Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Societies of the future?

According to a recent news article, Japan’s future is not as bleak as some might think. True, the majority of its major cities (Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Sapporo) have huge chunks of densely-populated land lying within a 10m rise of the coastline (which is expected to recede dramatically in the next 100 years). This is an issue of sea level rise. Japan also has impacts from hurricanes (aka typhoons) every year or so. With these expected to only grow in size and strength, I would say that the future looks rather bleak.

This brings me to wonder how many people sit down and think about the physical changes that will cause political and social changes in the world of our future. People, that is, other than fiction writers. Do political scientists and policy wonks sit around and wonder what the world will be like after even a one meter rise in sea level? How many people would that cause to become migrants? How many countries would become inhospitable due to aquifer inundations and overland flooding? For one, Bangladesh would certainly become greatly uninhabitable, forcing hundreds of millions of people into a state of social upheaval. This would also be a similar case for much of low-lying India, northern Egypt, as well as coastal China.

Would this lead to a precipitation of military expansionism? After all, much of the fertile lands of a region are located in the floodplains of a country, and many countries have floodplains near their shores. When these become inundated with sea water, it will undoubtedly have a social and economic impact. Who is to say that any country would be able to easily absorb these impacts? Why not invade neighboring countries to take their lands and crops before your own country becomes unable to feed her citizens? It is, after all, a question of being “nice” or survival of your nation.

This brings up the question of whether the use of nuclear weapons remains a viable threat. Since many nations built cities on their agricultural lands, use of nuclear weaponry will only shrink the amount of agriculturally viable lands available to the victor of such a war.

Possibly one thing that will happen will be the movement of cities from fertile areas to non-fertile areas. Since transportation systems have proven their capacity of shipping food from far-flung regions of the world to the cities of the planet, it would make sense that cities no longer need to be located near their food sources. By moving cities (and possibly including industries) to areas marginal agricultural lands, relatively large regions of the country could be returned to producing produce for a hungry and climatically impacted nation. Of course, countries would need to ensure that this radical reorganization of the entire basis of a nation did not rip the fabric of society apart. If the majority of US citizens now ended up living in cities in the mountains of the West or Appalachia, or the deserts of the Southwest, a lot of political power would be stripped from the currently population-dense East to the currently population-sparse arid West.

So going back to the original premise of this whole question: what is going to happen in the future? We as a society or government make plans going out into the future for ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years. However, we blindly accept that there will be a future USA (or any other country) to which our legacy will be given. Who could have imagined in 1900 the radical changes that would have happened to the world in the next 100 years (or even the following 50 years)? Why should the future of the world be any different in 2000? We feel more connected with the world, and have established trading relationships with several other nations to help ensure stability; the inter-marriage of royal families that kept the peace in centuries past. However, these marriages proved not to be foolproof as armies of cousin kings marched against each other. Similarly, the commercial marriages may well not prove so stable (that capital is fungible and mobile makes these ‘marriages’ even more shaky in my opinion).

Having played such simulations as the Civilization series of games, it always struck me that a viable option of feeding a nation (once my civilization had moved to the level of having vast roadways and railways) was to shift my major population centers to regions where natural resources were scarce. This alleviated localized pollution impacts (which would negatively affect agriculture), while allowing for population maintenance (usually my populations would reach ridiculously large numbers well before this became a viable option). In my scenario, mountain ranges housed the mega-cities of the future, and the formerly-populous grasslands once again opened up to agriculture and forestry.

Now there is obviously a large difference between Civilization the game, and civilization the reality. For one thing, all the versions I played didn’t have climate change as a disaster that could strike the world. (It did have alien invasions in one add-on version, as well as guerillas that would strike at you from the frost-bitten northlands of your country, which were rather odd things one had to deal with, although you did have the option of turning these random encounters off.) For another thing, the diplomacy and policy buttons were rather crude instruments (about as precise as using a pneumatic hammer to do dentistry) that could suddenly cause a war to start because a trade relation didn’t work out so well. Yet another was that battles and campaigns were affairs that took place somewhere in the background of the game with a random number generator. Still, it is my opinion that these kinks could be worked out, and as the game becomes more complex with the passage of time. Perhaps the next version will include global climate change as a factor in the game. (Ahh, how will the resource-hungry leaders of other nations reply to such a major impact to their countries?)

