Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 3: Anthropogenic Threats

Lake Huron Sunset, at the entrance to Kincardine Harbour, April 12, 2017

In my last post in this series I referred to an article on Wikipedia about "Global catastrophic risk" which I had stumbled upon while researching existential risks for this series of posts. A good article, which gave me the idea of dividing those risks into non-manmade and manmade varieties to spread them over two posts. It has a pretty thorough list of non-anthropogenic threats (which I covered in that post). And it lists most of the major anthropogenic threats that I want to discuss in this post. But it fails to to tie those risks together in the way that I think is necessary if one is going to arrive at any sort of deep understanding of what is going on in the world today. I'll be addressing this in my next post —"Evaluating Existential Threats, Conclusions."

Artificial intelligence

There are two different threats in this area.

1) A Technological Singularity

The idea here is that we will develop general artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on itself, and that it will do so at an ever increasing rate, quickly out stepping human intelligence and continuing to grow beyond what we can even imagine (thus the term "singularity"). Such intelligence could constitute an existential threat if it doesn't have our best interests at heart or it it is confused about what those interest may be.

Based on this, several notable people (Stephen Hawkin, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others) have expressed concern about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. This is probably not a bad thing, in that it will likely make AI researches more cautious.

But I see several problems with the idea that general AI is a credible threat, mainly to do with the limits that exist in the real world.

But first, is general artificial intelligence even possible? Since I am a monistic materialist (there is only one thing, the material world that we see around us) I see my own consciousness as a software process running on the "meatware" computer between my ears. So, in principle at least, I can see no reason why similar software can't be developed to run on manmade hardware.

In practice, though, it will neither be simple or easy. "Singularitarians" point to the "law of accelerating progress", and it is true that technological progress has been accelerating for the last couple of centuries. They assume that progress will continue at an exponential rate. But they are disregarding the "law of diminishing returns", which we talked about in my posts on "The Collapse of Complex Societies." (1 2).

The advances in computer science and AI research are clearly a case of problem solving by adding complexity, and with that comes increases in cost which will eventually slow down the process and bring it to a halt. Essentially they are looking at the upward leg of a logistic curve and mistaking it for an exponential curve, jumping to the conclusion that it will continue upward forever instead of leveling off. In the real world, spurts of exponential growth always run out of steam and level off.

(Left: exponential curve  ---  Right: logistic curve)

Graphic of exponential curve, Peter John Acklam—Own work
Graphic of logistic curve By Qef Created from scratch with gnuplot, Public Domain
Creative Commons Licence

We already see this happening with "Moore's Law", a favourite phenomenon of the technological optimists. This is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The death of Moore's Law is already happening, making it seem unlikely that there will be a singularity based on growth in the power of computing hardware.

It will be interesting to see where the growth in the capability of software tops out, but I would say there is no guarantee we will achieve artificial intelligence even equaling human intelligence. And that is without considering the problems I expect over next few decades as decreasing surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction reduce the resources available for research. But that will happen very unevenly and I have no doubt that there will be a few institutions (universities, corporations) who hang on for quite some time and keep working on AI.

So let's assume for the moment that we do develop general artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on itself, and that it does out step human intelligence by a significant amount before it encounters limits and tops out. Before such an intelligence could do much harm it would have to have accurate knowledge of the physical world and some agency to act in that world (through robotics, presumably). But even then, we must remember is that intelligence is not a magic solution to all problems, it will not automatically be able to develop technology that can do whatever it and/or we want. It will be subject to the same limits as we are, since those limits are not some human failing, but are actually built into the nature of reality.

The main idea of this blog is that the problems we face are caused by our encountering those limits and cannot be solved, by intelligence or anything else, but are simply conditions that we must adapt to. I really do believe this is true, so I expect that a hypothetical artificial intelligence of a sufficiently high degree would reach the same conclusion.

So, it seems to me that the risks here are small, and the supposed negative consequences of AI are by no means certain. Accordingly, a technological singularity is just not a big worry for me.

2) An Economic Singularity

The whole history of the industrial revolution has been one of industries improving their productivity by replacing human labour with powered machinery. Over the last few decades, as the surplus energy available to our society decreased, business desperate for productivity gains to maintain their profitability have taken this process to new heights. Long before general AI becomes a problem, "narrow" artificial intelligence and robotics will have replaced most human workers. Many of us are quite worried about what will happen to the consumer economy when most consumers cannot find jobs. And more important, what will happen to the ex-consumers themselves.

Others argue that this is the beginning of a world without scarcity —that we will start with a guaranteed minimum income and go on from there to create a workers' paradise. I don't think this is likely for a number of reasons.

First of all, scarcity exists because we live on a finite planet and there really is a limited supply of the resources (energy and materials) needed to run our industrial civilization. Scarcity is not caused by high labour costs, and is unlikely to be cured by automation. We are experiencing a shortage of energy, not labour, and we would do better to adopt a policy of "rehumanization" —replacing automation with people, rather than the reverse.

In any case, those who are running the world's industries do not, for the most part, care in the least about their unemployed former workers. If you don't have a part to play in the BAU world, at the bare minimum if you have no money in your pocket to spend as a consumer, then you had best just go away. Of course, with fewer industrial workers, there will be fewer consumers and less of a market for the products of those industries. It would appear that the industrial/consumer economy will continue to contract, flying backwards in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up its own.... And as the ranks of the unemployed and homeless swell, they will have more and more reason to take things into their own hands and resort to violence against the system.

This is especially true in countries where lowering of taxes on corporations and the rich is seen as the primary way of stimulating the economy. It is true that lowering taxes can somewhat protect corporations and the rich from economic contraction in the short run. But it leaves the rest of the population even more exposed. And it leaves the government no alternative but to go further into debt to maintain its commitments.

Progressive taxation to fund infrastructure and social programs can, it is pretty clear, slow economic contraction and shield more of the population from the initial effects of collapse. But this too is a limited solution, as economic contraction continues and the tax base grows ever smaller.

The "economic singularity" is something that is already happening and is almost certain to get worse. It is definitely something to worry about.


I see biotech (genetic engineering) as an area with a lot of room for advancement and a good deal of promise in helping mankind cope with the challenges ahead of us. So it pains me considerably to say that it is also a technology with a large potential for harm. I say this in particular because advances in technique are in the process of making genetic engineering accessible to people without proper training and who work in an unregulated environment. This increases the both chance of accidents and the opportunities for deliberate misuse.

