible, and will not regulate itself.

    But a business run openly, honestly, and not harming anyone? No one would have a problem with such a thing.

  • Anonymous

    The problems start when people perceive a failure of self-regulation, and see violence as the way to correct it. (And nobody seems to notice that political interference in the market always creates greater opportunities for abuse.)

  • Caravelle

    The problems start when people perceive a failure of self-regulation, and see violence as the way to correct it.

    I wonder, do you use “violence” to refer to insults ? To demeaning or othering language ? To raising children ? To all of school ? To corporate culture ?

    Because such extended usage to non-physical situations is a touchy-feely lefty thing to do in my experience. I hope that in applying it to state coercion you’ve realized that it can be applied to so many other situations, and society is a pretty violent place.

    Aanyway : why is there a problem when people perceive a failure of self-regulation ? Those failures happen so they might be right. In a case where they are right, how should such a failure be corrected/compensated for in your opinion ?

    (And nobody seems to notice that political interference in the market always creates greater opportunities for abuse.)

    Are you talking net abuse or specific types of abuse ? I mean, you can have more political abuses once the government is involved, but if a regulation isn’t designed or enforced too badly it will cut down on the kind of abuses it was made to cut down on.
    There’s no reason to assume the former will always outweigh the latter. Experience shows the opposite. Child labor laws might have issues, but few think that those issues outweigh the abuses that the laws work to stop.

  • Loki100

    The problems start when people perceive a failure of self-regulation, and see violence as the way to correct it.

    Wow. The abject failure of self-regulation, the kind where a corporation dumps toxic waste in a third world nation’s river system, is a matter of “perception?” That whole thing where banks would give out what they knew were bad mortgage loans, only to bundle said loans by the thousands and then sell them to third parties, that was a matter of “perception?”

    Anywho, when exactly was the last time widescale violence was used to correct the economy? The Russian and Chinese revolutions?

    (And nobody seems to notice that political interference in the market always creates greater opportunities for abuse.)

    Actually what nobody seems to notice is that the market only exists because of “political interference.” Even the blackmarket and informal markets only exist because of “political interference.” The very first thing you learn in a political geography class is the futility of attempting to separate any political system from it’s corresponding economic system. There is no “private sector” nor is there a “public sector.”

  • Caravelle

    Well actually, that’s what I have in mind. It’s just that the people around here tend to be hostile to market transactions in general, so I was taking a different tack.

    You seem to have no clue what “the people around here” think. Or maybe you just like arguing against strawmen.

  • http://joshbarkey.blogspot.com/2011/03/kingdom-of-heaven-is-spike-in-back-of.html josh barkey

    ManFred, I welcome your hope, share your despair, and pray that we’re both wrong. I just wrote a post about the dark night that creeps (or rather, barges) into my soul lately, and I gotta say… sure would be nice, but I’m afraid we’re hooped. Nations have fallen before. Time we got ours.

  • Guest

    One doesn’t have to believe in big government to believe in the power of many people working together to do great things. It was individuals choosing to work together who did the work in Galveston, not a government that coerced them into it.

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

  • Anonymous

    @Guest

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

    That’s a nice, rhetorically well constructed rallying cry, but it’s not particularly meaningful. All it takes to make a “big dream” (meaning what–big project? major change?) happen is NOT big hearts, whatever those are, and big minds, whatever those are.

    So, trying to make sense out of the rallying cry: “big hearts” means lots of courage or lots of generosity? “Big minds” means lots of brainpower? lots of imagination? (One problem with rallying cries is that it can be difficult to translate them into actual coherent statements, which, I think, is one reason politicians and advertisers love them so.)

    A big government, you say, has neither, which means presumably that a big government can’t make a major project (or major change?) happen.

    Wrong! Witness the TVA, the incredible artistic work and preservation of American stories by the WPA, helping defeat Hitler, the Marshall Plan, and, for the British, ending slavery (not counting the US government in that, since it wasn’t, for the US government, a primary goal); Certainly, the US could have ended Jim Crow with more government activity.

  • http://twitter.com/AbelUndercity Abel Undercity

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

    Horse puckey.

  • Donalbain

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

    I second that claim of Horse Shit

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    I second your seconding ;)

    Seriously, anyone doubting the ability of “big government” to do genuine and serious social good needs to go and look into what the 1945 Labour Government did for Britain. And if they still doubt it after that, then I really don’t know what to say them – except, perhaps, “You Lie!”.

  • Froborr

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

    I third the claim of equine excrement.

  • Anonymous

    Big dreams are big dreams… all it takes to make them happen is big hearts and big minds. A Big Government has neither.

    On the contrary, it is Big Business who has neither heart nor mind, only greed and grasp. Government is quite capable of long term planning, but corporations aren’t. They can’t afford to do long term planning because forgoing present profit for future profit is considered irresponsible in their screwed-up viewpoint.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    The story of the 1900 hurricane is told in the book Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. One point the author makes is that Cuban weather forecasters predicted the hurricane and its landfall at Galveston in ample time to have ordered an evacuation of the island that would have saved thousands of lives. However, the relatively new National Weather Service had ordered its forecasters not to use forecasts from Cuba and not to allow the Cubans to use the US telegraphs to relay information to the US. Furthermore, the Weather Service people on Galveston were not allowed to put up the hurricane flag, as opposed to the tropical storm flag, until the headquarters in Washington said they could, which was long after it was apparent to everyone on the island that it was a hurricane.

    It’s a heart breaking book, but worth reading.

    BTW, Galveston is still not safe from hurricanes. In the years since the building of the seawall, there has been a lot of building on the island well past the point where the seawall stops. Ike did an enormous amount of damage in 2008. Like the 1900 hurricane, Ike was a Cape Verde hurricane (one that forms off the coast of Africa and makes its way across the Atlantic.)

  • http://twitter.com/danwhitmarsh Dan Whitmarsh

    You know the song, right? Here’s James Taylor’s version:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sk8jxQNW-A

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=822600033 Sharon Foster

    @Guest: Government is the only entity that will do it even without the possibility of make wheelbarrows full of cash. Our infrastructure is falling down around our ears. Where’s the big corporation that’s going to repair our bridges and tunnels? that’s what I’m waiting to see.

    Great essay, Fred. Sadly, so true. All we have to do is look at New Orleans.

  • Guest

    So the only people smart enough, wise enough, good enough to do these things is… congress? Are you suggesting that you yourself would not take part in repairing the infrastructure if the means were available?

    Furthermore, if big government was going to repair the infrastructure, why haven’t they done it so far? Is the American government simply too weak and small to make necessary changes in society?

    By the way, just to be clear — I’m not suggesting “large corporations” should be the ones to fix everything. The people themselves can make changes and take care of things.

    It seems like the political left wants a big government to take care of them, and the big right wants a big company to take care of them — they’re both wrong.

  • Loki100

    Furthermore, if big government was going to repair the infrastructure, why haven’t they done it so far?

    Because the only people who would profit off such repair would be the American people using it, and the American workers employed by such projects. And that’s exact opposite of what the owners of congress want.

    We have the best government for sale in the world, and the buyers have no interest in actually helping the American people.

  • Froborr

    The people themselves can make changes and take care of things.

    Yeah! The people themselves should do the work! That’s brilliant!

    Hmm, we’ll need some means of organizing the people to get this moving. There’s too many people to get everyone together to discuss it, maybe we should have the people vote to pick a smaller group to represent them and hash it out. Oh, and if we want people working on this full-time, we’ll have to pay them a living wage, and we’ll need money for equipment and supplies and things, so we should organize some way of pooling a little bit of money from everyone to pay for it. Maybe a pre-determined amount automatically deducted from your pay check, proportional to your ability to pay, adjusted so that the people able to afford a larger proportion pay a larger proportion? That seems reasonable and fair.

    Hmm, what should we call this organization? I’m really blanking on what to call it… if only there were some organization that already existed that did this kind of thing, we could adapt it to our purposes… too bad there’s nothing like that.

  • Otrame

    THIS.

  • Anonymous

    Furthermore, if big government was going to repair the infrastructure, why haven’t they done it so far?

    If big business was going to repair the infrastructure, why haven’t they done it so far?

    Government isn’t a monolithic entity. For every person who wants to leverage government power to solve a problem, there’s at least one person who believes that government is the problem.

    By the way, just to be clear — I’m not suggesting “large corporations” should be the ones to fix everything.

    Who’s going to pay all the little contractors to replace our bridges and dig up our sewers, if not the folks — government or corporations — who can leverage lots of money because they have lots of people to contribute? I know my boss can hardly afford to fix the air conditioning whenever it packs it in, and that’s small-time.

  • Anonymous

    @Falconer:

    Who’s going to pay all the little contractors to replace our bridges and dig up our sewers, if not the folks — government or corporations — who can leverage lots of money because they have lots of people to contribute?

    QFT, although I’d add that it’s not just a matter of paying all the little contractors but also of coordinating the activity. If someone wants to pay the contractors to dig up the sewer line in front of my house to keep me from having poisonous gunk in my drinking water, someone is also going to have to arrange for getting water to all the houses on the street while this is going on, and someone is going to have to reroute traffic around the activity, and someone is going to have to make sure that the work is done without interfering with the underground power lines and someone is going to have to…

    Ah, if only there were some entity that were able to coordinate all these functions, not to mention deciding when this sort of thing had to be done. And it would have to be a decision made on some basis other than profit for the shareholders, who are not primarily concerned about people getting ill a few years down the road from gunk in their drinking water. Ah, if only…

  • Anonymous

    Congress aren’t the only ones smart, wise, and good enough to do it, but they’re the only ones who would even be willing to do it. Some random citizen or group of citizens can’t just go out and fix a bridge, even if they were willing to.

    What exactly are you proposing anyway? If you’re talking about local governments, that’s still “big government”, just not “big federal government”. And I don’t know how you concluded that Fred was referring to the fed in the first place.

  • http://twitter.com/Ethawyn Kevin Greenlee

    Point taken.

  • Anonymous

    In a democracy, the government IS The People. Yes, we rely on the government too much, but it’s a damn site more reliable than corporations. It’s the government’s job to keep up infrastructure — that’s what we form a government for. The reason government is too strapped to do infrastructure now is because all of the “lower taxes, smaller government” people’s influence.

  • Anonymous

    If our only options are “the profit motive” or the state (legalized violence), then the Left Behinders are right – it’s time for this world to burn.

    Fortunately, that’s not the case.

  • Anonymous

    The blinding oversight in these idealistic suggestions (raise coastal cities, build a 35 square mile solar array) is that we know that they themselves are fool’s errands. The environmental impact alone of either would be devastating, and, thankfully, it has become at least regionally illegal to embark on new construction endeavors without examining their impact (think Environmental Impact Assessments in California), their maintenance costs and downstream effects on regional populations of humans and animals alike.

    While it’s convenient to think that we couldn’t pull these things off because of our culture’s disinterest, it’s not a full truth. As detached as some may be, others (even if they represent a small proportion of the population) work diligently every day to make sure we don’t do something stupid like build an unsound yet extensive system of levees that makes coastal flooding dramatically worse.

    If we’re making hopeful predictions, the solutions to these problems aren’t going to revolve around maintaining our current standard of energy consumption, construction and so forth. The true wisdom is recognizing the unparalleled strength of natural forces and wisely structuring our lives and cities around events we know will happen (and using far, far less energy along the way).

