Friday, 31 October 2008

Numbers behind the folly

Following the last post: I have found an interesting report on ecological devastation of our planet published by WWF and Zoological Society of London. The report claims that we now have the ecoligical impact equivalent to 1.3 times the capacity of planet Earth, that is we are overusing our environment by 30%. This sounds - and if true it is - really scary.

But my post deals with a small set of numbers at the core of the report. While the ecological impact per person in high income countries is 2.9 times greater than for the middle income countries the population of the middle income countries is 3.2 times greater. This more than compensates the relative overall impact. Moreover, there are two additional effects at play: first, the inevitable and laudable wish of the people in the middle income and low income countries to improve their living standards. Second the concentration of the population growth in these regions. As a result, simple math would show that future growth of the overall impact would be the fastest exactly there, coming from the combination of these two factors. The industrialised, high income nations would play smaller and smaller role in the global consumption.

The authors do focus mostly on the `per person' indicators, but even they do recognize the overall impact of the population growth:
There are many different strategies that
could reduce the gap between human demand
on nature and the availability of ecological
capacity. Each of these strategies can be
represented as a sustainability wedge that
shifts the business-as-usual path towards one
in which, when these wedges are combined,
overshoot is eliminated
One way of organizing wedges is to link
them to the three factors that determine
footprint. Some strategies in the per person
consumption and technology wedges, such
as insulating buildings, produce quick results
for shrinking overshoot. Other strategies,
such as those that would reduce and
eventually reverse population growth, may
have less impact in the short term, but lead
to large cumulative declines in overshoot in
the longer term

Sounds easy. But can anyone tell any reasonable way of invoking such a strategy for reversing the population growth?

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Folly of Folly

A recent issue of New Scientist had a special section on The folly of growth - how to stop the economy from killing the planet. This report is so far away from the "scientist" part of the journal that I was almost speechless. Politics, pure politics...

Several carefully chosen experts, all representing almost the same point of view, postulate that the western civilisation is killing the planet. That western civilisation - and it alone - is to balme for all the sins: unwarranted greed and exploitation of natural resources, the fact that green values have no chances against market capitalism, short term thinking, all of that and more.

Well, let me aks some questions:
What are the effects of population growth, especially in non-western world? The journal prints one comprehensive graph showing all our exponential explosion.

Everything is exploding: exploited fisheries, paper consumption, extinct species, motor vehicles ... and ... human population.
The last one, especially outside the western world. But stating obvious truth, that overpopulation, especially in poor regions may be one of the causes of the poverty, is, hum, politically uncorrect. So, no, we do not touch this subject.

Secondly, I'd like to see an analysis of the impact on the planet from various populations, projected into the future: India, China, Africa... The people living there have every right to hope for, to aim for and to work for the same level of living and citizens of EU and USA. The question is: are there enough resources to achieve this, and at the same time to keep the population explosion going?

Lastly, a very uncorrect suggestion. The cover of the magazine shows a white male, dressed in western-type clothes (suggesting a banker?), pushing the Earth into an abyss.

Isn't this racism? Sexism?

(If you think it is obviously not, then please consider would it bee racist if the picture would show a bunch of African children pushing the same world into the same abyss?)

Thus, instead of a much needed discussion I was served with several pages of political propaganda. If this is the level of professionalism one can get from a popular science publication, what could we expect from less informed participants in the public debate?

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Day of leisure (sort of)

Yesterday I have spent almost a whole day reading a book. What made it unusual was that the book was a Science Fiction novel. I have been a voracious SF reader some years ago, but gradually it has become harder and harder to find a book that would satisfy my desire for scientific plausibility and a good plot. For years the favourite was Timescape by Gregory Benford. But the trend to write `for the public', to use the easy Universe of swishing swords and zipping magical missiles has got me less and less interested in modern SF/Fantasy -- with the obvious exception of Terry Pratchett.

So, waiting in line to get some schoolboks for my daughter, I have leafed throug some books on display and I have found one that contained a bibliography! Moreover this bibliography contained rather unusual comments. I thought why not, and bought the book. And spent the whole day reading it.

The book is Blindsight, by Peter Watts. It is no easy read, but it offers a refreshing departure from the world of fireballs and enchantments, even though it does feature vampires. Since then I have learned that one can read the book for free, but I do not begrudge the price I paid, hoping that at least a part would reach the author.

The bibliography notes that caught my eye are worth noting. They are introduced as:
References and remarks, to try and convince you all I'm not crazy (or, failing that, to simply intimidate you into shutting up about it). Read for extra credit.

