The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World is a series of case studies looking at what happened when organized pre-industrial administrative states or globalized markets came in contact with other human societies with less organizational capacity and power. It was a little dry, but I really liked the diversity of examples and the way they fed into each other, knitting together almost 300 years of history, from about 1500 to 1800. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wonders what the global economy looked like in its awkward teenage years.
This is the first time that all the disparate parts of the human world became connected persistently, with flows of information, material resources, pathogens, culture and people growing almost continuously throughout. Communication and travel weren’t fast, but they were reliable enough that people kept doing them, and built huge economic and cultural and political structures around globe-spanning trade. Capital markets that vaguely resemble what we have today were starting to form. The state and market apparatus were sophisticated enough in some places to wield huge collective resources in very focused ways, impacting huge populations and natural resource stocks, even for what seem like kind of trivial ends. European fashion trends and status hierarchies nearly drove the North American beaver to extinction, dramatically reshaping the watersheds of half a continent.
Anand Gopal from Energy Innovations had a great thread on Twitter about differentiating between the primary solutions, supporting side-dishes, and poison pills in the climate policy landscape, but there was one idea in there that frustrates me, about the potential importance of shifting cultural norms:
Ironically, many advocates of degrowth claim exactly the same thing: that in the short term technological solutions can’t deliver the scale and speed of emissions reductions required to limit warming to 2°C (and certainly not 1.5°C). As a result the 1.5-2°C emissions trajectories that get taken seriously today all include substantial negative emissions later in the 21st century. Substantial as in, on the order of tens of billions of tons per year. (Both camps could be correct: our success is not required.)
Gopal’s take is totally understandable and common given trends over the last few decades. It’s charitable, even — a lot of the climate policy wonkosphere won’t even give lip service to social change as a meaningful possibility. I think these assessments are missing an acknowledgement of the degree to which our social norms are literally legislated and then enforced by the state. The fact that we haven’t seen society in places like the US adopt a different, less consumptive way of life doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be done, or that there aren’t people eager to do it.
I read Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life as a followup to The Hidden Life of Trees. I wanted to get deeper into the fungal side of the forest’s story. However, mycorrhizal relationships are just a small part of what this book explores.
For me the wildest parts of this story had to do with the ability of fungi to process information and react appropriately. They appear to be more actively engaged in the world than plants, and in some ways almost resemble animals. This study published in Nature in 2019 found that fungi had a sense of direction and some kind of memory. The researchers put a small block of wood inoculated with a fungus into an environment where it could grow and explore and eventually discover another block of wood. Then they’d remove the original block of wood and put it in a new environment, and they found that the mycelium would continue preferentially growing and exploring in the direction that had led to the “bait” before!
After reading Metazoa I wanted to explore a different branch of our phylogenetic tree, and so picked up The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a bunch of short anecdotes about the ecology of European beech forests, which is an awfully niche thing to write a book about. But then it did make the NY Times bestseller list in 2016.
I knew that this book probably wasn’t written for me, but the material is definitely cool, and I wanted to compare its style with Metazoa. Both books are trying to communicate a collection of scientific findings that border on the mystical. What makes a mind? How do ancient trees communicate through a living internet? And they both end up anthropomorphizing their very non-human subjects. Peter Godfrey-Smith makes it very clear up front that he’s a materialist. Wohlleben is much harder to pin down. I was never able to tell if he literally believes the things he’s saying, or if it’s a literary device. Normally this would get some eyerolls from me, but like I said, I don’t think I’m the intended audience. Clearly the book connected with a huge audience and successfully diffused these ideas into public consciousness.
Forests are much more communicative and cooperative communities than we’d previously thought, filled with an almost social drama playing out over centuries instead of decades. Different species share both information and materials, sometimes with kin, sometimes more generally. The fungi link together different individual organisms, and extract minerals as well. Mother trees sustain their offspring in the darkness below the canopy, so they are ready to leap toward the light when the time comes. Fire clears out the underbrush and makes minerals easily available, triggering the release of seeds. Forests migrate south en masse as the glaciers advance, but some species can get trapped, unable to climb over the Alps, and are wiped out locally. It’s a seething, adaptive civilization that you can only see through time lapse eyes.
Metazoa is kind of a sequel to “Other Minds”, Godfrey-Smith’s excellent book about the nature of cephalopod intelligence. Metazoa takes a broader view, and explores the nature of minds in general, and how they’re inextricably linked to the animal way-of-being: having a unified, unitary body that can sense and react to the world around it. It was also an interesting book to read in combination with Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” about animal body plans, and how they evolved through the use of gene regulatory networks and a meta-genetic toolkit that we share with all bilaterians.
This author kind of feels like a Carl Sagan of Marine Biology — very clearly trying to understand the world within a Materialist / Naturalist framework (which I appreciate) but without losing a sense of the mystical nature of existence. He’s asking “What kind of thing is a mind?” and “How can that kind of thing arise through evolution and be composed of nothing but a particular collection of matter and energy?” Why does this happen at all? How general or common a phenomenon is it?
