Archive for the 'The Anthropocene' Category


life in the megacity

Scientific American had an article a few days ago about recent ideas about the future of “megacities.” Especially in the developing world millions upon millions of people are moving from the farm to the city. As these cities grow one of the big concerns is that the cities will build themselves so that high carbon transportation (a.k.a., automobiles) will be the only feasible way to get around. Los Angeles is the prototypical American city built almost exclusively for auto travel. For decades mass transport was rejected in LA in favor of spending the money on more freeways to accommodate the sprawl. Now mass transit is pretty much out of the question. If the rest of the growing world cities go down that road decreasing emissions will be nearly impossible.

Urban areas already account for about two-thirds of world energy use, and they’ll hit 73 percent by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. The cities of the future will be bigger, and there will be more of them. According to the United Nations, there were 21 “megacities” in 2009 — urban agglomerations whose population exceeds 10 million. By 2025, there will be 29 — and they’ll hold one-tenth of humanity.

One group of thinkers has pegged four scenarios for urban development:

Sprawlville: cities do everything to accommodate cars in the city and to and from the burbs. But in the end the heart of the city simply succumbs to impenetrable gridlock.

Planned-opolis: where government does everything to automate commutes with self-driving cars and to computerize work so many people can work from home.

Renewabad: where cities build very dense centers with a lot of public transit.

Communi-city: in which city centers die and are replaced by lots of peripheral neighborhoods where people live and work. You can ride a bike to work.

The scenarios leave people unclear about what version or mix or versions will emerge.

But coincidentally two researchers (Adam Millard-Ball and LeeSchipper) published a preliminary copy of a paper titled: “Are We Reaching a Plateau or ‘Peak’ Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Six Industrialized Countries.”

In the last several years in the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Japan and Australia there seems to be a plateau of travel.

Since 2003, motorized travel demand has leveled out or even declined in most of the countries studied, and travel in private vehicles has declined,” the authors wrote in their study. “Car ownership has continued to rise, but these cars are being driven less.

There are several factors that probably play a role: car market saturation, the recession, the price of gas, and aging population. But they assert that the main factor may be road congestion.

The researchers think that the biggest factor of the travel plateau may be traffic congestion. As Schipper said in an interview with Miller-McCune, “My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road.’ You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem. Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”

It could be that some problems work themselves out in the long run. The solution may not be what anybody wants, but it’s what you get when you hit the wall. Auto transport may just grind to a halt in the megacities mentioned above, opening the door to other alternatives.


Uh-oh. In the minority…again

After my last post about the Australian scientist, Frank Fenner’s, apocalyptic prediction that humans would be extinct in 100 years — give or take a few — I decided to look around at how optimistic or pessimistic others are about the future. I didn’t have to look far. Today I ran across a survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press for about how optimistic Americans are about the next 40 years.

Well, Americans are plenty optimistic. The Pew summary starts: “Imagine a future in which cancer becomes a memory, ordinary people travel in space, and computers carry on conversations like humans.”

OK, I can do that! After all, I’ve been reading forecasts like that going back the the 1950s. Popular Science magazine did a lot of lists of what was going to happen and great drawings of people doing things like riding moving sidewalks. And, sure enough, 50 years later when I go to the airport there’s a moving sidewalk.

The other part of the survey intro is not so rosy, however: “Now imagine a darker future – a world beset by war, rising temperatures and energy shortages, one where the United States faces a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons.” Indeed, the survey is a mixture of up and down votes.

Many Americans see dramatic scientific and technological advancements on the horizon, with big developments in medicine, engineering, space travel and computers. However, despite the widely anticipated scientific breakthroughs – including the elimination of fossil fuels and gas-powered cars – the public foresees a  grim environmental future. Rising world temperatures, more polluted oceans and severe water shortages in the U.S. are seen as definite or probable over the next 40 years.

The survey is worth taking a look at. For my money, however, many of the questions frame the issues in such simplistic language that I wonder what people really intend with their limited answer choices. For instance, having been in the field of cancer public health for over 35 years I cringe when I see people were asked: “How likely do you think it is that…there will be a cure for cancer?” Seventy-one percent answered they thought definitely or probably cancer would be cured.

When I went to work for a cancer organization 36 years ago we had a slogan: “We’re going to wipe out cancer in your lifetime.” Today members of the cancer science and medical community are just happy that a sustained downward trend in cancer mortality is finally occurring. We stopped talking about “wiping out” cancer about 20 years ago. And oncologists are loath to even use the term “cure” when talking about outcomes for disseminated cancer. In fact, few people know it, but the goal of many in the cancer community these days is to make cancer predominantly a chronic disease rather than an acute, fatal disease. In other words success over the next few decades would be to enable the majority of patients with a wide range of cancer types to survive one or more bouts with the disease and die of something else. That’s a laudable goal, but it’s not anywhere near “wipe out.”

