Montana and a singular madness (wishin’ and hopin’)

Magical thinking is wonderful. Sprinkle a little oofle dust, twitch your nose, and the world can be put to rights. Joe Read certainly believes in magic. He’s just introduced a bill into the Montana state legislature which will solve the global warming problem at a single stroke:

(2) The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.

Peter Gleick and Josh Rosenau have more, and Brad Johnson at The Wonk Room phoned him up for a chat, with extraordinary results. It’s clear that ideology trumps physics in Joe Read’s Montana. A pity he hasn’t told the glaciers in Glacier National Park. But Read’s wishful thinking is a minor thing, compared to the heroics indulged in by Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil

Kurzweil is well known for his contention that exponential growth in technological capabilities (generalising from Moore’s Law) will lead to a merging of human and machine intelligence that will amount to a singularity — an event horizon beyond which we cannot envisage what will happen (though it’s a fertile field for SF writers like Charles Stross). He puts the date of this event in the not too far distant future (mid century or thereabouts), and is doing his best to stick around to see it happen. In this interview with Lauren Feeney at The Daily Need, he applies his exponential vision to developments in solar power:

So right now it’s at half a percent of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it’s only eight more doublings before it meets a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we’ll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been underway for 20 years.

It’s a seductive concept, this idea that technology will advance so rapidly that it will amount to a get out of jail free card for human civilisation. It’s a view that underpins the Lomborg/Breakthrough Institute position that what is needed is not cuts in emissions, but investment in technology. We’re smart, right? We can figure a way to solve this problem.

Kurzweil is quite explicit in the interview. We have “plenty of time”:

Feeney: A lot of climate scientists say that we have about 10 years to turn the situation around, otherwise we’re going to hit this tipping point and we are all doomed. So you think we’re going to make it?

Kurzweil: Even if those timelines were correct, there will be quite a transformation within 10 years and certainly within 15 or 20 years. The bulk of our energy will be coming from these renewable sources. So, I think we have plenty of time. I think we can make it to the point where these renewables are taking over.

Set aside for a moment that Feeney’s question is ill-posed (Stoat will be having kittens, to miscegenate freely). Kurzweil’s answer betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the climate problem — not least the climate commitment, the inevitable warming in the pipeline. If we wait for solar power to take over, but carry on emitting vast quantities of carbon in the meantime, the end result — even with 100% renewable energy on tap — will be warming well beyond two degrees, and a planet making a transition towards its own version of a singularity.

I have a more general objection to Kurzweil’s technological optimism, but I first want to make it clear that I find his vision of the future beguiling, interesting and in some respects feasible. It appeals to the boy in me, the one who read The Eagle in the 60s. It helps me to maintain a degree of optimism in the face of what any sane human might regard as an endless stream of bad news. The real problem is that this vision of accelerating “progress” is rapidly running into the buffers of ecological and planetary limits (which include climate impacts). Yes, we may well be smart enough to design and build superior solar energy capture and distribution systems, but can we do it for everyone — for the nine billion who are likely to be around in 2050, when the singularity will be overdue? Kurzweil glosses over this issue in the interview, but I suspect that reality will be a little more demanding than his interviewer. In fact, we already have the technology to “solve” the climate problem, just as we already grow enough food to feed everyone on the planet. The answer lies in fair distribution and getting things done, and we haven’t found it yet.

I want Kurtzweil to be right. I’d like Joe Read to be right too, but it ain’t gonna happen. I might as well move to Montana and become a dental floss tycoon.

[Dental floss and Dusty (something for everyone!)]

41 thoughts on “Montana and a singular madness (wishin’ and hopin’)”

  1. One has to hope the people of Montana are sane enough to at least vote this down, though the idea more than one person will vote for it is sick-making. Thanks for getting on it so quickly – the world is indeed getting to be a very small place.

