Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Archive for the ‘Civilisation’ Category

From Noah to Nordhaus via Inhofe

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US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is a climate change sceptic primarily because he believes God has promised not to flood the Earth again; and the rainbow in the sky tells him it must be true.

Such ideologically-driven wilful blindness is very dangerous. Indeed, most climate scientists agree that it threatens the future of most life on Earth.

Sadly, such ideological blindness is not unique to those foolish enough to believe the Earth was created in 6 days only 6,000 years ago. As Stephan Lewandowsky et al have pointed out, adherence to libertarian ideology and free market economics are strongly correlated with a rejection of the scientific consensus that humans are the primary cause of post-Industrial climate change. Pseudo-skeptics may have attempted to discredit this research but, they cannot refute the empirical evidence for the above correlation.

Indeed, in his book Poles Apart: The international reporting of climate scepticism, James Painter provides ample evidence that climate change ‘scepticism’ is predominantly a feature of right-wing newspapers in English-speaking countries.

However, I digress from the story I want to tell…

It is no secret that stories of a global flood, like that of Noah and his Ark, are found in the earliest writings of numerous ancient civilisations around the World.  Until yesterday, however, I had no idea what this might have to do with an abrupt but temporary global cooling event, known as the Younger Dryas, which occurred between 11,500 and 12,900 years ago.

This came to my attention yesterday morning while watching television, when the presenters of BBC Breakfast began interviewing a journalist I had never heard of before.

For at least 20 years, Graham Hancock has, apparently, being telling anyone that would listen that a comet impact in Antarctica about 12,000 years ago – and the sudden sea level rise it caused – wiped out most evidence of an advanced human civilisation that predates any of the others by about 5,000 years. In doing some research on this yesterday, I discovered that this was something that the Huffington Post had picked up on in May this year.  However, digging a little deeper, I found that it is over 5 years since Hancock’s ‘smoking gun’ evidence was reported in the Scientific American magazine.  It would therefore appear that Hancock is very good at self publicity and recycling old news.

Even so, I nearly choked on my breakfast when Hancock suggested that the Giant Sphinx at Gaza was not built by the Egyptians. He pointed out that the Sphinx appears much more weathered (by rainfall) than the in-situ stone on the pyramids around it. However, the real clincher for his argument was the fact that organic material – which can be carbon dated – found at the Gobekli Tepe site in Turkey is about 12,000 years old. This is significant because all other early civilisations – that left behind monumental architecture – are thought to date from no more than 7,000 ago.

This has long been a mystery that archaeologists could not explain, but which is explained by the comet impact.

However, again as a result of research I did yesterday, I was amazed to find out that suggesting a comet impact might explain the origins of the story of Noah’s Ark was not just Hancock’s idea. It is one that can be traced all the way back to Edmund Halley in 1694, as blogger Jason Colavito pointed out in his summary of Graham Hancock at the end of last year.

So, Graham Hancock has used his skills as an investigative journalist to pull together evidence from different spheres of science to solve the archaeological mystery of Gobekli Tepe.  Therefore, given the amount of criticism he received 20 years ago for putting forward an idea with no supporting evidence, it is perhaps understandable that he is now making so much of the fact that the evidence has since been found.

However, even if the idea was not really his in the first place, I think this explanation for the Younger Dryas event is important because it highlights the fact that the vast majority of modern human civilisation is in danger of being wiped off the face of the Earth if large amounts of land-based ice slide into the sea.

Sadly, those who continue to dispute that this might happen – and/or assert that Antarctica is actually cooling – have picked a fight with science and history that they are bound to lose.

On what basis do I say this, you may well wonder. Well, for the record, here are two good reasons:

1. It is impossible to explain the totality of post-Industrial warming without acknowledging that the dominant factor is the 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels (see also Fig 5 in Hansen et al 2007 below).

2. Although the interior of Antarctica may be cooling – and the sea ice around it may not be shrinking because of the huge expanse of the surrounding Southern Ocean – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Antarctic peninsula are amongst the fastest-warming places on the planet.

Fig 5. in Hansen et al (2007), 'Climate simulations for 1880-2003 with GISS modelE'. Clim. Dyn., 29, 661-696

Fig 5. in Hansen et al (2007), ‘Climate simulations for 1880-2003 with GISS modelE’. Clim. Dyn., 29, 661-696

To conclude, I can do no better than to refer, once again, to the six reasons put forward by the formerly-sceptical economist William D. Nordhaus as to ‘Why the global Warming Skeptics are Wrong‘.


