Systemic challenges in dealing with climate change — No.47

Two things to celebrate this week. First, I found the problem with the lower open rates, it’s a “feature” of Gmail and I’ll make sure to stay below that limit in the future. Second, in two days is the one year anniversary of sending these things. Here’s the archive, if you’d like a look.

No celebration today but I’m thinking of producing some kind of best of, possibly even printed with Newspaper Club, just because I’ve wanted to try it out for years.

Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise

Finnish biophysicists delivered a report to the UN, basically confirming what anyone paying close attention knows; that we are living at an unsustainable pace, that we need to account for “externalities,” that the extreme flavour of capitalism we are organized around is destroying everything and ill-equipped to address the changes we need to make.

Case in point, just this week, the French minister of the ecological and solidarity transition, Nicolas Hulot, quit the job without warning, saying he couldn’t lie to himself and the public anymore [fr], and that he didn’t want the small steps and his presence to make us think that France is making significant progress. Even though they are doing more than most, it is still insufficient. The gist of his argument (I’m heavily paraphrasing) is that a minister can’t do it alone, every department as well as civil society needs to collaborate and get behind the massive transition we need. Instead, he saw a government adjusting buttons and levers in the right direction, but we actually have to make much more radical changes. I’m a bit haunted by that interview to be honest, it’s not a very hopeful outlook.

Key areas to achieve this include transport, food, and construction. City planning needs to adapt to the promotion of walking and biking, a shift toward public transport, as well as the electrification of transport. Homes and workplaces will become more connected and localised. Meanwhile, international freight transport and aviation cannot continue to grow at current rates.

As with transport, the global food system will need to be overhauled. Climate change and oil-intensive agriculture have unearthed the dangers of countries becoming dependent on food imports from a few main production areas. A shift toward food self-sufficiency across both poorer and richer countries will be essential. And ultimately, dairy and meat should make way for largely plant-based diets.

We’re mistreating our brains

Not directly related but these two are in a continuum of effects we are studying about our bodies and brains, the ways we are changing and depleting them.

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound

Rounding up a few different studies, all showing that our intermittent, often screen based, reading is changing the way our brains develop and operate, hindering our ability to memorize as well as our “critical analysis and the generation of insight.”

The neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult. […]

We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts, whether in literature and science in college, or in wills, contracts and the deliberately confusing public referendum questions citizens encounter in the voting booth. […]

The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.

Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, study reveals

Title kind of says it all really. Also links to the capitalism vs climate vs destruction of the world article above.

“The research was conducted in China but is relevant across the world, with 95% of the global population breathing unsafe air. It found that high pollution levels led to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of the person’s education.”

And from a few issues back, I’ll mention The Cognition Crisis again, which is worth a read.

✕ Tech

Bitcoin shows the scale of change needed to stop the climate crisis

Dont skip over this one because of bitcoin, although it does start with exposing the energy and environmental crazyness of the process of coin creation, it then uses it as an example of the systemic ways in which “digital technology” is causing problems and how we need to consider the impacts within the current climate crisis.

In an era of accelerating climate crisis, driven primarily by carbon emissions, it is a technological innovation of violence towards current and future generations. […]

Computation, whether used for cryptocurrency mining or performing the calculations that make our smartphones tick over, is not a magic, weightless act. It is a thermodynamic process. […]

[W]e should examine what hierarchies of power technologies sustain or amplify and recognise how they and they wider technical systems they constitute intimately pattern and structure our lives. […]

If technologies are systems embedded in wider social, economic and natural systems, we can and should seek to more actively shape their development and use through politics.

Uber’s Bundles

Uber “plans to focus more on its electric scooter and bike business” (BBC), Ben Thompson explains some of the thinking around that decision, how it works according to his bundling theory and how Lyft, Google, and self-driving fit in that picture.

During rush hour, it is very inefficient for a one-tonne hulk of metal to take one person 10 blocks…We’re able to shape behaviour in a way that’s a win for the user. It’s a win for the city. Short-term financially, maybe it’s not a win for us, but strategically long term we think that is exactly where we want to head. […]

With Uber that is easy: just pick up riders (Uber drivers can drive for just Uber, just Uber Eats, or both). In other words, Uber has more and more ways to monopolize a driver’s time, to the driver’s benefit personally and Uber’s benefit competitively. […]

That makes Uber uniquely suited to bundle self-driving car service with traditional Uber car service, as well as all of the other transportation services it plans to offer to consumers. This “bundle” will allow self-driving technology to come-to-market gradually when and where it makes sense, while still giving riders the confidence they can get from anywhere to anywhere.

✕ Milieu

California advances an ambitious climate policy that should be a model

Good news and great progress but, as we see in the first featured articles above, this is adjusting our current model, not bringing a radical rethinking.

Notably, however, California regulators have said the state’s major utilities could reach that milestone as early as 2020, underscoring the rapid pace at which the energy transformation has unfolded since the state first put its renewable standards in place in 2002. […]

“The amount of effort to achieve the last 20 percent might well be as much as it took the reach the first 80.”

How the Dutch created a casual biking culture

Nice interview about a new book on Dutch bike culture and how it can be applied elsewhere. Two bits that drew my attention that “students around grade four or five, in the 10 and 11 age range, start taking cycling skills courses.” (And exams.) And the quote below about two types of people on bikes. In Montréal, the “wielrenners” (sporty cyclists) are definitely an issue, where people see their commute as their gym time, not as just getting around. People discovering or rediscovering biking and still unsure on two wheels are also an issue but more understandable in my opinion.

The Dutch have wielrenners, or “wheel runners” — the sporty cyclists — and they have a fietser, which is just “someone on a bike.” When you talk to somebody in the Netherlands about what makes biking so special, most of them will say, “What are you even talking about? It’s no different than when I get on the train or go for a walk.” You’re no more a cyclist than you are a pedestrian or a driver or a public transit user. […]

But the Dutch show that [for them], safety in infrastructure, safety in slowing cars, and safety in numbers are all far more important than safety in body armor.

✕ Miscellany

Deep Swamp

File this project by Tega Brain (what a name!!) in the soft brain-explosion file.

Deep Swamp is a triptych of semi-inundated environments that gather together wetland life forms and artificially intelligent software agents. The agents, Nicholas, Hans and Harrison, patiently watch their swampy territories and modify the conditions in them. Every few minutes they adjust the light, water flow, fog and nutrients, to try to engineer their environments for different goals. Harrison aims for a natural looking wetland, Hans is trying to produce a work of art and Nicholas simply wants attention. Using a deep learning approach, each software has learnt what their goal might look like, by parsing thousands of tagged and categorized images downloaded from online collections. Over and over they try new combinations of settings, photograph themselves and then choose permeations that bring them closer to their programmatic desires.