  • Anonymous

    Oh my god dude, I just had this EXACT CONVERSATION with somebody. Basically, I think you’re living in a leftist apocalyptic fantasy. The amount of efficiency gains in the last 30 years or so should make your head spin. 30 years ago, it took between 35-40 watts to run an electric typewriter. Today it takes between 23-45 watts to run a netbook. You can run a computer with more power than all of NASA 1969 with less power than it takes to run one bright lightbulb 10 years ago.

    So what are we doing with all of this extra energy? We’re using it to run MORE computers, and MORE lightbulbs, and MORE cars, and MORE CNC machines and nanotube forest machines, etc,etc,etc. Conservation and efficiency are admirable goals, to be sure, but the only problem efficiency solves is the problem of inefficiency. The human species will never, never, never use far, far less energy – if we did, we’d just find something else to use the surplus on (because that’s how fungible, non-preservable commodities work – this is partly why the green revolution helped make Americans so FAT.) But with energy – it’s all there for the taking, it’s just that it’s not economically efficient AT THIS MOMENT. The world is money, and you’ll never convince a businessman that he should simply “make do” with less. That’s not the way economies work. You might be able to convince him that unmeasured externalities will increase his costs exponentially in the very near future, and he might want to hedge against that by say… investing in green energy.

    This is a problem I have with a lot of the environmental crowd. Look guys, the EARTH would be better off if we were just to quickly famine ourselves and our technological society right into extinction. It will (probably) recover pretty quickly if we’re not here to screw it up. The only reason to worry about preserving the environment is because it works pretty well for this set of African primates who currently live in it. When everybody finally wises up to peak oil, it’s gonna hurt for a bit (maybe for a good long bit) but provided we don’t jam our head up our collective asses, we’ll be fine, because we’re sitting a scant 93 million miles from a 5 BILLION year source of effectively inexhaustible energy. It’s ironic that this is a largely a liberal / left problem, since it’s kissing cousins with the right’s penchant for cutting out social programs as soon tax revenues drop.

    tl;dr When there’s not enough to go around, don’t start looking for for who has to go without, start looking for where you can get more.

  • Froborr

    The only reason to worry about preserving the environment is because it works pretty well for this set of African primates who currently live in it.

    Which is a very, very, VERY good reason to worry about the environment. We have three interlocking and massively dangerous issues at hand which threaten to change the environment in ways that will make us extremely uncomfortable and possibly dead, and we don’t know enough to change it back: global warming, biodiversity loss, and falling water tables. There are also a host of ultimately less severe but still pretty nasty problems, such as pollution, but those are the big three.

    We may well bounce back easily from peak oil in terms of energy production capacity, but there is a good likelihood that by the time we reach peak oil, it will already be too late to control global warming before it starts killing large numbers of people.

    tl;dr: You’ve got your head in the sand, and you’re intentionally ignoring the real dangers in favor of concentrating on purely economic issues.

  • Anonymous

    No I’m not. I’m saying that it’s at it’s heart an economic issue, and it will depend on economic solutions. People are willing to exterminate bees because they don’t see the cost of the externality, even though it IS EFFING HUGE.

    In any case, the elephant in the room is catastrophic climate change. Once you “solve” that by inventing or practicalizing clean energy, the other two become an easier nut to crack.

    Global cook-us-all-alive: Get us off carbon-emitting energy in favor of more abundant, cheaper, and fewer nasty externality having solar or wind energy.

    Biodiversity loss: This one is tougher. From an agricultural perspective, you can make a case that having all corn be basically clones of each other is a bad thing, but it’s a tougher sell to argue that lions play an essential part in “Life on Earth.” That said – you’ll find big support for “protected corridors” among southern farmers, who find that it’s really better for all in involved if the geese stay off the fields. People are finally waking up to the bee thing, though…

    Water tables: I think this ties into number 1. People are willing to conserve water, but we live on a planet that is 70% water. Cheap abundant energy would make desalinization practical, or if you prefer you could capture a comet or two, or switch to aqua-culture, which has less impact on arable land, and doesn’t require fresh-water.

    In every case, while efficiency plays a PART in solving these problems, it is by itself not a complete solution.

  • Froborr

    I think you are seriously overselling the capacity of markets to resolve problems. There is quite a bit of evidence that markets are not able to prevent or control tragedies of the commons, which is what pretty much all of the issues we’re talking about boil down to.

    Also, I don’t think anyone here is arguing that efficiency is the end-all-be-all, but it is an important and necessary component in any solution. If you are correct that any increases in efficiency will result immediately in increased consumption (and it is really not at all clear if this is a universal truth of human behavior or a product of our current culture), then our environmental problems are not solvable.

  • Anonymous

    No, the market can’t solve this problem. Basically the cost of a negative externality that literally kills everybody is infinite. The market can’t account for that with pricing adjustments, because the price of energy would also be infinite.

    You need a market disruptive event. You need to CHANGE the type of the externality, which you do by either eliminating the externality entirely (photovoltaic cells do not emit carbon whilst in use, but have a pollution factor when they wear out – if it takes 10% of the energy produced by the cell in it’s lifetime to launch it into the sun, you can add 10% to your energy bill, that is a calculable extrernality – or you could cap annual carbon emissions absolutely at the amount the earth can absorb in a year (if you destroy an acre of rainforest, you’ve changed that, which is again a calculable externality, or you could require that all carbon emissions come from carbon that was previously capture (like biofuels, etc.) But there’s simply no way to figure in the cost of something externality like “KILLS EVERYBODY” into the equation.

    What we need is a Black Swan Event which contrary to what we might think are possible to prepare for and to instigate (the Manhattan project comes to mind.) and we’re simply not looking for one, instead focusing on (relatively smaller) improvements in efficiency. Which is EXACTLY what Fred is saying. (I think.)

    In order for efficiency improvements to even make a dent, they would have to outstrip the growth in demand, which so far they have always failed throughout human history to do. (That would be Black Swan event in of itself.) They are absolutely important and necessary, but they are simply not sufficient. The crowd that argues for efficiency tends to go “oh, but relying on something unproved like solar or fusion is like throwing a hail mary pass on third and long.” Well – so is waiting for efficiency improvements to outstrip demand.

  • Thalia

    @Froborr–Too late, answering what you said five days ago, but I’m sure the issue will come up again,”If you are correct that any increases in efficiency will result immediately in increased consumption (and it is really not at all clear if this is a universal truth of human behavior or a product of our current culture), …”

    Reading Daniel Quinn gave me some reason to think that efficiency (as a form of increased supply) resulted in increased consumption, based on all life forms trying to reproduce to the limits of their available growth. I don’t know how well that’s stood up, but I see he has some links on YouTube, so maybe I’ll go see what he’s said lately.

    “…then our environmental problems are not solvable.” Oh, I hope not. I hope, and still think, it’s finding the fulcrum to which to apply our lever.

  • Thalia

    @Froborr–Too late, answering what you said five days ago, but I’m sure the issue will come up again,”If you are correct that any increases in efficiency will result immediately in increased consumption (and it is really not at all clear if this is a universal truth of human behavior or a product of our current culture), …”

    Reading Daniel Quinn gave me some reason to think that efficiency (as a form of increased supply) resulted in increased consumption, based on all life forms trying to reproduce to the limits of their available growth. I don’t know how well that’s stood up, but I see he has some links on YouTube, so maybe I’ll go see what he’s said lately.

    “…then our environmental problems are not solvable.” Oh, I hope not. I hope, and still think, it’s finding the fulcrum to which to apply our lever.

  • Anonymous

    Biodiversity loss: This one is tougher. From an agricultural perspective, you can make a case that having all corn be basically clones of each other is a bad thing, but it’s a tougher sell to argue that lions play an essential part in “Life on Earth.” That said – you’ll find big support for “protected corridors” among southern farmers, who find that it’s really better for all in involved if the geese stay off the fields. People are finally waking up to the bee thing, though…

    Trends towards greater urbanism and more efficient farming methods (not to mention space-saving ideas like Vertical Farms) would help with this. A lot of the land would revert to wilderness as a side-effect.

    Water tables: I think this ties into number 1. People are willing to conserve water, but we live on a planet that is 70% water. Cheap abundant energy would make desalinization practical, or if you prefer you could capture a comet or two, or switch to aqua-culture, which has less impact on arable land, and doesn’t require fresh-water.

    Desalinization could do it, although simply modifying some practices might save a lot of freshwater. Look at California, for example, where the vast majority of the freshwater supply used by humanity is consumed by farming – more efficient use of water in that one sector would go along way towards conserving freshwater supplies.

  • Anonymous

    also, the sun may solve our energy problem, at some point. But Earth is not an inexhaustible source of everything we need. We DO need to learn how to live by using less. And we should probably combine that with reducing numbers of people, before increasing numbers of natural disasters will do that for us.

    Apparently you don’t care about anybody but human beings, but we are embedded in our ecosystems, which are in big trouble. And if they die, so do we, even if economics doesn’t believe it.

  • Anonymous

    Apparently you don’t care about anybody but human beings,

    Bluntly put, but I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Although, I’d say I don’t care about anybody but people which would include maybe dolphins, chimps, and a cat or two. But your other statement is also accurate – if we destroy the environment we die too. So we should take care of it – absolutely – and since we don’t really understand it, best to err on the side of caution when it comes to futzing about with it.

    But Earth is not an inexhaustible source of everything we need. We DO need to learn how to live by using less.

    How long a view are we talking here? I mean, for the next several hundred years, yeah excluding oil, it sure is. For the next several thousand years, it might not be but the solar system will suffice. For the next several ten-thousand-years … well – since we’ve got that that unlimited energy thing going – we should build a star ship. The universe IS effectively inexhaustible if we have the will to use it.

    And I’m not saying that we should be willfully inefficient, but that efficiency is not sufficient as long as you want to live in an expanding and technologically advancing society, since any efficiency gains you make will always be at LEAST equaled by a rise in demand.

  • Otrame

    What we need to do is stop having so many kids. China had the right idea, though the method, coercion, is appalling. The result is fewer mouths to feed (far fewer, since so many Chinese still insist that their one baby be a boy), fewer to need gas and electricity, fewer to use the limited resources available. IMO anyone who has more than two kids is the problem. I don’t advocate China’s methods, but that means each individual has to choose to have less than three kids. If you are not willing to do this, do not talk about being “Green”.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking as the oldest of five: have fun convincing the Catholics and anti-abortion-and-sex-ed evangelicals of that. Speaking as a liberal: sing it, sibling.

  • Caravelle

    IMO anyone who has more than two kids is the problem.
    Why two ? It can’t be because you’re concerned about replacement : tons of people prefer to be childless or have only one child or are for some reason unable to produce children. So if replacement is at all an issue then many people will have to have more than two children.

    And if replacement isn’t an issue (it’s not like we’re in any danger of running out of people after all. Age pyramid concerns might come up though) then there’s no reason why the cutoff number for problematic child-having people should be “two” instead of, say, “one”.

  • Kevin Alexander

    Why do we need to replace ourselves? Couldn’t we say that there are already too many people. If we could find a painless way to reduce the population wouldn’t we be happier with more to go around and less trauma to the earth?

  • Caravelle

    Why do we need to replace ourselves?

    Where did I say we did ?

  • Guest

    “I don’t advocate China’s methods, but that means each individual has to choose to have less than three kids. If you are not willing to do this, do not talk about being “Green”.”

