Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games and the Grammar of Empire

I read the first book to see what all the excitement was about.

Everyone knows the central plot device by now.  In a ruined future North America, the inhabits of the central Capitol region enjoy a life of luxury.  Their wealth comes from the ruthless exploitation of their colonies, the twelve Districts which make up the rest of the habitable land, and of their inhabitants.  Paramilitary police, ironically but all-too-plausibly named Peacekeepers, stand ready to crack down on even the thought of resistance.  And then there are the Games.

The Hunger Games  themselves, an annual multimedia spectacular, serve to slake the desires of the Capitol citizens for extreme entertainment at the same time as they break the wills of the District inhabitants.  Let Katniss Everdeen, the book's central character, explain:

The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins. Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you." (Collins, Suzanne (2009). The Hunger Games (Kindle Locations 225-231). Scholastic Books. Kindle Edition.)
Why has this book struck such a chord? I might guess because it taps into a deep anxiety about the kind of society we already are, or are in the process of becoming.  The world of Panem is a zero-sum world: many must suffer so that a few may enjoy luxury.  The hope for endless growth has enabled our society to dodge these trade-offs until now  (though I can't help being reminded of how as I, a rich Westerner, am entertained by new technological toys which inhabitants of outlying "districts" toil in bleak conditions to build).   But that hope is sputtering.  In a non-growing world, is the only alternative to hold on to your share with whatever violence you can muster?

And then there are the Games.  They tap into an old, old myth: sacrifice your children, and you will have prosperity.  (See Genesis 22:1-12, Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, Deuteronomy 12:31, Judges 11, Second Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35 for relevant texts from the Hebrew scriptures.) In the world of Panem, as in these texts, the sacrifice referred to is a literal giving over of children to destruction.  But there is another way of sacrificing the next generation too: by discounting their claims, by believing (and acting on the belief) that my generation's desires for everything that we can grab now trump any rights that future generations have to their own decently prosperous lives.  "What has posterity ever done for me?"   I wonder whether, at some level, this fear that we are starving the future to fatten the present is what is giving the awful image of the Hunger Games such an appeal. If that is the case, perhaps engaging with this image will give some brave people the courage to begin to fashion an alternative.

Further reading:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Crazy Car Talk

Wordle: crazycar
 Every now and again I read something that seems so crazy it leaves me dumbfounded.  That's what happened with this article in the New York Times the other day.

The factual premise for the article is that US young people now are less interested in cars and driving than those of the same age a few decades ago. In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995. Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.

These statistics perhaps give some reason for hope that the world's richest society is beginning to emerge from its addiction to huge, heavy, fossil-fuel-depleting, atmosphere-polluting personal transportation machines, whose use led directly to well over 30,000 fatalities  (US Census Bureau data) in the most recent year for which information is available.

Needless to say, that is not how General Motors views the matter.  The article is written from the perspective of one Ross Martin, from MTV, who is "trying to help General Motors solve one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars." High gas prices and environmental concerns don’t help matters, we are told. “They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

To neutralize those pesky environmental concerns, Mr. Martin's strategy is "to infuse General Motors with the same insights that made MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” breakout hits."  No, I am not making this up.  "THE NEW CHEVROLET - NOW INFUSED WITH CRAP TV INSIGHTS." Doesn't it just make you want to rush out and buy one, kids?

Classical economic theory treats consumer demand functions as given a priori.  If consumers call for giant SUVs rather than gas-sipping compacts, GM, in building them, is just "giving customers what they want". But the hollowness of this theory is on full view here: since the demand curve is too low, Mr Martin and his "creative" team are called in to puff it up.  I can't believe that they will succeed.  As one commenter wrote, "When you call in the guy from MTV, you know the game is up."

Here is the truth. Most of the world's easily accessible oil reserves are gone. In terms of absolute quantity there is plenty of oil left, but it is increasingly difficult and costly to extract - "costly" both in environmental and in financial terms - and burning all of that "tough" oil would contribute to global warming on a scale far exceeding anything anticipated from human-induced carbon dioxide emissions so far.  For a simple analogy, thinking about squeezing a wet sponge to extract water.  At first the water flows easily - you hardly have to squeeze at all - but later on you have to squeeze harder and harder to get less and less water out.  At some point you give up.  There is still plenty of water left in the sponge when you stop squeezing - it is far from bone dry - but it is no longer worth your effort to squeeze any more.

And it's a problem that young people are not contributing as much as GM had hoped to burning that oil up as fast as possible?  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Basic Math of Politics

Reposting from the University of Connecticut's UConn Today blog (H/T Palle Jorgenesen).  Who was it who said, "Humanity's greatest problem is our failure to understand the exponential function"?

Dean Teitelbaum of UConn's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences write about a call "for a public discourse that allows us to consider more than one variable at a time", and to pay more attention to “our friends in the math department” who know how to do this using Calculus.

