“A handful of ‘gods’, and then the rest of us”

Since the last Luddite uprising was put down in the early 19th century, it has been obvious that technology has been steadily replacing jobs previously reserved for humans.

For much of this period, the livelihoods that were disappearing were largely blue collar jobs. With recent advances in robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), though, the trend has shifted to white collar jobs, and, of perhaps greater concern, the rate at which all this is happening seems to be speeding up.

Over the last two weeks, The Guardian has put out a series of articles on the effects of robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the work force. The two principle sources are a speech by the Bank of England’s chief economist, and a lengthy report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Together they make for sobering reading.

The first article, entitled “Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, says Bank of England’s chief economist”, reports on a speech given by The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane.

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John Kerry at Old Dominion

On Tuesday of this week, Nov 10, 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, warning of the impact of climate change/ instability will have on national security.

It was a wide-ranging talk, simultaneously addressing implications for defense infrastructure and logistics, the types of missions the military may be handed in the future, and the role some of the downstream effects of climate change have played and will continue to play in either fomenting or prolonging conflicts.

While the text of the speech is itself fairly unremarkable, i.e. no one would confuse Kerry’s words with those of Roosevelt or Churchill, in a sense, it was an extraordinary moment; both an admission and a declaration that the US government, must, as an entirely practical matter, consider the role of climate change in formulating its diplomatic and defense posture around the world.

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CO2 in 2015: 400ppm and Climbing

So where are we, exactly, with regard to carbon dioxide?

According to The New York Times, citing a report from the the World Meteorological Organization, global atmospheric CO2 concentrations, measured as monthly averages, met and surpassed 400 parts per million (or ppm) this last spring.

As a reference point, in 1750, they are estimated to have stood at 278ppm. That’s a 43% increase since George Washington was a young man.

NB: If you distrust estimates, and the methods used to produce them, and you want to see the graph of continuously observed CO2 measurements taken at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory starting in 1958, google the Keeling Curve.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Is 400ppm important, scientifically? No. Meaning it’s not appreciably worse than 399ppm, or better than 401ppm. It’s a round number, a multiple not just of 10, but of 100, and so it’s something of a psychological milestone. But I think it does serve to symbolize the apparent inexorability of the graph’s upward climb; a cold, discomfiting rebuke… proof that the steps we’ve taken to date to reverse this process have been negligible in their effect.

How Many Earths?

When I let myself think about the future of the planet, or rather the future of humanity’s time on the planet, the one word, or concept, or theme I keep coming back to is population.

It may even trump the climate issue, as if anyone’s keeping score, in that even if we weren’t altering our biosphere in dramatic and destructive ways, we would still have to contend – as we sought out new living space, more arable land, and as yet undiscovered fresh water supplies – with overshoot, the idea first proposed by the cleric and scholar Thomas Robert Malthus in his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

For much of the late 20th century, the work of Malthus was in bad odor with academia. The adjective Malthusian , or the broad concept of Malthusianism, was synonymous not with a thoughtful and well-researched concern for humanity’s growing numbers, but rather a sort of dim-witted and somewhat old-fashioned hysteria about growth. The Green Revolution, we were told, had proved Malthus wrong, once and for all. Through technology, and agricultural science, we would continue to push back the boundaries on food production, the efficient use of fresh water, etc., etc. Those in the know were not worried!

It’s not that the smart set thought there would be permanent continued exponential growth. They did envision a flattening off of the growth curve eventually, but this would happen voluntarily, the thinking went, as people currently living in poverty achieved much or all of the prosperity that those in the West and/or industrialized North had come to take for granted.

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Orienting the Conversation

Today we find ourselves, to paraphrase an old saying, living in interesting times.

There is little in our current age that is more potentially “interesting” than the changes underway to our planet’s climate, and the intricate feedback loops that sustain the status quo—the status quo, lest it need to be said, that has made the flourishing of human society possible.

To begin, and simply orient the conversation, I’d like to throw out a few observations that no one (or I should say no one who is aware of the available data) really disputes; I’m going to try to use as few numbers, and as few adjectives, as possible:

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