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Fake news is alive and flourishing in all parts of the world, including in India, where WhatsApp and Facebook (among others) are helping to spread misinformation (inaccuracies) and disinformation (intentional inaccuracies) about events around the world. The above headline about Gandhi’s death apparently appeared in a school textbook in Gujarat, and probably represents ongoing attempts by rightwing Hindu zealots to rewrite history to the party’s liking.
Biology teaches us that life forms flourish when they exist in robust interplay. An increase in biodiversity in an ecosystem results in increased productivity in the system, increased resilience against natural disasters and increased stability overall. In our tech-driven century, the opposite is happening in the financial and business world. Commerce and economic activity are being increasingly dominated by a handful of powerful corporations: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Walmart, Tencent, Alibaba, and so on. The pattern is replicated within countries as well. In every case, in every country, Ambani, Adani, Li Ka-shing, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Ma… whatever their names, each and every one will use every means at their disposal to protect their wealth; economic biodiversity and planetary health be damned. It is truly easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…
It is time for us, planetary citizens and voters, to stiffen the spines of our politicians so that they can take steps to curtail the planet-destroying power of the Putins and Murdochs of this world. It won’t be easy, but the survival of the planet is at stake. Unlikely beacons of hope at this juncture are the protests of thousands of school children around the world led by a Swedish sixteen year-old girl with Asperger’s. Theirs is an example for every one of us to follow, in every way we possibly can. The next few years will decide whether we can salvage our planetary heritage for coming generations.
I’m currently reading a book by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics.” In it, the author pleads for a rethink of the traditional growth model of an ever-expanding economy to one of equitable development, keeping planetary boundaries in mind, and ensuring redistribution of resources so that the most disadvantaged in society are also looked after.
In the traditional testosterone model (my own term) of economic growth, the rich prosper while the rest of the population benefit from the trickle-down effect of an expanding economy. Trickle down is a euphemism for the rich pissing down on the rest, thus validating the term piss-poor long after the expression came into use. I have examined the disastrous effects of testosterone based decision-making in two earlier blog posts: in 2015 (Golden Skirts vs. Testosterone in the Financial World), and in 2018 (Leadership Hope for a Warming World). Another reflective piece, published on this website in 2018, is related to the topic of the current post (Three Score Years and Ten: Planetary Health and your Lifetime).
It’s clear now to all but the most self-absorbed amongst us that we’re already consuming much more than the planet can sustainably provide. If Mother Nature and the earth’s resources were assumed to be a bank account, then we’re no longer living off the interest alone but are drawing down its capital. Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated Earth Overshoot Day for each year. In the website’s own words:
The Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of the year that Earth’s bio-capacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global consumption of Nature’s capital. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s bio-capacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day. (EOD)
In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to have happened on 1 August. In 2004, the overshoot fell on 1 September! By this calculation, the last time mankind was truly sustainable was in 1969 or 1970 when overshoot day fell in a subsequent year!
Since this planetary over-consumption was first computed in 1971, we have been steadily increasing our ecological debt, and the interest we’re paying on that mounting debt is measured in food shortages, soil erosion, rising temperatures, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, biodiversity loss and much, much more. The problem is huge and solutions seem daunting and unreachable to us as individuals. Before we sink into despair, Kate Raworth tells us that there’s plenty we can do as societies to reverse this state of affairs and restore the planet to health. Doughnut Economics, the term she has coined, outlines the solutions that society needs. In the diagram above, the light green space denotes the resources mankind can safely take from the earth while restoring it to health. The dark green lines are the planetary boundaries that have to be respected if we wish to do this. The blue segments are the labels of the various sectors that have to be addressed. The book outlines broad prescriptions to deal with the problems of each of these sectors. In reading through this and other books written in a similar vein, we see that the answer to climate change lies in social change, not in new technologies. Technology alone is useless without the human will to adopt them and to adapt.
So here is the answer to the initial despairing question. What can we do as individuals? There’s plenty one can do. The EOD website lists hundreds of steps individuals can take to mitigate planetary health. Therein lies our power as individuals. Out of many, one.
Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth, Random House Business 2018, 384 pp.,
Hans Christian Andersen said it best more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Children have the capacity to speak truth to power when sages are silenced for daring to state the obvious in a climate of denial. Scientific studies have shown, with ever-increasing certainly, for more than four decades now, that human action is changing the planet in alarming ways. What was at first a trickle of change has turned into a flood. Despite years of unseasonal floods, droughts, ice melts, desertification and habitat loss, it is only now, when children take to the streets in protest, that there is any real hope of progress.
And this childrens’ movement has an unlikely heroine; sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg, who didn’t mince words while addressing self-important bodies like the UN COP24 conference or to EU leaders. “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us the future was something to look forward to. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences, but their voices are not heard. Is my microphone on? Can you hear me?” Her words shamed members of the UK Parliament who took the unprecedented step of declaring the climate crisis an emergency.
At the COP24 conference in Poland, she told the assembled delegates: “You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is to pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.”
Greta Thunberg’s words and actions are a reminder of the eternal truth of a tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. In his tale, the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone pretends to see and admire the marvellous garments that are supposedly visible to everyone but the foolish. Until one child cries out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!” At that moment everyone sees the truth and repeats the child’s words. In our real-life parable, Greta Thunberg is the unnamed child in Andersen’s story, and the Emperor stands for the corporations and big businesses that stand to lose their profits if climate change is accepted as an issue that is vital to humanity’s future.
Although this blog was begun to publicise my own fiction, there are so many interesting things to write about that the fiction element has been displaced by other kinds of stories; stories about geopolitics, concerns about global change (of which not least, climate change), and new developments in science and technology.
It currently seems to me, as an informed layperson, that the answer to the planet’s global warming crisis lies primarily not so much in technological advances as in social engineering for change. For example, livestock farming produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Halving the consumption of meat, to take only one measure, would have enormous health benefits for individuals and at a stroke, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of removing the 2015 contributions of the two most populous countries, India and China! According to a 2006 FAO report, Livestock’s Long Shadow (416 pp.), cattle alone are responsible for more global warming than all forms of transportation put together.
Another quick fix would be to reduce national defence budgets and invest the money in women’s health and education, easier said than done, considering the political madness that one sees in countries around the world. This too can be changed if enough people around the world set their minds to it and realise that we, the people, are the drivers of political change. Politicians are servants. They are merely people responding to our collective angsts and biases.
As global temperatures rise, people try to cope by installing air-conditioning units. This compounds the problem, since electricity consumption multiplies and heat dissipates to the outside world, creating urban heat islands and causing yet more global warming. It’s like polluting an ocean. Imperceptible when only one person does it, but massive when done by millions. Here’s an exciting technological fix in the works that might help to solve the air-conditioning problem: thermoacoustic cooling.
The principle was apparently observed by glassblowers more than two centuries ago. They noticed a sound was created when blowing a hot glass bubble at the end of a cold, long tube. 19th century scientists figured the sound was produced by the thermal gradient, and resonance was giving extra energy to the air in the tube. Apparently the first modern application to capture this energy for cooling was used in NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery in 1992. Today, there seem to be two companies, in the Netherlands and in France, who offer solutions based on this principle for pollution free cooling. Here’s a link to the websites of Dutch company, SoundEnergy and France-based Equium. The sooner such companies are commercially successful, the better for the planet. Here’s a simple demonstration of the principle showing the working of a thermoacoustic engine.
It happened one evening in the new year, driving back to the city on the autobahn from a visit to the town of Petronell-Carnuntum (once home to Marcus Aurelius’ Roman legions as they fought against the barbarians, so colorfully depicted in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator). I was travelling at about 100 kmh, overtaking a column of trucks travelling at their legal speed limit of 80. There was a gusty wind blowing. The road was clear although it had snowed a day or two earlier. The temperature was close to freezing. Suddenly in the gathering twilight I saw something large and white swirling towards the windscreen of the car. Travelling in the middle of three lanes, with trucks on the right and faster cars on the left, there was neither time nor space to avoid it. A bone-jarring thump, and the windshield of the car dissolved into a criss-cross of lines as the safety glass shattered but did not break apart. Recovering from the shock, I realized it was a block of ice, the size of two or three bricks, that had dislodged from the roof of one of the trucks ahead of us. A harder gust of wind or a few km/h faster and I, with my precious cargo of three other people in the car, might all be dead.
