There should be a word for when you commit treason against an entire planet. Examples of climate reason are Exxon, Shell and the Koch brothers. At the beginning of the 70s, Exxon, the world’s largest oil company and, indeed, in those days, the world’s largest company period, understood that its product was going to wreck the planet. Things could have been different if they had acted then.
It took a long time for them to change their behaviour (if they have). Alex Steffen, an environmental writer, coined the term predatory delay, “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” Climate change and the behaviour of the oil companies is the prime example. Exxon hates solar: you put up a solar panel, and the energy comes for free, which to the corporate mind is the stupidest business plan ever.
Collective, crowdfunded, global class action
It wasn’t a hard conspiracy to organise, just one hundred firms in the fossil fuel industry account for 70% of the planet’s emissions. Global warming is the ultimate problem for oil companies because oil causes it, and it’s the ultimate problem for government haters because, without government intervention, you can’t solve it. Collective, crowdfunded, global class action lawsuit anyone?
The economic argument
We have lived the last thirty years inside that lie, engaged in an endless debate over whether global warming was “real”—a debate in which both sides knew the answer from the beginning. You would think by now the economics would persuade large corporates to change their behaviour:
- Researchers showed in 2018 that Florida homes near the flood lines were selling at a 7% discount, a figure growing over time because “sophisticated buyers” know what is coming.
- Future citizens would have to pay $535 trillion to cope with global warming.
- A team of economists predicted a 12% risk that global warming could reduce global economic output by 50% by 2100.
- Climate change is currently costing the U.S. economy about $240 billion a year, and the world, $1.2 trillion annually, wiping 1.6% each year from the planet’s GDP. That is only going up.
We are facing an existential crisis. Read “Uninhabitable earth”. It will happen right where you live, and it could happen today. No one will be spared. Bill McKibben in “Falter, has the human game began to play itself out” has a few stats on his own:
- The extra heat that we trap near the planet because of the carbon dioxide we’ve spewed is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs every day, or four each second.
- About 93% of the extra heat is actually collecting in the sea. As a result, the sea surface temperature has gone up by seven degrees.
- At current emission rates, the pH of the oceans will drop to 7.8 or 7.7 by century’s end, well beyond what fish and other marine organisms can tolerate.
- There is about 3 to 5% more water in the atmosphere.
- Around the world, pollution kills 9 million people a year, far more than AIDS, malaria, TB, and warfare combined.
- A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with “persistent declining trends in productivity,” according to a September 2017 report.
- The baobab—Africa’s tree of life, in whose shade people first hunted and gathered—can live as long as 2,500 years, but five of the six oldest specimens on the planet have died in the last decade.
- In January 2019 scientists concluded the earth’s oceans were warming 40% faster than previously believed.
- A 2018 study concluded that even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today, more than a third of the planet’s glacial ice would still melt in the coming decade
- Further climate change would displace as many as 143 million people from Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by 2050.
- At a thousand parts per million (which is within the realm of possibility for 2100), human cognitive ability falls 21% (our IQ is already declining)
- An increase in temperature supposedly increases conflicts between groups by 14%
- Researchers believe there are fragments of the Spanish flu virus, smallpox, and bubonic plague buried in Siberia and Alaska
- The added weight of the melted ice starts to bend the earth’s crust. That will give you a massive increase in volcanic activity
- By the middle of this century, the ocean may contain more plastic than fish by weight.
- A four-degree increase, which is where our current trajectory will take us, would cut the crop yield almost in half.
- Paleoclimatologists, for instance, have discovered that in the distant past, sea levels often rose and fell with breathtaking speed.
- We’re currently injecting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere ten times faster than during the End-Permian, which was the worst extinction event in the earth’s history.
- Paris climate target of “only” a two-degree Celsius rise in temperature, a quarter of the earth would experience severe drought and desertification.
