Books We Should Pay a Lot of Attention To

Sometimes the most important books are almost ignored. Here are some with important news, most or which attracted no interest, others of which changed the world.

IMG_0900The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, is a surprising book. It presents lots of evidence that greater equality makes for stronger societies. The real surprise is that so many good things come about with greater equality, things that would seem to have no relationship to equality.

Take obesity, for example. Greater equality means less obesity. Or teenage births, which fall with greater equality. Then there are educational performance, mental health, drug use. All these are favorably affected by improved equality.

These positive relationships are not obvious at all, and in some cases seem to defy reason. But they do exist, and are largely ignored. Who would vote for the party that seeks less equality, when increasing equality has all of these good effects?

IMG_0899Water has become increasingly scarce in the Southwest over these past five years, and The West Without Water, by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, should have been required reading for every California politician, scientist, and concerned citizen. What the authors teach us is that the past couple of centuries have been an anomaly, an unusually wet period against a background of semi-desert.

California has experienced five years of drought, drying up the reservoirs and shutting off much of the water for the state’s agricultural products. California’s Central Valley has given the country much of the food we eat. If we lose very much of the water we have relied on, we can expect only undesirable consequences.

We should remember too that state population is 40 times what it was a century ago, and is greater than that of Canada. If dry California is what we can expect, then we will have to find ways to reuse all water. Agriculture must become more efficient, which is difficult because low water usage tends to build salinity in the soil.

Another danger is the habit of presuming that one wet winter will return us to the good old days, instead of inspiring us to change our ways.

IMG_0898Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction explains what it means to be in the midst of the next Great Extinction, the fifth having occurred fifty million years ago. So it’s not a common or unimportant thing. It’s a big deal.

The loss of species is alarming, and Kolbert lead us through several and discusses what they could mean.

I think the current extinction is being created by climate change. That is, by humans, who have altered the climate so radically that mass extinctions are inevitable. As the warming trend moves northward, some species will not be able to tolerate the new warmth, and will not be able to move north fast enough. As anyone who has read even a little about ecology knows, all species, including ours, are dependent on other species. We may survive the loss of a species, but we might not survive the loss of the species dependent on the one that was lost.

There are those who would pooh-pooh the loss of species, but the truth they cannot see is that when many thousands of species are lost forever, the chances are great that the losses will have a profound effect on human life. Honey bees, for example, are threatened by the chemicals we leave floating in the environment. If they are lost, the primary way that plants are fertilized will be lost with them, which would have a profoundly negative effect on the food we eat.

IMG_0901The Anatomy of Violence, by Adrian Raine, presents the latest science about how individual violence comes about. About the brain, and how it can be irreparably damaged by chemicals and parental abuse, creating a tendency toward violence. The times of greatest susceptibility are in early gestation and infancy. The brain of an alcoholic mother’s fetus can easily become terribly deformed, which can lead to violence in adulthood.

A generation ago the government began efforts to remove much of the lead in old homes, from paint, and improve gardening ground in poor neighborhoods, polluted by leaded gasoline. Although the lives of children born at that time were not otherwise different from their predecessors, they did much better in school, and the crime rate dropped sharply, and did not rise again. It appears that removing poisons that damage the young brain changes everything.

No matter how expensive such programs are, the savings are many times greater. In current news we read that a new, acidic water source for Flint, Michigan caused the lead in old water pipes to leach into the water, irreparably damaging the brain of virtually every kid in town. Moreover, water elsewhere in the US is similarly poisoned. Things like this don’t go away with less government.

IMG_0896Martin Ford’s book, Rise of the Robots brings us up to date in the world of work. Technology has displaced workers from the beginning of the Industrial Age, but starting about a half century ago technology began to replace workers with robots. Replacing them completely.

This should be good news. John Maynard Keynes predicted nearly a century ago that technology would make it possible for everyone to work twenty hours a week, with the same or greater output as before. What Keynes failed to take into account was the fact that these technological miracles were all owned by rich capitalists. Since it is inherent in capitalism that profit must be maximized, obviously none of the benefit from these machines will serve the common good. The result is that there is no work for those displaced. This is exactly what we see today.

