Putting the life back in science fiction


California in the High Altithermal, Part 2: Biopolitics

Note, you can read part 1 in the series here.

Biopolitics.  Such an ugly, synthetic word, but here I want to talk about the chaotic intersection between biology and politics that’s occurring now, because, unfortunately for prognosticators, it’s a big part of what is going to determine what’s still growing in this state in 2100 CE.  The fundamental problem is that, if you’re trying to figure out what’s going to survive a mass extinction and climate change, on the one hand there’s the biology of individual species and their interactions in ecosystems, and on the other hand there’s politics, meaning every thing from peoples’ choice of house plants to international laws.

What I’m going to show here is the mess.  It’s not a nice thing to do, but hopefully I can at least show both why environmental politics matters, and why calls to do more studies aren’t distractions, either.  In the next post I’ll make some predictions about what comes out of this mess, but as in Hot Earth Dreams, I’m walking through the process here, one essay at a time, figuring out the processes before I talk about the patterns that might result.

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California in the High Altithermal, Part 1: The physical stuff

One of the things that bugs me is that, about half the time when I dawdle on writing something, new facts emerge that change everything. That’s happened here a bit.

This is part one of a series of blog posts about California in the High Altithermal, and here I’m focusing on the environment. What I’m doing is taking the ideas from Hot Earth Dreams and working to show what might happen in one specific spot, in this case, the area currently defined as the state of California, over a specific time period, in this case, the High Altithermal.

My goal is to show how climate change happens over time, because different things happen on different scales, and that makes the future a lot messier. It’s not meant to scare people, but rather to give us a way to intellectually examine this model of the future, and figure out how people and other organisms will adapt.

If you’ve already read the book, you know the basic global scenario for the High Altithermal, which will run from 2100 CE (when our greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels stop) to 3600 CE (when the East Antarctic ice sheet finishes melting, and sea level tops out at 65 meters above the current level). These dates aren’t hard: we don’t know when we’ll finish binging on fossil fuels, what Arctic methane is going to do, or whether or even if the entire East Antarctic ice sheet will melt. But that’s the scenario I’m using here. During the first 200 years of the High Altithermal, global average temperatures climb from +3oC (we’re currently at +1oC) to +8oC, and the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt, raising sea levels by about 16 meters over those 200 years. From 2300 CE on, global average temperatures stabilize, and then start to fall 1-2oC over the next 1,300 years, while the sea continues to rise as the East Antarctic ice sheet melts away.

In this post, I’ll cover sea level rise, climate, and rivers and dams. This is necessary background, and I’m breaking it up into multiple posts so you don’t have to read a 7,000 word essay.

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My first interview
January 27, 2016, 11:04 pm
Filed under: book, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, Uncategorized | Tags:

Last week, I had a great Skype interview with Greg Moffitt, who runs the podcase Legalise Freedom.  I was curled up my couch with my computer in my lap to kill the echoes in my place and the tinniness from my computer’s microphone.  Greg and I talked for well over an hour, and the edited version of our conversation is  up  here (opens a new window), if you want to here my voice instead of simply reading it in your head.

I had a lot of fun doing it, and my thanks go to Greg for making my first long interview a really fun experience.



American Byzantium, an alt-future

Actually, as a thought experiment, I started playing with what California might look like in the High Altithermal, from about 2100 CE to about 3600 CE.  It’s more complicated than I’d initially thought, of course.  If it’s something you’re interested in, contribute your ideas in the comments, and I’ll work them (or some of them, anyway) into the next blog post or two.

In the meantime, here’s a future that I’m pretty sure won’t happen.  The idea is that US history will parallel Roman history, with the eastern US playing the western Roman empire, Washington DC playing Rome, and the western US playing the Eastern Roman Empire.

I gave an overview of the transformation of the Roman empire in Hot Earth Dreams in Chapter 17, and the idea is that the Roman Empire proved ungovernably large, and Rome proved ungovernably corrupt, so Constantine moved the seat of power to Constantinople around 330 CE, and his sons split the empire into the Eastern and Western empires.  The western empire collapsed in 476 CE, while the Eastern empire transformed over time into the Byzantine empire and survived until 1453 CE.

Following this analogy over-faithfully, the US capitol moves west as the (south)eastern US is devastated by increasing heat, black flag weather, rising seas, and the collapse of civilization in the face of such disasters.  In this case, they move the capitol ultimately to perhaps Portland, although someone might argue that Fairbanks or somewhere near Anchorage might be a better site.  Washington DC gradually falls into ruin before being swallowed by the Atlantic, and what’s left of American culture shifts west, while statelets in the east fight over who gets to rebuild America.