Many are papers and books that I have encountered during my wanderings (as may be seen in the Country of Blindfolded). But some were a discovery, for example works of Metzinger. Because who, in a sane mind, could refuse an invitation like this:

This is the heart of the whole damn exercise. Let's get the biggies out of the way first. Metzinger's Being No One is the toughest book I've ever read (and there are still significant chunks of it I haven't), but it also contains some of the most mindblowing ideas I've encountered in fact or fiction. Most authors are shameless bait-and-switchers when it comes to the nature of consciousness. Pinker calls his book How the Mind Works, then admits on page one that "We don't understand how the mind works". Koch (the guy who coined the term "zombie agents") writes The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, in which he sheepishly sidesteps the whole issue of why neural activity should result in any kind of subjective awareness whatsoever.

Towering above such pussies, Metzinger takes the bull by the balls. His "World-zero" hypothesis not only explains the subjective sense of self, but also why such an illusory first-person narrator would be an emergent property of certain cognitive systems in the first place. I have no idea whether he's right— the man's way beyond me— but at least he addressed the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at three a.m., long after the last roach is spent. Many of the syndromes and maladies dropped into Blindsight I first encountered in Metzinger's book.

What a language! Not an usual, watered down peer-review blah-blah. So, as I finished the novel, I hooked up to the Scholar and hunted for Metzinger. While the book is obviously not there, I have found some papers which I hope to skim through soon.

The Subjectivity of Subjective Experience: A Represent at ioualisl Analysis of the First-Person Perspective Networks, 2004, 3--4, 33-64 ,

Précis of Being No One PSYCHE, 2005, 10, 1-35,

The emergence of a shared action ontology: Building blocks for a theory Consciousness and Cognition, 2003, 12, 549-571,

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Post-feminist-modernist idiocy

I thought, naively, that the exposure of itiotism of post modernist, feminist, multicultural critique of science, done, for example by Sokal and Bricmont, or by Levitt and Gross would at least discourage further attempts. How wrong I was...

Searching for references on the modern fate of amateur scientist I have found some papers devoted to "citizen scientist". At first I though that the topic wouls be a close one. So I dug in, into, for example, papers by Karin Backstrand:
Civic Science for Sustainability: Reframing the Role of Experts, Policy-Makers and Citizens in Environmental Governance Global Environmental Politics, 2003, 3, 24-41
Scientisation vs. Civic Expertise in Environmental Governance: Eco-feminist, Eco-modern and Post-modern Responses Environmental Politics, 2004, 13, 695-714

The latter lecture has been a clear example that the trends are alive and kicking:
Scientific rationality should be replaced by a social and ecological rationality that entails a self-critique of the progress of ‘scientific truths’. Science should be de-monopolised and democratised and redirected toward a social rationality.

The discourses and practices of science are at the heart of theories of risk society and reflexive modernisation. The encroachment of scientific and technological practice can be seen as a cause of environmental problems. However, if the role of science in decision-making can be reframed, science can also present the solutions to global environmental hazards. A distinction
is made between primary and reflexive scientisation. Primary scientisation belongs to the epoch of the industrial society and simple modernity associated with a positivistic science with a claim to universal and objective truth. Moreover, there is a clear division between the enlightened priesthood of scientific experts and ignorant laymen. Science has
become increasingly professionalised and inaccessible to non-experts. In contrast, reflexive scientisation implies that scientific decision-making on environmental risks is opened up for social rationality and wider participation. Society has to exercise a new level of self-critique and systematic self-doubt has to be invoked in science.
Society has to exercise a new level of self-critique and systematic self-doubt has to be invoked in science
However, the expert-centred forms of knowledge with their secrecy and centralised character need a democratic check.

While my own goal is simply to broaden the social (civic) participation in science I see no other way to do it than to bring up the interested perties knolwege of the scientific methods, processes and results. Trying to broaden the participation by denigrating scinece seems not just plain stupid, but extremely dangerous.

The feminist part is also present, and how! Backstrand writes:
I start by presenting three green perspectives – ecofeminist, eco-modern and postmodernism – which all offer a trenchant critique of how science and technology generate unprecedented environmental risks.

The relationship between human societies and the environment is gendered, i.e. structured by patriarchal relations that have positioned women closer to nature. However, feminist philosophy of science has stretched the argument further: the central norms underpinning science – rationality, objectivity and control – are also celebrated masculine ideals.

An important assumption in eco-feminism is the conceptual connection between the subordination of women, the destruction of the environment and scientific rationality. This revolves around the women-nature association – women are associated with nature and the feminine, which, in turn, are devalued and degraded.

Just one small question: in which type of society are women more subordinated: in Nature-living primitive societies or in todays, Science-begotten modern society? Would Karin Backstrand be allowed to have her say in other corcumstances than those brought by the accumulated knowledge of whole humanity, men and women alike?