Nobody is shielded from being replaced by a computer. Not the lowest laborer, not even the CEO. No one is safe.

The obvious problem comes from within capitalism. Capitalists will not give up their excess profit generators, and the result is a large and growing segment of the population that simply cannot find work.

IMG_0894Capital In the Twenty-First Century is Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, so far. Published in English in 2014, there are 577 pages of dense text that lead us through a careful progression that proves something that is actually a rather simple point: the very rich earn more on their investments than is possible for the rest of us. These people do not “work”, in the common sense of the word, because their entire effort is to increase the yield from their investments.

Now, the very rich operate secretly. None of them will tell us even what sorts of investments they have, but Piketty found the perfect way around this by analyzing the endowments of the richer universities, which are routinely made public. What he found is that Harvard University’s endowment grows faster than inflation, and faster than the investments of any of us other than the very richest can earn, because Harvard can afford to spend hundreds of millions annually for investment advice. The very wealthy can also afford advice that no one else can.

This, then, explains the inevitable progress of wealth. Once wealth reaches a certain tipping point, it becomes eligible for higher-priced advice that routinely earns greater returns. The very wealthy, then, are insulated from the economic difficulties that can affect the rest of us, and their wealth opens an increasingly greater gap above those even slightly less wealthy.

Obviously, the result is the widening inequality we see in today’s world.

Dark MoneyThis brings us to Jane Mayer’s recent book, Dark Money, which details the history of the billionaires of the radical right who have literally risked the fate of the planet and every living thing on it in order to earn ever greater wealth for themselves.

The most astonishing thing about these people is their absolute devotion to their own ever growing wealth, their belief in the efficacy of less government, and their total ignorance of anything else. They expect us to subsidize their wealth forever so they can become more rich with fossil fuels. They not only fail to understand the effects of pollution, they actively battle against the scientific consensus about planetary climate change. They have devoted decades and hundreds of millions to the idiotic battle against the science proving climate change, as if by disbelieving it they could make it so.

The Koch boys and their billionaire cohort have one grand belief: they should be able to do whatever they want to, with no restriction of any kind. They, in fact, want to abolish all government control, and in fact, all government, unbelievable as it sounds. Teddy Roosevelt said in 1913 that limitation of government power means that the people will be enslaved by the great corporations. It’s true more than ever today, and the billionaires are just as exasperated as ever when we fight back and they are unable to enslave us wholesale. They long ago gave up fighting in the open, and took their battle underground, where their motives and and money would remain hidden if it weren’t for writers like Jane Mayer.

If you can’t win an election honestly, cheat. If you want all the money but you are morally bankrupt, go dark.

Our Unfinished Business on Earth

The question is not whether humankind has made progress. We have made astounding progress lately—that is, since science became a thing.

But we have eliminated very few of the things that plagued us 500 years ago. We still have wars and prejudices of all sorts. We have eliminated or controlled all kinds of diseases, but others have sprung up in their place.

The most serious question now is whether we can progress rapidly enough to survive the environmental catastrophe bearing down on us like a runaway train.

1. The outcome of the rapidly worsening environmental decline is the most important thing we will ever face. It will determine whether we survive at all, and if we do, under what conditions.

We have never faced worldwide catastrophe before. The closest we came was WWII, when 60 million people lost their lives over some eight years. Without profound changes in the way humankind does things, the death toll from environmental collapse could easily be measured in billions.

Global climate change has been obvious for at least 30 years, yet we have done almost nothing to correct it. In fact, the last time we might have avoided it came about 30 years ago, and that would even then have required instantly giving up fossil fuels. Today we can only learn to live with the consequences, even if we eliminate all fossil fuel use.

2. There is every reason to believe that the Sixth Great Extinction has begun. Elizabeth Kolbert’s disturbing book, The Sixth Extinction, presents the evidence, and what it means to us.

Few of us care much about the extinction of species, but we should. A lot. Just in our time we have witnessed extinction that progresses many times faster than “background” extinctions, and is equivalent to or exceeds the five great extinctions that preceded this one.