Every discussion of CRISPR gene editing technology seems to come with an obligatory but superficial mention of the ethical dilemmas it brings up, especially in the context of applying it to the human germ line. Everyone asks questions like Should we remove sickle cell anemia from the gene pool? Where do we draw the line between curing diseases and building designer babies? What if everyone opts for 6-foot tall blonde-haired, blue-eyed archetype? Should we allow trans-human enhancements like taking genes from the mantis shrimp to give ourselves hyperspectral 16-color vision? What if only the rich have access, and become a ruling cadre of genetic elites, passing heritable enhancements down through their segregated bloodlines? Aren’t we playing God? How can we avoid becoming a society that looks like Gattaca or Brave New World? What thoughtful, proactive regulations can we enact to ensure this technology is used only for good, and that ethical boundaries are respected?
These questions are a fine starting point, but they also seem to be where popular explorations of this technological quandary end. I listened to Ezra Klein’s interview with Walter Isaacson on the topic this morning over coffee, and big chunks of it sounded like they could have been taken verbatim from the recent documentary Human Nature.
This hypothetical ethical discussion feels like it’s taking place in relation to a hypothetical society that makes well-reasoned policy decisions based on a shared idea of what’s right and good in the best long-term interests of society at large. A society that, having made those good decisions, can actually enforce them.
How can anybody think that’s the world we live in?
I’m reading The Affluent Society, an economics book originally published in the late 1950s, by John Kenneth Galbraith. I’m still in the first third of the book, but so far as I can tell the idea behind it is that up until this time, economics had been built around some pretty unpleasant assumptions, like scarcity, inequality, insecurity. That those assumptions persisted well beyond their expiration date, into a new world of affluence, largely due to technological progress. In this new era, everyone’s needs can be met pretty easily, except that our thinking is still controlled by the ideas of the past.
I’m not entirely sure where he’s going with all this, but I picked up the book because I heard it offered an early criticism of the role of induced overconsumption through advertising. This is also the era in which Buckminster Fuller was writing about the techno-utopian future in which humanity is liberated from toil by our technology.
One idea that’s really stood out so far came from the chapter on inequality. He makes it out to be a fundamental aspect of the classical capitalist economic worldview. That inequality isn’t just unavoidable, but that it is also necessary. One of the explanations for why it’s necessary is the need to facilitate “capital formation” — the accumulation of surplus wealth which can then be productively re-invested to generate yet more wealth and innovation, ultimately making everything better for everybody. Lamentably, more better for some people than others, but hey it’s the only way to keep this engine running…
I’ve been listening to The Fall of Civilizations podcast a lot. It’s weirdly calming in the midst of this hellscape of a year to hear stories of other times when everything fell apart completely. And yet somehow the world kept going. Through dark ages and forgetting, back to the beginning of our collective memory.
What remembering the past through oral storytelling lacks in fidelity, it partly makes up in simplicity. You can only hold so many stories in your head at once. They evolve over time, but if you don’t remember the way the story used to be, then it isn’t like that anymore. Those other versions of the past just fall away. Once you start writing things down, the narratives proliferate in parallel. It becomes much harder to forget, much harder to agree what happened, or even what is happening. Paradoxically once you start keeping careful notes, you’re overwhelmed by just how many options there are to choose from.
And occasionally, we reshuffle the deck and sift through the library as individuals, or as a society, and choose which volumes we want to highlight. Which ways we want to remember ourselves, and the story of how we got here. We can lose and remake our Official Past in the same way we occasionally discover a new Official Future, when the old one starts going stale.
So we find ourselves here with a tangled multiplicity of histories, stories about how we got to where we are — and even flamboyant disagreement about where we are. Never mind having a sane discussion about where it is we’re going.
I just finished reading Alexandra von Meier’s book, Electric Power Systems: A Conceptual Introduction. It’s an overview of how the generation, transmission, and distribution system works, and how it’s worked for pretty much the whole history of the grid, stretching back to the end of the 19th century. More than anything I came away with an appreciation for the gloriously analog nature of the machine. We have a steampunk grid, a massive artifact of the Victorian era, hiding behind and powering our increasingly digital world. This isn’t an engineering textbook, but it’s not exactly meant for a popular audience either. There’s an ongoing stream of complex numbers, calculus references, vectors, matrices, and electromagnetic fields… and without some understanding of them, a lot of the core ideas in the book will probably not come across very well.
At the upstream edge of the grid, we have thousands of gigantic machines, spinning in almost perfect synchronization. Massive amounts of iron and copper, literally turned by steam. They’ve gotten bigger and hotter and more precise and efficient over time, but they’re fundamentally the same type of generation the grid grew up with a century ago.
At the downstream edge of the grid, in large part we have the same kind of machines… but running in reverse, taking the undulating waves of electricity, and turning them back into rotation, through an invisible, smoothly spinning force-field. It’s like magic, but it’s something we’ve all lived with our entire lives. It’s so normal we don’t think about it.
Between these spinning machines we have masses of iron and tightly wound copper stepping voltage up and down, mechanical switches that look like something out of Frankenstein, and very little in the way of instrumentation and automation — at least by present day standards. And with a few exceptions, the electricity really does flow from one edge of the grid to the other in a dendritic network.
Can we construct adversarial electricity portfolios made of new zero-carbon resources that undermine the profitability of specific existing fossil plants? Some version of this is already happening, but it’s incidental rather than targeted. The economics of existing coal and nuclear plants are being eroded by flat electricity demand in combination with cheap gas, wind, and solar. Economical storage and dispatchable demand aren’t far behind. But how much faster would the energy transition be if we actively optimized new energy resources to undermine the economics of existing fossil generation?