Problem from hell
It is the problem from hell. There were too many different interests, from too many parts of the world. Rome fell, and the Mayans didn’t tremble, nor the Chinese, nor the Inuit. However, an interconnected world is different. It offers a certain kind of stability. Everyone in every country can all hear the scientists warning of impending climate change, but it removes the defence of distance. The sheer size of our consumption means we have enormous leverage of a different sort. No Roman emperor could change the pH of the oceans, but we’ve managed that trick in short order.
Instead of dealing with it, we are fleeing forward. Singularity, AI, genetics, space, immortality, ageing. Some of which can kill us quicker than climate change.
For example, Kurzweil’s singularity. For Kurzweil, it’s much like what happened two million years ago, when humans added to their brains the big bundle of cells we call the neocortex. “That was the enabling factor for us to invent language, art, music, tools, technology, science. That great leap forward came with inherent limits: if our brains had kept expanding, adding neo-neocortexes, our skulls would have grown so large we could never have slid out the birth canal. This time that’s not a problem, given that the big new brain is external. His thesis is we’re going to do it again, by the 2030s. We’ll have a synthetic neocortex in the cloud. Kurzweil has estimated that by 2020, a thousand-dollar PC will have the computing power of a human brain: twenty million billion calculations a second. By 2029, it should be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain, at least by these brute measures. By 2055, “$1,000 worth of computing power will equal the processing power of all the humans on the planet,” By 2099, should we get there, “a penny’s worth of computing power will be a billion times as powerful as all the human brains now on the planet.”
The dream of biologists is to have the sequence of DNA, the programming code of life, and to be able to edit it the way you scan a document on a word processor. As you can tell from the archaic use of the term word processor, he said this quite a while ago—in 2000, to be exact. Gene editing went from being laborious and expensive to simple and cheap. The real power of CRISPR comes with the ability to change people. The first use of this power is to fix existing humans with existing problems. The second would be to alter future humans. We could change humans before they are born, altering their DNA in embryo; in this case, the changes would be passed on forever to their offspring. Now, for the first time ever, we possess the power to direct the evolution of our own species.
So, it’s not hard to imagine how Big Data and Big Biotech will eventually combine, as Kurzweil insists, to produce a (big) new industry, especially when fertility clinics start offering ‘genetic upgrades’ to those able to afford them. Think about it, we’ve seen that most of the planet is at a moment of maximal inequality right now. And we can say with some certainty that engineering your baby will be expensive. Since any beneficial genetic modifications made to an embryo would be transmitted to all of that person’s offspring, linkages between class and genetics would ineluctably grow from one generation to the next, no matter how small the disparity in access might be.” If you think our world is unequal now, imagine it stratified along both socioeconomic and genetic lines. Lee Silver, the Princeton professor who runs GenePeeks, said long ago that eventually “all aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry will be controlled by members of the GenRich class.”
Before too long, he added, the two groups will be genetically distinct enough that they’ll have “no ability to cross-breed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for a chimpanzee.” In “The Future Does Not Need Us.” Joy, the father of the UNIX operating system, argued that the new technologies starting to emerge might go very badly wrong: fatal plagues from genetically engineered life forms, for instance, or robots that would take over and push us aside. His conclusion: “Something like extinction.” In October 2018, for instance, Stephen Hawking’s posthumous set of “last predictions” was published—his greatest fear was a “new species” of genetically engineered “superhumans” who would wipe out the rest of humanity.
That is before we start talking about AI. Read “Life 3.0“. People should try to develop Artificial General Intelligence with all due care. In this case, all due care means much more scrupulous caution than would be necessary for dealing with Ebola or plutonium. Remember, in the vision of all these people, computers in the next few years will have brainpower far surpassing that of any person, or any group of persons and these machines will keep teaching themselves to get smarter, 24/7. As intelligence explodes, and the AI gains the ability to improve itself, it will soon outstrip our ability to control it.