    No. It is completely possible to be Green without policing other people’s reproductive choices. A good starting place would be this essay http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2011/02/global_population_speak_out.php#more by a sustainability activist who happens to have four children.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with most of what you say, and add that this has been said since at least Malthus. What I hope to add, though, is an acknowledgment that, however poor the prospects are for greed or whatever, government agencies and regulatory authorities operate under legal mandates to address these issues over long-term periods. FDA, USDA, EPA, CDC, NIH, CPSC, NIOSH, OSHA, OECD, etc. (sorry for all the acronyms); all are constantly engaged in rulemaking through legislation, administrative law and criminal law that can and does address things like energy use and growth/zoning restrictions. City planning is an official part of your neighborhood, district, town, and the planners reflect national and international rules. Manufacturers of the light bulbs and computers in your home all must meet commercial, transport and manufacturing standards that are imposed by these agencies through the Code of Federal Regulations, the USC, the UNited States Pharmacopeia and so on.

    That “[t]he human species will never, never, never use far, far less energy,” well, this is easily debatable and prospective at best. In the meantime, let’s be pragmatic and not freak out about human nature–we can and do regulate development and energy policy. No apocalyptic fantasy, just law.

  • Anonymous

    This is a problem I have with a lot of the environmental crowd. Look guys, the EARTH would be better off if we were just to quickly famine ourselves and our technological society right into extinction. It will (probably) recover pretty quickly if we’re not here to screw it up.

    As far as we can tell, humans are the only species in the history of Earth to develop advanced tool-using capabilities and a world-wide civilization. If we were to suddenly disappear, odds are that 600 million to 1 billion years from now, the Sun’s luminosity will have grown to the point where life becomes impossible on Earth. The whole biosphere goes extinct, Earth goes the way of Venus, and the Universe moves on.

    But with humanity around for the long-term, perhaps things will be different. Maybe some trace of what makes Earth a living world will survive.

    When everybody finally wises up to peak oil,

    Peak oil has always been a grossly exaggerated phenomena. Not in the sense that it isn’t a possibility, but in that its potential devastating threat to civilization is heavily inflated. Right now, we’re seeing all manner of heavy oils coming on-line as sources such as Canada’s Tar Sands and Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt as oil prices rise, and that’s on top of the oil finds they keep getting in deepwater areas (such as off Brazil).

    What will likely happen is that these new supplies of oil will gradually smooth out the transition from oil as a transportation fuel due to steadily higher prices over time.

  • Froborr

    Wait, are you seriously suggesting that you believe anything remotely resembling what we understand as humanity could still be around in six hundred million years!? Have you seen what life on Earth looked like half a billion years ago? Google “Burgess Shale,” I’ll wait.

    Yes, we might have descendents that far in the future, if we manage not to wipe ourselves out, but they are as likely to resemble an H.R. Giger nightmare as us.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, we might have descendents that far in the future, if we manage not to wipe ourselves out, but they are as likely to resemble an H.R. Giger nightmare as us.

    That would still be something. If we die off completely, I think there’s a real good chance that the Sun will simply snuff out life on Earth with no lasting legacy when its luminosity rises enough. It would be as if we (or life on Earth) never existed at all.

  • Froborr

    The point I appear to have left out: there is no evidence that sentience is an unusually adaptive trait like, for example, eyes.* There is thus no reason to assume that our distant descendents will retain that trait. They might, they might not.

    Honestly, I think it’s both a silly and unnecessary reason to try to preserve the species and civilization. Far more important is that the end of civilization, not to mention the end of the species, entails a lot of suffering for a lot of people. People suffering is bad, so let’s prevent that.

    *We can tell because eyes have independently evolved multiple times. Sentience, as far as we know, has not.

  • Anonymous

    *We can tell because eyes have independently evolved multiple times. Sentience, as far as we know, has not.

    That’s not necessarily because sentience isn’t unusually adaptive. It may just be extremely difficult to develop via natural selection.

  • Froborr

    Which is why I said “no evidence” not “evidence against.”

  • Will Wildman

    The point I appear to have left out: there is no evidence that sentience is an unusually adaptive trait like, for example, eyes.* There is thus no reason to assume that our distant descendents will retain that trait. They might, they might not.

    Keep in mind that evolution in human society is a very different creature from the way it works in the wild. The steady principle of evolution is that factors that increase our chance/ability to reproduce will eventually become more common, but we don’t just allow disadvantaged people to be eaten by wolves (usually) and there’s definitely a weakening correlation between success and reproduction. Brilliant people don’t necessarily have more kids.

    If mutation leads to some people having some amazing new sense (‘smision’!) that would be ridiculously useful in many contexts (“I can smoz a person with hostile intent nearby!”) there’s no social mechanism to make that become more common in the species. Not a lot of people are going to bed that person so that their children can have smision too.

    Evolutionary principles in a controlled society, I would think, are going to more or less ensure humanity stays more or less the same. People with decreasing degrees of sentience are probably not going to be super-successful in reproducing either, so I’d tend to think we’re going to keep it. Not because it’s necessarily adaptive, but because we’ve already got it and so that’s what we expect to keep.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think that’s an accurate description of evolution. We won’t stay the same as a species unless every single person has an equal chance of having exactly 2 fertile offspring. There are still selective pressures, and fitting into a supportive society is one of them.

  • Will Wildman

    Oh, absolutely there are still selective pressures, but the environment is very different from what most people seem to be thinking of when they say ‘natural selection’. There’s relatively little pressure for the stronger/higher/faster traits that are so often favoured in wild animals (and presumably humans until relatively recently) and plenty of pressure for effective social interaction. ‘Fitting into a supportive society’ is definitely key, and it’s for exactly that reason that I say I think sapience (thanks to TheFaithfulStone for the correction) is pretty much guaranteed to stick around.

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t trying to disagree with you, but to just describe it in a different way. The truth is that “fittest” doesn’t always equal strongest and fastest, and I think that’s a big problem in the way evolution is taught in schools (when it is taught at all). The selective pressures on humans are very different now than they were thousands of years ago, but even for other species, being strong and fast are not the most important selective traits, and sometimes those trait are even detrimental. I think most people don’t really look at it that way though.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Fitting into a supportive society has, incidentally, been key for quite a while, and is integral to the fitness strategies of many nonhumans as well.

  • Froborr

    Keep in mind that evolution in human society is a very different creature from the way it works in the wild.

    This is largely a myth, for several reasons.

    1) Natural selection still applies, particularly in the realm of vulnerability to disease. Our very low genetic diversity for our population size makes us extremely vulnerable to epidemics, which you may have noticed still kill people. Also, a relatively small advantage in reproductive output can be magnified quite a bit over time; this is key to understanding why unused features become vestigial: Neither Proto-ape 1 nor proto-ape 2 use their tails. Proto-ape 2 has a slightly smaller tail, which therefore uses slightly less energy to maintain, increasing the energy proto-ape 2 has to devote to reproduction. Proto-ape 2, in its lifetime, mates *once* more than proto-ape 1 as a result. But on average, proto-ape 2’s offspring all mate once more than proto-ape 1’s offspring… and pretty soon the small-tail trait is spread through an overwhelming majority of the population. And then mutant proto-ape 3 shows up with an even smaller tail…

    2) Sexual selection still applies, and is probably the reason we’re as smart as we are. It takes little more than chimp intelligence to build the stone tools and fire we used to conquer the world; it takes far more intelligence than a chimp to navigate our complex social hierarchies and courtship rituals. This could have interesting effects in the long run; for example, if the super-skinny standard of beauty dominated the world for a hundred generations, would future humans be less efficient at converting unneeded food into body fat?

    3) Genetic drift still applies. In the absence of selection pressures, populations don’t stay static; they drift at random as new genes appear and spread.

    4) Civilizations fall. A lot of the reasons given for why “evolution doesn’t apply to humans” assume that most of humanity will live at current Western standards or better for the rest of time. This seems… ahistorical, to say the least.

  • Will Wildman

    I didn’t say evolution doesn’t apply, I said it’s different. Taking your for-example for example:

    if the super-skinny standard of beauty dominated the world for a hundred generations, would future humans be less efficient at converting unneeded food into body fat?

    The standard of beauty doesn’t necessarily correlate to reproduction. It only works if people who meet the standard of beauty reproduce more than those who don’t. Is there any indication that this is actually the case?

    3) Genetic drift still applies. In the absence of selection pressures, populations don’t stay static; they drift at random as new genes appear and spread.

    It’s going to take a whole lot of spreading* take some substantial pressures to cause a random gene with no clear advantage to start appearing in a geographically-scattered population of 7 billion people. Mutation still exists, obviously, but the whole principle as you outline in (1) is ‘if it’s not needed, it’s not going to stay’.

    *Wow, that original version of the sentence went in an unexpected direction.

    4) Civilizations fall. A lot of the reasons given for why “evolution doesn’t apply to humans” assume that most of humanity will live at current Western standards or better for the rest of time.

    Granted, but that would be a substantial change in environment. And the assertion that ‘civilisations fall’ is obviously true, but extremely broad. In order to see a shift away from a lot of current societal/evolutionary pressures, we would need to see a dramatic collapse of a vast number of societies across the world. It could happen, but – well, lots of things could happen. It seems strange to presuppose that societal structures won’t trend towards their own stability as well.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > Sexual selection still applies, and is probably the reason we’re as smart as we are.

    I would distinguish here between sexual selection in particular, and the more general fitness effects of being successful at tribal politics (that is, establishing and maintaining status and alliances).

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm… I bet you mean “sapience” since “sentience” has evolved a whole, whole bunch. Also, “sapience” has evolved multiple times (at least twice) arguably four or five times. If you use the mirror test then there are about half a dozen “sapient” creatures (capable of metacognition.)

    Anyway, point being, there is no “test” you can apply that a human can pass that some other animal can’t also pass. The main difference between the human species and any other smart-but-not-as-smart-as-us species is our position as Apex Predator A#1.

    Now, you could argue that being as smart as WE are doesn’t really serve us any good, and that it’s basically a runaway sexual selection trait, but being a particular amount of smart IS actually pretty adaptive, and as long as it is at least somewhat adaptive, I think you’d find that the potential for a selection cascade like that is pretty high.

  • Caravelle

    The point I appear to have left out: there is no evidence that sentience is an unusually adaptive trait like, for example, eyes.* There is thus no reason to assume that our distant descendents will retain that trait. They might, they might not.

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “unusually” adaptive trait. And clearly we haven’t been around for long, it’s a bit early to tell if we have any staying power, evolutionarily speaking. But seriously. Humans have spread everywhere on the globe, in a great diversity of habitats. There’s reason to think every time they came into a new ecosystem they proceeded to kick its ass wreak havoc exert some influence, possibly contributing to or even causing the extinction of lots of megafauna for example.

    And that’s *before* they developed agriculture. We’re launching a new geological era at the moment.

    I hate anthropocentrism as much as anybody but surely if we saw a species of rat or dinosaur have this spread and impact we’d be saying “whatever characteristic they evolved, it was adaptive dynamite”.

    Moreover there is a range in the level of intelligence in animals today and while the dumber ones do fine (just like there are those with terrible eyesight that do fine), dolphins, parrots and crows aren’t doing too badly either.
    When we let them at least, which is another issue entirely…

    Basically I think there’s some conceptual space between “Intelligence Is Speshul and we’re the pinnacle of it” and “sentience is a random trait we happen to have right now, dunno if it’s even adaptive”.

    This doesn’t mean we’ll continue to evolve the way we did before agriculture, the environment has changed. But even there I don’t know what change it would take to make sentience no longer adaptive for us. It could happen but I don’t think it’s justified to assume it as a default. When arguing against someone who thinks Humans Are Special and will never never change except if we become Giant-Brained Future Humans then yeah, a dose of humility and reality-check is warranted. But when seriously thinking of how the future might look like I don’t think sentience can be dismissed that easily.