Consider what would happen if the honey bee should become extinct, which is a possibility because of wholesale death of honeybee hives, probably due to environmental chemicals we have created. This is called colony collapse disorder, and many beekeepers worldwide have lost 90% of their hives. Honeybees fertilize a large percentage of our food crops. You can look that up. Without them, these plants would not bear, including many fruits and veggies found in our markets. This is what we eat to survive. Yet, other extinctions are also scary.

3. The population problem has not gone away. The present head count is over 7.4 billion, twice what it was only 45 years ago. Take a look at the government population clock every few months. You will be astonished at how fast the numbers change. It increased by 100,000,000 just while I wrote this. But infinite population growth is impossible.

Now, the Earth can support 7.4 million people for a while. That’s not the problem. The problem is that food and wealth are not fairly distributed. Maldistribution of common wealth means that some part of the population will suffer the worst effects of poverty.

4. Gross maldistribution of the world’s goods must be moderated. Half the world’s wealth is in the hands of some 62 people, who have no possible way to spend it, but hoard it as if they could. This leaves billions of people at the other end of the scale to suffer simply because they don’t have enough money for a decent life.

Actual physical and mental wellbeing is injured by poverty. The only way to correct this is to redirect wealth so that everyone is able to function at their best. This means giving the poor enough, not making them wealthy.

Equitable distribution of wealth has a very positive effect on nearly every part of modern life, including many things you would not expect.

5. Computers and robots do an increasing percentage of the world’s work.

Robots and computers began displacing workers a half century ago. Each passing decade saw smarter computers that did increasingly sophisticated work. It reached into the middle class, then into middle management, and now there is no worker on the planet who could not be displaced, even the highest paid CEO.

This should be good news. If half the work is done by computers, either the work week could be reduced to twenty hours, or wealth could be redistributed to those who are unable to find work. 

Those are the two elements of inequality: maldistribution of the goods of the world, and failure to take advantage of robotic work to reduce the human work load. Without solving this problem we will remain on a downward trajectory.

6. Intolerance and violence are still too much with us in spite of their historical decrease. Both stem from ignorance.

The Republican Party finds scapegoats for the party faithful to blame for everything: African-Americans, Spanish speakers, and immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants. The current crop of presidential hopefuls promote outrageous hateful falsehoods that are accepted at face value by the party faithful. They promote their values in this amoral way, hoping to gain political advantage. This is how autocracies are built, by inventing a scapegoat to blame for imagined grievances.

The GOP claims that attacks by Muslims threaten every American. The recent murder of 14 ordinary Americans by a self-radicalized Muslim and his wife in San Bernardino, California led to hundreds of peaceful Muslim-Americans, even children, being targeted for attacks.

The 19 deaths on American soil by homegrown Muslim terrorists last year should be compared to accidental death from falling, poisoning, or traffic, each of which recorded between 30,000 and 38,000 deaths. The chance of dying from a Muslim terrorist attack in the US is in the realm of winning the lottery.

What we should be promoting is tolerance.

7. Fundamentalist and military violence are the real threat.

Fundamentalists of every faith believe they have the only real truth. They often think that they need to accelerate the conversion of the world to their cause by committing mass atrocities. So the German terrorists of the 1970s planted bombs and murdered people, as did American black nationalists, and various terrorists in other countries.

Radical Muslims have turned this effort into a science lately, and in recent decades have racked up an impressive record of murder of innocents and military personnel. Lest we believe they are the only ones, we have only to remember Timothy McVeigh, whose Kansas City bomb killed 168 government workers and children and wounded 600.

Meantime, the US government and their corporate masters are very much in favor of wars—that other people’s children fight. Washington’s standard response to political difficulties abroad is bombs and soldiers.

The profit from war is vast, and comes from everything that supplies our enormous military. But our wars generate hatred wherever we go. George W. Bush’s two endless and costly wars have generated a large share of recent Muslim retribution, without any real positive achievements.