He goes on, "It’s flattering to be called on to help heal society’s woes – mathematicians aren’t often put in that role – so I spent some time thinking about how a mathematical perspective might help improve our collective approach to societal problems. In response, I offer three specific areas of mathematics that people don’t seem to properly appreciate, leading them to poor decision-making in many different areas of society. As it turns out, all three areas are even simpler than Calculus."

Read the full post here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ethics and the Economist

Thanks to the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, I was privileged to attend a seminar a couple of days ago on "Feminist Economics and Climate Change", where the visiting speaker was Julie Nelson from Boston University (picture left is from her website), who is the author of a book with the encouraging title Economics for Humans.

We were given a couple of papers to read in advance including this one: Ethics and the Economist - What Climate Change Demands of Us.  Dr. Nelson spoke for about twenty minutes and there was then an extensive discussion which was still proceeding apace when I had to leave an hour later.

Dr Nelson critiques the economics profession for confusing the kind of things that (neoclassical) models let you see with unavoidable features of economic life.  Thus, for example, the neoclassical picture of economic agents as "rational utility maximizers" who communicate through market signals leads one to see the economy is a heartless place where greed must ultimately prevail.  Interestingly, she points out, this picture is shared both by champions and critics of "marketization", and this despite evidence that it has a rather poor fit with the behavior of real people in the actual economy. 

Mathematics often comes in for a bad rap in these kinds of discussions, though I think it is more the (ab)use of mathematics as a rhetorical device - "Look at all these equations.  No soft subjectivity there!" - than mathematics itself that is really being critiqued.  It's worth remembering Alfred Marshall's famous advice on the use of mathematics in economics: "(1) Use mathematics as shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in 4, burn 3. This I do often."

A particular case that came up in the discussion was that of optimization.  Classical economics assumes that we are all out to maximize something ("utility") and it devotes considerable effort to showing that economic systems can attain equilibria which where nobody can increase their utility "for free" (Pareto optimality). This idea that ones decision-making trajectory can be guided by a maximization principle is a direct import from physics (Lagrangian mechanics, Fermat's principle in optics, etc); in turn,I think these physical ideas were popular because of their apparent connection with a "best of all possible worlds" teleology.  But studies apparently show that in many cases, we do not do a good job of optimization - the more information we have, and the more options we consider, the worse decisions we make.  Such considerations have led some economists (I think Dr. Nelson may be among them, from a remark at the seminar) to work with the notion of "satisficing" rather than "optimizing" - getting a "good enough" outcome, or at least avoiding the "worst possible". Where climate change is concerned, she argues, trying to find the "optimum" may be a recipe for delay and indecision, whereas it is much clearer how to avoid the "worst possible" outcome.

This was a very interesting discussion to be part of and I hope to be able to follow up on it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review: "The Energy Glut"

I've been reading "The Energy Glut: The Politics of Fatness in an Overheating World" by Ian Roberts, who is a public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  The book's unique contribution is to connect climate change/uneconomic growth and obesity issues, by seeing them as aspects of a single problem: the oversupply of cheap energy to systems that are not designed to assimilate it.

Roberts makes his argument with careful statistical support.  He explains how what is now perceived as an "obesity epidemic" is the result of a process of recentering and skewing the BMI (body mass index) distribution which has been going on for many decades.  The causes, he contends, should therefore be seen more as lifestyle changes beginning in the last century than as "personal choice" or "genetic" ones (though these of course account for much of the variability within the statistical distribution).

Among these lifestyle changes, Roberts fingers the automobile and the consequent reduction of personal mobility as the major culprit. I understood more clearly from this book how automobile transport does not just provide an alternative to other means of getting around - it actively crowds out and displaces these other healthier means, by making our streets into "rivers of kinetic energy" (Roberts' phrase) where the unprotected human body is not safe and the arms race for a protective cocoon leads to kids being driven to school in two-ton SUVs designed for a small military force. Immobile people get bigger, heavier, walking and cycling become more difficult, larger cars and more of them are used, and the feedback loop continues.

Roberts is insistent that the social and structural factors leading to these decisions should be understood as primary - he is not "blaming the victim" for their suffering.  He makes this argument passionately with regard to road "accidents", which he regards as no accidents at all but an an anticipated and statistically inevitable result of social decisions to permit high-energy transport machines in close proximity to homes and people.

The picture of  "rivers of energy" flowing through our society is a striking one though it occasionally leads Roberts into doubtful physical territory, as when he compares the amount of kinetic energy in a car in motion, a truck in motion, and a speeding bullet - not that the numbers are wrong (AFAIK) but the net amount of kinetic energy in an object in motion is not the only determinant of the damage it can do... what matters more is the amount of energy actually delivered in a collision, which does not depend only on the energy of the colliding object.

