Saturday, August 27, 2011

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity / James Hansen -- NY: Bloomsbury, 2009

1988 was a significant year for the study and understanding of climate change. It was the year that the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was also the year the James Hansen testified before Congress, warning of the coming climate disaster. Since then, Hansen has been one of the leading scientists investigating the progress of our changing climate. He has, however, shied away from high-profile advocacy for changes to public policy -- that is until recently. In this respect, Storms of My Grandchildren is a landmark in his scientific and public profile. In it, Hansen attempts to make a clear case for specific policy actions that he believes are needed to avert the pending climate disaster.

His writing style is not always the greatest. He alternates between the breezy style of informal correspondences that describes his personal experiences and the objective style of scientific (though popular) explanations. Later in the book, he adopts a third style of policy advocacy. None of these sections of the book seem especially good examples of their genera, but setting this aside, the substance of the book is interesting and very important.

The early chapters of the book deal with his conflicting feelings about simply doing science and leaving policy questions to others as against stepping outside of the scientific enterprise to make a conscious political impact. His initial approach to this was simply to present his conclusions to policy makers and trust in the force of reason to motivate their actions; however, after successive disappointments, he has come to believe that scientists must not only make the science clear to politicians and the public, but they must explain the consequences of the facts for policy decisions.

Among the events that most drove him to this conclusion was the efforts on the part of the George W. Bush administration to prevent him from speaking freely about his scientific conclusions. As a public employee working for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he was subject to orders from both NASA's Public Affairs office and the White House. Fortunately for all of us, his high profile prevented the efforts to censor him from being too successful. His own account of the machinations of the Bush White House is limited, but he makes reference to the investigative work of Mark Bowen, published in Censoring Science to fill out the story.

Hansen's views on climate change are more pessimistic than the conclusions of the IPCC. The IPCC has been criticized by climate skeptics as over-stating the danger of climate change. They often criticize climate models that go into predicting the future of the climate. Interestingly, Hansen agrees that the climate models are not especially reliable, but he points to paleological climate research to demonstrate that the probability of disastrous consequences of the "business-as-usual" emission of greenhouse gases is far greater than the climate models predict. In his penultimate chapter, he suggests that it is not impossible that business-as-usual will transform the Earth's atmosphere into something like that of Venus. Currently, there are nearly 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Hansen suggests that the "Venus syndrome" might be triggered if that rises to levels even less than 1000 ppm, i.e., a level that is not out of the range of possibility.

The policy decisions that Hansen advocates include the construction of more nuclear power plants, including "fourth generation" power plants known as "breeder reactors." According to Hansen, breeder reactors would serve two important purposes, (1) they could produce significant amounts of energy without carbon emissions while producing nearly no fissionable waste, and (2) they could use the nuclear waste we currently have generated as a fuel source. Given the dangers of carbon emissions and the unlikelihood that other non-carbon energy sources will satisfy industry's appetite for power, Hanson's suggestion seems worth considering; however, Hansen's assertions about the consequences of the construction of numerous breeder reactors need more argument than he presents in his book.

Hansen also argues that the most dangerous threat to the environment is the prospect that coal will be used to sate industry's appetite for power. Carbon capture and sequestration has, for Hansen, genuine potential for coal exploitation. At the same time, he recognizes the costs and dangers involved. His preference simply is to "leave the coal in the ground." This could be largely accomplished by establishing a "fee and dividend" system of carbon energy production. Hansen is critical of the cap and trade proposals that are popular among many environmentalist politicians. He believes they will be ineffective and are ripe for corruption, comparing emissions permits to indulgences sold by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. Sinners were allowed to continue sinning while the church made money. In this instance, polluters are allowed to continue polluting while the government makes money.

In contrast to this, Hansen's fee and dividend system would place a fee on carbon-based energy production at its source (the well or mine). The fee would then be divided equally as an annual dividend to all legal residents of the US. The fee would be increased annually so that the consumption of carbon-dependent goods and services would rise gradually, reducing their viability in the market, until finally carbon-based energy would be replaced by other forms of energy. Meanwhile, the annual dividend would make the program popular. Those who consume carbon-dependent goods and services would pay the price and those who do not would reap the benefits.

One hitch in Hansen's system is regulating imported goods and services. Here, he suggests a carbon tariff on goods coming from countries that are not reducing their carbon emissions. Initially, the tariff seems workable, but it might fall victim to World Trade Organization requirements prohibiting such tariffs; furthermore, it might not actually succeed in reducing emissions, but instead destroy the very international cooperation and agreements necessary to tackle the emissions problem. These are points made by Sallie James of the Cato Institute in her essay "Climate Change and Trade" in Climate Coup, edited by Patrick Michaels.

