Monday, 9 December 2013

Key Questions

This is an initial list of key questions I think are important. I'll be creating a separate page for these and will add to it every now and then. with links to relevant blog posts, my own and others

What scale will relocalization progress to and how will it differ for different classes of goods and political systems?

Since our society is global in scale (or close enough), any change to this (short of colonizing space) will create a more local world. This is because relocalization is relative, it doesn't have a set point at which you've relocalized, all it indicates is a change in scale. And there is quite a large range of options between a global economy and one focused around a village. This also applies to political systems, there really isn't a set point at which something is local (it could be 5km or it could be 50km) because it will depend on transport methods, technologies, terrain and a host of other factors. So when someone says that the world is going to relocalize, they could mean a change of scale to anything from national, regional or village level economics unless they specify what scale they're referring to.  

So what scale economies are likely to develop?
10-100km sounds reasonable for the majority of food trading and luxury goods could easily remain globally traded. But what about manufactured goods, will they be as local as food or traded over a larger scale? on a national scale or a global scale? And what about different types of manufactured goods? 

And what about political systems?
Obviously some nations will break up, likely many in Europe and Africa, but not necessarily all. Iceland, New Zealand, some of the South American nations and maybe even Germany are good candidates for surviving (among others) completely intact. What will distinguish nations that break up from ones that don't? What will the aftermaths look like? How will sub-national politics (state or local) change? Where will democracy survive and what other sorts of political systems will exist?

And how will the scales change over time, space and with different transport systems? And how can the outcome be affected? 

How will the differing aspects of various energy sources affect overshoot and be affected by overshoot?

Oil is mainly used in transport (about 70% of oil goes to transport), coal for electricity and natural gas for electricity + heat. Renewables are turning out to be great at producing electricity and are driving electricity prices down in both Australia and Germany. The rises in retail (different from wholesale) price are due to different factors. There are going to be problems with the transition to more distributed energy sources and they'll need to be solved, but storage problems are quite solvable (playing catch up really) and the entire idea of base load power actually comes from the characteristics of fossil fuel plants, not the use of electricity. In short, fossil fuel plants have giant boilers that you don't want to let cool down, so near constant operation is wanted which has further implications (like offering cheaper prices at certain times) which affects the entire electricity system in ways that renewables don't and can eventually be phased out. Transport is a different story however, while the most efficient forms can easily use electricity, extensive infrastructure changes are necessary while the only available drop in energy source (biofuels) are a niche energy source at best. The specific characteristics of the various energy sources available are going to affect their deployment, utility and development.

So how will this play out? What will happen to the electricity grid? Will it disappear, divide into lots of micro grids, become smaller or something else? Where will industrial heat come from? Electric arc furnaces are likely to stay for steel making, but what about for sterilization and other processes? How will renewables affect the electrification of transport? How will it affect transport in general? What about other processes?

And how will it vary over time and in different areas? What can be done to change the outcome?

What is the future of new and underused transportation methods?

Airships (a hybrid of planes and blimps) are being developed by big experienced companies, like Lock-Heed martin, along with a few low energy/solar airplanes. Sailing ships are starting to come back, luckily more like windjammers than wooden hulls (see here), and some interesting ideas are appearing. Here's a few; the VindskipSkysails and Solarsails, but there are others. It's not going to take off hugely in the near future (5-20 years), but the possibilities for the mid future are there. And then there's bikes, what modern roads were originally built for and now in an electric form, so what's the likely future then for road transport and will velomobiles be involved? And if transport is largely electrified, how will people get to slightly out of the way locations and transport materials to new sites?

How will overshoot affect the development, deployment and use of these technologies? Which innovations will work and survive? What will the long-term  and secondary effects be? How will other changes affect the changes in transport? How will transport affect those changes?

And how will it vary over time and in different areas? What can be done to change the outcome?

What is the future of electronics and functions currently carried out by electronics?

Electronics are incredibly useful and ubiquitous in modern life, for very good reasons, even the third world has plenty of cell phones (Africa especially). Electric sensors are useful for a wide range of applications, electronic calculators are faster than hand calculations for equations beyond basic arithmetic (try doing 4x4 matrix calculations by hand). But a lot of functions can be carried out without electronics or by far simpler ones. Light (semaphores) can be used for rapid and long distance communication, radios themselves are rather simple (relative to laptops), slide rules and log tables can replace some calculations and indicators can be used rather than electronic pH readers. New production methods are appearing, partly an offshoot of the 3d printing boom, and that alone will change electronics.

