“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom” – E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021)
“Climate crisis is not a scientific or technical problem, it is an issue of justice and political will” – Amy Westervelt
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
[More about these quotes here]
..we seem determined to enter another brutish era in human history. We see it as democracies decline, as one country again invades another on some pretext, as nuclear war again becomes a valid alternative in international relations, as science and rationality are again targets of derision. We see greed, lies, corruption, torture and murder become expected, and worse, become accepted, human behaviors.
Discussions of climate change, biodiversity and pollution inevitably fade into the background given the barrage of other stories that compete for our attention; stories that shape our priorities and actions.
It’s laughable to jump from such global generalities to a nerdish blog entry. Despite being warned – as here – I will lay out a framework to become more aware of “stories” about the biosphere. My previous ideas on this subject were, to be generous, naive. I suggested we needed more stories. The reality is that we have way too many. While I will use some of my previous shorthand, my aim here is much more limited; I want to have a method to evaluate what is being communicated and what the likely outcome may be.
Allow me one more, very general, comment before getting to the point. Some argue that, on average, human conditions have improved; that we have better health, more wealth and more peace than at any time in our history. But history is bunk; for real this time. We have never had the population we have now. Only for the last 60 years have we had the power to destroy each other completely with nuclear weapons. We have never had the ability to communicate as we do now. And only since the industrial revolution have we been able to make such profound changes to the biosphere.
..I had the resources (and intellect, energy, artistry etc.) to analyze and visualize stories about the impact of changes in the biosphere on humans and human society I might end up with something like this:
This chart is based purely on my imagination and reflects my biases. I am inspired by diagrams published by UMAP on Exploratory Analysis of Interesting Datasets. (Two examples are in Notes below)
One approach to create images like this is to use Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning technology to analyze large data sets in multiple dimensions and then to reduce those multiple dimensions to the flat page, to two dimensions.
We know that “biosphere stories” form a huge data set, growing every minute. (If anything we have an overload of data) To attempt such an analysis we need to define some subset. Next, and more difficult, is to define the dimensions along which we want to analyze the data.
But why would we even do such a thing? For the intellectual fun of it? Sure. But I believe there are at least two valid reasons to expend the effort:
- By developing a framework of “dimensions” it will help assess the importance, validity and probable effects of a “story”.
- By looking at patterns in the resulting picture we may recognize gaps to fill, and overemphasis in other places.
What follows is an attempt to define a subset and some dimensions.
(To skip the math-like symbols and such, just leap to “SO?”)
Axioms, Symbols and Beliefs
To start we need to stipulate some basic conditions; axioms if you like. At the same time I will introduce some shorthand symbols. Symbols save typing and avoid the distraction of words; which as we know can mean just what we choose them to mean.
|Ǝ!Ⓑ||There exists exactly one Biosphere|
|Earth from Voyager1|
|Ǝ!H||There exists exactly one Humanity.|
|Ǝ!Ⓒ||There exists exactly one universe of human imaginings; Society, Laws, Nations, Art, Religions, The Economy and so forth|
|H = Ⓑ ⋂ Ⓒ||Humans are the intersection of Ⓑ and Ⓒ|
Curved arrows indicate the complexity within Ⓑ and Ⓒ
|Ⓑ||is real, bounded, consistent, in balance with the universe. It has existed and will exist, with or without H|
|Ⓒ||is limitless, contradictory and unbalanced. If H were to somehow disappear (ΩCovid?) so would Ⓒ. Ⓒ is inhuman, maybe superhuman.|
|There’s an ironic symmetry here. Ⓒ, (think your cable company), often treats H with derision, forgetting that without H it would cease to exist. As H treats Ⓑ with derision are we forgetting that we may cease to exist?|
|Ⓑ↔H↔Ⓒ||The arrow between Ⓑ↔H represents physical Actions. The arrow between H↔Ⓒ represents Stories (S); information exchange [For more see Note 4]|
|ΔⒷ↔ΔH↔ΔⒸ||Changes in Ⓑ cause changes in H, cause changes in Ⓒ and vice versa|
|Human actions have degraded Ⓑ. This degradation has negative effects on H [For more see Note 4]|
|h||An individual human (h) action will only make minimal difference|
|Significant changes in Ⓒ will be required to reverse or halt the changes in Ⓑ|
|G||The overall goal (G) is: To halt and, if possible, to reverse human degradation of the biosphere. [We believe this to be a necessary goal. At the same time we need to acknowledge it is a story in itself.]|
Stories and Filters
Stories are the connection between H and Ⓒ. Arguably Ⓒ is nothing but stories! The inks, sounds and electromagnetic signals that carry stories are very “real”, a part of Ⓑ, but the essence of a story is just that; a story.
