Putting the life back in science fiction

News and updates
August 15, 2016, 9:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Just a brief update and a few links.

As others have pointed out, we’re getting a bit of climate changed weather.  Not here in Southern California, where the Red Flag fire alert they just issued is normal for this time of year,  but climate change is nipping at Louisiana, where it’s flooding, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere.  A couple of years ago I hoped that the climatologists would turn out to be wrong about weather systems getting both slower-moving and more energetic (more energy means more water goes into the air, and that water tends to come out rapidly too), but it looks like they were right, we’re coming into an era of kaiju-class weather systems.  Sucks that climatology is up there with evolution in terms of rigor.

OnThePublicRecord has two good posts out about the various hypocrisies that plague water use in California (here and here).  The Cadillac Desert rule that water runs uphill to money remains fully in force, although I agree with the OTPR desire for more populist use of water in California, at least while we still have it.   The second post is particularly interesting for any futurists out there who are confident that we can feed more people with less farmland.  This is the political side of that particular argument, and we can (and probably should) argue the moral utility of feeding the many to enrich the few and trash the poor who could also have used that water.  It’s a standard tactic, really: it’s easy to fight a morally black-and-white issue, so one standard defense by the bad guys is to make their systems as morally complex  as possible, so that even the good guys get entangled in the sleaze, ideally profiting a bit from it too.

Aside from getting sucked into dealing with a bunch of tedious land use issues, it being high season for new developments in this part of the world, I’ve also been learning how to sell used books on Amazon.  While I suppose it’s more efficient on the Bezos/systemic level to dump too-popular books at GoodWill (e.g., the ones that sell on Amazon for less than a dollar), and to hold onto the others in the (probably vain) hope that they’ll find buyers, I really miss being able to walk into a used bookstore with a box of used books, get some store credit, and walk out with a couple of newer books to enjoy.  Even though Amazon makes it easy to sell stuff, the chores of inventory, packaging, and taking boxes to the post office are tedious.  It’s basically a slow and random decluttering exercise, but unless I just want to donate a bunch of books and stuff, it needs to be done.

Still, it gives me time to think.  Two of the issues I’ve been contemplating are the psychological aspects of dealing with climate change (as in, how do you deal with a country that prefers denial to possible Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and what does that do to the people who actually care?), and whether it’s possible to close the gap between the permaculturalists, who see anything bigger than a village as unsustainable, and feeding a sustainable-ish civilization of billions?  That gap would have to be closed with some pretty sophisticated market design, at the very least.  I haven’t figured out enough to put it in an essay yet, but I’d welcome random thoughts and questions.

Happy Dog Days, all.


16 Comments so far
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I’m not clear how we could reduce farming to just support California. Food will go to those that can pay for it. Just ask populations in other countries.

To keep California food in California would require export embargoes. Can that be done legally? Alternatively, make food sales illegal so that everyone has to grow their own and barter/trade for what they need.

The 2nd alternative is unworkable. If the first is chosen, how are we to import foods that we don’t have? Food swaps?

Clearly we need to square the circle of food production and water use. Nature is unforgiving, so we must do so. Perhaps we start by legislating against some types of food production to start, add export controls, then limit farm size and ownership.
But does this get us to the desired outcome?

Comment by Alex Tolley

I’ve been wondering at some sort of voluntary mechanism: in exchange for state support during droughts, farms would agree to only sell within the state.

Comment by onthepublicrecord

So we grow alfalfa to feed dairy cattle that ship cheese all over the world? I’m being obnoxious, but it’s unclear to me how many ways there are to sidestep such a deal. I’m also unclear about how well it plays with national agriculture regulations.

One thing I do wish is that Elinor Ostrom’s research on commons with regards to groundwater was more widely known and appreciated. While I don’t think it would bring water to the masses, assuming her work was valid, it would be a better way of focusing the big farms on long term resource sustainability above short-term profits, at least if groundwater and surface water stop being use it or lose it commodities.

Comment by Heteromeles

Would that water did run uphill to money! An urban family slightly above the poverty line is paying *much* more for each gallon of water delivered to their bathtub than Farmer Moneybags pays per gallon delivered to his fields. Making rich farmers pay as much for water as lower-income urban families would slash consumption in a hurry. It reminds me of Warren Buffett’s observation that his secretary experiences a higher effective tax rate than he does.

Water rights that last indefinitely, aren’t progressively taxed, and make no allowances for changing precipitation deserve to be discarded as a medieval relic, like allodial title to land.