So how will overshoot affect the spread of electronics? How will society cope with the lose of mass electronics? What will happen to the production, distribution and status of electronics? How will the replacements fare and what difference in performance will they have? What will change in communications and mass media (actually quite old)? What will replace the current forms? 

And how will it vary over time and in different areas? What can be done to change the outcome?

How will the change from optimizing labour to optimizing resources and energy affect society? 

Desert animals and plants do all they can to preserve water, one desert rat doesn't even need to drink, yet rainforest creatures for the most part don't bother conserving water. Everything is done to lighten aircraft, but wing production produces 90% swarth (excess aluminum shavings) because of this, yet I've never heard of a similar scale of concern for a ships weight. A similar difference exists for mobile and stationary batteries, the majority are designed for mobile use and most stationary ones are adapted mobile batteries, and the development of stationary batteries is something that's only happening now. In short, mature battery technologies are designed for mobile uses rather than stationary, so aren't suitable for stationary storage by that alone even through good stationary batteries are possible (size and weight isn't an issue, price is).

Economies, technologies and organisms optimize/minimize the use resources that are scarce and expensive, not those that are cheap and abundant. For the last 300 years or so, the Industrial economy has mainly optimized labour not energy and raw materials. And this has quite a few implications for EROEI, societal complexity, what's achievable and quite a lot more. 

Industrial civilization doesn't optimize around any single factor, but by price and net present value (NPV). The advantage of this is that everything is automatically weighted and value comparisons are quite easy, rather than only looking at labour or energy for improvements. Rising energy and material prices automatically change how the Industrial economy acts, the information is easy to access and in a very simple form. Material costs have been on a steady downward trend since 1800 while energy prices are fairly similar, so automatically the industrial economy is going to be relatively wasteful of those resources, they aren't valued that highly. Now to provide an example of how this process could change EROEI, first to the data; according to Wikipedia wind's EROEI is 18, in 1995 the average energy intensity of steel production was 27.9Gj/t, the lowest average was 12Gj/t (for the USA), you can reasonably get to 8Gj/t and if every technical trick (not looking at economic viability) is used it can be theoretically lowered to 2Gj/t. If those advances are taken to be the average energy reduction possible for wind turbine production then the EROEI changes from 18 to; 41.85, 62.77 and 252.1 respectively. It's unlikely to actually be those numbers (especially the last one), but chances are that renewable s EROEI will change for the better.

So what are all the implications of changing from optimizing the use of labour to the use of energy and materials? How will it interact with overshoot and the recovery period? How far can/will it go? What can be done to make the transition easier while keeping as many benefits from labour optimization as possible? 

How will this process and its benefits vary over time, space, demographics and with different energy and material resources? What can be done to change the outcome?

What will happen to long term (deep time) trends?

Over the last 10,000 years since agriculture started and civilization started, humanity has been adapting to it's new environment (like every other time our environments have changed). One adaption is lactose tolerance in 35% of the population (evolved separately in Africa and Europe) while most people can drink alcohol (which is a toxin after all). Recent and rapid evolution is happening in humanity,  causing us to be biologically different than our ancestors while making civilization not so alien to our bodies.

First, by its nature evolution cannot be stopped and it happens continuously, by this I don't mean that the alleles of a population are constantly changing, if the alleles are remaining constant it's because natural selection is causing them to be constant. All evolution is is adaption to the environment by a rather imperfect (there are big flaws in evolution as a design method, like all design methods) but elegant design methodology. And in humans this is just as trues as any other organism, we evolve and adapt to our environments, in this case civilization and the changes brought by human actions. Also, we have never been perfectly adapted to any environment or behavior set (there is no one paleo diet, but instead many) and by its nature evolution cannot make an organism perfectly adapted to an environment (it is filled with compromises, e.g longer legs are faster but lose more heat as well as legacy issues), it is by evolutions nature impossible. Here's some of evolutions flaws; evolution leaves legacy issues, e.g we hiccup because we retain some features from our fish ancestors and cannot get rid of those features without interrupting other functions, evolution cannot easily move organism to different "mountains" in the fitness landscape and outside of bacterial plasmids evolution can't take features from one branch in the evolutionary tree to another.