  2. It would appear from the red button pushing going on again – if its real people pushing real buttons and not some Lanker having fiddled with the software end of things – that at least some of the intellectually challenged and the scientific illiterate from Montana’s flat Earth Society and the rest of the US red states club of delusion addicts have found this website…. a glimmer of hope then…. 😉

    1. Someone — who may or may not call himself Lank — appears to have worked out a way to “game” the voting. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to stop that happening, unless I upgrade the plug in — and that costs US$20. I’m not sure the voting feature’s worth that much…

        1. Gareth, it is your blog and your rules. But my $0.02:

          I thought that voting was introduced as a way to avoid banning people and done in the name of free speech. It hasn’t really worked because it usually takes 12 or so votes to vanish a troll posting and that can take a day or more.

          Given the extremes you tollerate before you moderate, I see no point in putting repeat offenders on moderation . As you say it makes work for you. As I have said the trolls value their created identities. Why bother persisting with an identity when it would be easy to make a new one every week? It is because the trolls need regulars here to invest in them. Likely it is some sort of ego affirmation for them.

          Ditch the voting and simply ban identities (preferably the IP to prevent verity buffs) after a very small number of trolling episodes. That avoids creating the illusion of a dialogue with ‘sceptics’.

          1. I completely agree with Steve and Doug. The impression is gained here is that there is quite a large body of individuals opposed to the sentiments of the forum, and I think the trolls are getting it too easy at present. Attacking at the IP level would quieten them down quite a lot I think.

          2. It’s obvious that some identities never post at the same time as some others. And other ones come for a week or two and then disappear. So it seems certain to me that we are dealing with multiple personalities rather than multiple people. I’m putting this information into graph form at the moment.

      1. Gareth: I am happy to pay the $US 20 needed to secure this plugin and make this site secure from the attentions of such people. I’m happy to send you a cheque.

        1. Thanks for the offer, Keith, but it’s not the money that’s an issue — more the utility of the voting system in the first place. I’ve tweaked the settings for the time being, pending a fuller review of my comment policy.

      2. That perfectly describes the “sceptics”. They don’t want to understand, in fact many of them probably already do. They do want to disrupt, cause conflict and contention.

  3. OT: Gareth, you know the folks at the NZSC, so perhaps you would have some information as to how a poltical scientist was able to weasel his way into the status of “expert” on the attribution papers discussed here?

    Apologies to any weasels reading this.

    1. Yes, I raised an eyebrow when I saw that — but it was nothing to do with the team at the NZ Science Media Centre. They were just echoing stuff compiled by the UK and Canadian SMCs. Looks like it was the Brits who decided Pielke was a credible reference on this subject. IIRC RPJr has been over to the UK fairly frequently, cultivating a profile…

  4. It’s a bit difficult to see how the Moron from Montana (TM) can reach a conclusion that the damage to Glacier National Park will be good for the “welfare” of his state. Not only are the remaining glaciers projected to have at the best a few decades left. Their numbers have already declined from 150 in 1850 to 25 in 2010. Increasing damage from fire, pine beetle infestation, destruction of alpine meadows and disruption to the hydrology tell a story of severe and most likely permanent damage.

    Glacier National Park is absolutely stunning and I strongly recommend to anybody who gets an opportunity to visit it, to grab that opportunity with both hands. It is fully the equal of somewhat better known parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite for sheer visual impact.

    You can get some sense of this incredible place through the photo galleries here:

  5. I’ll say the same thing I said on Joe Romm’s blog, when Ray Kurzweil commented on one of Joe’s posts.

    The statements that Kurzweil is making about technology and global warming are highly pernicious, precisely because we’d all like them to be true. To me, saying “wait for the technology fairy to produce what we need” is worse, far worse, than simple-minded denial.

    There are two major flaws in Kurzweil’s reasoning. First, the technology fairy produces many more duds than successes. Cellulosic ethanol looks to be the latest in a long list of things that never graduate from the lab or the pilot study. We need to eliminate our survivorship bias when looking at promises about technologies.

    Second — and more important — is the time factor. The fifth of Kurzweil’s eight doublings will take much longer than two years. The sixth and seventh will take longer still, and the last will never complete. Remember, it’s the last doubling — from 50% to 100% — that we really need.