If we agree that only (big) changes in Ⓒ will make a difference and that Ⓒ is composed of stories then it makes sense to analyze S.
If we observe an individual; h, we can see only the story-in (Sin) and the output; EITHER Nothing at all OR Action and/or other Stories (Sout).
(e.g: Sin: “It’s good to plant trees”, Aout: Plants tree.
Sin: “Vote for x, they will support ecological action”, Sout:”I’m voting for x”. Actions may or may not follow).
We can only infer the filters and the received/retained story (SR/R), which may be radically different to the intent of Sin.
(e.g. Sin: ”Large cars emit lots of GHG”, SR/R: “My driving makes no difference. China is the problem”, Aout: Buys SUV)
Filters may be physical; Can h receive S at all? Has h got time? Access to the medium? Is h healthy enough to read, hear and understand?
Filters in the domain of Ⓒ are dynamic, powerful and complex. Essentially they are stories in themselves. f is worth a lot of our attention. [For more see Note 5]
All the above is probably obvious. But, if we want to analyze stories about the biosphere in multiple dimensions, we need to think about what dimensions to use. For a “real” analysis those dimensions will also need units and values/ranges assigned to them; that is a future step. Here is an outline:
SUBJECT and CONTENT
A direct analysis of the content of the story.
- Ⓑ – typically technical works relating to aspects of Ⓑ. (e.g. Observed changes in ocean currents related to ocean temperature)
- Ⓒ – related to separate aspects to Ⓒ (e.g. The impact of ESG management practices on stock valuation. Legal decisions on the power of governmental regulatory agencies)
- Ⓑ AND Ⓒ – interactions between Ⓑ and Ⓒ (e.g. The impact of ocean temperature on fishing industry revenues and profitability. The impact of legal decisions on the levels of GHG emissions and other pollutants)
- Given the discussion above the “Ⓑ AND Ⓒ” domain should be the initial target of an analysis
- Topic and Content
- Subject, Topic
- Content Analysis – “standard” analysis and special analysis for trigger words
- Author(s) Identification
- Consistency – with science, economics, history, social norms…
- Peer review or other supporting facts
- Original or Derivative
- Based on previous similar work
- Essentially a measure of the reliability of this information
- Language (Availability of translations?)
- Volume; sheer size, time required to read and absorb
- Access barriers; (e.g. online connection required? Paywalls?)
- Technical hurdles; required subject knowledge and level within that subject
- Density; reading level etc.
- Side Note: Stories opposed to our Goal, G, e.g. denial stories are typically very simple (“It’s a hoax!”) and accessible (A billboard with “No water, no food”). Stories in line with G tend to be more complicated – often much more. [Not quite in context, but I like this quote: “Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.” For more see Note 6]
- Intended Audience – is this S aimed at an audience inclined toward, against or neutral with respect to G?
- Intended Outcome – apparent and concealed/inferred (certain specific actions, general education, counter to a specific argument etc.)
- Actual outcome or predicted?
- If this is an after the event, actual, outcome how does it compare to the intent (and prediction)?
.. where does all this get us? Why don’t I get out and do something positive instead?
Despite its flaws I believe this method will help judge stories in a consistent manner. It will help in finding the real motives behind many stories. We will also identify areas where we should pay more attention.
The key, of course, is to actually do the hard work of analyzing some subset of biosphere stories and creating a “real” map.
Until we can do that let me go back to my “fictitious” diagram.
Here the vertical axis is subject matter, confined to stories that link the biosphere crisis and wider society as a whole (i.e. Ⓑ AND Ⓒ). The horizontal axis represents the impact of the story on an uncommitted reader. Will this story move that reader to act; to halt and, if possible, to reverse human degradation of the biosphere – or not?