Comment by Matt

Yes, fascinating that wealthy landowners pay less per gallon than do the poor. Almost as if they used their political connections to engineer the whole situation. That’s kind of Marc Reisner’s point in saying that “water runs uphill to money.” Water from the San Joaquin Delta does indeed run uphill to the Westlands Water District, for example, although it’s subsidized by the water that continues on, over the Tehachapis (!) to water urban Los Angeles and San Diego.

To be fair, urban water has to meet drinkability standards that irrigation water does not, so it should cost somewhat more than raw ditch water. That said, I happen to agree with you about the extraordinarily outdated state of water laws in California. The historical lesson on such things is that they either get adjusted or they break. Hopefully it will be the former.

Comment by Heteromeles

Yes, he who makes the rules gets the gold.

I agree that untreated water should cost somewhat less; the problem is it costs ridiculously less. When I was looking for a house in Washington’s Columbia Basin in 2007 (where irrigation became practical only because of massive Federal dam-building efforts in the 1930s), I saw one semi-rural house that had both potable and agricultural water supplies. The realtor was really enthusiastic about the benefits of the ag supply. You could use as much water as you wanted for only $10 per month. The rates hadn’t gone up since the 1970s. It’s a high desert region. Gah. (And naturally, the locally elected state representatives, for as long as I’ve been here, have campaigned on resisting the Federal government… said Federal government being the largest direct and indirect driver of the region’s economy.)

Comment by Matt

Re: Water costs. In the Central valley water only costs farmers if it is supplied by the irrigation district, usually via canals and ditches. If you have your own well and pump it up from the aquifer, there is no charge, other than the costs of drilling, maintenance, and electricity. Irrigation districts can and do restrict supplies. For example, local almond groves in the Central valley are given enough water to maintain the trees. If farms just relied on ID water, there wouldn’t be a problem, as water shortages would quickly sort out efficient farms and crops. The problem is access to aquifer water that is unregulated. It is those wealthy farms that are using up water.

Those state funded irrigation projects that are supporting wealthy farms elsewhere in the state are the scandal.

But when pricing water, be careful what you wish for. Remember when the Hunt Bros [?] were trying to buy water rights so that they could arbitrage the price differential between farms and cities? Do we really want water controlled by private entities?

Regulating which crops can be grown might make more sense so that water-intensive crops are just stopped. Whether alfalfa for cattle feed, almonds or cotton. But other states are also a problem. Lettuce and carrot growing in Arizona make no sense.
maybe we impose Pigou taxes on some crops to reduce consumption, but how would that work? Inter state commerce laws prevent any such approaches.

It is a tricky issue with no simple solutions. Unfortunately railing against “wealthy farmers” just devolves into moral posturing, no better than Trumpism.

Comment by Alexander Tolley

See my comment with respect to Elinor Ostrom. There are mechanisms that haven’t really been tried at all. Ostrom’s PhD was on how the water agencies in the LA Basin came together to form a commons, so these weren’t peasants on a creek. It appears to be a scalable solution, except that ideology gets in the way.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’m getting mildly irritated by the news reports about those Persian Gulf temperatures. Because they make extensive use of “Heat Index” rather than actual wet bulb, WBGT or dew point (and F instead of C!). And the main reason is trying to understand how close they come to being Black Flag weather. Basra was stupidly hot but at least it was dry. Whereas Bandar was stupidly hot AND stupidly humid.

Comment by Julian Bond

Yeah, that is a problem. I googled around, and NOAA does have a prototype app that converts from heat index to wet globe bulb temperature (http://www.srh.noaa.gov/tsa/?n=wbgt) based on a map, but it only seems to work in the US.

Still, their introductory paragraph explains something I didn’t know about wet bulb temperature, and why heat index is more commonly reported. To quote them: “The WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) is a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which takes into account: temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover (solar radiation). This differs from the heat index, which takes into consideration temperature and humidity and is calculated for shady areas. If you work or exercise in direct sunlight, this is a good element to monitor. Military agencies, OSHA and many nations use the WBGT as a guide to managing workload in direct sunlight.”

So far as I know, standard meteorological thermometers on weather stations are mounted in the shade, so it’s easy to remotely determine heat index if you’ve got a system reporting temperature and relative humidity. You need a different setup to calculate wet bulb globe temperature. A sufficiently sophisticated weather station will provide the data for both, but at this point, heat index is easier to assess.

The good news is that if other nations report WBGT, in principle it should be findable online. I’m not having much luck, but someone with better Google-fu may be able to find where this information is reported.

Comment by Heteromeles

Have you read Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner? If not, then I suggest it’s well worth it for understanding behavioural economics.

Comment by ashley858

Yes I have, thanks. That’s a good thought.

Comment by Heteromeles

And of course: You Are Not So Smart by McRaney.

