16 Aug 2019 – 14:40 – just got home from a trip to Christchurch and back – to talk to the select committee considering the Zero Carbon Bill – a response to climate change concerns
It was weird.
Driving down, one of the recurring thoughts was – here is a system requiring me to expend 30Kgs of carbon to the atmosphere just to speak to them for 5 minutes – when they could have set up hearings via video link, at zero carbon emissions.
It was just one more example of how systems self perpetuate – particularly bureaucratic systems like the systems of government.
There is a conservative sense in which that was quite appropriate in times when things changed quite slowly.
We are no longer living in such times.
Prior to going down, I wrote up what I intended to say; practiced it often.
Here is what I wrote up:
“I don’t know how many of you know the Two Ronnies Hardware sketch with the rubber 0s. It is a sketch of repeated misunderstandings. One Ronny asks for something, the other gets the wrong thing, over and over again.
In every case it is due to over simplification, too little information.
The entire climate debate is like that.
It is extremely complex.
Several things are now beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
That there is anthropogenic change to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels that poses risks of runaway positive feedbacks that could cause massive changes in sea level and temperature is real and has been clear for decades.
And other things are also real.
If we hadn’t been burning trees and fossil fuels for 10,000 years then rather than facing warming now, we would be headed back into the next ice age, with falling sea levels and populations starving from crop failures.
Modern neuroscience and modern Artificial Intelligence research, combined with a modern understanding of evolution and complexity theory is giving us the beginnings of an understanding of just how complex we are, and how complex the world we live in is; and what this thing we call experience is.
None of us experience reality as it is.
Our experience is a vastly simplified subconsciously created model of reality, a kind of predictive virtual reality, often deeply influenced by our genetic and cultural past.
To start to get an appreciation for the sorts of complexity that exist beyond our experience, we have to get that what we experience is always a simplification of something vastly more complex.
This happens at every level (however many levels we manage to get some beginnings of an awareness of).
We have the illusion that money represents a useful metric to measure value and resources; but it isn’t. It arguably was in our past, but automation has fundamentally changed that. And that fact brings many levels of complexity and danger and opportunity.
Money and markets are now posing exponentially increasing risk.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the climate debate.
As someone who has been interested in the nature of systems and in optimising the probabilities for our survival and freedom and responsible choices for over 50 years; there is very little of that complexity that I can communicate in 5 minutes.
What I can say with confidence is that the only approaches that offer significant probability of survival involve investing in technology and understanding, respecting the deep lessons from the past without being bound by them, and in cooperatively exploring the infinite possibilities available to the future.
Risk is eternal.
What we can do is develop mitigation and resilience strategies (all levels).
The levels of freedom and security we all accept as basic are fundamentally based in abundant available energy.
Our economic system of markets and money is based in scarcity, in exchange and trade. And certainly, at some levels, that exchange and trade has helped to ensure cooperation, but not at all levels.
We need to accept the lessons from evolutionary theory, that complexity of the sort we embody is always fundamentally based in cooperation. Competitive environments always force systems to some set of minima on the complexity landscape, and work against what any of us would reasonably call freedom and a life worth living.
The ideas that our security is based in markets and that evolution is all about competition are perhaps the greatest of the many lies and misunderstandings common in our time.
The climate issue is not that difficult to solve technically, but it does demand of us that we see the dangers present in many of the ways that served our ancestors well, that are not suitable in an age where solar energy can be universally abundant. It demands change.
Scarcity and competition must give way to abundance and cooperation. If there is one deep lesson from biology, this is it.
The cells of our body don’t compete to keep us alive. We have a name for cells that go selfish and competitive, it is called cancer. I have survived a terminal cancer diagnosis, by changing diet. If we want to continue living on this earth we must do so cooperatively. We must change from our market-based diet.
We must be real.
We must accept uncertainty in all things.
We must all accept that what we once thought of as unshakable knowledge is but some level of useful approximation in some context from our past that may be changing in ways that we are blind to.
We must all be kaitiaki.
We must all respect and accept diversity.
We must accept that the only way to minimise risk is to accept a certain amount of it as our eternal companion.
We have to solve the climate issues, and the most effective way to do that is through cooperation and investment in science and sustainable technology and through meeting the reasonable needs of every person on the planet.
Nothing less than this has any reasonable probability of success.
This bill does not do that.
In the event, I didn’t say that.
I listened to the two speakers before me.
I didn’t record what I said, and it was now some 4 hours ago, and while it got no response at all from the politicians present, it got a round of applause from the assembled submitters.
What I said went something like this:
I share many of the concerns of the previous two submitters.