10 Sept 2015 (15:00 BST): With apologies for any confusion caused, this blog post has now been edited to remove repetition and ambiguity resulting from my hasty/poor proof-reading of the original.

Are we all Britain haters now?

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Here in the UK, the Daily Mail has got itself a lot of publicity for printing an article last Saturday entitled “Man Who Hated Britain”.  The article was about the late father of Ed Milliband, who is the current leader of the Labour Party (and could therefore be our next Prime Minister).  For the avoidance of any doubt, I must declare that I think such an eventuality would be a disaster for Britain.  However, I digress…

Basically, the Daily Mail’s argument is that, if for no other reason than that he died in 1994, many people may not realise that Ralph Miliband was a passionate believer in the political philosophy of a certain Karl Marx (oh and, yes, he was Jewish as well).  Choosing to ignore the fact Milliband senior joined the Royal Navy and settled down to married life here after the War, the Daily Mail based its entire article on something he wrote in his diary when he arrived here as a refugee from the Nazis (at the tender age of 17).

Despite asking for and being given a right to reply, Ed Milliband has had to put up with the Daily Mail refusing to apologise and – indeed repeating its criticism of his father.  In essence, therefore, the Daily Mail’s position is that you cannot love Britain if you are a Socialist.  However, this is nothing new; this has always been the position of the Daily Mail – they have just never found such a blunt way to say it before.  The Independent newspaper has helpfully summarised the whole story in this article yesterday.

Unfortunately for the Daily Mail, this is an easily falsifiable argument; especially when you consider that the newspaper routinely uses xenophobic headlines to attract readers:  It does not matter whether the subject is radical Islamic preachers, environmental protestors, or climate scientists – according to the Daily Mail they all hate Britain.

With regard to radical Islamic preachers in Britain, I agree it does seem somewhat hypocritical to criticise the country in which you have chosen to live.  However, to be entirely fair, they have chosen to work here; and they are living here in the hope that they can turn the UK into an Islamic state.  Does this mean that they ‘hate’ Britain?  No it does not; it just means they don’t like it the way it is.

Exactly the same logic applies to environmental campaigners and climate scientists.  To label them as anti-British (anti-Western or anti-progress) is grossly unfair.  They are not anti-British – they just believe Britain would be better if it was not at war with Nature.

So what is the Daily Mail up to?  I think it is essentially peddling xenophobia.  This may well have originated as an evolutionary survival mechanism.  However, today, in the absence of any predators, xenophobic tribalism is essentially a maladaptive coping strategy:  It is a method of absolving oneself of responsibility for anything; and shifting the blame for everything on to somebody else.

This is essentially what climate change denial is:  Many of those of a religious persuasion tell themselves humans cannot be changing the Earth’s climate (because God won’t allow that to happen).  Many of those of a humanist persuasion tell themselves that we are not changing the Earth’s climate (because that would require us all to admit we have made a mess of things).

Seen in this light, we would all appear to be planet haters now.  If we can admit this to ourselves and to each other; I think that this might be the first step on a long road towards doing something about it.

In the meantime, my response to those who think there is still something inherently evil about Communism is as follows:

It is amazing how so many – who no doubt consider themselves to be very much right-of-centre politically – forget that the first people to be called “Christians” would today be described as Communists.* So, I think a little less contempt is called for; and a lot less hypocrisy.

Marxism is essentially Industrialism without the Capitalism. Whereas Marxism prioritises production; Capitalism prioritises consumption. As such, both are deeply mired in the unsustainable delusion of ‘growthmania’.  It may be that Capitalism has proven itself far better at wealth creation, but, neither system has proven to be very good at providing equal opportunity for all.

* The Bible makes it clear that, in the very earliest years at least, Christians formed a self-supporting community of people within which property and food were shared. Therefore, those who think there is something inherently evil about Communism have got stuck in the past: McCarthyism never did do anyone much good; and it is now at least 50 years out of date.

Having said all that, I am still not a ‘Watermelon’ (i.e. green on the outside but red on the inside).  I remain a (non-financial) supporter of the Conservative Party and, as such, I live in the hope that one day soon it may stop allowing ideology to prejudice its attitude to science; and accept what climate scientists are telling us will happen if we do not take radical steps to decarbonise our economies by 2050.  For goodness sake, even business leaders are now saying we must do this.  What the hell are we waiting for?


UPDATE:   On 1 October 2013, in a welcome attempt to put the record straight, The Daily Telegraph has re-published its very fair-minded obituary of Professor Ralph Milliband from its edition of 7 June 1994.  (H/T  Roger Davies [@4589roger] on Twitter).