I was mulling your post and stuff while in the bath, as one does, and thought that the problem is that climate change needs to be sold better than it’s the world getting hotter, because so what will be the average person’s response, of how can that be a bad thing, and the answer is not to pummel them with facts, but with a more accessible metaphor.

Mine would be car crashes. At 30mph a pedestrian has approximately an 80% chance of surviving being hit by a car. At 40mph the pedestrian has an 80% chance of dying in the accident. And the increase in temperature is the equivalent of having a crash, and there’s always the chance of having an accident no matter how carefully one drives. Of course, please excuse me if I’m taking coals to Newcastle here.

Comment by ashley858

This is where I disagree very strongly. It’s not a car crash, it’s cancer, or to put it a bit more politely, a chronic addiction to growth that’s especially bad in the US. Unfortunately, climate change, as a problem, will be with us for a minimum of centuries, even if we stopped producing greenhouse gases right now. Worse, it’s not a matter of phasing out a small class of chemicals (like CFCs, to stop the ozone layer from disappearing). Instead, it involves rebuilding industrial society to not use the very stuff that made us rich and powerful, that we’ve built our entire civilization around, at least in the US.

At this point I sound hopeless, and I’m not. The reason is that it took us most of 60 years to rebuild our civilization around the use of petroleum (from roughly 1880-1940), and there’s precisely no physical reason we can’t rebuild our society around the use of renewable electricity over the next 60 years. One of the things that’s stopping us is the chronic addiction to power, both energy and political power. So we don’t just have a technical challenge, we have an addiction. Worse, it’s an addiction where every little crisis is going to push us towards relapse. Got an out-of-control wildfire? Screw the electricity, we need petroleum powered engines and planes to fight it. Need to rebuild a city after a major storm? Why wait for electricity. Get those bulldozers and cranes cranking. And so forth. The world’s full of emergencies, and sustainable electricity isn’t yet the disaster response fuel that petroleum is. How are we going to get away from petroleum?

That’s why ultimately climate change is a chronic problem. We’re never going to be over it. At best, we’ll have it under control, and at worst, it will kill us. If you know anyone who’s dealing with cancer, or diabetes, or heart disease, or a nasty addiction, you know how hard it is. As a society, we also have a lot of trouble with chronic, lifestyle induced diseases. I’d say climate change is one of them.

And that doesn’t even get into the Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder aspect of it. Being part of civilization is about doing what you’re told is the right thing. You’ve got some idea what it takes to be a good person, a respected person, and successful person. The horrible part of climate change is that is says that, at least in the US and the developed world, that’s all a lie. In being good, respected, and successful, you’ve helped destroy everything you value, and you’re leaving a wasteland for your children and their descendants, if they have any. This sounds trite, but as I’ve found, you can’t do violence to that basic notion of the goodness of society without paying a big emotional toll. I’ve suffered it, and it seems that a lot of climate scientists suffer it too. We in the climate community are trying to do the right thing, but until a critical mass of people agree with us and are willing to suffer alongside us, we can’t start to deal with it collectively. Instead, we’re forced to live as if we deny climate change and suffer with our knowledge. That’s where I am now.

Comment by Heteromeles

Part of the problem is that we assume economic growth is the natural state of affairs and “we” have been convinced by fossil fuel companies that we need them to prevent economic collapse. Call the former an addiction if you like, but there is no denying that it has made life better for most people. It is not unexpected that we don’t wish to return the state of most of human history where economic growth was minuscule and populations were at Malthusian limits.

As regards using diesel machines, I don’t think it will be that long before electric ones perform on a par with them. We also tend to forget that the diesel fuel itself takes much infrastructure to maintain, from oil exploration, pumping, distillation, and transport. An electric vehicle just needs to plug into a convenient solar panel to recharge. 🙂

At this point, I think the problem is more political than anything. We could start a “Manhattan Project” level of investment and development to transform our economy if we had the political will. In the US (and UK) this is blocked by politics (i.e. bought by vested interests).

Comment by Alexander Tolley

I’m with you most of the way on this, and I do think (as I mentioned in Hot Earth Dreams) that it’s possible that public opinion will shift fairly drastically on this in coming years, once it looks like there’s a way out.

Still, I’m watching the people I know, and myself. I know all about climate change, better than most, but that doesn’t stop me from hopping in the car for a quick errand or dreaming of flying around the world to see all the cool places I’ve read about. So many people are like that, and that’s a big part of the problem. Even when we know better, we get into conflicts between knowledge, desires, and societal norms. That’s another aspect of the chronic problem that we really need to think more about, and for the most part, we don’t.

Comment by Heteromeles

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