I have no doubt we will see the biotech equivalent of improvised explosive devices used in terrorist attacks at some point in the not too distant future. These could take many forms but basically what we are talking about is an engineered pandemic, with the potential to spread rapidly and harm far more people than a conventional IED.

The risk is high and the potential for harm is great. So this is a threat that I would definitely worry about. It will be difficult to make preventative measures effective as techniques like CRISP become widely available. About all we can do is beef up the organizations that detect, quarantine and develop vaccines for communicable diseases.

Human Sourced Pandemic

Another similar threat not covered in the Wikipedia article is a pandemic originating from within human society. In my post on non-anthropogenic threats, I touched brief on the possibility of a pandemic arising from nature, but concluded I wouldn't be worrying about this because the risk was small. There is a significantly larger risk of a pandemic originating in the disease factories of hospitals, refugee camps and cities.

According to the evolutionary epidemiologist Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville, the most dangerous infectious diseases are almost always not animal diseases freshly broken into the human species, but diseases adapted to humanity over time: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, yellow fever, polio. In order to adapt to the human species, a germ needs to cycle among people —from person to person to person. In each iteration, the strains best adapted to transmission will be the ones that spread. So natural selection will push circulating strains towards more and more effective transmission, and therefore towards increasing adaptation to human hosts. This process necessarily takes place among people....

Looking at epidemics and pandemics through this evolutionary lens makes it clear that the most important condition necessary for the evolution of virulent, transmissible disease is the existence of a human disease factory. Without social conditions that allow the evolution of virulent, transmissible disease, deadly outbreaks are unlikely to emerge.

In the next few decades we are going to see more refugee camps and cities (and slums) growing ever larger. This is one to worry about.

Global warming (anthropogenic climate change)

There is simply no doubt left that human activities releasing carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gasses) into the atmosphere are causing global warming. There was 0.6 degrees of warming during the twentieth century and since the turn of the century that has gone up to a total of almost 1 degree. By the end of the century there is expected to be a total of between 2.4 to 6.4 degrees of warming, depending on the level of emissions between now and then. Of course, those numbers of average over the whole planet. In fact, the warming is taking place unevenly, with more warming at high latitudes than near the equator.

This warming is causing many changes:

  • more extremely hot days, fewer extremely cold days
  • currently wet areas getting more and heavier rain (flooding)
  • currently dry areas getting less rain (drought)
  • intensification of tropical storms
  • less winter snow pack
  • retreating mountain glaciers
  • melting polar ice caps
  • warming oceans
  • sea level rise
  • ocean acidification

These changes are already having disruptive effects on our global civilization, which will only get worse as they intensify:

  • agriculture grows less productive with the disappearance of the reliable weather it relies on, in some areas it becomes impractical to continue farming
  • health effects of heat waves and the spread of tropical diseases into formerly temperate areas
  • damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure due to increasingly heavy weather and rising sea level

There are those who argue that the effects of anthropogenic climate change will be much more severe:

  • rendering much, if not all, of the planet unfit for human habitation
  • with further heating, much of the planet might become unfit for life of any kind
  • runaway climate change could eventually transform Earth into another Venus

Lots here to worry about, even if (like me) you take those last three points as unlikely. The rest of it is almost certain to happen. Another one to worry about.

Ecological disaster

This would consist of failure of ecosystems and loss of the services they provide us due to trends such as overpopulation, economic development, and non-sustainable agriculture.

This is already underway and it is definitely something worry about.

Mineral resource exhaustion

From Wikipedia:
Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and the paradigm founder of ecological economics, has argued that the carrying capacity of Earth — that is, Earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels — is bound to decrease sometime in the future as Earth's finite stock of mineral resources is presently being extracted and put to use; and consequently, that the world economy as a whole is heading towards an inevitable future collapse, leading to the demise of human civilization itself.

Because we use the easy to access part of a resource first (the low hanging fruit), when we get to using the not-so-low hanging fruit, it is not just less plentiful, but harder to access as well. Even though we have developed techniques for refining minerals from much lower grade ores, it takes more energy to access each unit of such resources, making them prohibitively expensive long before they run out in any absolute sense.

The term "mineral resources" includes the fossil fuels that power our civilization, and for which there really isn't any practical substitute. Unfortunately, the authors of the Wikipedia article do not seem to be aware of the critical link between energy and the economy.

Resource depletion is a serious problem that is actually happen and will have even more severe consequence down the road. Definitely something to worry about.

Experimental technology accident

I find this pretty hard to take seriously. Those working with such technologies are very aware of the risks involved and go to great lengths to avoid them, since they themselves would be a ground zero if there is an accident. And measures are in place to reduce the seriousness of such accidents if they do take place. A small risk is thus rendered much smaller —insignificant, to my way of thinking, provide we continue to take the appropriate precautions.


I read Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology shortly after it came out in 1986. The heart of the idea was that we would soon develop nano-scale computers and robots which could accomplish fantastic things one atom at a time that could not otherwise be done at all. Presumably such powerful machines could be used to do great harm, or could do great harm if they got out of control.

Here we are over 30 years later and this is an area of technology that has not lived up what its promoters saw as its promise, for good or ill. I'm not worrying about this one.

Warfare and mass destruction

Since the end of the Cold War, we have had a few decades of relative relief from the fear of nuclear war. But the arsenals still exist and it is beginning to seem that international relations are deteriorating. With climate change and resource depletion as stressors they may continue to do so.

This is another one to worry about. We need to do whatever we can to discourage politicians with itchy trigger fingers.

World population and agricultural crisis

From Wikipedia:

The 20th century saw a rapid increase in human population due to medical developments and massive increases in agricultural productivity such as the Green Revolution. Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. The Green Revolution in agriculture helped food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth or actually enabled population growth. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), place in their 1994 study Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.

The authors of this study believe that the mentioned agricultural crisis will begin to impact us after 2020, and will become critical after 2050. Geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer claims that coming decades could see spiraling food prices without relief and massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before. Wheat is humanity's 3rd most produced cereal. Extant fungal infections such as Ug99 (a kind of stem rust) can cause 100% crop losses in most modern varieties. Little or no treatment is possible and infection spreads on the wind. Should the world's large grain producing areas become infected then there would be a crisis in wheat availability leading to price spikes and shortages in other food products.

Definitely one to worry about.

My Analysis

I will have a great deal more to say about what this all means in my next few posts. But I think it is clear from what we've looked at so far, that the universe is a relatively benign place. True, there are a couple of non-anthropogenic threats that are worthy of our attention, but the threats we have created ourselves are numerous, they are not hypothetical—they are already happening and certain to continue, and they have as much or more potential for harm than anything nature seems likely to throw at us.