So what is the answer? Roberts sees a need for a wholesale move away from fossil fuel powered transport in favor of bicycles and other human powered ways of getting about.  This will lead many commentators - who regard the current, auto-based structure of society as unquestionable -  to describe the book as "unrealistic". But it isn't so obvious to me who is being unrealistic here.  Perhaps thinking that we will be able to keep our cars forever is the unrealistic expectation.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Similar point, opposite language

Exponential Growth of Computing
I read two articles yesterday whose contrast got me thinking.  The surprise was that they seem to aiming in similar directions, but the languages that they use to get there are almost opposite.

First, here is Tom Friedman in the New York Times.  He is writing about resource efficiency and how, in his view, "green" and "gold" — that is, environmental stewardship and the profit motive —  can become partners rather than adversaries. He begins by talking about traffic in Moscow but that is just the peg on which to hang a general point: "The planet is getting flatter and more crowded. There will be two billion more people here by 2050, and they will all want to live and drive just like us. And when they do, there is going to be one monster traffic jam and pollution cloud, unless we learn how to get more mobility, lighting, heating and cooling from less energy and with less waste "

He goes on, "This will force us to decouple consumption from economic growth."

Huh?  "Economic growth", at least as it is usually defined, just is growth in production and consumption. You might as well suggest that we "decouple" the total of our spending from the amount we pay for each item that we purchase.

But for Friedman, I think, "economic growth" has taken on a wider and less precise meaning - in fact, it seems to be more or less synonymous (for him)  with "human flourishing".  So I would paraphrase him as saying, "The pressures of a flat, crowded planet will force us to find ways of human flourishing that don't depend so much on taking physical stuff on a one-way journey from resource to waste."

Now look at the latest post on Herman Daly's blog.  He makes the two-stage argument that growth (a) will eventually become impossible, and (b) "long before it becomes physically impossible, it will become uneconomic", i.e. the marginal value of another unit of growth, when all costs and benefits have been taken into account, will turn negative.  Daly's argument is that this point is at hand, but that it is obscured from us by an accounting system which fails to include the illth (negative wealth) that is generated by our economic activities.

But he is no doomster.  "I eagerly submit", he writes, that "even if we limit quantitative physical throughput (growth) it should still be possible to experience qualitative improvement (development) thanks to technological advance and to ethical improvement of our priorities."  Here is the "decoupling" idea again, but for Daly, "growth" is on the side of this contrast that must be limited, not on the side on which continued improvement is to be expected.

Of course this is a question about the use of words.  To me, though, it seems clear that Daly's usage is more realistic and truer to our ordinary language.  If I'm right that Friedman uses the language of "economic growth" as a synonym for the whole range of human aspirations, it suggests that economics has taken on almost a religious or spiritual value for him — a way of viewing the whole of life. I don't think economic language can carry that weight.

Daly concludes his article with this challenge: "If you are a technological optimist please have the courage of your convictions and join us in advocating policies that give incentive to the resource-saving technologies that you believe are within easy reach. You may be right — I hope you are. Let’s find out. If you turn out to be wrong, there is really no downside, because it was still necessary to limit throughput to avoid uneconomic growth."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Knowledge of power, is power

This afternoon I installed a TED5000 system in our home.

TED (The Energy Detective) is a real-time load monitoring system.  In the picture, the TED hardware is on the right hand side of the breaker box. The data is loaded onto the home LAN - and you can see that a switch on the LAN was conveniently located on the same mounting board at the left.  So setting up this installation was a breeze.

TED uses a couple of current transformers which you clip over the main feeds to the distribution board.  You need to be reasonably confident in your abilities here (or hire an electrician) because the feeds are live while you are doing this.  But there is no direct electrical connection to them - the device works in the same way as a clip-on ammeter.

After you have the device set up you can see, in real time, how much power you are using in the house.  Here is the basic monitoring screen.

I hope that the information that we get about energy usage will help us conserve more effectively and be more mindful when we do use a lot of energy.  Plus, it will tell us whether a solar installation is a realistic idea!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Yesterday's presentation at CCCCC

The five C's are for the Creation Care Coalition of Centre County.  Yesterday I gave a presentation at their meeting at St Andrew's Church in State College called "Stewardship, Spirituality and Justice: My Journey with GreenFaith."

I talked some about my own background and sense of calling, and about the structure of the GreenFaith fellowship program.  The three headings correspond to the three focus areas in GreenFaith's mission statement.   In each area I tried to say a little about my personal journey and how GreenFaith is helping my learn more and do more.

As a theme quote for the whole talk, I took something from Moltmann's God in Creation: "What we call the environmental crisis is not merely a crisis in the natural environment of human beings. It is nothing less than a crisis in human beings themselves." (Using this quote was a bit of a cheat really - it is from the preface to a book that I have only just started reading - but the book looks as though it will be fascinating and the quotation really resonated with the theme of the talk.)

I am happy that GF has helped me start to find a "public voice" on faith and creation care... one of the encouraging aspects of the program has been the priority given to understanding one's own personal story as a component of that "public voice".  Certainly the parts of yesterday's presentation which were most personal to me seemed, paradoxically, to be also those which resonated effectively with others.