    The reason? The economy cannot adapt that fast. Think about what what’s involved in the last few doublings: from 50% to 100%, and before that from 25% to 50%, before that, from 12% to 25%, 6 to 12, 3 to 6. Working forwards again, changing 3 percent of world energy supply in two years would take a noticeable fraction of world GDP. Changing 6 percent would take a significant fraction — pretty much all of GDP that is now used for maintenance and replacement of existing power plants, pipelines and oil refineries, and so on. Changing twelve percent will require diverting some of world GDP that is now used for other things. Trying to change 25 percent of world energy supply in two years would cause real hardship in other areas. And the last doubling just can’t happen on any timescale less than decades. In practice, there will always be some relict fossil fuel consumption.

    So even leaving aside any issues of ecological limits, the internal structure and operation of the economy, by themselves, guarantee that Kurzweil is holding out false hope.

    In short, Kurzweil is presenting a rainbow. It looks pretty, but we can’t capture it. We’d be fools to pay attention, no matter how dazzling it is.

    1. Well put. This kind of stuff has also been referred to as a “technological cargo cult” praying to the technology gods for deliverance.

      While there can be no doubt that science, engineering and technology are the only way forward, mapping out that path is no trivial matter even limiting the task to issues of technology and cost. Throw in issues of political economy, political power and ideology and daunting is far too mild a term. The latter are not going to magically go puff in a “singularity”.

    2. Well put Greg.

      I want to add another observation too: Progress such as Kurzweil envisions grows from the ‘free energy’ in what is left over after a society has spend the bulk of their ‘available energy’ on the necessities of life: food, water, shelter, healthcare etc. Our current living arrangements are the result of vast amounts of easy to get energy (literally) dug up from the ground in form of FF, oil in particular.

      Now it seems we are approaching another ‘singularity’ altogether, the one where this ‘free energy’ which we used for other things than the necessities of life is slowing being eroded away.

      Ask the vast majority of humanity and already they will tell you that there is precious little of that left. The riots in Egypt and elsewhere are a sure indicator of this spreading fast these days. Ask the solo mum in NZ about the price of Milk and the GST rise and what that has done to her little bit of this ‘free energy’ ….

      A society that approaches or descends below the point of no ‘free energy’ left is bound to collapse and as the price of oil is now at or above $100 again in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the GD, even the US with its living arrangements predicated by a lot of ‘free energy’ is looking shaky.

      Kurzweil seems to forget this, probably well insulated from the economic reality out there by his good fortune… and his ‘technological singularity’ may well never become reality as the world proper is consumed by this other ‘singularity’, the one were a good living suddenly turns to possible survival….

      Sorry for the doom and gloom….

  6. I have to say I am in the camp, to a degree, of Kurzweil.

    It may not be that solar/renewable will be 100% of energy supply in 20 years (he is talking the USA not the world though right?).

    But is certainly the case that technological advancement has always occurred exponentially. So when forecasting future emissions scenarios we should allow for rapid changes in technology. Who knows what energy sources we will have in 50 years.

    The first dynamo (electric generator) was invented in 1831
    The steam turbine was invented in 1884
    The first nuclear plant was built in 1954

    The people of 1830 would hardly be able to imagine a world with computers and televisions. The people of 1940 would hardly be able to imagine nuclear generation. Who knows what we will have in a few years.

    1. I’m going to (mostly) disagree with this. The energy options for this century are largely available in plain view right now and we had damn well better get on with developing and deploying them. There is unlikely to be some hitherto unimagined source of energy that will provide a silver bullet.

      Science proceeds in fits and starts and there is no special reason to believe that the astonishing revolutions in physics of the first 30-40 years of the twentieth century will be mirrored in developments on a similar scale anytime soon. Fundamental science was simply transformed during that period by relativity, quantum and nuclear physics. Such transformations are very rare events and it is entirely possible that it could be centuries before we see their like again.

      The neutron was discovered in 1932 and in 1951 the EBR-I lit the first light bulb from nuclear generated electricity. But in the intervening years more than a few scientists must have turned their thoughts to such a possibility. Show me any such recent scientific discovery that could possibly lead to some fundamentally new energy source. Without being able to cite any such basic discovery, you may as well be talking about magic.