Monday, 3 April 2017

What I've Been Reading, March 2017

A few minutes late for sunset over Lake Huron, April 2, 2017


These links appear in the order I read them, rather than any more refined sort of organization. Some of the best ones are near the bottom.



I read three Ken MacLeod books this month. The Corporation Wars series (a third is due out near the end of 2017) are top-notch cyber space opera, and deal thoughtfully with artificial intelligence/consciousness issues. Intrusion tells a good human story involving at biotech and the surveillance state.


The non-fiction I've been reading this month is full of ideas which will show up over the next few weeks on this blog.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats, Part 2: Non-anthropogenic Threats

Last time, I talked about worry as a driver to action, and how to evaluate problems as to whether they are worth worrying about or not. I think that my approach does work for smaller scale, day-to-day problems, but I was mainly focusing on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. And I promised to go into detail about some such threats.

Today we'll look at a number of "non-anthropogenic" (non-manmade) threats. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I think it is a good introduction to the subject.

Non-anthropogenic threats tend to be large scale—forces of nature. In many cases there is little we can do but run away and/or try to be well prepared to cope with their effects. Fortunately, when it comes to coping, similar preparations work for many different types of threats.

For those who like the precise use of terminology I admit to being a little sloppy in my use of the term "existential". As Wikipedia would have it:

A "global catastrophic risk" is any risk that is at least "global" in scope, and is not subjectively "imperceptible" in intensity. Those that are at least "trans-generational" (affecting all future generations) in scope and "terminal" in intensity are classified as existential risks. While a global catastrophic risk may kill the vast majority of life on earth, humanity could still potentially recover. An existential risk, on the other hand, is one that either destroys humanity (and, presumably, all but the most rudimentary species of non-human lifeforms and/or plant life) entirely or prevents any chance of civilization recovering.

They actually have a pretty good article on "global catastrophic risks"


A nearby supernova

And for this first one we'll look at all four of the criteria I mentioned in my last post.

From Wikipedia:

A near-Earth supernova is an explosion resulting from the death of a star that occurs close enough to the Earth (roughly less than 10 to 300 parsecs (30 to 1000 light-years) away[2]) to have noticeable effects on its biosphere.

On average, a supernova explosion occurs within 10 parsecs (33 light-years) of the Earth every 240 million years. Gamma rays are responsible for most of the adverse effects a supernova can have on a living terrestrial planet. In Earth's case, gamma rays induce a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere, converting molecular nitrogen into nitrogen oxides, depleting the ozone layer enough to expose the surface to harmful solar and cosmic radiation (mainly ultra-violet). Phytoplankton and reef communities would be particularly affected, which could severely deplete the base of the marine food chain.


Once in 240 million years? But actually, a closer look shows that the occurrence of supernovas is not a random event that can happen to just any star.

Type II supernovas mark the end of the life of certain massive stars that are bright enough so that they are hard to miss, especially if they are nearby. And it is possible to identify when they are nearing to end of their lives, to within some thousands of years, anyway. The good news is that the nearest of them is over 500 light years away, far enough not to be a concern.

Again from Wikipedia:

Type Ia supernovae are thought to be potentially the most dangerous if they occur close enough to the Earth. Because Type Ia supernovae arise from dim, common white dwarf stars, it is likely that a supernova that could affect the Earth will occur unpredictably and take place in a star system that is not well studied. The closest known candidate is IK Pegasi. It is currently estimated, however, that by the time it could become a threat, its velocity in relation to the Solar System would have carried IK Pegasi to a safe distance.

Even if a Type Ia candidate is lurking nearby, the odds of it being at the end of its life during my lifetime are small.


Earth's upper atmosphere, in particular the ozone layer, is very effective at blocking x-ray and gamma rays, so radiation from a supernova is not the main concern at ground level. But gamma rays can cause chemical reactions between nitrogen and ozone and deplete the ozone layer. There is the possibility that this effect of radiation from a nearby supernova could result in a mass extinction, and may have done so in the past.

Difficulty of Mounting a response

It is difficult to see how we could do much about the effects of a nearby supernova. As I've said before, it seems likely that our capacity for global scale responses to such challenges is either at of just past its peak. In other words, in my opinion, they are in the realm of science fiction—fun to dream about, but unlikely to happen.


It appears that there the likelihood of a nearby supernova in the near future is quite small.


The rarity of the event and the difficulty of doing anything about it would seem to make this a threat that there is no point in worrying about.

A Nearby Gamma Ray Burst

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. A nearby one (thousands instead of billions of light years away) would affect our upper atmosphere in the same way as a nearby supernova.

My evaluation is that we need not worry—the risk is small and there is little we could do in any case.

A change in the sun's output

Our Sun is a remarkably constant star, its output varying only by 0.1% over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. NASA has a good article about how this can affect our climate. And while it is true that the changes during the solar cycle do seem to be amplified beyond what one might expect, their impact is far from existential.

A large solar flare

From Wikipedia:

A solar flare is a sudden flash of brightness observed near the Sun's surface. It involves a very broad spectrum of emissions, an energy release of typically 1 × 1020 joules of energy for a well-observed event. A major event can emit up to 1 × 1025 joules (the latter is roughly the equivalent of 1 billion megatons of TNT.... Flares are often, but not always, accompanied by a coronal mass ejection. The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day or two after the event.

The Carrington Event (Solar Storm of 1859), from Wikipedia:

The Solar storm of 1859—known as the Carrington Event—was a powerful geomagnetic solar storm during solar cycle 10 (1855–1867). A solar coronal mass ejection hit Earth's magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record, September 1–2, 1859. The associated "white light flare" in the solar photosphere was observed and recorded by English astronomers Richard C. Carrington (1826–1875) and Richard Hodgson (1804–1872).

Studies have shown that a solar storm of this magnitude occurring today would likely cause more widespread problems for a modern and technology-dependent society. The solar storm of 2012 was of similar magnitude, but it passed Earth's orbit without striking the planet....

The probability of a solar storm striking Earth in the next decade with enough force to do serious damage to electricity networks could be as high as 12 percent.

Again from Wikipedia:

In June 2013, a joint venture from researchers at Lloyd's of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States used data from the Carrington Event to estimate the current cost of a similar event to the U.S. alone at $0.6–2.6 trillion.