Secondly, evolution isn't actually a slow process that unfolds over geological time but a rapid process that can unfold over short periods of time (in some cases less than a year). It's one of the big study areas for biology now, but importantly I don't mean changing from one species to another but microevolution which differs from macroevolution only on the relevant timescale. Here's an example of rapid evolution, the threespine stickleback lost and then regained their bony amour in a few decades, a potential rapid evolution is adapting to obesity by have more brown fat (exists not as an energy store but to expend energy for warmth) to burn off excess calories. And if anything, human evolution is actually accelerating; here's john hawk talking about his research on that topic and here is a review of it after he's published his research. And I'm not even talking about epigenetics which is changes to genetic activity without changes to DNA the study of which is fairly recent and is explaining a huge range of biological problems, like the development of organisms. 

In short, while humans are not a separate species to our hunter gatherer ancestors, we are not biologically the same. We have evolved, and we will continue to evolve until the human species goes extinct in whatever way it does (including evolving into a different species). This evolution isn't big changes that completely alter the nature of being human, but they are important for day to day life. In 10,000 years humans will be biologically different. Also different areas and cultures already show differences in evolutionary pressure in certain traits (blood pressure, weight, height, age of first birth etc).

So an obvious question appears; how will humanity continue to evolve in the future? How will the variations change over time and space? How will cultural and technological changes affect human evolution? Will some future society ever start playing around with human genetic engineering on a large scale and what would the outcomes be? How will human evolution affect technology and culture?

Another deep time question set has to do with scientific and technological progress. To start this of I'm going to quote Thomas Kuhn writer of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his position on it. "That is not a relativist's position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.", quote here in the last section. The thing is, science has specific criteria by which you can judge theories and laws and you can definitively say that one scientific theory is superior to another. As he explains science (basically applied empiricism) is a problem solving method, also a predictive method and it should be judged by that criteria. Science isn't about finding the "truth" in some abstract way or finding out whats "really there" and inbuilt into the scientific method is the impossibility of it doing so, a scientific law is only one good experiment away from being disproved and the criteria of a theory is problem solving and concrete (i.e not vague) predictions. Occam's razor is the codification of this.

Also to be clear, a scientific law in no way operates like a law in human society, they just get called that for historical reasons. Scientific laws are generalizations of observed phenomena in mathematical form, they are precise and consistent with the majority of data. So the first law of thermodynamics is the generalization that energy has never been observed to either disappear or be created while the second simply states that in an isolated system (the universe is really the only one) entropy has never been observed to decrease. Scientific laws are what happens, theories are are guesses at why stuff happens and are testable while predicting specific (they can't be vague) future observations.

An interesting consequence of how science functions is that when one theory supersedes another, not a lot actually changes. A new theory or law has to predicate almost everything the old theory did, a scientific revolution doesn't actually change that much about our understanding of the material world. And those revolutions are generally slower than most people think, evolution had a long history before Charles Darwin was born, it takes a while for evidence to build up, theories to appear and actually problems have to be around. So we can reasonably predict that ideas that have routinely popped up but have never sticked and lack evidence or failed to gain acceptance, such as vitalism or various physic phenomena (which has been through everthing, including attempted military development) won't be accepted as part of science in the near or even somewhat distant future since they require a large reworking of our understanding of the natural world and quite extraordinary evidence/observations, which as the evidence doesn't exist aren't problems for science.

An example of this would be the theories of Rupert Sheldrake, his ideas are fairly vitalistic and like Hans Driesch went from inventing a vitalistic theory and then moved to parapsychology, both also ignore Methodological naturalism which is one of the important ground rules in science (a highly successful one). An interesting look at his latest book can be found here, parts; one, two, three and  four. In a few significant ways, Rupert Sheldrake is a recurrence of ideas and stances that have appeared before and could easily reappear in periodic manner and for similar reasons, such as the disenchantment of the world (here's an interesting look at that). If that's the case, then its for cultural reasons and the clashes between what people would normally think (vitalism seems right and is what children automatically think is right) and what comes out of the scientific method, which is often unintuitive. There have been, and will continue to be, attempts to make science support or disprove various spiritual/religious stances and this is a good example of scientific misuse and cultural clash. The thing is, you can practice and belief in pretty much any religion while still practicing science, there is far less of a clash than most people assume. Methodical naturalism is a working assumption, not an actual philosophical stance (that's philosophical naturalism) while most religions don't actually need science to agree with their statements on the physical world (they aren't actually literal statements). It's rather unlikely that future religions won't be compatible with science.