  • Froborr

    @Caravelle and Will:

    We’re talking here about 600 million to a billion years in the future. That’s a long time even on geological scales! 600 million years ago there was no life on land and no such thing as bones. A billion years ago there wasn’t even multicellularity! We have no idea what life will be like that far in the future, except for the near-certainty that it will be nothing like life now. So yes, there might be sentience in that future, but we cannot know for sure. So I stand by my assertion that any justification for action predicated on the assumption that our descendents will be present, sentient, and technologically advanced enough to make starships in 600 million years is kind of ridiculous. Especially when there’s a much better justification closer to hand.

    As for how sentience could become maladaptive, it may already have done so. The invention of the canoe basically eliminated most or all geographic barriers between human breeding populations, allowing new genes to spread very rapidly across the globe. The result is that, for our population size and dispersal, we are extremely genetically homogenous (of large mammals, only the big cats are comparably homogenous, and it’s hard to tell if that’s natural or a result of us killing most of them). Combine that with our tendency to cluster in settlements of thousands to millions of individuals, and travel frequently between those settlements, and you get a species unusually susceptible to epidemics and pandemics.

  • Caravelle

    So I stand by my assertion that any justification for action predicated on the assumption that our descendents will be present, sentient, and technologically advanced enough to make starships in 600 million years is kind of ridiculous.

    That I totally agree with.

    As for how sentience could become maladaptive, it may already have done so.

    None of what you say in the following paragraph shows sentience has become maladaptive. I don’t see how any of the specific issues you mention create an environment where sentience is maladaptive, and if you mean that those issues arose because of our sentience and they might drive us to extinction… Well, even if we did go extinct I don’t see how it would make sentience maladaptive. For one thing we’re just one data point. For another, photosynthetic organisms had the potential to destroy all life on Earth back in the day if oxygen-breathing life hadn’t arisen, does that make photosynthesis maladaptive ?

  • Froborr

    Um, if we go extinct as a consequence of our sentience, then yes, it was maladaptive for us. That’s kind of what maladaptive means. It’s really only something you can measure in hindsight.

  • Caravelle

    Um, if we go extinct as a consequence of our sentience, then yes, it was maladaptive for us. That’s kind of what maladaptive means. It’s really only something you can measure in hindsight.

    I disagree but I don’t really know how to explain it. I think it’s an individual vs group selection thing. Or we might be using different meanings for “adaptive”.
    I will point out that’s a huge “if” though (not that we’ll go extinct, but that it will be as a consequence of our sentience – at least in a less trivial way than “everything we do is a consequence of our sentience” of course), considering you said sentience may have already become maladaptive.

    lso, adaptivity is something that changes as the environment changes–a change adaptive in one environment may be maladaptive in another. And the environment never stops changing, so…

    I don’t see how that’s a response to anything I said that I haven’t addressed already; if you meant it as a general point then cool. If you were responding to something specific you want me to bounce back on I’ll have to know what it was.

  • Froborr

    Also, adaptivity is something that changes as the environment changes–a change adaptive in one environment may be maladaptive in another. And the environment never stops changing, so…

  • Ezra

    Not 35 square miles… 35×35, which would be 1,225 square miles…

  • Anonymous

    Lowering the population would help.

  • Tehanu

    My favorite version of the song is the Chad Mitchell Trio’s on their first Mercury album, “Mighty Day on Campus.” A great live performance.

    This is such a heartbreaking post. As Loki100 points out, if the already rich can’t get richer, it doesn’t happen any more. And alaspoorwho: sure, we need to restructure our whole society, yadda yadda yadda … but that’s even less likely to happen in light of who really owns it, isn’t it?

  • Anonymous

    If we stop patronizing the big corporations, they will run out of money and fold like a house of cards. Can we?

  • Anonymous

    See the “A” on the map above? Make a solar array about that size — 35 miles by 35 miles — and you can power the entire United States. Period. Day or night, winter or summer, rain or shine. No emissions, no pollution, no risk of radiation, no dependence on oil, coal, gas, no damage to the environment.

    I assume that he’s referring to the hypothetical area that needs to be covered by solar panels, and not a literal 35 by 35 mile square? That’s like saying that we could fit the entire human population on the island of Madagascar.

    If you put your solar all in one place like that, then it’s all going to experience the day/night cycle (and cloudy weather) at the same time. Moreover, solar arrays (particularly photovoltaic arrays) are really not that efficient, and they generally lose some of their power output over time even without weather damage and the like. And let’s not get into the issue of transmission losses in sending power over very long distances.

    And if we did it — if we invested in it and made it happen — I think it would fix a huge number of our domestic problems: the economic ones, the employment ones, the manufacturing ones, etc.

    You can’t really build your way out of structural economic issues (including declines in manufacturing employment that are caused by technology and outsourcing) with subsidized infrastructure projects. Japan tried that in the 1990s, and it just left them with a gigantic pile of debt and countless pieces of pointless construction like this particular bridge to nowhere

    But that’s never going to happen. Won’t even be tried.

    That’s for the best. What we need are smart infrastructure and economic policies, not “roll up your sleeves” ideas.

  • Matri

    That’s for the best. What we need are smart infrastructure and economic policies, not “roll up your sleeves” ideas.

    See, the thing is, the Republicans have been effectively blocking each and every “smart infrastructure and economic” policy for the past decade, while at the same time trumpeting the values of the “roll up your sleeves” ideas.

    And look what happened.

  • Anonymous

    You are half right. We need to completely restructure our economy. Capital markets have outlived their usefulness. We need a regionally sustainable economy based on worker-owned and worker-run businesses whose purpose is not only profit but good jobs.
    However, we also need to support innovation in sustainable energy: we know from personal experience that no one is helping “garage inventors” make new improvements in solar, wind, or geothermal. Obama’s help for solar is only for companies who already have over a hundred employees — that is, they are not interested in truly new ideas. We are inventing something that will revolutionize solar energy. but we are going to have to hand-make them one at a time.

  • Michael P

    I’ve been to Galveston, visited the museum dedicated to the hurricane (located, appropriately, in one of the few buildings to survive it), and walked along the seawall. It’s just as impressive to look at as it is to read about.

  • http://twitter.com/Ethawyn Kevin Greenlee

    The thought that God uses disasters to punishsend messages is sad (didn’t He say something about never sending a flood again to punish the wicket?). The thought that we can interpret whose being punished is sadder still.

    And it’s an inspiring story to here people working together to rebuild a city like that.

    But…

    As Guest has hinted, a local city, with the force of its people coming together to rebuild is a lesson against small government? Huh? Isn’t that the very nature of small government? People banding together to accomplish things, the power of a locality, etc.

  • Anonymous

    (didn’t He say something about never sending a flood again to punish the wicket?)

    Nope, when the wicket needs punishing He sends a cricket ball.

    As Guest has hinted, a local city, with the force of its people coming together to rebuild is a lesson against small government? Huh?

    I don’t think that’s a parallel Fred draws in his post. He mourns the fact that our ambitions and our dreams as a nation, as a group of people, are ever so much smaller than the vision that lifted Galveston above sea level, or put a select few men on the moon, or build the Golden Gate Bridge.

  • http://twitter.com/Ethawyn Kevin Greenlee

    I think that’s an appropriate punishment for those awful awful wikets.

    I do think you’re correct that the majority of Fred’s point is about a loss of ambition. I’m not sure it’s true, but bemoaning the lost days of yore is nothing new, and Fred’s entitled to a bit of it. He does however make on off hand comment about “small government” and that was what I was responding to.

  • kirenos

    Be careful with that mallet – don’t you dare punish my wicked.
    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

  • Donalbain

    The thought that God uses disasters to punishsend messages is sad (didn’t He say something about never sending a flood again to punish the wicket?).

    The bastard lied, as everyone who watches cricket in England would know.

  • Shay Guy

    Part of the problem, as this comment thread is already showing, is an artificial distinction between “the people” and “the government.”

  • Anonymous

    This Christmas I got my son a toy space shuttle and he has been ecstatic. As a result, I’ve been looking at NASA more than I have in the last 15 years. It makes me sad that we have so little vision now we can’t even get a man into orbit any more. We need to hitch rides on 50 year old Soviet capsules. At this point I’d be happen to see something as interesting as Voyager or Mars Rover.
    If the money was going to do anything besides Paris Hilton’s tax cuts and flattening Afghanistan, I might approve, but no. That is how stunted we are. We cut everything else. We might as well be 18th century Spain.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Maybe a pre-determined amount automatically deducted from your pay check, proportional to your ability to pay, adjusted so that the people able to afford a larger proportion pay a larger proportion? That seems reasonable and fair.

    Maybe to YOU, Commie! You just want to steal all those lovely hard working rich people’s money to give it to poor people to fritter away on nonsense like food and shelter! In fact the poor get so much more out of the government that THEY should pay a higher proportion of their income back!

    (The fact that every western country I am aware of has a political party and/or movement that honestly believes the above really does make me despair. Just how greedy do you have to be to resent, for example, poor children being prevented from starving?)

  • Thartti

    Just how greedy do you have to be to resent, for example, poor children being prevented from starving?

    Extremely greedy; however, if you reframe the same concept in terms of responsibility – “It’s parent’s personal responsibility to provide for their children” – then opposing feeding those children from tax money becomes not only tolerable, but actually the _noble thing to do. You aren’t advocating leaving children to starve, you are _sticking to your principles_ and defending _freedom_!

    This is the very same thing Nazi SS-troops did during the Holocaust: when their consciences bothered them, they took _pride_ on that precisely because they soldiered on and continued their work for the Fatherland. Lesser men might have been overcome by pity and horror, but these elite heroes were made of sterner stuff, and conquered such human weaknesses as hesitating to send children to gas chambers!

    It’s the same shit all over again: a hardened heart is taken as a sign of pride rather than a mark of an unrepentent malefactor. And, to add bitter irony to the matter, the right-wing crowd doing this is also crazy about Christianity, who’s _most basic_ idea is that a heart of stone is a _bad thing_ and required drastic action from God to deal with, that action being Jesus. In other words, the most vocal advocates of Christianity are basically glorifying their own sinful nature – their own capacity for evil – and taking pride in it.

    Anyway, the rest of us _must_ stop these people, because this worship of hardness has _always_ led to disaster whenever it has reared its head. And how could it do otherwise; how could you not bring disaster to those around you if you revel in not being moved by their misery? How could you be anything but a blight upon the world if you need to keep on bringing harm to others to keep on proving your hardness to yourself?

  • Anonymous

    It dovetails to with it being the 100th anniversary of the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed all those girls. A big documentary has just been released about it. It’s a timely message. Because it shows that the market will in fact not police itself. That unless you have unions and regulations saying “No you can’t keep the stairwells locked” and “Yes, you have to put in sprinklers” the market is not going to do either.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    And on top of what you mention, there also has to be enforcement of those regulations. A lesson that the UK may be about to learn the hard way with the current government cutting the budget of the Health and Safety Executive so harshly that they’re planning to just give up on inspecting whole sectors of the economy.

  • Froborr

    Isn’t it interesting how the U.S. and U.K. keep becoming objectively worse places for anyone not rich, at exactly the same time and in direct proportion to the rightward shift of both nations’ politics?

    And by interesting, of course, I mean heart-breaking.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    You’d think we’d have learned SOMETHING from the 1980s. Sadly, it appears that the only people taking notes were the marketers working for the right.

