An existentialist reads Grayling

A. C. Grayling talk in Melbourne

As I mentioned a few days ago, I didn’t attend philosopher A. C. Grayling’s Melbourne talk, but instead read his book, For the Good of the World. I think he nailed some issues and perspectives in the first two-thirds of the book, and then I appreciated how he handled an issue that perplexes me endlessly. As an existentialist, who believes we make our own meaning, how do I insist on joint action, something vital in this global climate crisis (and central to Grayling’s book)? His encapsulation (p. 174) grabs the essence:

Relativism is a natural corollary, perhaps indeed it is the defining characteristic, of postmodernism. A commendable motivation for it is the desire to promote reciprocal respect between different cultures and value systems, and to make amends for cultural as well as other imperialisms of the past. The price paid for this worthwhile motive is a lack of guide-rails for dealing with the very real problems faced by the world and people in it.

Grayling’s precision!

Grayling For the Good of the World

I’m less than a fifth through A. C. Grayling’s For the Good of the World and already I’m in awe of the way he pithily encapsulates realities (p. 35).

Broadly speaking, the options available to humanity are: either break the negative version of the self-interest Law (what can be done will not be done) by radically switching direction from a growth model to a sustainability model of economic activity, or make the decoupling agenda work — that is, find the fixes that would make renewable energy cheap and plentiful, would remove and safely store the excess CO2e in the atmosphere, and would positively incentivize doing both. At time of writing the first option is not in play and the second is a mixture of insufficiencies and wishful thinking.

His words strike true. I see economists and philosophers arguing for radical decoupling but there is no evidence for any change or appetite for change to ”growth as king.” Bill Gates is the obvious barometer of the ”fixes” approach, and sure, we can see renewable heading south in terms of unit costs, but the pace is too slow and the process is muddied by technological mirages on offer.

How they see us

Janine Burke My Forests

In The Age newspaper, James Bradley has an excellent review (his reviews are always welcome to me) of Janine Burke’s My Forests: Travels with Trees. I put this book on my bedside reading list but in the meantime am struck by a Burke line quoted by Bradley: “We humans are like flickers to the Sugar Gum, who is deep in tree time. We appear and disappear from view … like watching a speeded-up film or blips on radar.”

This revelatory disjunction between how we view an aspect of “nature” and nature’s “view” of us is also central to the brilliant book by Richard Smyth, An Indifference of Birds.

I hope to convey (somehow!) the same notion in my book on the Cranes.

Jun 9, 2021

Time to get cracking

This project creaks to life…

I watched the wonderful Greta Thunberg documentary, Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World on one of our free-to-air streaming channels. In the first episode, she accompanies a glaciologist on a vigorous hike up to a glacier and, hearing of its steady retreat destined to become a rout to nonexistence, plaintively says: “I knew things were bad and I have read about these kind of things a lot, but to really be here and to stand on the glacier and to hear from you, who has so much experience about glaciers … it makes you realize it’s for real.” My heart pangs. I’ve been ignoring the local Extinction Rebellion bulletins, ignoring the brave handful of friends I worked with for a year.

A tweet by Corey Callaghan on a fresh look, by him and colleagues (via a paper here) at the global number of birds, allowing for many forms of data uncertainty, suggests 9,700 species and 50 billion birds. Call it six or seven birds for each human, which for some reason strikes me as low. The distribution of bird numbers in a species is, as the tweet shows, log-left skewered; Callaghan says, “Mother nature loves rare species.”

On the right of the distribution chart, four species have more than a billion birds each. Could I have guessed them? Probably: sparrow, starling, gull, swallow.

1,180 species, however, have less than 5,000 birds. I make a mental note to compare this numerical cutoff

He ends by saying their total estimate is in line with 1997 estimates by Tim Blackburn and Kevin Gaston.

IUCN’s three “threatened” categories range from Critically Endangered, i.e. more likely than not to go extinct soon; to Endangered: 20% chance of disappearing in two decades; to Vulnerable, literally vulnerable and not healthy as a population. Oversimplifying, these three categories equate to numbers of birds: Vulnerable means under 10,000, while Endangered means under 2,500 birds. Again oversimplifying, it seems Callaghan’s left-of-the-graph group of 1,180 small species fall between the the two “bad” IUCN categories and the less scary IUCN category of Vulnerable.

What will happen in the Anthropocene?

Climate economics drives me wild

Noah Smith article extract

I’m an actuary not an economist, but when economists produce garbage, it’s usually easy for me to spot. That William Nordhaus won the 2018 Nobel for his modeling, so full of bad-faith assumptions, seems unbelievable.

If you have any interest in the debacle of climate change economics, have a close read of Noah Smith’s brilliant article “Why has climate economics failed us?” In it, he eviscerates the field, ascribing its uselessness to four factors:

  • “Simply not publishing enough research
  • Putting out models that are frankly just bad
  • Ignoring tail risks
  • Obsessively focusing on carbon taxes”

At the end of the article, Smith stresses that “the failures of the past cannot be allowed to persist into the future,” and he provides seven suggestions. A lengthy sequence of comments also holds some interest, though inevitably some of it is in bad faith.

If I were younger, I’d pitch in and assemble some good-faith economists and put together some models that can properly contribute to our deliberations of the climate emergency. As it is, I seethe.