In general, American history since the early 19th century has been one of bullying and unwarranted and amoral invasion of smaller countries. We would do well to end this habit, but, as Obama’s unsuccessful attempts to extract us from military involvement in the Middle East show us, once started, it’s not easy to quit. It would be better to mostly mind our own business in the first place.

Thoughts on What the Poor Deserve

It’s almost a cliché that a nation is judged by how it treats it’s least well off. The US ain’t doing so well on that account, and most of the reason is how we think of the poor. The belief among some is that the poor deserve their poverty because they are lazy and refuse to work. Actually, though, they are neither lazy nor do they refuse to work.

Financial equality is not the goal. Few people who bother to think about it expect the wealth of a country to be evenly distributed. The goal is to treat the poor decently, not to make them rich.

Wealth is a finite resource. The wealth that accumulates at the top has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere starts at the bottom and percolates upward. “Trickle down” is nonsense that has been disproven dozens of times. What we need is equal opportunity, which is not as simple as it sounds.

Some end up in tent cities.

Let us start before the beginning.

Equal opportunity begins with the physical environment of a pregnant woman. It is well established that poorer neighborhoods typically contain more pollutants, from the land’s prior uses and from things like nearby power plants and factories. The soil in these neighborhoods often is contaminated with lead. The leaded paint in old houses is similarly dangerous, and as recent news has shown, sometimes so is the water. The danger of lead to the unborn and infant cannot be overstated. A child who eats even one old paint chip—and we all know that virtually everything goes into the baby’s mouth—may be permanently injured by the lead in the paint. That’s why the government program to remove this old leaded paint has been so successful.

Pregnant young poor women may be ignorant of the serious effects of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs on the new life within them, and may cause permanent brain injury to their child without realizing it. Education is therefore very important, especially for the poor, who have less opportunity to escape a bad environment.

The poor deserve access to decent housing, clothing, and food, and so on. The basics. Few would argue against that. But many people don’t realize that stores selling fresh foods often do not exist in poor neighborhoods. Likewise, things like doctors’ offices, civic services, and so on, are often at inconvenient distances.

boarded up houses

Some end up in decrepit row homes.

No one thinks that all children are equally smart or talented, but we all must believe in equality of opportunity. The factors mentioned above strongly affect equality of opportunity. A child injured by environmental factors is denied this equality from the first.

There are those who believe that equal educational opportunity is wasted on poor children because they are not smart enough. Numerous examples exist to prove them wrong. In a number of cases a wealthy person has subsidized the college education of all students in a poor public school, which always increases the high school graduation rate to close to 100%, with a large percentage of these graduates also graduating from college.

The poor deserve access to all those things that define modern life. Defining these things, however, is not easy. Wealth has little to do with it. Nobody needs a 200-inch TV, or a new Mercedes. But we can also say that the poor deserve certain things, such as access to computers and modern drugs, because everybody deserves these things. To withhold them would be to punish the poor for being poor, no more acceptable than denying them polio vaccine, which has been around for 60 years. The poor deserve the more recent vaccines because these are things that everyone deserves.


Some end up in their cars.

We all also deserve the availability of expensive diagnostic tools such as MRI, and the latest expensive cancer treatment if we need it. Notice that few people could afford these things without insurance, but that poor people often can’t even afford insurance. This is a strong argument for national health care, which insures everyone at half the cost of private insurance.

Curing longstanding bad societal conditions is much more difficult, complicated by the presence of a few people who really don’t deserve much because they are criminals. However, criminal behavior is not part of the equation. Nobody argues that the criminal billionaire banker should be denied health care or computer access, yet there are those who claim that the poor criminal be denied them?

The difficulty with curing social conditions is that we must begin where we are, and where the poor live are often places of low opportunity, bad environment, and high crime. Ending this is a long-term project, measured in generations. It will take real equality of opportunity over a long time to overcome these things. On the other hand, many things have been cured instantly by a rich person adopting a public school and pledging to pay for every student’s college education. But note that here we are dealing with future generations, not those who were led into crime in the past because of lack of opportunity.