I come here to speak on my own behalf, though I wear many hats in our community.
I am concerned that this Bill does not address the real issues.
Just going to zero carbon isn’t enough, even if this bill achieved it, which it wont.
The problems we face are far deeper. They come from the very notion of measuring value in markets. Up until reasonably recently one could make a reasonable case that market value was a reasonable approximation to real value, but not any longer.
If you doubt that just think of air. It has no value in a market, but think of putting a plastic bag over your head and you will very quickly realise how valuable it really is.
Up until quite recently there weren’t many things that were as abundant as air, but with automation and robotics that is no longer the case.
Planting trees to sink carbon is not a solution. There isn’t enough land on the planet for that solution to work for everyone.
We need to be able to manage climate.
We need high tech solutions.
Throughout history real breakthroughs in science and technology have come about by government investment, not by private companies responding to incentives.
There is just too much profit in oil to ever remove it by economic means.
If we hadn’t been burning forests and coal for the last 10,000 years, then we wouldn’t be here talking about global warming, but rather about the famines caused by encroaching ice, as we would by now have been well into the next ice age.
We cannot afford as a society to be subject to the vagaries of climate change, natural or otherwise. We need to get serious technology into L1, the stable gravitational orbit between the earth and the sun, and to manage the amount of radiation reaching the earth. We need to maintain a stable climate.
The other major problem we face is the overly simplistic notion of evolution.
If people think of evolution at all, most think of competition, nature red in tooth and claw. But that isn’t evolution.
For complex organisms like us, evolution is much more about cooperation.
The cells of our body don’t compete.
We are each made of about 10,000 times as many cells as there are people on earth.
Those cells cooperate to make us what we are.
We have a name for cells that cease to be cooperative and become competitive, we call it cancer.
Most of the finance industry has become a cancer on the body of society.
I was given a terminal cancer diagnosis about 9 years ago.
My society gave up on me, and sent me home “palliative care only”.
I beat it by a radical change of diet.
We need to change our diet as a society.
The Kaikoura earthquake was an interesting lesson.
I was probably the only person fully prepared for it. I had solar power, 4 months of water supply, 3 months of food supply. Next morning I dug a long drop, put a tent over it, plugged in the generator, and we had our coffee as per normal.
Nobody else was prepared.
Our community survived by the cooperation of many other people.
We didn’t compete our way out of it.
It was cooperation that led the way.
New Zealand cannot solve this problem by competitive market measures.
It is only possible to solve this problem by cooperative international efforts using high technology to meet the reasonable needs of everyone on the planet.
We must get past competition.
We must get past scarcity.
The technology is relatively easy.
The changes in thinking are the hard bit.
[followed by – the complexity of the issues]
This is just one more example of the complexity of the issues being so much more than it is possible to express in 5 minutes or even an hour.
The is an attempt at a still brief, but somewhat less brief, sketch of an outline of the issues involved in the climate change debate.
There are deep issues about the nature of understanding, behaviour, choice, freedom, survival, ethics, technology, history, culture, biology, strategy and much more.
How do we frame something like this?
What set of values do we share, that enable us to develop some degree of shared understanding?
What do we mean when we say we understand something?
For most people, understanding seems to be expressed as adherence to some form of Truth.
I don’t have that.
For me, all understanding is framed within some set of contextually sensitive probabilities.
In some contexts I can be very confident of some things, in other contexts, not so much.
For me, the very notion of “Truth” is an overly simplistic model of something vastly more complex, that it doesn’t take a lot of thinking about to see just how complex it is.
Science, for me, does not deal in Truth.
Science is an eternal process of questioning and testing, and slowly becoming less wrong more frequently as a result.
When we look at the world, and look really closely, it is just so amazingly complex.
Just look at us.
We are each a giant cooperating colony of cells; roughly 10,000 times as many cells as there are people on earth. That is just a mind bogglingly large number, but it get much worse very quickly.
Each cell is made up of about 5 times as many molecules as there are cells in our body.
It is impossible to get how many that is.
If you had been looking at 100 molecules per second, since the universe began some 14 billion years ago, you wouldn’t be 5% of the way through glimpsing each of them once.
And they move, very quickly. Millions of times faster than we can possibly see.
Yet because there are so many of them, and some are related to others in very strong ways, and they all bump into each other a lot, we hold the form that we have, and do the things that we do.
But the complexity of it, at the atomic, subatomic, and wolecular levels, is just mind bendingly complex.
And sure, in some aspects, and in some contexts, the outcomes are remarkably predictable, but not in all aspects or contexts.