This cost would result from damage to electrical and electronic equipment that isn't sufficiently hardened against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). In and of itself, this would cause relatively few human deaths. But it would cause widespread and serious damage to our power grid, and our transportation, communication and computing infrastructure, which could leave many of us without the necessities of life while the damage was being repaired. And it would take many months to replace damaged power transformers which are a critical part of the power grid.

Both the risk and the level of severity seem quite high, and measures to mitigate the effects of such an event are definitely within our grasp, albeit at some considerable cost. I would say that this is definitely something to worry about. For the individual two actions come to mind immediately:

  1. Prepare for extended outages of the power grid, the phone systems, the internet and GPS and expect that many of your electronic devices will not survive the EMP associated with the flare.
  2. When your local grid authority announces that power prices will be going up due to measures being taken to harden the grid against large solar flares, rather than complaining, support them. The same goes for other infrastructure that may be affected.

A collision with an asteroid

From Wikipedia:

Small objects frequently collide with Earth. There is an inverse relationship between the size of the object and the frequency of such events. The lunar cratering record shows that the frequency of impacts decreases as approximately the cube of the resulting crater's diameter, which is on average proportional to the diameter of the impactor. Asteroids with a 1 km (0.62 mi) diameter strike Earth every 500,000 years on average. Large collisions – with 5 km (3 mi) objects – happen approximately once every twenty million years. The last known impact of an object of 10 km (6 mi) or more in diameter was at the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.

Based on the odds quoted above, large collisions are rare enough to disregard but asteroids large enough to survive their trip through the atmosphere (larger than 35 m in diameter) and less than 1 km. in diameter are more common and can still do enough damage on a local or regional scale that it may be worth doing something about them.

As is often the case, though, this threat is not completely random. Astronomers have already identified a large number of asteroids whose orbits bring them close to Earth and efforts are underway to identify the rest of them, map their orbits and determine if/when they are likely to constitute a threat. Because an asteroid's orbit is changed by the Earth's gravity when it passes nearby, this is an ongoing task. And occasionally large asteroids, that have been missed previously, do show up on surveys.

Several methods have been proposed to divert an asteroid and prevent it from hitting Earth. Some of these are within our current technological and economic grasp, at least for now. If we were to make preparations ahead of time and have the appropriate hardware standing by in orbit, we could even divert asteroids on fairly short notice.


This is one to worry about. There is appropriate action which an individual can support when voting, if nothing else. A comprehensive and on-going asteroid survey would be relatively inexpensive and would allow us to evacuate the population from the area where a small to medium size asteroid is about to strike. And if it turns up a larger asteroid that is headed our way, it would give us the option of trying to do something about it.

A reversal of the earth's magnetic field

The Earth's magnetic field does reverse on a regular though seemingly random basis. Since the magnetic field goes to zero during the reversal and that field plays a role in diverting cosmic radiation and solar flares, there is some chance that more radiation would reach the Earth's surface during that period. Currently, expert opinion says this is unlikely to be an existential or even catastrophic threat.

There is some (less creditable) chance that seismic activity might increase during a magnetic reversal, causing earthquakes and tsunamis. My guess is that if you live in an earthquake or tsunami zone, the preparations you should already be making would suffice.

An eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano

If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park ever had another massive eruption, it could spew ash for thousands of miles across the United States, damaging buildings, smothering crops, and shutting down power plants. It would be a huge disaster.

From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they "see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable." This conclusion was reiterated in December 2013 in the aftermath of the publication of a study by University of Utah scientists finding that the "size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought." The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a statement on its website stating, "Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a 'supereruption' in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not 'overdue' for a supereruption."

That's good enough for me, so I won't be worrying about this one.

A Pandemic arising from nature

From Wikipedia:

The death toll for a pandemic is equal to the virulence (deadliness) of the pathogen or pathogens, multiplied by the number of people eventually infected. It has been hypothesised that there is an upper limit to the virulence of naturally evolved pathogens. This is because a pathogen that quickly kills its hosts might not have enough time to spread to new ones, while one that kills its hosts more slowly or not at all will allow carriers more time to spread the infection, and thus likely out-compete a more lethal species or strain. This simple model predicts that if virulence and transmission are not linked in any way, pathogens will evolve towards low virulence and rapid transmission. However, this assumption is not always valid and in more complex models, where the level of virulence and the rate of transmission are related, high levels of virulence can evolve. The level of virulence that is possible is instead limited by the existence of complex populations of hosts, with different susceptibilities to infection, or by some hosts being geographically isolated. The size of the host population and competition between different strains of pathogens can also alter virulence. However, a pathogen that only infects humans as a secondary host and usually infects another species (a zoonosis) may have little constraint on its virulence in people, since infection here is an accidental event and its evolution is driven by events in another species. There are numerous historical examples of pandemics that have had a devastating effect on a large number of people, which makes the possibility of global pandemic a realistic threat to human civilization.

The Wikipedia article on Global Catastrophic risk estimates the chance of a naturally occurring disease causing the extinction of the human race before 2100 is .05%, or 1 chance in 2,000. So it seems that this threat is worthy of some degree of worry. But existing public health organizations are on watch for diseases spreading from animals to humans, and quarantines can be put into effect to control the spread of such a disease until vaccines can be developed. In case one finds oneself under quarantine, a well stocked pantry would be handy to have, and that is also a basic preparation for many other sorts of disaster.

Small scale threats

While volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and so forth may not be existential threats for the human race as a whole, they can be quite serious to the individuals who find themselves at ground zero. And in many areas the degree of risk is fairly high. Being prepared for emergencies is always a good idea, in my opinion.

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a couple of posts on emergency preparation, and I think they have stood the test of time.

The only thing I might add is that in some locations, taking the progress of climate change and/or growing political unrest into account may lead you to think about moving to a less hazardous location. This is best done sooner, rather than later, while the infrastructure to support your move is still intact and you can still get a least some of the value out of your home.

Looking back over this list of non-anthropogenic threats, it's interesting to note that the majority of them are not something to worry about. Of those that are worthy of our concern, a few observations can be made in the light of the collapse that I expect is coming during the next few decades:

  • A large solar flare in only dangerous because of the unprotected high-tech infrastructure that we have become dependent on.
  • Asteroid collisions, on the other hand, will continue to be a threat regardless of the level of technology we are using. An effective response to the approach of a large asteroid requires the capability to conduct operations in space, and an economy that is doing well enough to finance such expensive endeavours. Evacuating people from the areas where smaller asteroids will touch down would require some intermediate level of technology and financial support.
  • Pandemics are another thing again. Crowding millions of people together in large cities and making it easy to travel between those cities certainly makes it easier for a pandemic to spread. A smaller and less connected "post-collapse" population would be less vulnerable, but without the full force of modern medicine and public health infrastructure, they would be less resistant to infectious diseases in general.