Examples of AI running amok
Facebook had to shut down an artificial intelligence system it had built to negotiate with other AI agents: The system had “diverged from its training in English to develop its own language.” At first, the new lingo seemed “nonsensical gibberish,” but when researchers analysed the exchanges between two bots named Bob and Alice, they determined that the bots had developed a highly efficient jargon for bartering, even if it was essentially It’s not just Facebook. In 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot it had named Tay after just a single day because Twitter users, who were supposed to make her smarter “through casual and playful conversation,” had instead turned her into a misogynistic racist.
After AI, there is immortality, ageing and space. Nobody pays taxes in space. All initiated by the elite.
The book moves to our humanity. It is under threat. As covered “Technology versus humanity“. I think that should be compulsory reading. If something as marginal (though wonderful) as sports can see meaning leach away when we mess with people’s bodies or remove them from the picture, perhaps we should think long and hard about more important kinds of meaning. The human game, after all, requires us to be human.
When we engineer and design, we turn people into a form of technology, and obsolescence is an utterly predictable feature of every technology we’ve ever seen. For a few years, you’re more useful than any humans who’ve ever come before, and then you’re more useless. Every journey of self-discovery would end, ultimately, in the design specs from the fertility clinic. Even the parents seem cheated in this scheme. The author takes great pride in his daughter. She works hard and takes pride in her achievement. Why the pride, though, when it’s just what she was programmed to do? She takes up running and, holy cow, can she move! Those long, lean muscles never seem to run out of oxygen. But what does that teach her about herself, beyond that she was designed that way? It’s one thing to understand that you are who you are in part because of your genes; it’s another to understand that you were specifically engineered for a certain outcome.
Consider the generational upgrade once this goes exponential. Your older child is an iPhone 4, your youngest could be an iPhone 8. What will that do?
The author assumes that, for many of us, happiness is one goal of our own personal human game. The most remarkable finding, robust after many years, was that people were happiest when they were engaged in what Csikszentmihalyi came to call “flow”—that is, when, like those painters, they were fully engaged, and at the limit of their skills. Read “Stealing fire“. And so, it should, therefore, sting the Kurzweils of the world to grasp that you can’t make a more realised human being by giving him extra talent. The greatest cross-country skier on earth doesn’t get more out of a race than I do, even if he finishes it in half the time. As long as I’m fully engaged, the world drops away and the point is the world dropping away. If you could engineer a rock climber to have stronger fingers and no fear of heights, then she would be able to climb more routes than she could climb now. But so what? She wouldn’t get extra satisfaction from her new talent, because the satisfaction comes from being at the edge of her abilities. In fact, you might complicate her life considerably, because she’d have to go farther afield to find cliffs big enough to match her souped-up abilities. Flow doesn’t increase if you have more ability; it simply requires challenge sufficient to your ability. We are already capable of being as absorbed and engaged as we ever could be. We’re good enough.
Human brains, the artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky once explained, are simply “machines that happen to be made out of meat.” By this logic, if we are machines, then our destiny is to be surpassed by better machines. And we shouldn’t complain; we should welcome it. After all, AGI’s got better components. Already today’s microprocessors run about ten million times the speed of our brains, whose internal communications “are horribly outmatched by a computer’s ability to communicate optically at the speed of light,” “the brain is locked into its size by the shape of our skulls,” while “computers can expand to any physical size, allowing far more hardware to be put to work.”
We are already robots
The average person now touches, swipes, or taps his phone 2,617 times a day. Eighty-seven per cent of people with smartphones wake up and go to sleep with them. A man with a phone more or less permanently affixed to his palm is partway a robot already. We spend roughly ten hours a day looking at a screen and roughly seventeen minutes a day exercising, that is, using our bodies. “Our lives now are only partly biological, with no clear split between the organic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon,” 2016 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that there were “significant differences in the craniovertebral angle, scapular index, and peak expiratory flow depending on the duration of smartphone usage.”That is, having taken a few million years to stand up straight, we are hunched once more—text neck, iPosture.