  • Anonymous

    Too bad we didn’t learn much from the 1930s. Or have we just forgotten it?

  • Anonymous

    Why can’t we just kick out all the rich and start over with a country run of the People, by the People and for the People? :-)

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    You know, Fred’s example of the map marker comes up in an episode of The West Wing, and is a good example of the Strawman Liberal TV Trope: when one of the regulars points out that the square they’ve drawn on the map covers Las Vegas, the people making the proposal say that Las Vegas deserves destruction for wasting electricity.

    It’s very strange to me that those Liberal Hollywood Elites keep on portraying liberals as the ones who, when you point out that their plan will hurt some people, loudly unperson the people hurt and insist that they deserve it. It’s almost as if Hollywood isn’t so much run by a “liberal elite” as by “an elite who aren’t liberal at all, but like to help rich liberals feel good about themselves”

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I was born and raised in Seattle, and I live there still. Maybe this was not the same scale or feat of engineering as described above, but I grew up hearing stories about how my hometown did something very similar in the early years of the twentith century. A lot of the waterfront areas in Seattle are the result of a massive regrading project which drastically raised the street level. You can still see some old signs of that, in fact. A lot of the older waterfront buildings actually have their street level entrances on what was originally their second floor. A lot of the sidewalks in that area have skylights on the surface made out of bricks of old, cheap, cloudy glass, designed to allow light to filter down to the original street level below which was still in use until the entire multi-year regrading project was complete. There are a lot of stairways coming off the sidewalks going down to what is now the basement level of these buildings, but was originally a way to get between the ground level sidewalk and the newer second-floor sidewalk. Some of the old underground infrastructure is still there and a private mueasm gives tours down there (I recommend the after hours tour as it includes a free cocktail.) An old local joke is that Seattle is like the king in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who kept building castles at the same place in the swamp, with each castle sinking until finally one castle, built upon the sunken others, finally stayed up.

    The point that I am trying to get to is that I grew up assuming that this kind of thing just happened. I knew it was possible, and difficult, but I figured that any society in the same circumstances would have done whatever massive project that they needed to precisely because they needed to. It was perfectly doable, even if it was incredible on the surface of it. Heck, the whole Apollo Program was another example. The limiting factor, unfortunately, is will. Much as in war, it is often the collective will of the people which is necessary for these kinds of things to happen. Unfortunately, as a nation we have a lot of interests inside of it who find it to their benefit to sap this will from people, and have the resources to do so.

  • Freedom-Fighter

    >See the “A” on the map above? Make a solar array about that size — 35 miles by 35 miles — and you can power the entire United States. Period.

    Ah yes, an answer to a complex problem that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong. First, consider the obvious: no one has done it. Greedy businessmen would love nothing more than to have a power station that uses more or less “free” energy. There is plenty of money to be made here. That no one has done it suggests that the cost to benefit ratio is not as high as suggested.

    Remember, too, that we are talking about a single plant, and a single point of failure. Besides that, the electrical grid was never designed to carry electricity from a single point like that.

    >Day or night, winter or summer, rain or shine.

    Bullshit. Solar only works when the sun is shining. Oh, and remember that dust storms wreak havoc on solar.

    >No emissions, no pollution, no risk of radiation, no dependence on oil, coal, gas, no damage to the environment.

    Making photovolatics isn’t pollution-free, and the rare-earth minerals needed to make them come from either African warlords or China (or Chinese businessmen who pay African warlords). The batteries in electric cars need rare-earth minerals, as well. Also, this.

    Froborr:

    >Oh, and if we want people working on this full-time, we’ll have to pay them a living wage, and we’ll need money for equipment and supplies and things, so we should organize some way of pooling a little bit of money from everyone to pay for it. Maybe a pre-determined amount automatically deducted from your pay check, proportional to your ability to pay,

    I don’t see a problem as long as contributions are voluntary. But they aren’t, are they?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Voluntary contributions was tried. No one contributed. Our options were, stay voluntary and have a government unable to do anything for lack of funds, or make contributions mandatory. As a society, based on majority voting, we chose the latter.

  • Anonymous

    Bullshit. Solar only works when the sun is shining. Oh, and remember that dust storms wreak havoc on solar.

    Oh yes, because it’s not like we have any ability to maybe, you know, store energy during periods of abundance to use in leaner times, amirite? Storing energy? That’s completely ridiculous! We could never do anything like that.

  • Froborr

    Actually, we aren’t very good at storing energy. Batteries scale very poorly, and work on super-capacitors is still in an early stage. There are ways around this (“smart grids” that use enormous numbers of smaller batteries, using electricity generated during the day to pump water uphill, then using that to run hydroelectric plants at night) but they’re all pretty much theoretical right now.

  • Anonymous

    So because energy storage isn’t perfect right now, let’s just abandon the whole idea altogether instead of developing better strategies. Yeah, that makes sense.

  • Froborr

    Did I say that? No, I explicitly pointed out avenues of research for improving power storage. Reading comprehension is your friend.

  • Loki100

    First, consider the obvious: no one has done it.

    No one invented the internet until someone did. No one went to the moon until someone did. How ridiculous is it to assert that because something hasn’t happened, it couldn’t happen?

    Greedy businessmen would love nothing more than to have a power station that uses more or less “free” energy.

    Of course they do, that’s why they keep moving to China. China’s communist government gives them “free” energy. Why, it’s almost like this entire “libertarian” ideology is just a facade to mask their real desire which is simple greed. Free energy to power your factory provided by a government: good, free energy to power your consumer’s houses: bad.

    There is plenty of money to be made here.

    No, there is not. That’s sort of the point. To build this array would entail massive costs, for little benefits. Not to mention the energy industry would throw a giant political hissy fit, and as they own around 1/6th of congress, they’d win.

    That no one has done it suggests that the cost to benefit ratio is not as high as suggested.

    When factoring the extreme degrees of profit that multinational require to do anything, possibly.

    Remember, too, that we are talking about a single plant, and a single point of failure. Besides that, the electrical grid was never designed to carry electricity from a single point like that.

    Our national electrical grid, like virtually our entire infrastructure has not been updated in decades and is in complete disrepair. Updating it is, in fact, going to be a complete necessity fairly soon.

    I don’t see a problem as long as contributions are voluntary. But they aren’t, are they?

    Why, imagine that! When everyone benefits from some piece of infrastructure, everyone pays for it! Hey, remember my whole point about China earlier?

  • PJ Evans

    I suspect they wouldn’t build it as a single-point system anyway. I think that Fred was using that as an example of how much energy the sun puts out (and that we could use, by, say, putting solar panels on roofs all over the country, and get as much, if not more, area covered, and do it where the consumption is).

  • Caravelle

    I suspect they wouldn’t build it as a single-point system anyway.

    In fact one important point about wind/solar versus nuclear (or the current system) is that they come with very different distribution systems. The former working best when they’re not centralized. I think all those “cover X area in Y place” arguments are mostly proofs of concept, not actual policy prescriptions.
    That said if the math on this specific one doesn’t work out (and I’ve seen a few comments saying it didn’t, and none showing that it did, but I might just have missed it) then it shouldn’t be used.

    and that we could use, by, say, putting solar panels on roofs all over the country, and get as much, if not more, area covered, and do it where the consumption is

    It does it where the consumption is, but not where the sun is. I’m sure there’s a middle ground between using existing structures and optimising the system a bit.

  • PJ Evans

    The newer photovoltaics don’t require the bright sunshine as much. (Think low-light solar calculators, for one example.) Actually, unless it’s dark out, you’ll get at least some electricity. (I’m in favor of using whatever works best: areas with lots of clouds may be better for hydroelectric and tidal power. Wind, maybe not so much: it’s more tied to topography.)

  • tf

    If they were voluntary, no one would contribute. We’ve tried that already and it failed. Remember the Articles of Confederation? States voluntarily paid for things, and therefore, rarely did. And because of that, there wasn’t enough of a militia to defend the country or keep it together. Hence, the ratification of the Constitution.

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t say it’s a high priority to me to “live in an expanding and technologically advancing society”. More and more people are being left behind by that progress. It’s not sustainable. And I don’t think it’s a good idea, morally, to keep insisting that humans have the right to use up the entire planet, and then escape the devastation we caused, so we can do the same thing throughout the universe. Because limits are for suckers, not special snowflakes like us.

    In fact, that “reasoning” proclaimed to me by my (Catholic) mother as divinely ordained is why I left Christianity for Paganism, which cares about the planet and non-humans, as well as humans.

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t say it’s a high priority to me to “live in an expanding and technologically advancing society”.

    Oh, goody my very first slacktivist privilege check! I believe you say this because you don’t understand what it entails. I don’t really mean a society where we get more techno-doodads every year, I mean a society where opportunity and wealth expand. Having lived in close proximity to such a society for several years, and having known many of it’s members, I can tell you that on good authority that your “job” (if you had one) would be the same as your parents job (if they had one.) If you were female you would probably be pregnant (it’s an adaptive strategy.) You wouldn’t have access to any information where you get to do something as first world as “leave Catholicism” and you certainly wouldn’t be having this argument with me on the internet. Your ambition and your intellect count for exactly nothing. If you have ideas, they’re worthless, if you have dreams, forget them.

    Societies that don’t grow and advance are totalitarian dystopias. In fact that’s basically the whole point of 1984.

  • PJ Evans

    You seem to be assuming that newer is always better, and that opportunity and wealth expand, and that isn’t so.

  • http://twitter.com/maradydd Meredith L Patterson

    No, I don’t think so; I think a more accurate paraphrasing of his argument would be to say that technological advancement is necessary but not sufficient to expand opportunity and wealth. Channeling Evgeny Morozov for a moment, airdropping iPhones on North Korea wouldn’t be sufficient to substantially improve the lives of North Koreans unless accompanied by additional changes (which, if undertaken alone, would also dramatically improve the lives of North Koreans). But that said — in places that aren’t such lifeboat scenarios, technological advancement and improved access to technology do have real, significant impacts on the lives of even the poorest. Homeless people don’t get cellphones as status symbols — they get cellphones because that’s a portable, affordable way to stay in contact with the rest of the world (family, potential employers, &c) without experiencing the indignity of having to share a phone at the shelter.

    I do think that as people who have benefited from numerous advancements in technology, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how to make those benefits more readily accessible to people who don’t have the resources and privileges we do. There’s a market in doing that; would that more people were paying attention.

  • Anonymous

    then escape the devastation we caused, so we can do the same thing throughout the universe. Because limits are for suckers, not special snowflakes like us.

    That likely won’t happen, for a couple of reasons:

    1. Humanity already heading towards equilibrium in certain ways, particularly population growth. Even most of the Developing World is going through the Demographic Transition, with birth-rates dropping down to and below the replacement level. Barring the discovery of some Immortality Drug or all of us getting turned into immortal transhuman cyborgs, the human population will level off sometime in the late 21st century. After the massive bulge of old people die off, it will then drastically shrink.

    2. Interstellar travel is really, really hard. I’m pessimistic about actual humans ever doing it.

    That in mind, most of humanity is heavily benefiting from the current situation. We tend to look at some of the losses, like left-behind areas in the Rust Belt, and ignore the huge gains in income, wealth, and living standards for much of humanity in the past two decades (particularly in East and South Asia).

  • Anonymous

    Interstellar travel is really, really hard. I’m pessimistic about actual humans ever doing it.

    Unless, of course, someone discovers an immortality pill or we all get turned into immortal transhuman cyborgs. 8-)

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I’m always amused when people talk about human immortality, because it’s one of those goals we can never really know if we’ve achieved.