In my next post I'll look at anthropogenic (manmade) threats and explain why I think some of them are more serious than the threats we've looked at this time.

Note on Wikipedia as a source:
some will no doubt have noted with distain that I have used Wikipedia as a reference throughout this blog post. But I was not trying to write an academic article, and I can assure you I do approach the information I find in Wikipedia with a skeptical eye. I've noticed that the biggest critics of Wikipedia are those who are disappointed that they can't find support therein for their favourite brand of pseudoscience. To me, that is a pretty good recommendation, and it supports what I have found, i.e. that Wikipedia does a pretty good job of excluding pseudoscience, and of presenting the current scientific consensus on most subjects.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Evaluating Existential Threats

In a recent post, I talked about how most people are loath to discuss collapse, some even believing that talking about it makes it more likely to happen. After all, Business As Usual is working just fine and everything is going to be alright. Right?

In contrast to this sort of head-in-the-sand optimism there are people (admittedly a much smaller number of us) who like to focus on existential threats—things that promise, at the very least, to wipe out a large chunk of our human population and, at the worst, to bring an end to life on earth. When you start looking into this you'll find that there are quite a variety of such threats. In my next two posts, I'll take a look at a selection of them. I'll explain why I think that the kind of collapse that I've been talking about is the threat most worthy of most of our attention. And in the process we'll get a clearer picture of what kind of collapse that is.

This post, though, is about the virtues of worrying and how to evaluate existential threats.

What "virtues of worrying", you ask? Worry certainly isn't in fashion these days. On social media one frequently sees this little flowchart about when to worry. All paths seem to leads to the same conclusion—"don't worry".

Now, I admit to being somewhat of a worry wart. Perhaps because of that I can see several things wrong with this flowchart. First, when you don't know, you need to find out. While you are finding out, worry serves as an incentive. And at the bottom of the chart the possibility that there is a problem, and that you can do something about it, is very much under emphasized. Worry serves as an incentive to find out what you can do, make a plan and then execute it. When you've set that in motion, I guess maybe you could quit worrying, but instead I would swing back around to the top left of the chart and see if there is anything else to worry about.

On the other hand, it is true that you can waste a great deal of time and mental anguish worrying about things over which you have no real influence. You have to identify problems that you can actually do something about and concentrate your efforts there. Of course, different people will reach different conclusions—it's a big world and there is lots of room for disagreement. We can't really determine what the right thing to do is without a lot of trial and error, so a diversity of response is a good thing in that it makes it more likely that some of those responses will be more or less successful.

I'll borrow a "new word" from John Michael Greer—"dissensus". The opposite of consensus, dissensus means agreeing to disagree and wishing the other guy all the best even if you think his ideas are outright crazy or stupid. Provided, of course, that he extends a similar courtesy to you. I've noticed that when people are willing to do this, and then find themselves faced with a serious threat, it often turns out that on important points like "what the heck do we do next" there is a remarkable degree of agreement. Ideological differences can be set aside when we are dealing with more immediate problems.

What I am expressing here on this blog is my own point of view, which you are free to disagree with. I do wish you all the best in pursuing your own point of view. And if we find ourselves coming up with similar plans, it may be that we can help each other to put them into action.

What is my point of view? Well, I have a great deal of faith in the scientific consensus—we really don't have any better way than science of finding out about the world around us, and in the last few hundred years science has built up a pretty useful picture of that world.

Some will no doubt ask, "How can you question BAU and expect it to collapse and yet still be in favour of the scientific consensus?"

It is a common error to conflate the scientific consensus with the "official stories" that are the basic myths of Business As Usual. You can hardly blame anyone for jumping to the conclusion that BAU and science are on the same side, since every effort is made to use science to legitimize the ideas of BAU. Those myths are pushed by politicians, economists and business. They are dressed up in the kind of pseudoscientific costumes that make them hard to distinguish from reality. The "Biggest Lie" that I talked about recently, the idea that our population and consumption can go on growing forever on a finite planet, is at the heart of this false worldview.

There are lots of people who don't completely buy into BAU. And there are multi-billion dollar per year businesses (organic farming, health food, and alternative medicine to name just a few) who take advantage of that, spending a great deal on propaganda and doing a good job of positioning themselves as being in opposition to Business as Usual. There is money to be made in that business, but the pseudoscience they are selling is just as bad as the myths from regular BAU. The people pushing both of these ideologies are very adept at finding the parts of science that happen to agree with their positions and flogging them for all they are worth to further their cause.

The idea of these two conflicting ideologies, both of which are wrong, is central to what I am talking about on this blog and you'll find it coming up again and again. Last year I wrote a series of posts on the subject:

If anybody can suggest a better term than "Crunchy", something less pejorative and more mellifluous, I'd sure be happy to use it. Setting aside all the pseudoscience for a moment, Crunchiness, in its opposition to BAU, is on the right track.

Anyway, if you actually take the time and make the effort to understand how science works and what the current scientific consensus is, you'll realize that it does not particularly support either of these ideologies. But for a great many people, who don't have any real background in science, the combination of conflicting ideologies and pseudoscience is extremely misleading.

One unfortunate side effect of this is that a great deal of worry and effort is wasted on problems that nothing need be done about (because the risk is vanishingly small), or that nothing can be done about (because solutions are beyond our reach). Risk assessment is the key to avoiding this sort of thing.

Ask yourself four things when considering any particular problem or threat:

  1. Risk: what is the likelihood of this happening?
  2. Severity: what are the consequences if this does happen?
  3. Difficulty: how hard will it be to do something about this?
  4. Timescale: how soon will this happen?

If you study up on any existential threat, you'll find reliable experts who have already considered the problem and have a lot of wisdom to offer.

Based on the answers you find to each of those questions, you will decide to worry or not:

  • If risk is small, there isn't much to worry about and little need to plan a response.
  • If the severity is small, same conclusion.
  • If it would be easy to do something about the threat, you may want to take some action even if the risk and/or severity are small. If response is difficult then it will require detailed planning and the mobilization of forces beyond yourself. And you will need time to mount a response.
  • Sometimes it is simply not possible to stop a threat from happening, so the action we can realistically take consists of preparing to cope its effects.
  • If the timescale is short, you'll want to plan and act immediately. Preferably to draw on resources you already have in place.
  • If the timescale is long then you may use that time to plan and mobilize your response, or, you may decide to just watch and wait until it is more clear what's going to happen and when. Of course, ignoring threats that are on a long timeline is a tempting but dangerous approach. Eventually that timeline will get a lot shorter.