To be human
Christie’s sold its first piece of art created by artificial intelligence in the fall of 2018. However, at a deeper level, that’s not even how art works. The point of art is not “better”; the point is to reflect on the experience of being human—which is precisely the thing that’s disappearing. The profound pleasure that keeps people working on precisely the technology that now threatens to supplant us will vanish, too. I’ve taken the time to lay out the various advances we may be capable of if we fully embrace the newest technologies—we can “improve” our children; we may be able to live without work (or we may have to); we may be able, in some sense, to live forever—but none of that is living, not in the human sense.
We have two new technologies that could, in our own era, prove decisive if fully employed. One is the solar panel, and the other is the nonviolent movement. The fight over climate change is ultimately not an argument about infrared absorption in the atmosphere, but about power and money and justice. Given that industry has most of that money and hence most of that power, it usually wins—unless, of course, a movement arises, one capable of changing hearts as well as minds.
The reason we don’t have a solution to climate change has less to do with the greed of the great un-engineered unwashed than with the greed of the almost unbelievably small percentage of people at the top of the energy heap. That is to say, the Koch brothers and the Exxon execs have never been willing to take a 15% slice off their profits, not when they could spend a much smaller share of their winnings corrupting the political debate with a broadside of lies and corrupting the political system with rolls of cash. However, as Pope Francis said, after a closed-door meeting with oil company executives about climate change in 2018, “Decisive progress on this path cannot be made without an increased awareness that all of us are part of one human family, united by bonds of fraternity and solidarity.
Julian Savulescu proposal is important for our discussion because it unites the two halves of this book: in essence, he contends that the only way to solve global warming before it destroys our planet is to genetically alter human beings so that they become more altruistic and willing to make more sacrifices for the common good. “We’re far from perfect,” he says, but “science offers us the opportunity … to directly overcome those limitations” by producing embryos with improved “intelligence, impulse control, self-control—some level of empathy or ability to understand other people’s emotions.
The human game is a team sport
When I say “nonviolence,” I do not mean only, or even mainly, the dramatic acts of civil disobedience that end in jail or a beating. I mean the full sweep of organising aimed at building mass movements whose goal is to change the zeitgeist and, hence, the course of history.
In other words, the earth is running a fever, and the antibodies are starting to kick in.
Solar and wind power are miracles. The latest studies, from labs such as Mark Jacobson’s at Stanford, make clear that every major nation on earth could be supplying 80% of its power from renewables by 2030, at prices far cheaper than paying the damage for climate change. After dropping 65% between 2009 and today,” energy expert Dave Roberts wrote in 2017, “wind power costs could drop another 50% by 2020. Al you need is for “wind and solar to keep doing what they’re doing—keep scaling up, keep improving, keep getting cheaper—at roughly the same rate they have been. It’s not that renewable energy is our only task. We also need to eat lower on the food chain, build public transit networks, densify cities, and start farming in ways that restore carbon to soils.
These researchers found that by 2050, solar energy could provide 69% of our power and wind energy another 18%, with the rest coming mostly from hydroelectric dams. In the process, we’d create thirty-six million new jobs, and the cost per megawatt-hour would drop from the present eighty-two dollars to sixty-one dollars. The energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will. There’s probably no single step that would do more to prolong the human game another generation, to pass the (solar) torch on to our kids and grandkids. Where coal and oil and gas can be gathered in a few places and shipped around the world, sun and wind must be collected from a million different locations and then shared across the grid; renewable energy is omnipresent but also diffuse, nothing like the concentrated package of chemical energy in a lump of coal or a litre of oil. A quick transition to renewable energy would employ millions around the world by every estimate—millions of people, not robots, as clambering onto your roof and installing solar panels remains a high-skill, high-judgment job.
Maturity and balance
There are a time and a place for growth, and a time and a place for maturity, for balance, for scale. And the risks we’re currently running, the risks this book is describing, suggest that that time is now. So, yes, we can wreck the earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of other life—in fact, as we’ve seen, we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that. We could instead put a solar panel on the top of every last one of those roofs that the author describes at the opening of this book, and if we do, then we will have started in a different direction.