    I mean, even assuming we develop the technology tomorrow and manage to universally distribute it over the next sixty years, what we will see is a gradual decline of the death rate and an increase in human longevity, until by 2100 or so it has been a few decades since the last person died of old age, but we really won’t know whether anyone’s immortal or just had their lifespan extended to, say, 150. Or 250. How would we know?

    I envision an entire planet of people, slowly growing older, just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Anyway… I’m all for cultured organ growth and substitution, but I suspect that it won’t be more than 50 years after we solve that problem in practice before we’re making significant progress on regrowth-in-place as an alternative (that is, repairing the existing organ rather than replacing it).

    I’m also hoping that by then we’ve started to see practical paths to encoding human memory and personality onto nonorganic substrates, which will open up a lot more paths.

  • Anonymous

    It would need to be more of a “cultured tissue” thing, where they can pretty much replace any form of tissue/organ in your body without killing, but that would definitely be part of getting towards immortality.

  • Anonymous

    . Interstellar travel is really, really hard. I’m pessimistic about actual humans ever doing it.

    For twentieth century humans, or even any human technology we can really imagine figuring out, yeah probably. I think you need to look at this on the time scale of “could an ancient Egyptian invent the Internet?” We’re actually a little beyond that in that we know what the unknowns are, and have some idea of the challenge of it.

    Because, really what we have are a few substantial (but not impossible) engineering challenges, and some currently impossible economic ones.

  • Guest

    You know, it isn’t really hard to make a concrete contrast between 1900 and today (this comment seems to be from 2010) –
    ‘Galveston relies on tourism, health care and shipping for its economy. Unfortunately, Galveston has experienced a series of devastating hurricanes and the effects of them are seen in the lack of economic development. Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in September of 2008 and the community is still recovering.

    There are some beautiful historical buildings and homes in Galveston. But the downtown and port areas looked like a ghost town with dilapidated buildings and hauntingly quiet streets and neighborhoods. Once we left the downtown and headed down the oceanfront boulevard toward the tourist attractions we observed many signs of rebuilding among the devastation. Hopefully Galveston, will get a break from the natural disasters and be able to rebuild into a vibrant tourist destination and home to those who want to live on the water. Here are a few samples of the oceanfront homes of Galveston.’
    http://activerain.com/blogsview/1852094/galveston-texas-rebuilding-after-hurricane-ike

    Only the part least important to an actual city has been somewhat repaired – that is, the Hollywood set for tourists and the seaside view for those who can afford the insurance to ensure that even after the next hurricane, they can keep that ocean front property.

    But then, the destruction and following lackadaisical ‘reconstruction’ of Galveston just don’t really make the American news. What America has truly become skilled at is forgetting what it used to be.

  • Guest

    Oh – I should add that comment is from a real estate agent – notice that last line? In other words, that is the most optimistic framing possible, using that special brand of American rose colored glasses, and not the most pessimistic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Derek-Lyons/792600829 Derek Lyons

    “See the “A” on the map above? Make a solar array about that size — 35 miles by 35 miles — and you can power the entire United States. Period. Day or night, winter or summer, rain or shine.”

    Yeah! Those solar panels than can generate power at night and at full efficiency under a cloudy and rainy sky are wonderful aren’t they?

    Oh, wait.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, because if something doesn’t work at 100% efficiency 100% of the time, then we should just dump it in the garbage and never use it at all because it’s useless, amirite?

  • Guest

    ‘I do think you’re correct that the majority of Fred’s point is about a loss of ambition. I’m not sure it’s true, but bemoaning the lost days of yore is nothing new, and Fred’s entitled to a bit of it.’

    Well, there is another aspect to this – it is the U.S. that seems to have lost its ambition, but many Americans seem unaware that the U.S. is not the world. Germany currently gets 17% of its power from renewable sources, and makes a lot of money exporting such technology worldwide. Yes, those poor misguided Germans – making money from windpower, both by generating electricity domestically and by selling such equipment to places like China, for example, while many Americans confidently state that this reality is simply not imaginable, and thus impossible.

    The U.S. seems to shrug at such provably profitable long terms ventures, and turns to destroying mountains as a practical method for mining coal. Which is also a long term project, though of destruction – after all, the mountains aren’t coming back after the coal seams are removed and burned. But who cares? Somebody profited somewhere, and that is apparently more than sufficient justification in the U.S. Or North America – a Florida sized region of Canada is also being ‘processed’ for oil – mainly because these days, it makes economic sense to. Makes one wonder whether ‘economic sense’ is an oxymoron when it involves large scale destruction.

    It isn’t just yearning for a better past – it is also yearning for a better future, something too many people in the U.S. seem incapable of imagining, beyond a narrowly selfish perspective of ‘I’ve get mine, you’re on your own.’

  • http://twitter.com/Ethawyn Kevin Greenlee

    Fair enough. I still think he’s wrong about lost ambition. I’m pretty sure Americans have plenty of big dreams and ambition, they’re just dreams and ambitions different than the things you or I or Fred value.

    Now that doesn’t make them right, but I don’t think you can simply chalk it up to us being “smaller people.”

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    I guess I’ll be the one to crunch the numbers. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, as much as I can. One of his problems is that he gives his power generation numbers in Watts (W), rather than kilowatt hours (kWh) or similar term. So for his argument, I’ll use watt years, which is about 8.76 kWh. Thus his 700 W would become 6136 kWh for each square meter. While I am rounding off my numbers, I will be performing calculations with basically unrounded numbers.

    A 35 mi X 35 mi square is 1225 sq mi= 3.17 × 10^9 sq m
    3.17 × 10^9 sq m * 6136 kWh/sq m = 1.95 * 10^13 kWh (19,500,000,000,000).
    1.95*10^13 kWh * .19 (efficiency factor) = 3,698,943,427,000 kWh

    The US’s annual power consumption as of 2005 was 100 quads, roughly equivalent to 29,308,300,000,000 kWh. So we would need roughly 8 times the land area he suggests there.

    That comes out to… 9800 sq. mi. To give a comparison, the state of Massachusetts is 10,555 sq. mi.

    If we just take him at his word and consider instead the direct US power consumption in watts, it’s slightly more, coming out to around 12,000 sq mi.

    To examine it as a function of cost? According to a random website I found promoting solar cell use (and thus inclined to generally understate the cost), the best deals cost roughly $4.30/W . America uses over 4 terawatts each year. Basic math there would suggest that even if we could quarter the price per watt, this project would cost over 4 trillion dollars in solar cells alone.

    According to a website I found with the NASA budget level from 1959-1969, the cumulative total was ~36 billion dollars. According to the inflation calculator (runnning it from 1959), this amount is roughly the equivalent of ~260 billion modern dollars.

    Wheee number crunching. Whlie I basically agree with his stance, his numbers need a bit of work.

  • danA

    Ravanan,

    I keep ending up with a different set of figures calculating from base.

    Judging by the Wikipedia page (not a good source) and some sources from solar panel merchants (also not good sources – beware the numbers) the average daily insolation in the highest exposure areas in the US runs between 6.5 and 7.0 kWh/square meter/day (I think 700 W/m is an average daytime figure). Taking a low figure of 6.5, you end up with only 2372.5 kWh total incident radiation per year. Using 19% efficient solar cells you end up with ~450 (450.77) kWh/m2/year.

    In the US, electricity consumption in 2009 was 3,741 billion kWh. Guessing that in the future it will go to about 4 trillion kWh/year. So, given 450 kWh/m2/year, this means we need 8.8889 billion square meters of desert in a high radiation zone. Round that to 9 billion square meters. Which is 9000 square kilometers, or about 3500 square miles, an area larger than Delaware, and about 3% of Arizona.

    The number we disagree on is the electricity consumption figure, and I’m not sure which is right. The EIA insists that the US uses about 29 trillion kWh/year of total energy, but that we only produce about 4 trillion kWh/year of electricity. The 4 trillion figure matches with the World Bank’s World Development Indicators figure of electricity consumption per capita, but doesn’t make any sense given that the EIA also says that 41% of that 29 kWh/year goes into electricity production.

    My hypothesis is that the EIA figures for total energy consumption do not include efficiency factors. 22% of total energy usage in the US is coal, and 91% of that goes for electricity, which alone would be 6 trillion kWh/year. But adding a 30% efficiency factor for coal generation would give 1.8 trillion kWh/year – which happens to be more or less in line with their electricity production figure of 3.7 trillion kWh/year. It looks like the solar calculations already take this into account by adding their panel efficiencies, so I think that for now the 4 trillion kWh/year is a more effective number. So, he’s still wrong, but maybe not by quite as much.

    I think the big thing to be excited about here, in terms of money being put into the project, is the future advances we could see. Although 19% is the current commercial norm, solar cells with greater then 40% efficiency have already been produced by more outlandish methods (29% I guess is the theoretical maximum for our current commercial products). Managing to totally break the mold and go up to 60% reduces our area by three, down to a more manageable 3000 square kilometers (apparently you can’t go above 86%, although I haven’t checked that number myself).

    In the short term I don’t much like the idea of putting a giant solar array in the middle of Nevada – I think it will be more practical to put a lot of smaller arrays in various warm places to act the same way power plants do on the grid now. But I think eventually we’ll either start putting the arrays on the ocean, or in space, and then we can produce tremendous amounts of power.

  • Jam

    before I even read the article or now before I have read any comments, I was struck by the truth of Fred’s title. Decades ago when I taught adult Sunday School, I used to tell the learners that there was big truth and little truth and they should never settle for the little truth. Fred just told a great big truth

  • Anonymous

    Disasters do seem to bring out the best in nuns:
    http://qtown.info/18/
    http://www.myspace.com/idgyvaughn/blog/239029638

  • Will Wildman

    Freedom Fighter: On the subject of ‘if it were profitable, someone would have done it by now’, I offer you a joke among actual economists. Two people are walking down the street. One of them steps over a $20 bill and keeps going without breaking their stride. The other one says “Hey, that was a $20 bill we just passed by.” The one who walked over it says “Can’t be, someone would have picked it up by now.”

    In addition to the good points people have already made (such as ‘batteries exist’, which I would have thought was obvious even to anti-solar devotees), it’s worth noting that there’s more than just solar to be used. Right now the US is powered by all sorts of things – oil, coal, hydro, nuclear, even some solar and wind (and geothermal?) in small measures. For some reason, it seems like the status-quo-fetishists demand that any new solution be a perfect solution that replaces all other energy sources with one perfect source (and since that’s impossible, nothing must ever change).

    It’s far more likely that the proportions will slowly shift. The US puts in the infrastructure to access, say, less than 10% of its windpower capacity (say 10% of the total potential in the 10 windiest states) and takes a big chunk out of coal use. A few major solar stations get scattered through the deserts and another raft of coal-burning stations shut down.

    So, for the ‘your hypothetical isn’t perfect’ naysayers: the 35×35 mile square in Nevada is an illustration, not a blueprint. Complaining about its impracticality is like barging into the school on astronomy day – the teacher is standing there saying that if the Earth were the size of this grape then the Sun would be the size of a VW van and it would be at the other end of the block, that’s how big and far away it is, and the kids are thinking “Wow, that’s big and far away” and you’re complaining that a VW would never have the gravitational pull to sustain a grape in stable orbit. Duh.