Absent such a promise by a wealthy person, low achievement will not yield to poorly funded efforts that end when the new mayor takes office because a miracle has not been achieved. While in the US we are unlikely to provide this necessary funding because so many on the right believe that the difficulties of the poor are their own fault, this prejudice is not true of more advanced countries. There, people who face similar problems are given additional resources.

It is tragic that so many right wingers, including Republican Governors and Congresspersons, create so much suffering among the poor because of their blind beliefs and their cruelty. They give ever more money to the very rich, and blame the poor for the resulting increased poverty.

On Reparations for Slavery

Reparations means making amends for the past by payment of cash or other means. There are plenty of people who believe that African-Americans deserve a cash payment for the grievous sins of slavery. I’m not one of them.

For one thing, we don’t have enough money to pay for three centuries of unpaid labor. Let’s see now, one year at $15 per hour present cost comes to $31,200 gross. So three centuries is $9,360,000 per person. There are 40,000,000+ African-Americans, so the total cost will be—ka-ching—$374,400,000,000,000. I think that’s $374.4 trillion dollars. Let’s see, the gross domestic product of the US is $17 trillion. Hm.

What I actually believe is that the United States should make every effort to assure that black Americans are provided with the opportunity for the equality they deserve. Right now we do not come close, even though the cost is a tiny fraction of the true debt. But there’s actually a simple way to do it: provide first class education and neighborhoods for everybody.

As I see it, education and housing are the places we have the greatest distance to go. I would propose an extended program that would guarantee the best of schools in all grades for every student. Who can argue against that? If all schools are made primo, the problem is solved. But of course that’s not so easy.

Providing good teachers has been an ongoing problem since the dawn of time. In the US what prevents this is historically unsatisfactory pay, failure of the public to appreciate the value of education, and inadequate respect for the teaching profession. If you want good teachers, they must be paid like other professionals, and they must be respected by all. As is, many bright college students who consider teaching look at the level of compensation and look elsewhere for a career. Further, the kind of respect that, for example, South Korean teachers have, is the polar opposite of the “glorified baby sitters” claimed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Such attitudes guarantee that only the least satisfactory students will become Wisconsin teachers in the future.

Until that day when all teachers are paid enough that administrators can demand their best performance, something must be done about unsatisfactory teachers. Fortunately, several school districts show us how with programs that are fair and functional. In essence, weaker teachers are given assistance to improve their teaching. If they are unable or unwilling to do so over a period of a year or two, they are fired. It’s fair, it works, and all the remaining teachers perform satisfactorily.

The other half of the equation is housing. Solving the nationwide bad neighborhood problem is an enormous difficulty that is also related to crime. While it is reasonable to expect much lower crime when students see opportunity in their futures, present crime comes from people who did not have such opportunity. Even here, adult criminals who get educational opportunities and learn to expect future opportunity step away from crime. It is worth noting that in the several instances where wealthy individuals guaranteed the college education of every student in a grade school class, graduation rates were virtually 100%, and college graduation rates were high. People who see a bright future rarely risk it by boosting cars or peddling drugs.

Paying for such expensive programs is best done via federal funds, where it is easier to guarantee equality. Poor districts in the backwater South, for example, are too poor to raise enough money for adequate programs, but the federal government can do it, and should. This would help to improve the South in several ways, and build a stronger America.

Schools should not be funded with property taxes, because districts with greater property wealth would have good schools, and poor districts would not. That’s what’s wrong with Detroit now.

Conservatives do not want a program that provides equality for every student in the country because, first, they believe reducing the cost of government improves things, and second, they believe that the poor do not deserve equal treatment because it is their own fault they are poor. Both beliefs are ridiculous on their face.

It really is true that the young are our future. Cheating the young with poor education and failing neighborhoods obviously cheats our own future. A low national educational level means we are falling behind everywhere, and justice is denied.

So, what I believe is that reparations for the centuries of slavery are justified, but cash reparations would not help. What is needed are reparations in the form of good education and an ongoing program of housing and infrastructure improvement for everyone, coupled with better plans for reducing property crime by improving opportunity. Given the great benefit that would result, the cost is actually cheap.