Among the most significant chapters linking science and public policy is Chapter 8,"Target Carbon Dioxide: Where Should Humanity Aim?" which deals with estimating the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that the planet can tolerate without triggering truly disastrous consequences. Hansen initially thought that 450 ppm was the tipping point, but after more careful study, he now believes 350 ppm is the maximum that can be tolerated. This means we have already surpassed dangerous levels which explains Hansen's urgency and his desire to "leave the coal in the ground." Based on Hansen's estimates, Bill McKibben has set up the Web site to publicize efforts to bring our emission down to this level.

Periodically, Hansen points out one important driving factor in our race to climate catastrophe: our system of campaign financing. Hansen argues that because our elections are privately funded with now unlimited corporate dollars, carbon energy-based industries largely are able to determine public policy related to environmental protection. An indication of this is that a carbon tax (or fee) is hardly discussed by politicians. Our options are limited to no regulation or an ineffective cap and trade system that will allow business-as-usual emissions and corporate profits.

Hansen is certainly right about the influence of corporate money on elections and in turn public policy. As it is unlikely that the current campaign finance regime will change, anyone who is concerned about the climate has few options for change within the electoral system. On occasion, Hansen acknowledges this and even flirts with calling for civil resistance against carbon emission. In general, his Storms of My Grandchildren makes a strong case for just such action.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hindu Mysticism / S. N. Dasgupta -- Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1927, 1983

Hindu Mysticism is a collection of six lectures presented by S. N. Dasgupta at Northwestern University in 1926. The lectures cover six types of mysticism that grew up in India during the course of its history. Dasgupta defines "mysticism" as "the belief that the highest reality or the ultimate realisation and fulfilment...cannot be attained by reason alone, but...[by] the firm and steady control of will, the development of right emotions, or both combined, or by them both along with the highest functioning of reason....It is directed to the liberation of the spirit and the attainment of the highest bliss." This is distinct from what Dasgupta calls the popular notion that mysticism is "some kind of superstitious awe or reverence." Mysticism "is fundamentally an active, formative, creative, elevating and ennobling principle of life." It is "a spiritual grasp of the aims and problems of life in a much more real and ultimate manner than is possible to mere reason."

With this definition, most everything that can be understood as religion in India would be mystical and indeed that pretty closely describes the scope of Dasgupta's book. Its six chapters cover sacrificial mysticism, the mysticism of the Upanishads, Yoga mysticism, Buddhistic mysticism, classical devotional mysticism, and popular devotional mysticism.

Sacrificial mysticism is expressed in the ancient Vedas which describe how rituals can be performed that will prompt the gods to bestow benefits on those conducting the ritual. It is critical that the ritual be performed in exactly the right way or it will not be effective. Furthermore, if it is performed effectively, the gods have no choice but to bestow the benefit; that is, in response to a properly conducted sacrifice, the god's actions are not free. The Vedas are not seen to be true or effective because of a sagacious author or even as revelations from a god, but are "eternal truths, beginningless and immortal" and importantly, they cannot be challenged or justified by reason.

Upanishadic mysticism seems a bit more consistent with a European notion of mysticism, namely, a recognition of a monistic reality that lies behind the pluralistic appearances of the phenomenal world, which can be understood neither rationally nor empirically. Yogic mysticism, while it may in some practices deny the monism of the Upanishads, is a practical development of the Upanishadic mysticism. It clearly falls within Dasgupta's definition in that it is a practice that involves controlling one's will and actions, and ultimately one's mind to achieve an understanding of the ultimate reality that is not accessible through experience or reason alone.

Of all of the forms of mysticism described in Hindu Mysticism, Buddhistic mysticism might least fit with Dasgupta's definition. While it is true that achieving the highest understanding involves a practice rather like Yoga, Buddhism is a highly rational and practical system of thought. The fundamental principles of Buddhism should be apparent to anyone who follows the reasoning of the Four Noble Truths. The practice that is involved in following the Eightfold Path merely confirms those truths in one's experience. Nonetheless, it does not seem inappropriate to describe Buddhism as a mystical philosophy in that by following the Eightfold Path, one arrives at a state of consciousness that transcends normal experience.

The final two forms of mysticism, classical and popular devotional mysticism are closely related. Both embrace bhakti or devotion to God and in both cases one is not expected to denounce one's desires. Instead, one embraces the euphoria that comes in one's surrender to God. In the classical version, God is conceived of abstractly. The ecstasy that comes to the worshiper is similar to that experienced by Moslems, particularly, Sufis. In the popular version, one conceives of God in the form of an individual, e.g., Krishna, and the ecstasy is similar to that experienced in a human love relationship. As Dasgupta describes it, it seems similar to the mysticism of medieval Carmelites in their relationship to Jesus.