Although Civilization was an interesting tangent, I still haven’t really gotten to theorize about my original question, which was who sits down and plans out alternative futures? I’m sure people do it in the time frame of 5 years. After all, corporations and governments all come out with their Five Year Plans. However, I wonder how many people consider the Fifty Year Plan. Or the Hundred Year Plan. True, it is really difficult to enact public policy that you will be assured will be around for the next 100 years. However, if the nations of the world today wish to remain the nations of the world tomorrow, especially in the light of the impacts of climate change on the world’s societies, long-term planning needs to be done. The time frame of the “strategic planning” of today needs to stretch further.

Again hot, but cooled off thanks to rain.

I don't know why insists on using the visual data comparison method they do. Admittedly, on days without record high temperatures, it works fine, but on days when it doesn't, you can tell that the thing is just bogus. Look at the one on the right. Obviously, the actual low temp (51F) should be shown as being higher on the graph than the average high temp (50F). (I talked yesterday about the record highs and the actual high.)

The website currently predicts that the weather will remain below 60F for much of the next 10 days (save for one day at 62F), and dipping down into the 40s F toward the start of April. (We'll see. Yesterday morning they were predicting 65F as the high for the day.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I thought I lived in Michigan!

So.... I am wondering. Why is it being so darn hot these days? The tempting answer is (especially for me - "the enviro") global warming. However, I also know that global warming (aka climate change) is something that is a change in the overall state of areas' climates. So. Does an actual high temperature of 79F on March 26, 2007 mean anything?

Well, it does mean that I got too hot to deal with my growing hair and decided that it was long enough to donate to Locks of Love. I am likely to post photos of this strange process later. But other than that?

Does the fact that the temperature was 6F higher than the previous record count? Does it matter that the average low for this time of year was only 1F higher than the actual low from yesterday?

Well, as the graphic shows, the weather channel's online service needs to have a better graphic for when the record high is shattered.

Other than those observations, I can't say anything about how yesterday's temperatures has anything to do with global warming. (As much as I might like to.)

Still. Yesterday was way too hot for it to be considered by any stretch of the imagination as "in the normal range." (At least I can't stretch my imagination that far.)

Hopefully, the thunderstorms that are forecast for today actually cool this blasted heat off. And to think that the University still hasn't shut off its steam generators for heating the buildings. After all, why should they? IT'S MARCH!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On my way home I saw a bird...

It's sometimes good to have a camera in your pocket. Take today: was walking home, I saw a group of people standing around, looking at the ground, near a tree on campus. "Oops," I thought. "A squirrel has probably fallen out of the tree, and everyone's looking at it." I got closer, and noticed that there was something larger than a squirrel on the ground. It was a hawk.

It turns out that, yes, there was also a squirrel (or what remained of one) on the ground, and that the hawk had effectively torn it out of the tree before slamming it to the ground and killing it. It had been at it for about an hour, according to a bystander who had been watching the whole thing.

Since I don't normally see hawks around, I decided to take some photos.

In additional photographic news, the continued destruction of the Frieze Building continues (the old A2 High School).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Yesterday was sunny and warm...

Almost record high temperatures in Ann Arbor yesterday. Definitely above average temperatures, at any account. I was half considering holding my discussion section outside (especially since they can hardly fit into the assigned room), but looking outside at all the frisbee-playing, hands-holding students, I decided that it would be a bad idea (plus, the ground was likely to be soddingly wet).

Since today is Wednesday, I am holding office hours for my students. However, as in previous weeks, no one is likely to show up. Of course, I will make use of the time by updating my blog and grading more homework. They have just turned in a larger, rather open-ended assignment, meaning that I will take a longer time in going through it.

Such is my life at the present time.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Risk Society

Amongst the many interesting points brought up by Gary Was, the scale of the energy demand was something that I hadn’t thought of for some time. The number of nuclear energy plants (i.e., clean energy) needing to come online every year to power growth in the United States alone was mind-blowing. Having considerations for the rest of the world seemed impossibly high.

This is a little ironic, considering that Ulrich Beck discussed many of the issues of scale by pointing out the potential hazards of nuclear technology (amongst other things) in his book Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. In a more-recent article he stated:

“With the past decisions on nuclear energy and our contemporary decisions on the use of genetic technology, human genetics, nanotechnology, computer sciences and so forth, we set off unpredictable, uncontrollable and incommunicable consequences that endanger life on earth.”[1]

That Beck would flash into my mind while I was watching the presentation was not surprising. However, it is interesting that looking back on what I recall reading of Beck and his arguments, he didn’t discuss the issues of risk surrounding reliance on fossil fuels. This form of energy appears to have become the albatross around the neck of industrialized society; the medallion of progress that we have accepted in place of the possible risks associated with diversification into alternative (possibly risky) energy sources.