You'll plan a response based on the nature of the threat and follow up with action, or go and look for something else to worry about. After the first few times you run through your list of threats, you will already have made plans and started to implement them, so the time for worry is over. Of course, you'll always want to keep a "weather eye" out for trouble that you haven't anticipated, or established threats that have changed and now require a different response.

There are a few challenges involved with this approach that we should consider here.

How to identify a reliable expert is certainly one of those challenges. Unfortunately the letters "Dr." in front of a name is no guarantee that someone is either an expert or reliable. I can recommend only skepticism, critical thinking and learning to identifying the many types of bias and the sort of dirty tricks used by those producing pseudoscience. After a while you will develop at sort of "BS" detector that goes off when you are confronted with pseudoscience. A big part of that is knowing what the current scientific consensus says and being skeptical about claims that contradict that consensus. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And it is reassuring to find many researchers turning up the same findings, and interpreting them in similar ways.

Some will be eager to point out that scientists working for business concerns are certainly not reliable and their work just can't be trusted, as it will be biased to the advantage of the company. Sometimes this is true, but just as often it is not true. Your evaluation of that work must be based on the evidence, not on ideology—theirs, or yours.

Evaluating risk can also be quite challenging. In my experience there are a couple of particular pitfalls that people encounter. There are probably more, but these are the ones I know personally.

People often look at risk as being "monotonic". That is, if something is dangerous in large quantities, it must also be dangerous in small quantities—it may take longer for the harm to become evident, but there is still harm. This certainly sounds reasonable, but in most cases it is simply not true. Take radiation as an example. There is no doubt that ionizing radiation can kill in large quantities. This makes it frightening and since it can't be seen and is poorly understood, many people don't want to have anything to do with it, assuming that any release of radiation will affect them negatively.

But life on earth has been dealing with small quantities of radiation since day one and has evolved mechanisms for coping with the "background radiation". Most releases of radiation result in a barely detectable increase in the background and are not a serious concern. Of course, if you work in the nuclear industry, where there is the chance of exposure to significant amounts of radiation, you should take safety procedures seriously. And that brings me to my second risk evaluation pitfall.

The majority of the people I worked with during my career in the electrical transmission and distribution industry were quite brave. We often worked in close proximity to serious hazards and while a healthy respect was vital, outright fear would have been crippling. So far, so good. But some of the hazards we encountered were less straightforward. If there is a one in ten chance of serious injury, essentially everyone will take the appropriate precautions. But at some level of decreasing risk, many people will decide to just accept the risk, rather than do much about it. Especially if the precautions they are expected to take (procedures and protective equipment) are rather onerous.

At what level of risk is that a reasonable response? One in a million? Probably. But what about one chance in a thousand? My experience is that there is a range of risk that is significant, but many people find hard to take seriously. The trouble is, if a large population is exposed to the risk on a regular basis, the odds good are that someone is going to get hurt fairly soon. That's why the safety rules are written and why supervisors (me at one point) have to enforce them, even if they didn't take them so serious when they were workers. Something to keep in mind when evaluating risks.

One final thing I should point out—it seems to me that mankind as a whole is at or just past the peak of our ability to respond to large existential threats. From here on in, as collapse proceeds, it's all a bumpy downhill ride. The best we will be able to do, in a great many cases, is to mitigate the effects of what is coming. And since it appears that governments aren't interested in, and increasing don't have the resources to organize such a response, this will have to be done on an individual, family, or at most, community level.

So, what are some of these threats? I've divided them into two groups: non-anthropogenic (not manmade) and anthropogenic (manmade), and I'll be covering them in my next two posts.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

What I've Been Reading, February 2017

Up until a few weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time on Facebook. So much so that more important things--writing this blog, as well as things in the real world away from the computer, were suffering. So, I gave up on the majority of things I was doing on Facebook. Such as:

  • spreading the word about the scientific consensus to those who have been fooled by the organic farming, health food and alternative medicine industries
  • trying to convince conventional farmers that their industry isn't sustainable.
  • "liking" and reposting articles about American politics--they are just going to have to get along without my input.
  • likewise for Canadian politics

As far as getting out the word about Peak Oil, Climate Change, economic contraction and collapse, I'd like to think this blog is a better vehicle than Facebook. I'm still posting links to my blog posts on the Facebook Peak Oil Group and a few other select places where the audience is receptive.

I'm no longer keeping Facebook tab open in my browser. For Facebook friends who'd like to reach me via Facebook messaging, I have the messaging application installed on my desktop, so I'll still get your messages, without having to open up Facebook and expose myself to temptation.

With some extra time now available, in addition to more writing, I am doing more reading, and I have noticed that I miss being able to post links to the interesting articles that I've found on the net and the good books that I've been reading. For some time I'd been think about doing a once-a-month post herer, consisting of links and books and this was just the added incentive I needed.

So, here we go. Other than being divided into links, fictional books and non-fictional books, these are in not grouped according to subject, nor are they in any particular order.



I've been reading for well over 50 years, so in addition to books I've read in the last month or so, I'll be including some that I've read less recently. It will take me a while to catch up.



Friday, 17 February 2017

The Biggest Lie

Lake Huron Shore
at Kincardine, Feb 16, 2017

For quite a while now I've been promising that I'd get around to talking about collapse: why I believe it's what lies ahead or, more accurately, what's already happening; the sort of collapse I'm expecting; the way it's going to unfold; and what we can do about coping with it.

Now, finally, I am going to get started on this, with a discussion about "Business As Usual" (BAU) and why I think a continuation of things as they are is among our least likely futures. If you try to discuss this with people who aren't already kollapsniks, you'll find it is not a popular subject. I can see a couple of reasons for this.

First, thanks to the media, collapse has come to mean apocalypse—the sort of rapid and disastrous change that results in a world like that portrayed in movies like Mad Max, The Road or Terminator. If you've been convinced that collapse is a swift, sure and final disaster, there's little wonder that you wouldn't want to dwell on the idea and would prefer to keep BAU going for as long as possible.

Second, many people see themselves as benefitting from BAU. In the short run they are probably right. These are the kind of people who have a certain amount (in some cases rather a lot) of power and influence. They don't want to consider anything that might "upset the apple cart", so to speak.