To think of cancer as one disease for which there will be a universal “cure” — that’s what the phrasing of the question implies — is kind of a throwback to the naive idea of several decades ago that cancer can be eradicated. It’s a basic misunderstanding of the disease. Unlike communicable disease, cancer is not something that attacks you from outside; it’s a malfunction of essential processes at the core of cellular life. I recall a breast cancer researcher who said every time a cell divides there’s a little risk of heading towards cancer.

Progress is being made these days, but the lengthy process of testing new approaches not to mention the enormous costs associated with recent cancer treatments means that there a huge obstacles besides the disease itself to having a big impact on the population. So, the last day I was in my office when I retired six months ago, I found myself reassuring some young staff who were just starting their careers that there would still be a big cancer problem for decades to come. In other words, they’re not going to have to change careers because a sudden “cure” arrives.

The Pew survey suggests to me that the public is finally adjusting to the reality that dealing with cancer will take much longer than anyone could imagine a few decades ago. The figure showing that in 2010 71% of respondents expecting a cure is down from 81% in 1999. A drop in the number of people expecting a cancer cure in the next 40 years may not be “pessimism” but a more realistic assessment of the situation instead.

I think people who have in-depth information about any of the questions asked in the Pew survey would have questions about interpreting what the answers mean. While surveys like this tend to suggest optimism is good and preferable to pessimism, the fact is that skepticism often reflects a grasp of reality.

Among the other opinions expressed by the survey group are:

  • In 40 years computers will converse like people.
  • Artificial limbs will work better than natural ones.
  • Most of our energy will not come from oil, coal and gas.
  • The world will get warmer.
  • We’ll have a major energy crisis.

These findings reflect the subjects’ attitudes and aspirations than they are an analysis of the future. Most of the challenges to be faced during the 21st century will be massive processes not seen in the history of the Earth. There’s really no precedent for the confluence of forces unfolding in our time.

One final thing. Forty-one percent of the respondents to the Pew survey expect Jesus Christ to return to Earth some time in the next forty years. That would make moot the dire speculation by Fenner that the human species will become extinct in the next 100 years wouldn’t it?


Repent, the end may be near

I thought I was a pessimist! But Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner (a scientist deeply involved in the eradication of smallpox with 22 books and 290 papers to his credit) gave an interview to The Australian last week in which he said:

“We’re going to become extinct… Whatever we do now is too late.”

Gone! Kaput! 86-ed! He thinks continued population growth multiplied by industrial-level consumption will make homo sapiens and other species extinct in ~100 years. Something akin to the extinction of the isolated population of Easter Island is, in his judgement, inevitable.

Well, that puts the trivialities I see on this morning’s (Sunday) political talk shows in perspective! But that’s part of Fenner’s point: we’re fiddling while Rome smolders and will continue to fiddle even as it burns.

I share a good deal of his pessimism. One of the first posts I did on this blog was about the estimate that children being born today have a 50/50 chance of living 100 years. I think everybody ought to be clear that today’s kids will live to see whether Fenner is right, partly right, or wrong. I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen, and I can’t understand why the parents of today’s kids don’t insist on discussing this every day. I attended my wife’s grandson’s high school graduation last week. (I have a couple of titular grandkids by marriage, not by reproduction.) He’ll experience all of it, and the run-up to anything even approaching extinction has got to be awful. I’ll be long gone, but I don’t envy the young.

To balance Fenner out, The Australian interviewed a colleague, Stephen Boyden, who has a more moderate view:

“Frank may be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability,” says Boyden, an immunologist who turned to human ecology later in his career.

“That’s where Frank and I differ. We’re both aware of the seriousness of the situation, but I don’t accept that it’s necessarily too late. While there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s worth working to solve the problem. We have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don’t have the political will.”

Glimmer of hope“? Not very reassuring.

Personally I doubt humans can be extinguished. Homo sapiens is a tough, ornery species. We evolved through horrendous bouts of plague, starvation, predation, and barbarism. Any return to those challenges is not what I think anyone wants for our children. Nevertheless, from what’s happened so far on climate issues I don’t expect revolutionary changes ever on behalf of the commons. Personal, short-term needs and stability appear to consistently trump concerns over “maybes” of the future.

Some dismiss Fenner as an elderly (95 y.o.) crank or a mere alarmist. But the purpose of an alarm is to get you into action before the house burns to the ground. It’s an opportunity to avoid worst-case outcomes. And there is no outcome I can think of that’s worse than the agony of extinction.


playing by the rules

Last week I read something disappointing. An article (that I didn’t bookmark) said that in some survey Americans don’t see climate change as as much of concern as a year or two ago. That amazes me. I know it was a horrendous winter on the East Coast, and some hanky-panky dug up about some scientists involved in climate research exposed the all-too-human backside of science; but how can people with bigger stakes in the future than I have become complacent about something with such far-reaching consequences?