“Beautiful and false”

Emma Marris article image

In The Atlantic, Emma Marris has penned a long, beautifully written article (“The nature you see in documentaries is beautiful and false“). I read it twice over today, glad to find something to propel me back into my Cranes project. “It isn’t just the sounds that make these films feel more than real,” she writes, among the many points used to illustrate her thesis. “They use the absolute highest-resolution cameras available, what Chang calls ‘military-grade lenses.’ The images on any modern television are thus crisp as fuck.”

Well, yes. I can appreciate the argument, I can appreciate her telling points. But as counterpoint, I’ve begun feeling that human beings should retreat from remote nature trips, should perhaps retreat to watching the documentaries she decries. We can’t, in all conscience, burn the carbon our travel entails, just so we can crowd out the animals and birds we point our cameras at. To be fair, Marris is not against travel documentaries per se, she’d prefer we’re dealt up nature documentaries that employ a “still-gorgeous-but-not-mythical approach,” and to be fair, I’d prefer that as well. But in the end, the nature documentary genre will exhibit the same jaw-dropping spectrum between the best and the worst that every other genre of human entertainment shows. Certainly, it seems to me, better we watch Planet Earth III than Farmer Wants a Bride.

Emma Marris’s weighty article is, of course, doubly germane to my 15 Cranes project. Should I spend the money, release the carbon, and disturb the remoteness as I have intended, in order to merely “see” or “witness” all fifteen species. Can I not ponder the world’s cranes using documentaries and the wonders of the Internet? What is the “right” thing for me to do and what should I do?

Salutary unexpected advice

A manager at solicits pitches for biodiversity writers:

We’re looking for future-forward stories on the science, politics, and economics of the global biodiversity crisis, geared toward reckoning and responding to this multidimensional crisis, not just cataloging species loss. We’re looking for stories w/ focus on intelligent responses, accountability, recentering Indigenous science/stewardship, and why a radical rethinking/prioritization of conservation is needed. We’re *not* looking for stories simply about cute wildlife/pretty nature, or focused solely on mass extinction or losing individual species. After all, biodiversity is about abundance, healthy functioning ecosystems, and cultural diversity too.

On the surface, my book project is “cataloguing species loss” and “about cute wildlife.” But of course it needs to be much more. I need to be able to dig into the Cranes not as objects or even as harbingers, but to wrap them around our planet as a skein of life, a skein that embraces me and my generations to come. That sounds pretentious but it needs to speak as an expression of practicality. I am, in a sense, investigating my purpose.

On my shoulders

Richard Betts article

Key Met scientist Richard Betts writes in Carbon Brief that “Atmospheric CO2 now hitting 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.” We’re now at 417 ppm of carbon dioxide, half again what the Earth’s atmosphere held in pre-industrial times, namely 278 ppm.

I am writing, writing a big book on nuclear power. I am writing and I take a break and read Betts’s succinct, visual article. Its import doesn’t sink in for a while, then it does. In fact it’s a curve that poleaxes me, the curve showing the rise year by accelerating year from 1750 to now. Where am I, an Australian born in 1955, on that curve? Let’s say that at age 25, in 1980, one might assert that Andres Kabel was a fully functioning global citizen. Well, roughly interpolating on the chart, two-thirds of the human-caused carbon increase has taken place during the period since 1980.

Please, Andres, make sure you grasp this. You preached that you are principled, a rational humanist, a “good guy.” For four decades, that’s what you held dear. You aggrandized that you were preparing your children and grand-children for the future world, you were optimizing the future world for them and their descendants ongoing. Instead, by inattention and inaction, you and your generation plummeted Earth to a +1C world teetering on the edge of 1.5C, gazing towards 2C or 3C, or a catastrophic 4C situation.

It was me. I am to blame. I’m bereft again and again and again.

My apprehension of my Anthropocene

CSIRO website

CSIRO’s Climate Change in Australia website has just been refreshed in a way that encourages exploration. Politicians should assign their staff to study what they’re entrusted with dealing with. But here in Australia it’s hard to see anyone in our two dominant political parties paying much attention at all (at least until Extinction Rebellion moves them onwards?) In the meantime, I’ve begun my naive, amateurish, slow, browse.

This is the way we need to think. We’re trying to keep the world—in all its complexity of land areas versus ocean areas—to +1.5C. When the world is at this level, global temperatures will oscillate above and below this level, but we can talk about this +1.5C world. Are we there yet? No, and probably we won’t get there until sometime after 2030. But there may be a year or two of these “+1.5C world” years before then, maybe even in the next few years.

In Australia? Well, we’re warming, on our land mass, at 1.4 times the global pace. And in 2019, that fierce incandescent year, we, as a nation, experienced what will be typical in our upcoming +1.5C world.

Where I live in Melbourne? Even in 2019 the fiery temperatures were in Northern Territory, Western Australia, and New South Wales. I haven’t been through a +1.5C year. But I shall, I shall, and before too long.


Sonia Shah article

The brilliant Sonia Shah has a startling New York Times article, “Animal Planet” (which in all likelihood will be behind a paywall for you), delineates something startling, a 3-year-old, multi-million-dollar satellite surveillance project (on the ISS) called ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space). Solar-powered tracking tags are attached to a wide variety of animals and birds. These transmit to a receiver on the space station. Apparently, the emerging data upends all notions on animal/bird elasticity of movement and migration. What does this suggest for the 15 Cranes species? The official website is opaque on what species are tracked but a global map doesn’t suggest that any Cranes are monitored. Ultimately, though, this kind of tech effort will help elucidate the chances of Cranes surviving the Anthropocene era. If only I could understand the answer to that question.