Of course, many other people aren't doing quite so well. Rob Mielcarski*, in a blog post titled It’s Time to Get Real: Trump’s a Symptom, Not the Problem comments that lower and middle class citizens around the world are angry for good reasons:

  • Their incomes have been stagnant or falling despite governments telling them the economy is strong.
  • Their cost of living for things that matter has been rising despite governments telling them inflation is low.
  • They see the upper class getting richer and not being punished for crimes.
  • They carry a high debt load and see that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.
  • For the first time in a long time they worry that the future may be worse than the present.
  • They sense that something is broken and that leaders are not speaking the truth.

But even these people don't want to want to talk about the demise of BAU—they just want it fixed so that it works for them as well as for the rich and powerful. Politicians are clever enough to realize that by promising to make such fixes they can win the support and votes of these folks. The pitch is that with just a few changes to the system—just some fine tuning, really—BAU can be made to work for everyone and as well as it "used to" in some mythical time a few decades ago when everything was good. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populist parties in many countries is proof that this is a winning political strategy. At least in the short run.

I'll go into much more detail in an upcoming post, but it seems to me that the changes promised by Trump et al, for instance, aren't likely to fix what's wrong with the world. Details aside, there is a simple reason for this—their strategy is based on a lie.

Richard Heinberg** recently put it this way:

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

There are some unstated assumptions built into BAU, assumptions that are seriously flawed. As David Holmgren*** points out:

At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussions of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.

  • Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
  • There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
  • Economic activity, globalization and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
  • The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
  • Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
  • Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.

If you have faith in BAU, this is what you believe in—probably without even realizing it. Holmgren intends this to be a list of improbabilities so extreme that the reader will see there is simply no chance that BAU can continue for much longer. I agree. But we have grown so far out of touch with reality that I fear many will look at that list and say, "So what's the problem?" And for those of us who do see a problem with some of these ideas, there are a couple more ideas that are often stated as reassurances to anyone expressing doubts:

The first is "infinite substitutability", the idea put forth by main stream economists that as resources become depleted they become more expensive and this creates the incentive to develop substitutes. They think this is the answer to resource depletion and that it has no limits.

The second is "decoupling", the idea that we can develop technology that will allow a continually growing economy (sustainable development) which does not place an ever increasing burden on the environment, allowing BAU to continue on without limits.

But these two ideas are at least as unrealistic as the ones that Holmgren lists. They stem from some serious misconceptions:

First, the view of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, ignoring its vital inputs (energy and materials) and outputs (waste heat and pollution). Because supplies of energy and materials, and sinks to absorb waste heat and pollution are all finite, there are real, concrete limits to how long BAU can go on.

And second, the idea that technology can continue to advance at an ever increasing pace—the supposed "law of accelerating returns". This comes from mistaking an "S" or logistical curve that levels off after a period of rapid increase for one that continues rising toward a singularity. It is true that technology has enabled us to inch up closer to those planetary limits over the last century or so—"kicking the can" down the road every time trouble looms ahead of us (excuse the mixed metaphors). But think back to my recent posts (1, 2) on Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies—we have done this by adding complexity to our global industrial society. Complexity comes with ever decreasing marginal returns on our investments in it. And it is powered by energy, of which there is a limited supply.

Already we have picked the low hanging fruit of energy and mineral resources, supplies of fresh water and arable land. There is good reason to think that the same thing is happening with technological innovation—we've done the easy parts, which have given us unwarranted confidence in what remains to be achieved with technology. But further advances will be much harder to develop, cost more, and bear diminishing returns.

Substitutability is running into limits as resources become more depleted—we are finding that there simply are no substitutes for many resources. And there is no evidence that decoupling is happening to any significant extent, or ever was.

So, BAU is based on growth, and a lie about the long term viability of growth. If growth is the problem, then why do we need growth? What if we stopped growing? A close look at the underlying structure of BAU reveals it is not structured to work without continued growth.

Economic growth is necessary in BAU because our financial system is based on credit. It creates money by issuing debt, which must be paid back with interest. If businesses are to pay that interest as well as the principle, they must grow. Likewise, individuals who borrow to finance education or housing early in their lives must make more money later in their lives to pay off those loans with interest. Population growth is also necessary since it supports economic growth. And since the younger generation supports the older generation in their old age (either directly or via taxes), the younger generation must be larger if this is not to be an onerous burden.

Last fall I wrote a series of posts about the book The Limits to Growth which examines in detail the consequences of growth using system dynamic computer simulations. This is the "discussion about planetary limits" that Heinberg was referring to. If you haven't read those posts, it's worth having a quick look.

The Limits to Growth study makes it clear that there really are limits to growth and if we try to exceed those limits, instead of accepting and living within them, the consequences will be severe. The standard run of the LTG world model, which assumes things just continue on as usual, ends with a drastic drop off of human population in the latter half of this century. Resource depletion and pollution result in a failure to produce adequate food supplies and essential services. Indeed every run of the model that tried to find a way around the limits ended in similar results. Those results were avoided only in the runs where a way was found to control our population and live within our limits.

Of course, that study was done in the early 1970s. In 2017 resource depletion and pollution (especially climate change) have progressed much farther and our population has more than doubled. I'd say there is every reason to doubt that a collapse can be avoided, regardless of what we do.

In the light of all this, then, is there anything at all that can be done to mitigate the situation?

Well yes, actually. While BAU is fundamentally, structurally flawed and trying to keep it working will only make the situation worse, there is much that could be done to slow its demise, make sure that collapse doesn't take us as far down as is otherwise might, and to make the crash when we hit bottom as gentle as possible.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled A Political Fantasy, exploring what enlightened governments could do to achieve this, if they weren't saddled with political realities.

If, like me, you have little faith in governments doing the right thing to any significant extent, the good news is that there are also a great many things that can be done to mitigate collapse at the individual, family and local community level. And that is why I want to discuss collapse with people.

In my next few posts I'll be talking about the course that I expect collapse to take, the political realities that will contribute to this and what we can do to cope.

* Rob Mielcarski is a fellow blogger, who I met when he commented on one of my blog posts. He is very concerned about human overshoot and the damage we are doing to a very rare and precious planet, and deeply fascinated by the depth and breadth of our denial of the situation.

** Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He is the author of thirteen books, and presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

*** David Holmgren is an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator and writer. He is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept with Bill Mollison. His website Future Scenarios looks at Four Energy Descent and Climate Scenarios.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Seeing Like a State

This time we'll be taking a quick look at James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

My purpose in reviewing Seeing Like a State is to draw attention to some concepts which I had never really thought about before reading this book. Awareness of these concepts has helped clarify my thinking since then. Or so it seems to me. As with my last post, I hope this may be helpful to my fellow Canadians. I certainly don't intend to speak down to my countrymen—they lean in a direction of which I heartily approve. But when it comes to evaluating the worth (or worthlessness) of states, a different approach is required here, where we are proudly carrying on with our experiment in progressive social democracy, than when talking to people from south of the border, whose newly elected leadership seems eager to dismantle much of their government.

I read this book a couple of years ago and there wasn't really time in the schedule I'd set myself currently to give it a thorough re-reading. So I went looking on the internet and found several detailed reviews and a youtube video of the author discussing the book.

As Scott says in the video, the essence of the thing is in the first 15 pages, the rest of it is just examples to prove the point.

Scott published this book in 1998, after he'd done his initial work on hill societies in Southeast Asia. He had noticed, and was trying to understand why:

...the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around"... In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill people on the one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarizations) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.

The more I examined those efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central project of statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it know precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed "map" of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to "translate" what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.

In order for a state to succeed in its projects, it needs control and to effectively exercise control it needs intelligence—information about its land and its people.

How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral (tax) surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

This project of making society legible has been going on for centuries and where I live it is pretty much complete. But my wife and I both grew up on farms that didn't have street numbers. You can bet there were lot numbers for tax purposes, but nobody bothered with them for addresses. We knew where we lived and so did our neighbours—it just wasn't a problem for any of the locals, and mail came to "general delivery" at the local post office. It was only in the process setting up the 911 emergency call system, in the 1990s, that every house and farm in Bruce County was finally given a number. In rural areas, those numbers are now proudly displayed at the end of our driveways, so the police, fire and ambulance drivers can find us when we need them.

There was a time (and it's still the case in the third world) when even cities didn't have maps, street names were very informal and houses didn't have numbers on them. Only the people who lived in a neighbourhood could reliably find their way around it. Very inconvenient for strangers, but awfully handy for a local trying not to be found...

The concept of legibility is the first new idea I encountered in this book. We in the modern world are immersed in legibility and, in most cases, hardly aware of it. Even some politicians—governing ones—seem to be unaware of it. Steven Harper (a former Canadian Prime Minister) comes to mind, doing away with our "long form" census, because he didn't want to collect (and be confused by) facts that didn't fit his ideology.

Anyway, the government knows where we live, how much we make in a year, our phone number, the license number, make and colour of the car we drive, and so forth. Most of us accept this very meekly. It enables government to deliver the services we count on and to some it seems that legibility is only a disadvantage to criminals or those who actively oppose the state. I'd say, yes, but only if the state is using all that information to do what you want it to. This isn't always so, especially for those who don't fit so well in the one-size-fits-all mold that states tend to stamp out for their citizens.

And that leads us to another concept that goes along with legibility: simplification. The world is a very complex place, full of distracting details, most of which we ignore. This is true for individuals in day to day life, but even more so for states. There are a great many details that a state simply cannot afford to be interested in. What it needs is a synopsis that contains just the information which is significant to its projects. Who's to say what's significant? Well, therein lies a whole range of problems.

When I was the foreman of a crew of electricians, my boss frequently grew frustrated with my usual answer to his questions, which was: "it depends". He wanted a simple yes or no, but often the situation just wasn't that simple and my point was that if he was willing to let a little more information through his filters he'd be able to make better decisions.

Having acquired a measure of legibility, modern states set about a number of huge development fiascos.

But "fiasco" is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind . The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivizations in Russia and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia are among the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasilia or Chandigarh) that have failed their residents.

It is not so difficult to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects or linguistic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

Scott identifies four elements, the combination of which leads to such tragedies. The first is the simplification that comes with legibilitiy.

The second element is what I call a high modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.

When I first encountered this it was another new concept for me, but when you look at it closely, it is nothing more than the religion of progress. In fact, I've rarely seen that faith so clearly described:

High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rational organized city, village, or large farm was one that looked regimented and orderly in the geometric sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization: the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.

By themselves, though, legibility, simplification, and an ideology like high modernism are not enough to do much real harm. A couple more elements are necessary for that.

The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.

A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarians state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.

But why is it that these four elements, when combined, have led to disaster?

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functional social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowances for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.

Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisations in the face of unpredictability. ...I contrast the high-modernist views and practices of city planners and revolutionaries with critical views emphasizing process, complexity, and open-endedness.

...I attempt to conceptualize the nature of practical knowledge and to contrast it with more formal, deductive epistemic knowledge. The term mētis, which descends from classical Greek and denotes the knowledge that can come only from practical experience, serves as a useful portmanteau word for what I have in mind. Here I should acknowledge my debt to anarchist writers (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Proudhon) who consistently emphasize the role of mutuality as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination in the creation of social order. Their understanding of the term "mutuality" covers some but not all of the same ground I mean to cover with "mētis."

Scott acknowledges that from today's perspective, a critique of the failings of high modernism is like a kind of quaint archaeology. Central planning has long since fallen out of favour.

...States with the pretensions and power that I criticize have for the most part vanished or drastically curbed their ambitions. And yet, as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.

There is much fertile ground today for the sort of thing Scott was talking about. Take out high modernism, substitute in the current ideological fad and combine it with legibility, simplification, a generous dash of authoritarianism and an unsuspecting populace and away we go. We must remember, when getting rid of a bad government, not to usher in something even worse. Right wing populism, techno optimism and eco-modernism come to mind as ideologies that I would really rather not have forced on me or my community. Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have already done enough harm. All these are certainly just as uncritical, unskeptical, and unscientifically optimistic as high-modernism.

Scott goes on for 9 more chapters with a plethora of examples illustrating his thesis. This review discusses them in some detail, if you're interested. It also has some criticism of Scott's ideas, which I think is probably somewhat unfair.

In several places in the book Scott mentions Jane Jacobs, whose activism against, and critique of, modern urban planning I had not previously been introduced to. Here is a biographically article about her that is well worth reading.

This is the last book review I'll be doing for a while. Next time I'll finally get around to talking about what I see as lying ahead of us—the slow and tortuous collapse of industrial civilization. Of course, many people I run into think I am being needlessly dramatic. They would say that business as usual is still in pretty good shape and has a long future ahead of it. I'll begin with why I think that is the single biggest lie we are being told these days.