Is that reparations, or simple democratic justice?

We Simply Don’t Understand What Climate Change Means

Here’s what it means: It means that our entire world will be upset. We will have to change everything. Everything. It will all be radically different from what we in the US, as the wealthiest economy, are used to. The very land we live on will be transformed, as will the way we live. Here are a few items for thought.

Let’s start with cars, since we in the US place a higher value on cars than we do on almost anything.

The idea of the privately owned automobile will vanish. Completely. We’ll get around some other way, and get around not quite so much. It won’t be necessary to get around as much, because important things will be closer together. As for cars, at least in cities, there are other possibilities. Here are some:

Those cute little self-driving cars, which will be electric, charged from the sun. Summon a car with your phone when you need it, and again when you want to go home. We will benefit from less traffic congestion. Solar cells will be installed on every available rooftop space. We’re already seeing this. The generated electricity, charged into the grid, will offset the cost of electric transportation and other needs.

Bicycles. There is already a well established urban movement toward using bicycles for getting to work, as well as for exercise, and for shopping and other tasks. Today’s bicycles are considerably safer and easier to use than bikes of the past. Mass transit. Hybrid busses and advanced light rail are well established in many cities. In some cities they are nearly as pleasant as those in Europe. How about a self-driving commuter “train” for the highway?

Airplanes will either become far more efficient, or they will become very expensive to use.

Jets allow us to traverse in hours what in the past took months. But the tradeoff has been in planes’ outsized contribution to global warming. It is possible that efficient planes will be developed, but they are unlikely to travel as fast as current planes do. Many experiments are underway, for example to develop lighter-than-air craft that would make use of natural air currents and solar electricity. Here too, “driverless”, that is, pilotless craft, will arrive at some future time. The technology already exists. Much of flying at present is handled by computers.

Some air travel should be taken over by high-speed vacuum tube travel, as Elon Musk and others are developing. Passengers would be comfortably ensconced in tubular vehicles that are moved by compressed air behind the vehicle. Speeds would be comparable to jet flight or faster, and would begin and end in the centers of cities. The air for propulsion would be compressed by solar electricity.

Here’s an idea I like: The return of sailing ships, that are also powered by solar panels on deck. Flexible solar panels might become sails. Timeliness is not important for some freight, which could rely entirely on wind and solar-powered motors. Lighter passenger ships might move slower than today’s cruise ships, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Going on a classic sailing ship, capturing the wind, is a thrilling experience for most of us land lubbers.

Coal and petroleum have become deadly dangers that will simply have to be dropped. The greatest dangers are from their gross contribution to global warming, but, as anyone who has seen the photos of cities so choked with pollution that vision is sharply limited knows, the dangers to health from other kinds of pollution are also extreme in some places.

Energy industry collapse is already happening. The value of both coal and oil on the world’s stock exchanges has been falling for a long time. As oil and coal use continue to drop, many of their corporations will cease production and become extinct.

Raising cattle will become a much smaller business, say 10% of what we have today. The average American eats far too much beef anyway, which has created widespread serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes from obesity. Cattle generate serious quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas some 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. Cutting the herd to 10% of its present size would be greatly beneficial in several ways. However, we are unlikely to simply do away with beef cattle because the US economy utilizes literally hundreds of byproducts of beef cattle in ways we rarely are aware of.

In general terms, pollution and excessive energy use have been a secondary or tertiary consideration with industry, and often ignored at that. Because of global warming, we no longer have that option.

Although this news is at least two decades late in arrival, we at long last seem to understand the seriousness, and are beginning to do things about it. The time for avoiding climate change is some three decades past. Now, at last, there is an increased understanding that this is not something that can be ignored.

The only exception to understanding the clear and present danger on the entire planet is the Republican party, which has been in thrall to those who got rich from taking oil and coal from the ground, usually ignoring the responsibilities that come with it and with no concern for the future. These interests have employed every unsavory method available to extend their wealth-gathering, including the purchase of Congressional and academic pawns, who have wasted decades arguing against their own responsibility.

