Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Gods Themselves

 Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

This resonant quotation from Schiller ("Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain") provides the title for one of Isaac Asimov's best sci-fi novels, which I recently reread.

The core idea: On a future earth, the discovery of a new and apparently "impossible" material leads to the development of what seems to be an inexhaustible source of free energy - the "Electron Pump" - leading to fame and fortune for the discoverer, and a renewal of global prosperity.

But one scientist suspects that things are not as rosy as they seem.  In fact, the "waste product" of the Electron Pump - a local change in the laws of physics - may be disrupting the internal equilibrium of the Sun, heating it up and possibly turning it into a supernova.

He goes to a senior politician, Senator Burt, to explain his fears.  The senator responds:

“It is a mistake to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort. We know that well enough from our experience in the environmental crisis of the twentieth century. Once it was well known that cigarettes increased the incidence of lung cancer, the obvious remedy was to stop smoking, but the desired remedy was a cigarette that did not encourage cancer. When it became clear that the internal-combustion engine was polluting the atmosphere dangerously, the obvious remedy was to abandon such engines, and the desired remedy was to develop non-polluting engines. Now then, young man, don’t ask me to stop the Pumping. The economy and comfort of the entire planet depend on it. Tell me, instead, how to keep the Pumping from exploding the Sun.” (Asimov, Isaac (2011-05-04). The Gods Themselves (Kindle Locations 894-899). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

We do not like predicaments - problems which come without an obvious solution.  In the novel, Asimov manages to get the planet out of its predicament (after a long and highly imaginative detour into trivalent alien sex).  But are we going to find a way out of the predicament that the waste products of our favored energy source are producing?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Screwtape on Sustainability

I was talking with a departmental colleague the other day about my plans for a "mathematics of sustainability" course.  He is concerned about the idea that I may embroil our department in a "political agenda", and I think he believes that such an agenda can be expressed even by the mere asking of certain kinds of questions - whatever the mathematical answer to these questions may be.  During our discussion, this colleague (whom I greatly respect) quoted from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, chapter XV.

"We want" (says Screwtape, the devil) "a man hag-ridden by the Future - haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell on Earth - ready to break the Enemy's [God's] commands in the present if by doing so we make him think that he can attain the one or avert the other - dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see.  We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end - never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel with which to heap the altar of the future every real gift that is offered to them in the Present."

"That is how I see the environmental movement", said my colleague. 

Friday, December 7, 2012


This is re-posted from the Inside Higher Education blog "Getting to Green", written by G. Rendell. The link to the original post is here.  He writes

"I happened to watch an old movie last night.  Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.  1948.  Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglass.  A gentle comedy about a (generally) gentle man acting rashly, getting in over his head, coming out of it OK (because, after all, it's a Hollywood production).

Monday, December 3, 2012

How Far Do You Walk?

I was reading a review over at Books and Culture of "The Old Ways:A Journey on Foot" by Robert Macfarlane, and one phrase caught my attention.  "Macfarlane", says the reviewer, "has walked about seven or eight thousand miles in his life."

That's all? Hard to believe.

The odometer on Shanks' pony can clock up a lot of miles.  I have been privileged to live nearly all my life within walking distance of my workplace.   I've walked maybe four miles a day, five days a week, for the best part of the last  twenty-five years - not to mention the hiking and backpacking and running (does that count?) and climbing (ditto?) that have punctuated that twenty-five years and indeed the twenty-five years before that.

 I reckon I'm at 25,000 miles.  Time for an oil change.

But that's not much really.  The miners' path from the Ogwen to Llanberis valleys in North Wales is four miles (one way) and a thousand feet of elevation change.  Modern guides list it as a recreational dayhike, but it was nineteenth-century miners' daily commute. 

In many parts of Africa and Asia, collecting the daily water supply is "women's work". According to a Loughborough University web site, the average distance that women in Africa and Asia walk to collect water each day  is six kilometers (about four miles) and the weight of water they carry on their heads is about 20kgs (about forty pounds) - equivalent to the average airport luggage allowance. 

Something to think about.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Thoughts on the IEA World Energy Report

It has been hard to miss the surge of media excitement about the recent International Energy Agency "World Energy Outlook".

With its forecast of a boom on "tight" oil and gas in the United States, leading to the US "overtaking" Saudi Arabia as the number one world producer, the report has been greeted (at least in this country) with unabashed jubilation.   "This is a real energy revolution," declared the Wall Street Journal, "even if it's far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates." 

I recently read a broader perspective on the report from Tim Michael Klare at Hampshire College.  On the "US boom", Klare writes:

Given the hullabaloo about rising energy production in the US, you would think that the IEA report was loaded with good news about the world's future oil supply. No such luck. In fact, on a close reading, anyone who has the slightest familiarity with world oil dynamics should shudder, as its overall emphasis is on decline and uncertainty.

Take US oil production surpassing Saudi Arabia's and Russia's. Sounds great, doesn't it? Here's the catch: Previous editions of the IEA report and the International Energy Outlook, its equivalent from the US Department of Energy (DoE), rested their claims about a growing future global oil supply on the assumption that those two countries would far surpass US output. Yet the US will pull ahead of them in the 2020s only because, the IEA now asserts, their output is going to fall, not rise as previously assumed.
 And of course the "good news" about fossil fuel production is not good news for the climate:
Of all the findings in the 2012 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the one that merits the greatest international attention is the one that received the least. Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in "a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C".
Read the full article here.