Let’s look at the numbered areas of the diagram:
Climate Change and Energy stories are probably the most prolific of the biosphere stories. For the uncommitted reader more and more data on global warming and the likely effects will have little impact. What does have impact are more immediate concerns; weather events, fuel prices and the attractiveness of fuel efficient transport, cost and comfort benefits of energy conservation measures; (e.g. “You will be more comfortable all year in an insulated house”)
One reason why Climate Change stories predominate is that the whole puzzle can be presented as a technology and economics exercise. No need to change your lifestyle, no need to make any sacrifice; “2% of GDP will do it, We have the technological answers, Fusion is close to a breakthrough, Green hydrogen, Carbon Capture and Storage etc.”. All of these technology promises make our uncommitted reader more likely to act against our goal […in my opinion, through my filters, of course]
Stories about Pollution have, if anything, a negative effect. The problem is so intractable and the barriers to meaningful action so large that likely actions are negative; “If only 6% of my recycling actually gets recycled why should I bother, I take my plastic bags back to the shop but the container is filled with other people’s half eaten burgers*, we need drugs to keep us safe.”
[* That story is true: I brought my plastic bags to a Target store and found the “clean plastic only” recycle can overflowing. On top of the heap was a half eaten hamburger and a half full paper cup of soda. At Walmart the greeter told me they had to remove the recycling containers because of the amount of other material deposited there.]
Population – a white space on the diagram. Too hard, uncomfortable, not discussable.
“Growth” – that mantra of capitalism. Mathematically we cannot grow within the limited biosphere. The basic ideas of “The Limits to Growth” are as valid now as they were 50 years ago. We can grow, maybe without limit, in Ⓒ – maybe. And yet we are hooked on physical growth; bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TV’s, more of everything…
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the reliance on fossil fuels. For producers, and shareholders, the on-going flow of profits trumps all. The availability and cost of energy ties into all the National Narratives. While there is a possible silver lining of speeding the introduction of renewables, the major actions right now are to secure fossil fuels. That leads to some strange political actions, as shown by this Texas story.
Another white space. Where are the stories showing the benefits, to “me”, now, of taking positive action? There are some. And there are some positive legal actions. But, through my filters, they are outweighed by the negative side of the diagram.
We may never carry out an analysis and create a “real” diagram of biosphere stories. But defining filters and dimensions for an analysis provides a template for looking at the likely impact of a story on different audiences.
We need to allow ourselves to imagine a different Ⓒ . “…the possibilities for human intervention are far greater than we’re inclined to think.” [from “The Dawn of Everything”, Graber and Wengrow, 2021]
Note 1 – The Quotes
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
“Future generations are going to forgive us our horrible genocidal wars, because it’ll pass too far in history. They will forgive us all of the earlier generations’ follies and the harm. But they will not forgive us having so carelessly thrown away a large part of the rest of life on our watch.”
“Climate crisis is not a scientific or technical problem, it is an issue of justice and political will”
“If progressives and climate activists want to have any hope of spurring the kind of movement necessary to shift political and economic interests away from fossil fuels, it’s time to put aside “believe science” and instead embrace a broad fight for justice.”
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Note 2 – UMAP
Here are two images published by UMAP on Exploratory Analysis of Interesting Datasets:
Maximilian Noichl, University of Vienna, Austria (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Both are images created by first analyzing large data sets in multiple dimensions using AI/Machine Learning technology. And, secondly reducing those multiple dimensions to the flat page, to two dimensions. The first diagram is a visualization of published papers on philosophy, the second of some 150,000 commonly assigned texts from Open Syllabus.
I do not pretend to understand the underlying technology, but am intrigued by the results; an unexpected synthesis and pattern of connections. Equally fascinating to me, are the absences of expected clusters and connections, the white spaces.
Note 3 – Overload
Is there really an overload?
A Google search on “Climate Change Information Overload” gives me 10 and a half million results.
The New York Times publishes an article on the subject in the Arts section.
Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll – The New York Times
Overload has hit the Big Apple.
The mind boggles if we add “Biodiversity Overload”, “Waste and Pollution Overload”, “Water Shortage Overload”, “People putting space crap into orbit to make sure we can’t get into space at all soon Overload”.
We understand the problems. We know the solutions. We should implement these solutions.
Yet we are resolved not to.