I’m 64 so I won’t personally experience the full consequences of climate change; I’ll have  been recycled by the worms well before the whole thing plays out. I don’t have any children, but I do have a couple of young-adult grandchildren by way of marriage who I care about. They call me “Uncle Dave.” But I don’t see how people with responsibility for tomorrow’s children can get blase about what’s going to happen 30 to 100 years from now. As I pointed out in one of my first posts to this blog, the children being born today have a 50/50 chance of living to 100. When I see a tyke being wheeled down the sidewalk in one of those strollers that looks like a spaceship escape pod I feel a pang of sadness to think that he or she might have to live in a badly degraded world with perhaps unprecedented human turmoil.

Then I read an opinion piece from the LA Times that expressed my perception of the situation very well. In a column titled “The Earth has its own set of rules,” B.E. Mahall and F.H. Bormann said the following:

The Earth has its own set of rules, solidly grounded in laws of physics and chemistry and emergent principles of geology and biology. Unlike our economic model, these are not artificial constructs. They are real, and they govern. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, 100-year floods, massive wildfires and disease epidemics are dramatic examples of parts of nature, neither all service nor all harm, creating and destroying, and governed by rules that are indifferent to humans. Our anthropocentric economic model for interacting with the world ignores and is proving to be incompatible with Earth’s rules, and is therefore on a direct collision course with them.

To achieve a more accurate model of our relation to nature, we need to see ourselves as part of nature, governed by nature (not economics), beholden to nature for ecosystem services and subject to nature’s disturbances.

Precisely! The Earth is a platform that has occupied a sweet-spot around the sun for several billion years that has permitted the most complex things in the universe we know of to evolve. Humans are at the apex of this process having evolved a capacity to comprehend the workings of Earth’s rules, to have some degree of insight and foresight about what might happen down the road, and a capacity to make choices and decisions that affect the whole. But, overall, a lot of people seem content to continue with business as uaual and just wait to see how it all ends up.

Earth is a unique place for a prolonged, open-ended experiment with life. The outcome is not determined. The universe is neither for us or against us: it’s indifferent to our welfare. It’s up to us to actively make it work out well…or not.


Hmm, is the China juggernaut that obvious?

I’ve done several posts — as recently as yesterday — mentioning the spectacular rise of China as a change driver with widespread effects. My assessment is that this will have big impact on people everywhere and be a disquieting influence that will disturb a lot of people. But my question now is: Am I just reitterating what’s become obvious to Americans?

In today’s Washington Post there’s a report of a Washington Post-ABC poll headlined: “Poll shows concern about American influence waning as China’s grows.”

Facing high unemployment and a difficult economy, most Americans think the United States will have a smaller role in the world economy in the coming years, and many believe that while the 20th century may have been the “American Century,” the 21st century will belong to China. […]

Asked whether this century would be more of an “American Century” or more of a “Chinese Century,” Americans divide evenly in terms of the economy (41 percent say Chinese, 40 percent American) and tilt toward the Chinese in terms of world affairs (43 percent say Chinese, 38 percent American). A slim majority say the United States will play a diminished role in the world’s economy this century, and nearly half see the country’s position shrinking in world affairs more generally.

This has a lot of Americans worried. Losing economic hegemony is not only perceived as a loss of power, but it also suggests that perhaps the country has lost its mojo, it’s in decline. I’d look at it another way. I’m a big fan of Fareed Zakaria’s 2008 book, The Post-American World. His first chapter is titled: “The Rise of the Rest.” His view is that America will remain a powerful and influential country, but other countries like China, India, and Brazil will gain much economically and gain world influence. In other words, wealth and power will have to be shared. His perspective suggests not that this is the end of American glory but that an adjustment to historical evolution is necessary.

The US is about 5% of the world’s population. Since WWII we’ve enjoyed enormous economic prosperity, military power, and prestigue. But history moves on, and the other 95% of the world’s people are developing too. How 5% would expect world dominance to last I don’t understand. Back in 1997 William Greider published a book I also admire: One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. In essence, Greider said the capitalism widely advocated in America had won; communism was discredited. The consequence of that is that labor income would move to the masses of people around the world willing to work for less than Americans because they have a much lower standard of living. Capitalism is the force leveling incomes worldwide, and, hence, influence.

A participant in the WashPo survey put it pretty well:

Annetta Jordan, another poll participant, said in a follow-up interview that she has witnessed the shifting economic strength firsthand. Jordan, a mother of two from Sandoval, N.M., was working at a cellular telephone plant in the early 1990s as production and hiring were ramped up. By 1992, the plant had 3,200 workers. “Then this whole China thing started and we were very quickly training Chinese to take our jobs,” she said. Now the plant has 100 people left. “We’re transferring our wealth to China,” she said. “I see that as a very negative thing. When I was younger, a lot of corporations had a lot of pride and patriotism toward America. But corporations have changed. If we in the U.S. go down, that’s okay; they’ll just move their offices to Beijing.”

Ahh, the fruits of success!

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