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    Froborr beat me to the punch on the batteries thing. To elaborate on it slightly, the battery thing is actually one of the greatest problems in energy production: because we are so bad at storing large amounts of electricity, we currently need enough plants to be able to to instantly generate the peak draw (for every kilowatt second used at the absolute highest load, we need to have power plants producing that many kilowatt seconds).

    @danA OK, fair enough. It’d still be larger than the figure you cite (or, even if I had been using the right numbers, larger than the area I cited), because that number only accounts for the direct production of our required electricity, and doesn’t factor the power it takes to transport that electricity to its intended destination. Meaning that your suggestion about having much smaller solar farms throughout the country is not just a suggestion, it’s a practical necessity.

    @Will Wildman You know, I would have treated it as a simple illustration, if he hadn’t actually started citing numbers. Teachers on Astronomy Day don’t generally talk about calculus when describing to kids planetary orbits, even though it’s integral to our understanding of said orbits. When you start talking about the amount of incident solar radiation and solar panel efficiency percentages, then the suggestions you are making would seem to be by an expert, and an expert better damn well have his numbers right. Furthermore, he is arguing for this as a perfect solution, and I was pointing out that it’s not quite so perfect as he was suggesting. That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the sentiment presented, that we need to increase our renewable energy consumption whlie reducing fossil fuel consumption. I was just pointing out, as the saying goes, that “It’s more complicated than that.”

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > Teachers [..] don’t generally talk about calculus [..] even though it’s integral…

    I see what you did there.

  • PJ Evans

    I thought it was derivative.

  • muteKi

    Now, now, let’s not go off on a tan–

    You know what? I can’t do it. I just can’t. I’ve seen it play out so many times (on account of being a math nerd) and…it’s become too cliche.
    On the other hand I guess it’s because it’s too hard to make a compelling joke about a divergent series.

  • Anonymous

    I know how you feel. There’s a limit to how far that can be taken before the focus is lost.

  • PJ Evans

    In fact, there are power plants that exist only to produce power at times of peak usage. They aren’t huge plants, because they don’t need to be: they’re not running most of the time.

  • Anonymous

    A little bit late, but this is something that I have to address:

    How long a view are we talking here? I mean, for the next several hundred years, yeah excluding oil, it [the Earth] sure is [inexhaustible].

    Excluding oil, helium (the *real* nonrenewable resource! [*]), copper, palladium, platinum, and rhodium (components of catalytic converters), and much much more. One summary of the peak commodity problem can be found here.

    It’s incredibly easy for a non-specialist to be exuberantly optimistic about future technology. And sometimes that optimism is justified (e.g. Moore’s Law). But I think that people often underestimate the amount of work — and the number of scientific breakthroughs — that is needed for “green” technologies to work.

    [*] Helium achieves escape velocity once released into the atmosphere. And liquid helium is essentially the world’s best coolant. It’s used, for example, in MRI instruments and related instruments (NMRs) which are essential for research in chemistry and biochemistry.

  • Anonymous

    It’s incredibly easy for a non-specialist to be exuberantly optimistic about future technology.

    I get accused of this fairly frequently – generally because I don’t believe in no-win situations (Like Captain Kirk, natch) and I don’t really have a defense for it. So we’ll run out of helium, and we’re not going to be building starships within the predictable future. Bad mojo to be sure, but I bet we’ll find a way to make what we’ve got work… I think that it’s more than a unrealistic optimism about technology – more like a semi-religious faith in human ingenuity and inventiveness. I have about 50,000 years of some really phenomenal adaptation backing me up on this, but there’s always a chance the universe will throw us a curve ball we can’t handle – but if it does, it does – if the situation is really no win, then you’re going to lose anyway. But if the situation only APPEARS to be no win, and you throw up your hands, well — then you’re going to lose when you didn’t have to.

    The Florida Marlins are the only team to make up a 3 game and seven run deficit to win pennant. They did it to the Chicago Cubs in 2004. Impossible shit happens all the time. The Cubs haven’t won a world series in over a century – but THIS YEAR, maybe this’ll be the year. Despair in the face of the impossible never proved that it wasn’t impossible after all.

  • Anonymous

    So we’ll run out of helium, and we’re not going to be building starships within the predictable future.  Bad mojo to be sure, but I bet we’ll find a way to make what we’ve got work… Despair in the face of the impossible never proved that it wasn’t impossible after all.

    That’s a really nice false dichotomy you’ve got going there.

    My complaint with technological optimism is that you’ve dismissed better — more feasible — solutions as impossible, and then you’re insisting that saying that your solutions won’t work is despair. Fossil fuels are running out, but God forbid we cut back on energy consumption — economics says that won’t work. Never mind that, with the proper pressure, we could easily cut back on energy consumption — raise prices or make it a patriotic duty. (Imagine if, instead of going to war in random Middle Eastern countries, the response to 9/11 had been in part to tell Americans that our demand for foreign oil was funding terrorism. “When you drive alone, you drive with Bin Laden.” But no — instead we were told to go shopping.) Instead, we hope and pray that researchers develop miracles cheap enough that we’d buy them even if we weren’t running out of oil. They have to be *better* than the alternative, not just necessary. And that’s not necessarily possible.

    My point is not that we won’t survive. We will. But we won’t survive if we intentionally cripple ourselves by insisting only upon technical solutions that appear better even if we ignore the negative externalities that make our current systems so terrible.

  • Anonymous

    Uhh… no. I’ve been saying that you can’t price an externality with an infinite cost. ANY carbon dioxide emissions over what the earth can absorb in a year has a external cost which is basically infinite (eventually) You can’t price that into the market.

    There is a two ton per capita limit per person on yearly CO2 emissions. (That’s the global absorption rate.) The United States currently averages about 20. You’re going to have to reduce per capita CO2 emissions in the United States by an order of magnitude. The entire point of the conversation in fact is people say “no, no, no these big infrastructure projects like building a 35mi x 35mi aren’t going to work, we need to use less!” Using ten times less energy is a JUST AS HEAVY A LIFT, and it goes against the way commodity markets work for that to even make a dent in overall energy production.

    Let’s do a hypothetical:
    You have a car that gets 10mpg, and you need to drive 10miles to work everyday.
    I have a gas station, and I sell you $1 of gas a day for your drive to work. (This gas costs ME $.50.)
    Now, you get a new car that gets 20mpg.
    Now it only costs you $.50 to drive to work, but you’ve still got $1 to spend on gas. Now you can take that cross-country road trip you’ve been dreaming of!

    The solution to this from a conservation perspective is to “make” the gas station charge (taxes, price floor or whatever) you $2. Then you HAVE to get the car that gets 20mpg so that you can keep going to work. Except that in order for this to WORK, the gas station needs to charge you $10 a gallon and you need a car that gets 200mpg. That car doesn’t exist, so you’re back to waiting for a technological hail mary (now, if we were to determine the minimum rate at which we could raise gas to that price without putting everybody out of work, and then do that, maybe we’d invent a 200mpg car, and we’d be set.) (Also if you were to do this too suddenly, you’d also need some pretty draconian penalties for the cheaper black-market gas that’s sure to crop up.)

    Conservation and efficiency are not going to do it by themselves, and if you develop them without ALSO coming up with a way to remove (or price into non-existence) the unpriceable externality, any gains will be subsumed by increased consumption.

    So when people say “the answer is that we all use less!” I’m sort of confused as to whether they are shooting for “We need to reinvent global society!” or “We need regulation and price controls that make the USSR look like a libertarian paradise!” – because that’s the endgame I’m seeing. Frankly, building a 1235 sq-mi solar array in Nevada seems more realistic.

    BTW, as fossil fuels run out and prices increase, we WILL cut back on their use, because it becomes cost effective to do so. I sold my SUV during the last gas crisis, and my hybrid is now paying for itself again.

  • Tehanu

    Replying to Andrew Glasgow (because stupid IE wouldn’t let me do it in the “reply” box):

    You are so right. The whole idea that “voluntary” contributions are so much “better” than contributions mandated by government is another right-wing red herring. If people are going to benefit from something, they have a moral obligation to contribute towards its creation and upkeep — and humans have generally decided that enforcing such a moral obligation is a legitimate function of government. And if somebody really, really objects to that, why, in today’s world they have a “voluntary” method of getting out of paying their fair share: leave. They can emigrate to a place that doesn’t enforce contributions to the greater good, like Somalia. And hopefully they won’t let the door hit their selfish, greedy asses on the way out.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    There’s another reason from the complete opposite end of the political spectrum, Slack.

    You try to build such a solar power array in the middle of nowhere and all the Kyle’s Moms — excuse me, the Concerned and Compassionate Activists — and their lawyers will be coming out of nowhere with their lawsuits to block it. Environmental damage, environmental impact, affirmative action, racism, sexism, gender-ism, species-ism, homphobia, heterophobia, what about the children the children the children, you name it. Tying everything up in the courts and appeals and appeals and appeals until you give up and They Win and go on to their next Holy Cause and doublepluswarmfeelies and their lawyers buy up resorts on the Riviera with their cut. So why bother?

    There’s a book I cannot recommend too highly on this subject: 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by Professor David Gelertner. Written while Professor Gelertner was recovering from one of the Unabombers little packages, the book contrasts the Zeitgeist and prevailing attitudes of 1939 and 1999 (the year of writing) in the form of a fictionalized tour of the New York Worlds Fair. One of his points is that we no longer think big and dare great things; “we have become little fusspot curators.” And that our society has become very passive — “Not that we laze about in our hammocks; we run around in circles screaming. But the end result is the same.” Nothing ever gets accomplished.

  • Loki100

    Oh, look, it’s the strawman! We must be on the yellow brick road…

    You try to build such a solar power array in the middle of nowhere and all the Kyle’s Moms — excuse me, the Concerned and Compassionate Activists — and their lawyers will be coming out of nowhere with their lawsuits to block it. Environmental damage, environmental impact, affirmative action, racism, sexism, gender-ism, species-ism, homphobia, heterophobia, what about the children the children the children, you name it.

    Isn’t the entire point of environmental impact to determine environmental damage? And that would be the entire point of such a study, to find an area large enough to build, sunny enough to capacitate, and which will cause negligible damage. And please, please, please tell me what, exactly, “affirmative action” (which has almost completely been eliminated), “racism,” “sexism,” “gender-ism” (wait, doesn’t “sexism” cover that or do you actually care enough about the difference between “sex” and “gender?”), “species-ism” (wasn’t that covered by that whole crying over environmental impact studies?), “homophobia,” “heterophobia” (please explain to me who, exactly, is discriminating against straight people?), have to do with anything in general, let alone this in specific?

    Ugh. Ridiculous buzzwords thrown out with no concept of what they mean.

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    Okay, much as I’d like to take credit for the horrible math pun, I didn’t even notice it when I was writing that.

  • James Hanley

    I have commented on this post at my blog.

    While I am intrigued by the claims about a 1225 square mile solar array, Mr. Clark fails to ask the relevant questions about the re-building of Galveston. His awe at the grand scope and achievement of the rebuilding project (which is in fact awesome) leads him away from the relevant questions of whether it was a good use of money and whether it was a subsidy for unwise decisions.

  • Anonymous

    “What was the opportunity cost of rebuilding Galveston?” Well, what was the opportunity cost of NOT rebuilding Galveston? A whole bunch of people would lose their homes, for starters. Where conservatives like you misunderstand folk like us is, we don’t just think in dollar signs.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    35 square miles is still…really really big. & would itself require huge toxic emissions to build. & then would basically be the set for a sci-fi thriller “terrorists want to blow up the US solar farm!” but I’m just nitpicking because I AGREE. Investment in infrastructure & innovation is what debt is FOR, & what we ought to be doing. I’m personally still a fan of Fred’s “windmill farms” idea.