The issue of scale – when referring back to Was’ lecture – appeared throughout his talk, and brought to mind two immediate questions:

1) Since he didn’t discuss the issue of changing scale too much, does Was think it central to the issue (and left it out for brevity’s sake) or peripheral (leaving it out for that reason)?

2) How many people recognize the issue as one encompassing different temporal and spatial scales?

As for the first question, I would like to thin the answer lies closer to the former, and that a discussion on issues of scale would be not only off-topic, but rather dull to the majority of people there (quite probably including myself). Further analysis of this question would require being able to get into Was’ head, so I will leave off here.

The second question is (while possibly just as philosophical) more interesting than the first, because it draws upon implications stemming from social constructs as well as biological limitations. Some of the more obvious social constructs that limit our recognition of scale are the “invisible hand” of the market; the overarching social identity (e.g, American individualism or Japanese conformism); and the robustness of nature.

The “invisible hand” of the market is a great “black-box” explanation of all the interactions taking place to get any good (and all its constituent energy and material flows) from its sources to you. If you were to ponder where the fried egg you had this morning actually came from, you might get back to the obvious point of a chicken (unless you get eggs from a different fowl). However, this doesn’t give you any idea about the number of chickens it takes to supply even a single grocery store’s-worth of eggs over a month; the transport network needed to get eggs from farm to packaging to warehousing to your market; and any other myriad connections I cannot even begin to fathom (and all I wanted to do was enjoy my egg!). The almost-flippant tacit semi-acknowledgement of this process in the over-used, dogmatic, and therefore near-useless term “invisible hand” is a convenient way to ignore the network underlying a majority of market transactions.

Overarching social identity is also a great way of cudgeling a nation’s people into thinking between a particular set of blinders. As a person who grew up with expectations of living according to two apparently opposing social identities (US individualism and Japan’s conformism), I realized the presence of these identity pillories early on, and did my best to have an identity of individualism of my own creation. However, I didn’t realize the immense impact an American social identity had on her citizens until returning to the US after living for 14 years abroad. It was amazing to me how people didn’t seem to comprehend things I took for granted. Two examples which stand out in my mind were the implications of countries’ interactions through history and the implications of working within coalitions of different sizes.

I would argue that the idea of the robustness of nature is both a social construct as well as a biological limitation. The robustness of nature operates as a social construct, because although we know that massive engineering projects have changed the face of the planet, we still act as if the planet cannot be broken. They physical enormity of the planet gives us comfort in this way. The time scales over which impacts are fully imprinted on the earth is much longer than our biological ability to fully comprehend, making it a biological limitation. Because of these two sets of blinders, we are unable to comprehend the absolute vastness of environmental (or socio-environmental) impacts: tsunamis, drought, famine, desertification, etc.

Our biological limitation is a limiting factor that we cannot really get past (perhaps genetic engineering at some point in the future can get us over this current high-bar and on to a different level of biological limiations). Our minds can only process so much information; can only comprehend numbers of a certain magnitude; can only grasp the interconnectedness of a frustratingly few variables; etc. Due to these limitations, we came up with simplified explanations and models of the way the world should ideally work; models that ultimately fail when taken to increasing levels of complexity. Because of this exploration of increasing complexity, having computers is a godsend. Of course, computer technology created a new set of new social and technological complexity.

At the end of the day, if we were sit down and try to think about growing levels of complexity (as I have done while thinking about and writing this paper) within any field of our choosing, I vouchsafe that it would be one of the most frustrating mental exercises you could try and attempt to do. It’s frustrating (at least to me) because of the attempt in trying to maintain all the potential outcomes as they grow exponentially, along with the number and quality of connections between each new level of elements.

This discussion of complexity all comes back (of course) to being reminded about how to scale the needs of a growing planet to that which people can grasp. From there we can only wonder what people will do when faced with the enormity of the implications behind the numbers. I suppose a form of Beck’s “risk society” has arrived, and we must face it, complete with our cultural constructs and biological limitations of understanding, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,/And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,/Do not go gentle into that good night.”[2]

[1] U. Beck, “The Silence of Words and Political Dynamics in the World Risk Society,” Logos, 1(4) 2002.

[2] Thomas, Dylan (2003) Collected Poems 1934-1953 (London: Phoenix).

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rain and thunderstorms

Today was a day full of rain, thunderstorms, and melting snow. I also got to learn about how all the wiring in the IFR will be changed in the coming month, and make the physical reality fit within the mandated reality of network sharing (instead of the other way around). Oh, well.

I took the photo below as a contrast to the one I took last week from the same location. (This might be something I continue doing as the seasons change... I did something similar for a couple of building sites around town, and they turned out pretty cool.)

Friday is tomorrow.