Music for 21 December 2012

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Following on from yesterday’s post of an R.E.M. classic (It’s The End Of The World As We Know It), here is more of my choice of music inspired by the fact that the World is NOT going to end today…

Incidentally, this makes me inclined, as I did back on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, to quote Carl Jung:

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift; that is why we call it ‘the present’.

…So then, here’s my choice of music for this day in history (from U2)…

Walk On (All That You Can’t Leave Behind)


Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World

Written by Martin Lack

21 December 2012 at 12:36

Is it the end of the World as we know it?

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No it is not; but thanks to R.E.M. for the inspiration!

Written by Martin Lack

20 December 2012 at 12:00

How a post-carbon World might look

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Yesterday, on Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs, Paul Handover posted the 4th and penultimate part of his serialisation of the recent work of Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute under the title ‘Down is the new up‘.  As Alexander himself says, it “…is a challenging mixture of utopian and dystopian speculation”.  However, whatever else it may be, it is an amazingly thorough analysis of our predicament.  Here are my main take-aways:

4.1  Water – it’s the reason I first got into hydrogeology – and the statistics presented here are very sobering “…we could live with dignity without showering or bathing in the accustomed fashion… high water consumption is really a product of wastefulness…”

4.2  Food – Air transportation is one activity where fossil fuel use is not substitutable.  However, what I had not considered before was the fact that localism is essential in food production because the current globalised system “will not be economically sustainable as oil continues to get more expensive.”

4.3  Clothing – At last I have found someone who shares my distaste for the fashion and advertising industries that sell only discontent.  However, an organised boycott would simply put a lot of people out of work… But, of course, they will be needed to cultivate the land… Oh boy, is this going to be a hard sell…

4.4  Housing – Sadly, much of the UK’s Victorian housing has been demolished in the misguided belief that new is better.  It might be if the new stuff was being built to the highest-possible energy efficiency standards but often it is not – and it is unlikely to be as long-lasting as that which it replaced.  Refurbishment is the much better option; it is a form of recycling.

4.5  Energy“energy consumption per capita in a sufficiency economy may be in the vicinity of half that of Western European economies today” – now there’s a challenge!  Here again, Dr Alexander appears to endorse Schalk Cloete’s arguments (see yesterday’s post on this blog) regarding the implications of the end of the era of cheap, abundant and dense forms of energy (i.e. fossil fuels) – “The major obstacle in the way of completely decarbonising the economy is the fact that, currently, fossil fuels are required to make renewable energy systems, such as the solar panels and wind turbines.”

4.6  Transport – Again, yet more unemployment seems an inevitable consequence of the end of globalisation.  Freight transport by air appears doomed but Tourism is not even mentioned.  However, its demise seems to be assumed – this too will be a hard sell.  Electric cars are expensive; and making them requires the use of fossil fuels.

4.7  Work and Production – Dr Alexander’s vision of the future looks like a return to medieval feudalism. If so, there are an awful lot of young people wasting racking up ludicrous levels of debt to get themselves a Tertiary education that will be totally useless.

4.8  Money, Markets and Exchange – An interesting conflict appears inevitable between the hitherto relentless advance of technology towards a paperless economy (i.e. electronic funds transfer) and a return to much older forms of trade (i.e. bartering).  What is certain is that Alexander conceives globalised Capitalism as destined to become the economic equivalent of a cosmological Black Hole – “It may be that as economies are suffocated by expensive oil in coming years, and find themselves at the ‘end of growth,’ debt-based systems which require growth will collapse under the weight of their own debts and the alternative system will arise in a very unplanned, ad hoc, and possibility decentralised way.”

4.9  Miscellaneous – Both Marxism and Anarchism are critiqued.  However, Alexander fails to note the fact, which many other authors have pointed out,  that Marxism is merely growthmania without the Capitalism:  It is focussed on production rather than consumption; but it still pre-supposes quantitative economic growth as the only way to measure progress (and has thus always failed).  Alexander seems to see localism and grassroots revolution as the most likely way in which a post-carbon era will emerge.  To me, this seems to pre-suppose the institutional failure of globalised Capitalism but, I guess we shall soon find out…

The ethics of fossil fuel use

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I am grateful to Schalke Cloete, of One in a Billion blog fame, for alerting me to this public debate, which was held on Monday at the privately-financed Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina (the US State that has passed a Law that makes accelerating sea level rise illegal).

The debate appears to have been arranged at the behest of one of the two protagonists, Alex Epstein (founder of the Center for Industrial Progress) – whose challenge Bill McKibben ( clearly accepted.