  • Mau de Katt

    Seriously? That’s all the solar power acreage we’d need for the entire US of A????

    Wow.

    It’s not just the smallness of the American imagination and spirit that stops it, though — it’s the fact that there are a whole lot of Very Rich People at the Top who would not be getting richer off of that. And they’d lose the money, power, and prestige they currently have by “virtue” of the current fossil-fuel and nuclear power sources and plans that exist today.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “You seem to be assuming that newer is always better, and that opportunity and wealth expand, and that isn’t so.”
    Newer isn’t always better, but ‘the same’ is *never* better. And… yes, actually, opportunity and wealth do expand as prosperity expands.

    “But with humanity around for the long-term, perhaps things will be different. Maybe some trace of what makes Earth a living world will survive.”
    It’s also possible that Earth will end up destroyed entirely – but the biosphere would still survive, having been imported to other worlds – or even the ringworld/array that replaces the Earth.

    “2. Interstellar travel is really, really hard. I’m pessimistic about actual humans ever doing it.” Barring someone inventing some form of FTL, there’s always the ‘slow ship to nowhere’ option. Get a self-sufficient ship, and launch it, on a vague course for a nearby star. It flies along, being self-sufficient, until eventually arriving a thousand some years later. Then it makes more ships, and heads off somewhere else.

    “Wait, are you seriously suggesting that you believe anything remotely resembling what we understand as humanity could still be around in six hundred million years!? Have you seen what life on Earth looked like half a billion years ago? Google “Burgess Shale,” I’ll wait.”
    And yet… there are species that old. Coupled with the power of genetic engineering, and people who *want* to stay in a given form… Alternatively, they could end up quite different physically, but similar enough (though perhaps superior) mentally.

    “Now, you could argue that being as smart as WE are doesn’t really serve us any good, and that it’s basically a runaway sexual selection trait, but being a particular amount of smart IS actually pretty adaptive, and as long as it is at least somewhat adaptive, I think you’d find that the potential for a selection cascade like that is pretty high.”
    ‘Doesn’t serve us any good’? Did you miss the ‘apex predator of the known universe’ thing? I see what you’re trying to argue… and the best you can say is that sapience is *too* successful a trait…

    “2) Sexual selection still applies, and is probably the reason we’re as smart as we are. It takes little more than chimp intelligence to build the stone tools and fire we used to conquer the world; it takes far more intelligence than a chimp to navigate our complex social hierarchies and courtship rituals. This could have interesting effects in the long run; for example, if the super-skinny standard of beauty dominated the world for a hundred generations, would future humans be less efficient at converting unneeded food into body fat?”
    Well, those complex social hierarchies… are useful. And a transhuman would be precisely as efficient at converting unneeded food into body fat as they darn well pleased (and/or made of robot). Also… it’s difficult to concieve of a scenario that where a super-advanced society would *need* to be efficient at converting unneeded food into body fat – that wouldn’t wipe out a more primitive society wholesale.

    “4) Civilizations fall. A lot of the reasons given for why “evolution doesn’t apply to humans” assume that most of humanity will live at current Western standards or better for the rest of time. This seems… ahistorical, to say the least.”
    Civilizations don’t fall so thoroughly they revert from high transhuman to a bestial state. The fall of the Roman Empire was *bad*, but would have to have been several orders of magnitude higher to be that catastrophic.

    “Combine that with our tendency to cluster in settlements of thousands to millions of individuals, and travel frequently between those settlements, and you get a species unusually susceptible to epidemics and pandemics.”
    You also get a species that can tell those pandemics to frack off. A modern human is a lot less susceptible to disease than a beast. A significantly postmodern human has never been ‘sick’, and never will be.

    “So when people say “the answer is that we all use less!” I’m sort of confused as to whether they are shooting for “We need to reinvent global society!” or “We need regulation and price controls that make the USSR look like a libertarian paradise!” – because that’s the endgame I’m seeing. Frankly, building a 1235 sq-mi solar array in Nevada seems more realistic.”
    Yeah. This. You can’t just say ‘conserve!’ and expect it to actually work. If we actually conserved as much as we supposedly need… it’d set us back to third world standards. That huge carbon footprint every American has? Not just waste. Sure, it could be *cut down*, but not eliminated through sheer conservation.
    You could abandon everything that makes modern life modern. You could never go one hundred miles from your home town. You could have no ambition. You could even draw lots to see who gets to starve to death – agriculture is a significant impact, after all…
    Or you could build some damn fusion plants – hey, that’d help with the helium thing too! (Okay… not that much)

    “Seriously? That’s all the solar power acreage we’d need for the entire US of A????”
    No. There was another calculation on page 3… and I don’t think that was even taking the serious practical concerns into account. (A plant that big wouldn’t be very efficient, for one)

  • Tempus Vernum

    Get a self-sufficient ship, and launch it, on a vague course for a nearby star. It flies along, being self-sufficient, until eventually arriving a thousand some years later.

    That ‘self sufficient’ bit is a massive problem. In fact how do we even determine if a generation ship is self sufficient enough to make the journey? You can’t just take all those people and resources, launch them off and hope for the best*

    At minimum we’d need to perform some experiments in our own solar system first. Place some habitats at the L5 point and cut them off from everybody, what societies will be the most stable? How long will they last? after a couple of hundred years can they migrate out to the Oort cloud? can they then stay there for a few hundred more years? Ignoring all the ethical and logistical problems, just figuring this stuff out will take a thousand or more years.

    Frankly IMO if FTL travel proves impossible it’ll be quicker for us to create some AI’s to inherit the universe and just let humanity fade into obsolescence.

    * 1500 years after departure the ship’s telemetry goes silent. What went wrong? we’ll never know and we’ll never be able to fix it for the next attempt)

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “At minimum we’d need to perform some experiments in our own solar system first. Place some habitats at the L5 point and cut them off from everybody, what societies will be the most stable? How long will they last? after a couple of hundred years can they migrate out to the Oort cloud? can they then stay there for a few hundred more years? Ignoring all the ethical and logistical problems, just figuring this stuff out will take a thousand or more years.”
    Sounds like a decent plan…

    “Frankly IMO if FTL travel proves impossible it’ll be quicker for us to create some AI’s to inherit the universe and just let humanity fade into obsolescence.”
    Well, no one said it couldn’t be crewed/occupied by AIs/uplifts.

  • Tempus Vernum

    Well, no one said it couldn’t be crewed/occupied by AIs/uplifts.

    Well at that point it’s not humanity that’s going into space but something else. I’d be perfectly happy with that, I don’t see the need for humans ourselves to colonise space, just as long as something does.

    Doesn’t that pretty much describe the entire first few decades of manned space flight?

    They could still call on mission control if something went drastically wrong though and they weren’t expected to last for thousands of years without resupply.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > Well at that point it’s not humanity that’s going into space but something else.

    I would contest this, actually.

    I guess it has to do with what we consider definitive about being human, which to my way of thinking is much more about heritage and personality than it is about substrate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    You can’t just take all those people and resources, launch them off and hope for the best*

    Doesn’t that pretty much describe the entire first few decades of manned space flight?

  • Caravelle

    Not disputing your post on principle but I find the example unconvincing :

    * 1500 years after departure the ship’s telemetry goes silent. What went wrong? we’ll never know and we’ll never be able to fix it for the next attempt)

    If we’re at all serious about this (as in : we don’t give up on the concept of generation ships ten years after we launched them. And even if we do, 1500 years is plenty of time to start again) then 1500 years after departure we’ll have gotten *massively* better at making generation ships. The “next attempt” will have happened not 1500 years later but 5, 10 or 50 years later. With better technology, better understanding of the principles and better engineering. Provided we keep the research project that launched the first ship active after its launch, which depends on politics and resources but isn’t totally implausible either. And our understanding of science will probably improve either way.

    Moreover, the previous 1500 years of telemetry will have given us tons of information that can help with subsequent attempts, even if we don’t know what happened on that last one.

    The people on that generation ship, now they‘ve got all their eggs in one first-adopter basket…

    Andrew Glasgow :

    Doesn’t that pretty much describe the entire first few decades of manned space flight?

    As far as I know the common wisdom on the space race is that the cold war had this nice consequence ! Of the space race ! And we got to space !
    This summer with a few students we made a graph of all the (non-commercial) space launches ever made by every country, noting the successful ones vs the failures. There’s a list on Wikipedia. And the difference between tense cold war, detente and post-cold war is pretty striking. Now, some of the shockingly high failure rate at the beginning is probably inexperience and growing pains but I doubt all of it is. Conversely, nowadays we might have fewer launches but they’re almost all successful so we must be doing something right.

    I’m not sure what point I have. Maybe that just throwing stuff up there and seeing what sticks is overrated. Or that provided our future generation-ship-building civilisation isn’t under cold-war-like pressure to be unreasonable we can trust that they’ll do things right. As much as they can.

  • PJ Evans

    Newer isn’t always better, but ‘the same’ is *never* better.

    Assuming ‘the same’ is never better means that it’s either worse than the previous or worse than the next one. Which ain’t necessarily so, and doesn’t allow for odd local conditions.

    Assumptions can kill you. Check yours before you tell us that you have answers.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “Assuming ‘the same’ is never better means that it’s either worse than the previous or worse than the next one. Which ain’t necessarily so, and doesn’t allow for odd local conditions.”
    A thing *is* never better or worse than itself. That’s why it’s the same. If you do never change, things will neither get worse nor improve. (And yeah, I count different situations as different ‘things’ in this case.)

    “Well at that point it’s not humanity that’s going into space but something else.”
    Uplifts are human – the physical form is different, but the essence is the same. That’s rather the point of uplifts.

    “They could still call on mission control if something went drastically wrong…”
    Not that mission control could *do* anything for them…

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “What we need to do is stop having so many kids. China had the right idea, though the method, coercion, is appalling. The result is fewer mouths to feed (far fewer, since so many Chinese still insist that their one baby be a boy), fewer to need gas and electricity, fewer to use the limited resources available. IMO anyone who has more than two kids is the problem. I don’t advocate China’s methods, but that means each individual has to choose to have less than three kids. If you are not willing to do this, do not talk about being “Green”.”
    I think three would be fine, but an average of only slightly more than two is a generally good idea… of course, it wouldn’t be massively wrong to have more than 3… especially after resources get sorted.

    That said, the average birthrate in the ‘Western World’ already *is* around 2. The population stress is in the 3rd world, which doesn’t use nearly as many resources – in part because they have less – overpopulation is relative, and the current boom is just that – a boom. That said, when the developing nations finally *do* develop, the resource demand will increase substantially – we’ll need a new energy source, at least.

    “The people on that generation ship, now they’ve got all their eggs in one first-adopter basket…”
    They’d have the resources to upgrade and repair… for a while, at least…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1029543253 Benjamin Thomas

    I am a big fan of renewable energy, but the idea powering the US with a solar array the size of that google maps icon is just absolute rubbish. It simply doesn’t work like that. If all the energy for the country came from a single source the induction kicks every time a cloud drifted over would destroy every distribution substation in the country, for a start. To go totally solar would require huge overcapacity dotted around the whole US, a totally new distribution system that would have to be designed and built from scratch (a smart grid) and huge storage facilities like electric mountain in wales to be built all over the place.

    I’m as pro-renewables as they get, but uninformed ridiculosities like this just make the renewables lobby look stupid. The real challenge is much, much tougher.


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