      1. I don’t know why we should sit on our hands waiting and wondering for previously unimaginable scientific marvels.

        We’ve got some pretty good stuff now and current technology – aided by some materials science getting better all the time – can deliver plenty. Solar options, from concentrated solar through to solar collecting roof tiles, and wind power (currently supplying 15-20% of SA’s power) and constantly improving power grids all combine to make it pretty straightforward to roll up our sleeves and get on with the job. There’ll be plenty of scope to fit in scientific marvels when they come along.

        1. Downsizing (some may call it right-sizing) of our societies requirements might be the fist and most intelligent step and the lowest hanging apple on the tree to sustainability and certainly the one we need to eat first…. may it be sweet! :-)

    2. Kurzweil seems to basing his theory of exponential growth of technology on the extrapolation of Moore’s Law to all other forms of technology. Gordon Moore himself has been critical of this, and has made it clear that he was only ever talking about the density of transistors.

      Moore’s Law is facing some challenges in the short term, and some new technologies will need to come online rapidly, as silicon has pretty much reached its physical limits. IBM has some interesting work with Si-Ge that looks promising, and new fabrication methods like photolithography will help.

      Even if Moore’s Law continues over the next couple of decades, it is not clear that computing itself will grow at a similar rate. Many computer applications are already sufficiently fast that just adding more processing power would not increase their utility. A lot of the focus in IT at the moment is on finding non-traditional platforms, such as smart mobiles. It is likely that Moore’s Law will make itself felt not in making computers faster, but in turning other types of devices into “computers”, as processors become small enough to embed just about anywhere.

      Ultimately, Moore’s Law cannot continue indefinitely, as there is a fundamental lower limit – once transistors start to be made out of individual atoms, that’s as far as it goes (that’s only maybe 20 years away). I know you love the theory of unlimited growth, R2, but you have to realise that there are some fundamental limits to the universe.

      1. Indeed. Moore’s Law has applied to computing because of miniaturization. If the couple of hundred million transistors in a modern graphics card had to be soldered in little three legged individual transistor packages to circuit boards the size of football fields, nobody could afford them, very few would want them and they would be dog slow anyway. Miniaturization is “everything” when it comes to computer hardware advances.

        This simply does not apply to energy. There is only so much insolation per m^2 of the earths surface and it’s not going to change. PV will no doubt improve, but there are limits that are withing striking distance of what we have now.

        Furthermore, any assertion that solar (and especially PV) can and will supply all the worlds energy is pure bunk in absence of a solution to the storage problem at a reasonable cost. When that may or may not happen is anyones guess, but even if it does happen it could well be too late for the climate.

        Kurzweil is talking denialist nonsense whatever way you look at it.

  7. I know this is off topic peeps but you should read this….

    HT Tamino who says on his site…

    “ClimateSight has a post about “Extinction and Climate.” Read it — it’s one of the most important global warming posts I’ve ever seen.

    The author of that blog is Kate, a young woman (18 or 19 years old I think) who is an undergraduate studying climate science. And she’s one of the best writers on the subject around. She combines genuine knowledge, perspective, and a cool head to get right to the point.”

  8. I’ve just read the interview in the Guardian.
    Kurzweil doesn’t say that a doubling of solar power every two years will be caused by technological advance, just that it will happen. This tends to ignore an important point. Costs reduce as you gear to mass production and specifically when you get competition between producers. To bring solar down to the cheap prices everybody can afford, somebody needs to buy the panels while the price is coming down, and do it without lowering the price of electricity.
    Don’t get me wrong, I want to see it, and I believe it will happen eventually. But doubling every two years? Only if the governments in sunny nations get in on the act.

    1. The major source of periodic doublings won’t come from rooftop PV. Very large scale solar concentrating plants will have a big impact – twice.

      When a really large scale solar operation first hits the grid and is reliable. Secondly, when this success gives confidence to investors and governments to extend or upgrade grids to accommodate the newer mix of large scale solar and wind. Thereby leading to further investments in both of these as well as more sophisticated grid management.

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