Culturally, Byzantium wasn’t Rome.  They were Christian, spoke Greek, and practiced Medieval-style warfare.  In this alt-future, we can mimic the same shift by, um, let’s see, having western Americans speaking Spanish or Spanglish (except when reading law and science, which would be in English), and mimicking the feudal social structure with something like an unholy mashup of drug cartel culture and west coast capitalism, with CEOs instead of counts and Cartel leaders instead of dukes.  Since a lot of feudalism came from Rome adapting the culture of the migrating tribes of Celts and Germans, this isn’t entirely as stupid as it sounds.  “Celts” as a group were probably as polyglot as today’s Latinos are, and had to experience similar levels of prejudice within the Roman Empire (for example, having red hair in Rome was probably akin to being black in America).  Note that I’m not implying that today’s Latinos are in any way barbarians, nor that the drug cartels are the best that Latino culture has to offer.  I’m more thinking of what is a Latino analogy to the old Celtic and Germanic warbands.  If you think that Latino culture has something better and more resilient to give to the future, let me know in the comments.

In any case, if the USA broke down somewhere in the 22nd century, then the Western American Empire (“Alta Mexica?”) might last for another thousand years.

Now I don’t think the US will replay Rome, so this scenario is presented as a bit of a spoof of the idea that US history will mirror the history of the Roman Empire.  It looks like it could, just maybe, work, so if anyone wants to use it in a story, please be my guest.   If you’ve got anything you want to contribute (comments or ideas), please share those too.

Now that I’ve got that scenario out of my brain, in the next blog entry (or three) I’ll look at California in the High Altithermal, Hot Earth Dreams style, with temperatures spiking over the next ~300 years, sea levels rising over the next ~1600 years, civilization and populations crashing, and everything migrating.  How long might the US hold together, will it fragment, what happens with Mexico, and all that are questions that need to be answered, along with lifeways, transportation, where the settlements are, and so forth.  If you’ve got ideas, put them in the comments, and let’s see what we can come up with.

 



Fun read about California water politics
January 12, 2016, 8:00 pm
Filed under: economics, Real Science Content | Tags: ,

I’m getting an education in California water issues right now, courtesy of a blog, On the public record, which was “outed” in an recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

“On the public record” is written by a mid-level bureaucrat somewhere in one of California’s water agencies. Except for her gender, that she went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has at least two degrees, she’s so far remained anonymous (no small feat). She’s been blogging for about seven years, calling it as she sees it.

This blog is a real education for me in how California water politics, regulation, and economics work, and it’s well written too. If this is something you’re interested in, check it out.



The dust of ages

I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media.  The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth DreamsThe whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.

Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute.  DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory).  Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache.  DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.

One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA.  It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school.  This is a new technology.  Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.

Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever.  DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache.  It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.

It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years.   Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.

The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it.  After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form?   Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society.   What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?

Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.

Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…

 



Predictions for 2016
January 1, 2016, 3:18 am
Filed under: 2016, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, Speculation | Tags:

Happy 2016 everyone!

Here’s what I hope will happen in 2016: COP21 will take force; entrepreneurs worldwide will realize there are fortunes to be made in shifting the world towards sustainability; Big Oil companies will be indicted and sued over their knowledge of climate change and actively suppressing public action on that knowledge, and we’ll finally get on with trying to adapt.

Why not be optimistic?

Actually, I’ll be really interested in seeing what happens to the COP21 agreement in the US over this presidential campaign year.  If it disappears without a trace, that will be bad.

One tedious 2016 problem is that the mainstream American media will undoubtedly focus the vast majority of their attention on the 2016 campaigns, and for good reason: thanks to the Citizen’s United ruling, there’s a huge amount of potential ad revenue out there for them to suck up.  Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I can’t see them getting away from the inane “politics as a horse race” for the next 11 months.  We’ll have to watch the second-line and international media to see what the Obama administration, states like California, and the megacorps do (or don’t do) to implement COP21 or otherwise deal with climate change.  Hopefully, the rest of the world will be less caught up in the Trump/Clinton supermarathon, and rather more interested in deep decarbonization.

In other news, I suspect the weather will get more chaotic, and a lot of people will suffer.  My take on the changing weather is that it’s sort of like the random wandering monster encounter tables from the Old Dungeons and Dragons.  This dates me horribly, but remember those tables, where you rolled a d20 to see whether orcs or a gelatinous mass turned up?  (My apologies if someone thinks those two are political references.)

What global weirding of the weather is doing is shifting the probabilities in the weather encounter table.  Things like cold, dry weather are getting less common.  Hot weather is getting more common, as are wet weather and hot, wet weather.  The thing is that the encounter table hasn’t yet changed, just the probabilities for each event.  Thus, the denialists can claim that the storms of last week are just “normal Texas weather” or similar, while climate alarmists like me can say it’s global weirding, and we both look right to our friends.  A shift in the probabilities isn’t a shift in averages, at least at first.

Still, extreme climate change would turn most of the Mississippi River basin tropical, more like the current Amazon.  When you look what the current storms are doing to the area, you can kind of see how it might get there, with increased floods in the winter and possibly in the summer (depending on hurricane tracks) and increased heat in the summer.  It’s not a pleasant vision.

But still, I’m a pessimist, so tonight I’m pessimistic about my pessimism.  Maybe we’ll see some positive action in 2016.  I’d like nothing better than to publish a book called Pleasantly Disappointed in 2025, and talk about how all my predictions in Hot Earth Dreams were wrong.

What are your predictions for 2016?