Because we are an irrational, greedy, cruel species with an attention span of, at best, minutes? Because we are so scared of someone else making a profit that we would rather bankrupt ourselves? Because we’re so overwhelmed by stories that we are paralyzed into inaction or goaded to denial?
I naively thought that we could overcome those barriers if only we told enough “good” stories. Obviously a silly idea. In hindsight it’s clear that more stories just add to the overload.
Note 4 – Humans – Humanity
Individual humans (h), belong to Humanity (H) and both are at the intersection of the biosphere (Ⓑ) and that whole man-made thing I call Ⓒ.
This is hugely simplified of course. On the Ⓑ side of the diagram I ignore the impact of things outside, like the sun, apart from saying Ⓑ is in balance with the universe. On the Ⓒ side I skirt around a whole heap of neuroscience and related things.
Ⓑ can only interact with h through “real” physical actions, in real-time. h can only interact with Ⓑ through physical actions. Everything else is stories.
There are a lot of logical frayed ends here, but some examples may help:
- The prisoner in the dock, the stolen goods, the police report, the judges gavel, the sound of the gavel, the bars on the cell window; all are physical artifacts and actions – they belong to Ⓑ. The idea that some physical item belongs to h1 and for h2 to take it is an “offense”; that this offense then needs to be “proven” and “punished” according to some “rules” – all belongs to Ⓒ.
- Oil under the ground is in Ⓑ, as are all the physical signs of how it came to be there. H, using ever more sophisticated tools, has looked at this physical evidence and from it created a story of time, plants, animals, heat, pressure and chemical reactions. The “book” containing that story belongs in Ⓑ. The imagination that led to the creation of the story, and the continued rediscovery through reading (and other media) by an individual h is firmly in Ⓒ.
- The oil well pump, the pipeline, the electronic impulses transmitting profits, the yacht purchased through those profits, the fuel burnt by that yacht – all in Ⓑ. The idea that any h can “own” the land under which that oil lies and can ask for “money” in return for this resource, that took millenia to make, – that’s Ⓒ.
I also simplify the story about stories. Intuitively there should be a difference between stories told by an individual h and the stories pushed out by a corporation, which is an artifact in Ⓒ . But the essentials of the story, measured through our dimensions (or something like that) are the same.
What about stories told from h1 to h2? My argument here is that individuals, given their filters, are so similar to a corporation or government that we can treat the stories in the same manner. Sure, the audience reach and overall impact will vary enormously, but the information content will be similar. Logically that is very loose, I know. (More on filters in the next Note)
What about stories individuals tell themselves? We can only observe what goes in and what comes out. Maybe in some future we will be able to follow the activity of the neurons and “see” what is going on in there – for now it’s out of scope for this exercise.
When I say “ΔⒷ⇣↔ΔH⇣”; implying that humanity has degraded the biosphere that’s again very simplistic. First the biosphere does not get degraded, it “just is”. The biosphere “just was” when there were no animals. The biosphere “just was” 80 years ago when there were no atomic weapons and the human population was less than a third of what it is today. 80 years from now the biosphere will “just be”, whether those atomic weapons have been exploded or not, and whether the population is 10 billion, or 2 billion, or none for that matter.
By “ΔⒷ⇣↔ΔH⇣” I mean that we, H, have changed Ⓑ in a manner which H finds, or will find, detrimental. Many individual h’s have already been impacted negatively. Many others see opportunity for further wealth and comfort. The average impact is negative. But the powerful stories from the wealthy minority have, up to now, overridden the average.
This is why we can have legitimate, expert stories stating that there will be billions of climate refugees and, at the same time, average wealth will increase. The math is simple; rich people, in rich countries, will get richer; a lot richer to offset the poverty of the less fortunate. The ethics, the social change, the climate justice required to stop this degradation is not simple at all.
Note 5 – Filters
What I call “filters” spans so many fields, from basic anatomy to quantum theory, that what follows is a gross simplification. I want a simple formulation like f.Sin → SR/R to go with the diagram:
But there are complications:
- The filter (f) has physical components; i.e. our senses have limited ranges, we are only awake at limited times, illness and age change the nature of f, etc.
- f also has mental components; i.e. the stories we have retained so far (Strictly speaking these are now also physical as they are stored in our physical and chemical being.)