The video below runs to nearly 100 minutes in length so, I suspect, only very few will watch it.  Anyone who does will find it very rewarding but, for the majority that probably will not watch it, I have summarised its content below.

To start with both speakers are given 10 minutes to put their case, they are then given opportunity to respond to the points made by the other; to cross-examine each other; and to put forward closing arguments.

Bill McKibben went first and started by stating that fossil fuels were good for us but that the advantages of their continued use are now outweighed by the disadvantages and, therefore, wherever we can, we should stop using them.  He then provided fact-based evidence for twelve risks we face if we do not do this:
1. Ocean acidification which will kill corals and endanger a wide variety of shellfish.
2. Melting Ice caps and permafrost (sea level rise and methane release).
3. Increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events of all kinds.
4. Reduced crop for crops of all kinds and consequential increases in food prices.
5. Mass extinction of species (that cannot migrate or whose habitats are degraded).
6. Inundation of coastal cities (with all the collateral damage and disruption that will cause).
7. Increased frequency and severity of forest fires.
8. Increasing numbers of deaths resulting from atmospheric pollution and heat waves.
9. Economic growth and development will be hindered by increased expenditure on mitigation.
10. Socio-political instability and insecurity arising from all of the above (see the Pentagon’s QDR).
11. Libertarian desires will be endangered by the increasing need for autocratic responses.
12. Democracy itself is endangered by policy inaction being promoted by the fossil fuel lobby.

In response to all of this, Alex Epstein insisted that the risks were unproven.  This being North Carolina (where accelerating sea level rise has been outlawed), he insisted that there is no evidence that things will get that bad.  He then proceeded to point out that climate-related deaths (whatever they are) have gone down over time, whilst CO2 levels have gone up.  Despite the fact that he did not himself offer any evidence, he dismissed all of McKibben’s well-referenced arguments as mere speculation.  He then trotted out numerous climate denial classics including the mutually contradictory arguments that (a) global warming has stopped and (b) technology will enable us to solve the problem.  Alex repeatedly referred to fossil fuels as affordable abundant energy; and repeatedly referred to it as real energy (implying that somehow renewable energy is not real?)

Bill McKibben responded to all of this by pointing out that correlation is not proof of causation; and provided yet more evidence to back up his original assertions.  He questioned why anyone would champion increased fuel use rather than promoting the reduction of demand through improved energy efficiency.  He questioned why Epstein was so defeatist about the prospects for renewable energy; and pointed out that many of the problems he cited had in fact already been solved.  Renewable energy is real energy and, since the alternatives to fossil fuel exist, its use should therefore be maximised as fast as possible.

Epstein responded by asserting that all environmentalists are anti-progress because they are anti –hydroelectric projects and anti-nuclear.  He therefore challenged McKibben to endorse the legitimacy of both as potential solutions.  He then trotted out yet more climate change denial classics such as (i) CO2 is a trace gas (citing the rise from 0.03% volume to 0.04% volume as insignificant – even though that would actually represent a 33% increase); and (ii) climate model predictions have proven to be unreliable (when in fact they have proven to be overly optimistic).  Despite the fact that Epstein – Philosophy and Computer Science major –  is clearly no expert in the natural sciences, he even tried and failed to refute the fact that ocean acidification is not happening (by claiming they are becoming less alkaline and more neutral).

Epstein was then invited to rebut McKibben’s arguments. In so doing he repeated his mantra about the folly of giving up on the most affordable and abundant energy source we have, which would prevent progress; and unnecessarily condemn millions to a life of misery.  He asserted that fossil fuels had made modern agriculture possible and solved the problem of world hunger that people worried about 40 years ago.  Furthermore, given the growth in human population since then, he suggested that we now need fossil fuels in order to prevent widespread malnutrition and starvation.

In rebutting Epstein’s arguments, McKibben started by repeating that fossil fuels had made many good things possible in the past but that the risks of their continued use now outweigh the disadvantages.   Climate change has already resulted in more food being eaten than grown in 6 of the last 11 years; and that unabated increase in fossil fuel use will only make it increasingly hard to grow crops.  McKibben also questioned the wisdom of trying to refute the opinions of the World’s leading ecologists by asserting that our oceans are not actually turning into acids.

In their closing speeches, Epstein and McKibben recapped their main arguments:  Epstein questioned the validity of all the evidence McKibben had presented (but presented none himself); and questioned the integrity of McKibben – accusing him of misrepresenting the situation (for what motive?).  In complete contrast, McKibben did not use such language and, being careful not to attack Epstein personally, repeated his main point that the fossil fuel industry is the only one that does not pay to dispose of its waste.  He then concluded by suggesting that fossil fuel companies need to decide to become energy companies instead; and embrace the use of all the alternatives that we have.