So what will happen to science? Also what will happen to the related, but distinct, sphere of technology and manipulating the physical worlds? After-all, in a way technological progress has happened in that sphere over the long term, steam engines wouldn't have been invented otherwise (the Romans couldn't have possibly invented them, they lacked too many ancillary technologies). What will the next big changes and revolutions (remembering that they aren't complete changes) be? How will it fit into future societies? How will the scientific method change over time?

What structures won't change as society's values change?

Simply by necessity and time, values are going to change and the societies of the future will be very different from ours in that respect simply because the world and our nature force them to be. However, societies change values as a natural process anyway, here's a discussion on that, and even societies that seem to keep to tradition often change (traditions don't actually have to be that traditional, only seem to be). And this will greatly affect how various human structures are arranged, like the prioritization system we call economics.

But instead of asking what will change, it's also important to see what won't change. After all, quite a lot we do is in response to the non-human world or is our way (most organism do this) of manipulating the environment. So there is going to be a wide range of behaviors that aren't affected by a specific societies values, well outside of the basic ones like survival and basic material needs. And the structures that do change, still have criteria to fulfill and nonhuman forces that affect them. So I don't expect this collapse/decline period to be different from previous ones in that we suddenly ditch agriculture and cities, especially since they are quite advantageous.

An example of a human structure that probably won't change is some very key parts of the military and similar institutions, like the chain of command and formation marching.  Those structure haven't appeared because society has imposed a hierarchical and team based model on armies, but because those systems work in practice better than the other options. The chain of command is the only way that orders could possibly be sent to the right people and for information to flow properly, something which isn't easy to do in combat, and allow it to be processed at the same time. In some situations you can do without them, but that's rare, and there is a variety of hierarchies, so it isn't completely set in stone. While armies don't move around on foot as often as they used do, actually marching, learning to march in formation still has benefits ignoring that armies still have to be able to move by foot. When I did officers training for St John, we had a ex drill sergeant (can't remember his actual title) teaching us and he talked about them, basically it teaches teamwork, they ability to work in a group and to keep track of where everyone is. Valuing equality and democracy hasn't affected these structures that much, other future values won't either.

 While I don't know about philosophy and logic (but they're probably similar), science also is largely independent of societies values and generates it's own.  To quote this review of Mystery of Mysteries"Ruse concludes that epistemic values have advanced markedly at the expense of the cultural values.". Put it like this, the theory of evolution is an entirely human construct in that it it only exists in human minds and artifacts. However, that misses that evolution describes what is observed in the world and how things happen, it isn't an arbitrary idea built to support some political system or religious stance (Darwin's grandfather used his evolutionary theories to justify Deism and the Whigs, but not Darwin himself). Put it like this, while aliens may not come up with the exact same scientific theories they will observe the same phenomena  (like evolution ) and have the same laws (e.g thermodynamics doesn't change just because they think differently).

Future societies may have completely different values, similar to how much opinions on homosexuality differ in history, in classical civilization it was closer to an expected behavior than anything else (the Sacred band of Thebes was an explicitly homosexual fighting unit). But human structures aren't entirely designed just around human values, but in response to the external environment.

So what parts of civilization are malleable to changes in cultural values? What doesn't change? How sensitive are the things that change to changes in values? Since some structures will have parts that are malleable and parts that aren't, how will that resolve itself?


  1. Great essay. I have been reading your blog since you announced its creation on John Michael Greer's website, and I really appreciate the thought provoking articles. I have shared blog posts of yours with many of my friends, and have had nothing but compliments. When you posted "Changes" and it sounded like you were planning to give up blogging on this site, I was very disappointed. I am glad you decided to stick with it. Even though you are young and may not think you are very experienced, your writings make more sense and show a greater level of understanding than most writings from people twice your age. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks.

    It's more I have lots of small ideas, but can't easily turn them into a post. This post actually started out as a list of them. Also trying to synthesis quite a few different viewpoints and sources in my head; the Rocky Mountain Institute have a mix of good and bad ideas, a history of Prussia had some intereting insights and some other things.

    Trying to understand how people thought in a different period is interesting. The Prussian feudal lords defending their liberty (and what they meant by that) for example, the entire context no longer exists. Or nationalism being tied directly to liberalism and progressiveness (also helping democracy). But necessary to figure out how future societies could view the world and the past.

    I'll be working, just not a lot to see.