If there is a shortcoming to Hindu Mysticism it is its title. While there is nothing wrong with establishing definitions for the purpose of describing a conceptual realm, Dasgupta's definition appears contrived to capture every religious movement that ever came out of India and may capture most every religion there ever was. Had Dasgupta placed greater stress on the concept of gaining knowledge or understanding apart from experience or reason, the title would have been better justified. As it is Hindu Mysticism is simply a serviceable introduction to six religious traditions in India.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) / Siva Vaidhyanathan -- Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia prefaces his book The Googlization of Everything with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville that perfectly captures his darker attitudes toward Google: "It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from coming into being; it does not tyrannize, it hinders." Vaidhyanathan is particularly concerned that Google's explosive success is placing too much power over (or perhaps responsibility for) the world's treasure-store of knowledge in the hands of one private company. His concerns are not without merit.

Vaidhyanathan is quick to admit that Google's success is based on the clear benefits that it has given the world. More than any other search engine, Google has "organized and made universally accessible the world's knowledge" and it has done so in a manner that has been comfortable and appealing to most internet users. It has also behaved more or less consistently with its informal motto: "Don't be evil." Having given Google its due, Vaidhyanathan describes practices that Google has adopted that raise important questions.

In general, Google's success depends on the "PageRank system" that they employ in displaying search results. Search results generally appear in descending order based on the number of pages that link to a page that is captured by Google's Web crawlers. This seemingly surrenders any editorial decision-making that Google might otherwise employ in displaying results and makes use of the decisions by a myriad anonymous Web designers to evaluate the merits of Web pages. There are, however, instances in which some filtering is employed by Google, most obviously is Google's willingness to consider blocking a site if they receive complaints about it.

More worrisome consequences of Google's practices stem from their standard practices. While the PageRank system will generally provide an effective quality screen, it also privileges mainstream sites. Popularity among Web designers will lead to a site appearing on Google's first page of results, which in turn will reinforce the popularity of the site. It is not easy for a new or unusual site to break onto the first page of results.

Vaidhyanathan also takes Google to task for their collaboration with the Chinese government in censoring search results. At first Google argued that providing censored information was better for democracy movements than providing no information at all; however, when Google's servers were hacked (presumably by the Chinese government) and information about Chinese dissidents and critics of the government were compromised, Google "pulled out of China." The pull out was less impressive than it appeared, though. Google simply offered its Mandarin-language search service through Hong Kong, and since all traffic between Hong Kong and China is censored by China, China continues to receive Google services, but they are censored by China and not Google directly.

Vaidyanathan also provides an very interesting exploration of the privacy issues that Google's practices raises. Two levels of concern can be identified here: first, Google is amassing a huge amount of information about individual internet users that conceivably could be used against the user. More broadly, though, Google's store of data about users could easily be used by whomever owns the information to understand the demographics of internet users in a manner that could be politically significant. It is already showing itself to be economically significant.

Perhaps Vaidyhanathan's most salient concern is Google's growing dominance in the digitization of our written (and graphic) cultural heritage and here he indicts our research libraries as complicit in a massive, historic act of privatization of a public good. The Google Books project has resulted in the digitization of nearly all of the out of copyright books at Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Oxford, and the New York Public Library. Disregarding copyright concerns, Google has also digitized massive numbers of "orphan" works, i.e., books that are not out of copyright, but for which the copyright holder is unknown. This turns normal publishing practices on their head: instead of requiring permission before publication, Google sought to publish until permission was denied by individual copyright holders. While it is true that a massive digitizing project of the sort that Google seeks to undertake would be impossible any other way, their actions are a direct challenge to long-settle copyright law. These actions resulted in a now-famous law suit, that has pitted publishers and authors against Google. The parties to the dispute have been trying to come to a legally acceptable out of court settlement, but have thus far been unable to do so.

Vaidhyanathan appears less concerned about the integrity of the traditional copyright regime than he is about what he calls "public failure," or the failure of public institutions to take responsibility of preserving and making freely accessible the world's cultural heritage and this is certainly the most significant concern that Google's activities have raised. While it is true that Google has not prevented others from creating competing digital archives, the head start that they have gained makes competition highly unlikely. This means that the access to the world's cultural heritage is likely to be -- at least for the foreseeable future -- in the hands of a single private company, unless, of course, public institutions take up the challenge of digitizing the resources for which they ostensibly are responsible and this is Vaidhyanathan's call to action. He proposes a "Human Knowledge Project" on the order of the Human Genome project, where governments around the world allocate the resources necessary to create a cultural digital repository that will ensure that our patrimony remains a public good accessible to all.

The Googlization of Everything is not always the most well organized book. Despite improvements from a pre-publication version, the book continues to read too much like a series of related blog postings; however, by the final chapter, the overall concerns do become clear and seem well argued, though one would be hard pressed to point to how and exactly where the argument was made.