The crime of Socrates

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(or is it the curse of Cassandra?)

Andrew Marr’s History of the World is the latest BBC programme featuring the eponymous presenter (although the word Human is clearly missing from the title somewhere). The second installment was broadcast in the UK on Sunday night and, I have to say, it was an improvement on the first.  Some may ask, “If you thought the first was bad then why did you watch the second?”  Well, the answer is that I was almost willing Andrew Marr to prove me wrong.  You see, I suspect he is peddling a libertarian agenda; but I am hoping that he is not.

The first programme in the series covered the emergence of Homo sapiens from Africa 70,000 years ago – and their subsequent conquest of the entire planet (and the extinction of Neanderthals in the process) – up to the emergence of agriculture, urbanisation and civilisation 7,000 years ago. The worst thing about the programme was the repetitive – and almost subliminal – message that climate change is natural and we cannot stop it.  Wheareas Marr emphasised the way in which Homo sapiens were almost wiped out by natural changes in climate; he appeared to gloss over a complementary truth:  Modern civilisation only came about – and has only persisted – because of the relative stability of sea levels and temperature over that last 7,000 years.  I suspect, therefore, that Marr has been having too many lunches with the likes of Lords Monckton and Lawson.  Whatever the case may be, episode 1 does not seem to have impressed Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent newspaper either.

In the second programme, this ‘climate change is natural’ meme made a brief appearance at the start; only to be juxtaposed with the suggestion that, although nature has been a tough adversary, human beings are their own worst enemy.  Even though I not misanthropic, I am much more content with this assertion than the one that says climate change is natural and/or we must adapt to it:  This is an utterly fallacious argument that can only be sustained by ignoring the fact that the change now underway is much faster than all previous natural change because human activity is causing most of it.

Nevertheless, I think Andrew Marr redeemed himself somewhat in this second episode:  With his usual amiable style of delivery, he talked the viewer through the history of human civilisation, visiting places like the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the Persian city of Babylon, the Lydian city of Sardis, and the Greek city of Athens.  Also thrown into the mix were brief accounts of the rise and fall of the Phoenicians as a maritime trading empire; the emergence of Buddhism in India and of Confucism in China; and Alexander the Great’s admirable early attempts at cosmopolitanism and globalisation (nice ideas; shame about the outcome).

However, as indicated by the title of this post, the thing that grabbed my attention was the emergence of what we now call democracy in Greece (i.e. in Greek, Demos = people; and Cratos = power); and how contingent our concept of democracy is…  If the Persians had not gone down to such a highly-implausible defeat in a battle 26 miles from Athens, we might be missing a lot more than just a name for the longest event on the athletics schedule at the Olympic games:  Had the Persians beaten the Athenian army at Marathon, the course of human history would have been very different indeed!

So why have I focussed on the case of Socrates, who was effectively accused and convicted of being dangerously subversive in 399BC and, having been found guilty, was required to kill himself by drinking poison…?  Well, leaving aside the bizarre method of “execution”, what exactly was his crime?  According to Andrew Marr, Socrates merely raised questions regarding the limitations of democracy and/or how dissenters should be dealt with.  According to Wikipedia (link above), Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of the city and of impious acts (namely “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”).   Socrates philosophical musings were clearly seen as subversive and anti-democratic.  However, all Socrates appears to have been guilty of is being one of the first to recognise the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas.  He basically challenged the notion that majority opinion will always be right; and championed the idea that expert opinions should carry more weight. He also held unusual religious views.  He was, in essence, a free thinker, a non-conformist, and anti-Establishment.

Modern science has much for which it should be grateful to Socrates; and so have Environmentalists:  In essence, environmentalism is the consequence of thinking outside the box; it arises from pursuing the consequences of science wherever they lead; and refusing to be prevented from reaching any particular conclusion simply because it may be politically inconvenient.

Nowadays, fortunately, those who challenge the received wisdom of our political leaders are not executed (by poisoning, hanging, beheading or any other unpleasant means).  Unfortunately, however, we just seem to be ignored instead.

Therefore, even though all we are really doing is embracing the Newtonian reality that all actions have consequences (especially when it comes to issues surrounding waste, pollution, and recycling), we seem to have swapped the philosophical legacy of Socrates for the mythological curse of Cassandra (whom no-one would believe).


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