- f.Sin → SR/R then becomes a dynamic system with f continually changed; f.Sin ⇆ SR/R
We could continue into this digression forever and discuss many interesting phenomena from childhood imprinting, social media polarization and cult behavior to neuroscience.
Leaving that temptation aside I have found the analogy to a camera useful in arriving at some dimensions for our theoretical study.
In a camera the final processed image (the received and retained information content) depends on:
- Orientation of the camera – where are we looking?
- Filters – what information do we subtract from the input
- The Lens
- Field of view – how broad is our viewpoint?
- Depth of field – are we concentrating on one level of information or many?
- Focus – how closely do we look at detail?
- Distortions – do we introduce distortions of our own?
- Shutter – How much information do we let in? Will it overexpose the sensor? Will it leave any impression at all?
- Sensor/Storage – what capacity does the sensor have to store the information? How permanent? How will a new S affect the earlier information?
Call this whole assembly f (of course…). I believe that understanding f will help us to specify appropriate dimensions for the analysis.
I also think that considering these filters allows us to better understand each other, and maybe explain some of the baffling responses to what are, to us, perfectly logical propositions. Even within the same society, in the same street, the filters may be radically different from one neighbor to the next. If we think coldly in terms of “f”, rather than get heated by perceived rejection, shortsightedness and belligerence, we may make more progress than we are now.
Note 6 – Complexity
The quote “Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.” comes from a Guardian article: Republicans aim to sow outrage, Trump-style, with an eye on 2022 midterms | US politics | The Guardian
In this blog I harp on complexity and accessibility a number of times. [And then I publish a post like this, which baffles everybody, except maybe the writer].
The biosphere crisis is complicated. It just is. The stories are therefore also complicated and therefore much less accessible. In contrast denial or no-action stories are easy; a “No Water, No Food” billboard is easy to understand and totally accessible; you drive by at 70 miles per hour and it is immediately imprinted. The complexity behind that simple story is successfully hidden.
Opposite examples are the IPCC reports. Of course these are necessary documents. The reports reflect the input of thousands of dedicated experts around the globe. The reports do and will influence decision makers at all levels in government, business and the military.
Will they influence our non-committed reader? Probably not. Because they simply are not accessible and most of the reporting based on these reports is filtered out by the audience we most need to reach.
The summary contains 37 pages. A “technical summary” contains 96 pages and the full report covers 3675 pages.
The diagram below is part of the summary. I have spent a little time trying to understand it. I think it means ΔⒷ↔ΔH↔ΔⒸ [😄], but I could be wrong…
Note 7 – Texas Law
“Senate Bill 13, which went into effect in September , prohibits the state from contracting with or investing in companies that divest from oil, natural gas and coal companies. The law defines divestment as refusing to do business with a fossil fuel company because that company does not commit to environmental standards higher than expected by federal and state law.”
[From Texas warns firms they could lose state contracts for divesting from fossil fuels]
‘Look, if you’re going to be anti-Texas, then you’re not going to get to do business with Texas.'” – [From the author of the bill – quoted in Texas and other states want to ‘boycott’ fossil fuel divestment : NPR]
Note 8 – Limits to growth
LIMITS TO GROWTH was published 50 years ago. There has been much criticism and the graph below may not be accurate now, but the basic tenets remain valid. This article in Nature – the international journal of science / 17 March 2022 gives a balanced view.
“The Limits to Growth” is a 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome. The report’s authors are Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers. More detail at: The Limits to Growth – Wikipedia
Dennis Meadows presented an update at the University of Ulm/Germany in 2019 – the slides and a Youtube video are here:
47 Years After Limits to Growth Ulm 2019 Dennis Meadows slides
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRXb4bJhSSw Ulm 2019 video
This graph (by YaguraStation – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,) is a summation of the topic;
The resources graph has become more complex with the shortage of materials such as rare earth metals, lithium and so forth, which are critical to the required renewable energy infrastructure.
This could be all wrong. What if the technology experts were correct? Assume we mine the ocean floor, the fusion breakthrough happens, and, a little later, we mine the moon and terraform Mars. Will that solve everything? Thoughts for a future blog…
Note 9 …
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Epitaph On A Tyrant – W.H. Auden