Thinking about the incident later brought to mind the phrase “the hand of God.” Being of a non-religious bent, I am inclined to ask: was it the hand of God that threw the chunk of ice, or was it the hand of God that blocked it? Or was it both? A display of divine power? An attempt to impress that seems unworthy of an all-powerful being!
The beliefs of various religions claiming to know the origin of the universe and to give its creator a name; be it Jehovah, Jahveh, Allah, Brahman, etc. seems to me to be just that; beliefs. And the claims made by brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who said that the universe was decided by the laws of science simply fails my common-sense test.
“So then science is your God?” I ask Hawking in my dream.
“Well yes,” he replies. “If you like you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God you could meet and put questions to.” (see USA Today, Oct. 17, 2018)
So to my mind, the beliefs of both science and theology are limited, rather like the motto of the New York Times; “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Although admittedly a superior newspaper, the claim is, in global terms, ludicrous. As ludicrous as the claim of any religion or science to know all the truth. As someone who has been close to death on two occasions, I can assure you there’s nothing to fear on the other side. On the contrary, the overwhelming feeling is a warm sense of peace accompanied by deep, wordless joy. One comes out of the experience loving life more than ever, but in a detached kind of way that is infinitely liberating. As to what really lies on the other side, I’m sure no one really knows for sure, so if it comforts you, go ahead and cling to your beliefs. But for God’s sake, don’t go starting wars or fighting over it.
Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.
After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)
On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.
African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.
I recently read of efforts by a young Swiss duo, both engineers, whose company, Climeworks, sucks CO2 out of the air and carbonates water, injecting the water underground into basaltic rock. To its own surprise, Climeworks finds that the gas converts to solid carbonate forms underground in a couple of years. So is this a stable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air? There are other uses for captured CO2 of course but the quantities are minuscule compared to global emissions. So the pundits talk of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it in underground caverns or pumping it under pressure into the depths of the ocean. Why isn’t there more talk among technologists of reducing emissions, instead of accepting emissions as a given and figuring out ways of converting them at great cost to benign forms?
A friend recently commented on efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and store it underground. It’s like swallowing gas, he says. You know what happens when you have too much gas. You either fart or burp, or both. Accumulated internal gas is painful and you wouldn’t do it to yourself, so why do they want to do it to the earth? Do they know what will happen when the earth farts? So why don’t we plant trees instead?
Planting trees is a solution. An average tree sucks up 25 kilos of carbon per year. Humans emit 30 to 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. Let’s say emissions are kept at 30 gigatons a year. Thirty billion tons. That’s… let’s see, forty trees take up one ton per year, so multiply 30 billion by 40… so you get 1,200 billion. That’s 1.2 trillion trees per year just to break even!
How many trees are there on earth already? I found a BBC report of a 2015 Yale University study that estimates the number of trees currently on earth at 3 trillion. That’s 3,000,000,000,000. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are going up steadily, the situation would be much worse without these 3 trillion trees. So we still have to suck up the additional 30 gigatons a year, or else reduce emissions. If we take 7 billion to be the global population, leaving aside the old, the infirm and the very young, that leaves around 3 billion people of tree planting age worldwide. In order for 3 billion people to plant 1.2 trillion trees per year, each one will have to plant 400 hundred trees per year.
Can (and would?) 3 billion people plant 1.2 trillion trees in a year? Of course not. But if even 10% of that number were to plant 10% of the target, we would be well on our way to doing what we need to do. Is this realistic? Quick answer: No. So is there a quick fix? Yes. Eat less meat. Depending on the type of feed, a cow produces 70 to 120 kg. of methane per year. Remember, methane as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than CO2, so cutting down on meat is a quick way to reduce emissions. And it has the added benefit of freeing up pastureland for tree planting. So now we’re beginning to get a handle on things.
If we pump huge quantities of CO2 underground and undersea, the earth might fart (so to speak), with unintended consequences. But cows already fart on an ongoing daily basis, emitting considerable quantities of methane, so eating less meat is a relatively painless quick fix. And then there are lots of concomitant steps that are in the process of hesitantly being implemented, like switching to public transportation and electric cars. And, oh yes, the most environmental step the world is taking is the #MeToo movement! Let’s write that on our foreheads as a reminder to the world. Education and empowerment of women is the fastest way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save our planet.