Even though they have finally been forced to acknowledge the reality that was obvious to the rest of the world decades ago, it seems certain that the GOP has by itself created dangers that will cause major problems for the entire world. Their denial has created dangerous conditions that will not end once we actually begin to do something about it, but will continue to intensify for decades, or centuries. It is even possible that the planet will turn into something that will not support human life in another century or two. To me it is more than astonishing that anyone could put personal profit before the very survival of humanity.

The present difficulty is that we don’t really understand that everything will change. Radically.

Like it or not, we can’t do as we’ve always done.

The Climatary Black Swan

The notion of the black swan came from the traditional belief that all swans were white. When a single black swan was found, so the story goes, the swan world was transformed. If you haven’t already, you might want to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent book, The Black Swan. Hint: it’s not about swans.

Chaos theory is also tied up in this concept.

The important truth of chaos theory for our purposes is that we are inherently limited in what we can predict about a complex system. Two good examples of complex systems are the stock market and the weather. In both cases, thousands of events can affect outcomes. Suppose some minor dealer in Iowa decides to sell a certain stock. The event is meaningless in a market where billions of dollars are traded within seconds. But suppose someone elsewhere noticed the sale, and maybe another one like it, and decided to follow suit. Probably nothing would happen, but we cannot say that it wouldn’t cascade into major changes in the market, maybe even a crash. We simply can’t predict, any more than we can predict whether that fabled South American butterfly wing would lead to tornadoes in the Midwest. In fact, we can only tell in retrospect what things had an effect.

The weather is similarly complex. That’s why weather forecasts are nominally accurate for less than a week. After that, many possibilities could come about, and we have no way to tell which ones would materialize.

Climate change is like that too, only much more complex. Every day we get more data, barge-loads of it, which increases our predictive powers, but the elements themselves that rule global climate number in the millions. Not only can we not measure them all, let alone measure them accurately, their immense complexity is by itself enough to sharply limit our predictive abilities.

In the case of climate change, the daily barge-loads of data tell us where things are going, but not how or when. We are left to imagine the frightening detail.

And that’s before a black swan presents itself.

We don’t know what a specific climate black swan might be because “black swans” cannot be foretold. That’s what black swan means. Let me suggest a possibility.

Greenland has been covered by ice a couple of miles thick for more than 100,000 years. That’s a long time, half of our existence as a species. Now, there is no reason at present to suppose a disastrous event in the Greenland ice sheet is imminent, but worried scientists point out that meltwater courses over the entire surface, forming fast rivers that disappear into holes in the ice. But suppose this melting accelerated because of some other event, which itself might occur because of a previous third change, which might… You see what I mean. What would be the “butterfly wing” that would lead to a catastrophic change in the Greenland ice cap?

Suppose the ice cap became weakened at some crucial spot we didn’t know about, and a major chunk of Greenland ice slid into the ocean. We have no reason to expect this to happen, but if it did, it would be a true black swan event. This black swan would precipitate catastrophic change that affected the entire planet. What’s more, it might even become a cascade, causing, say, similar changes at the South Pole, where the ice cover is bigger, and stability is already fading fast.

If you haven’t already seen it, you must watch the biggest glacial calving event in history, from a large glacier in Greenland. Over a period of 75 minutes, an area the size of lower Manhattan roared into the sea, spewing chunks of ice several times larger than the biggest skyscrapers there, some of them suddenly jutting many hundreds of feet into the sky. It’s astonishing, frightening, but this event was nowhere close to the scale of the black swan event I imagined for you.

Such black swans would not be limited to melting ice, of course. Something like sudden temperature elevation in agricultural areas, or die off of rainforest trees might be black swan events, or cause a black swan.

What is frightening about climate change is that we have created instability and uncertainty everywhere on the surface of our little blue planet. We can hope and pray that we as a species are wise enough to realize how thin the ice we cross has become, so that we can back quickly away to keep such catastrophic events at bay. Our wisdom so far is not reassuring.


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