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March 23rd, 2009 by Edward Miller

Nobody is a bigger supporter of energy efficiency than I am. Yet, it is urgent we understand that it is not a solution to our climate crisis.

What is the efficiency paradox?

The proposition was first put forward by William Stanley Jevons in his 1865 book The Coal Question. In it, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Source: Wikipedia

Why is it that coal consumption soared after the efficiency improved? From an economic perspective, this should be perfectly obvious: as the efficiency of the coal engine increases, it becomes a cheaper option and is thus used at an increased rate.

Europe at Night | Planetary Visions Ltd
Europe at Night | Planetary Visions Ltd
The same is true with gasoline engines. The more efficient they become, the more likely it is that people will continue to use them. Even if the entire developed world spent tons of money to convert to electric cars and alternative energy, this would only make gasoline an even more viable option for countries which are still developing.

This summer, Tata Motors is releasing a $2,000 car in India called the Nano. It has taken a century for internal combustion automobiles to mature to a point where they can be produced at such low cost. The internal combustion engine is unhindered by patents and has been mass produced for almost 100 years. New electric engines are unlikely to hit that price point in the foreseeable future, and thus the fastest growing parts of the world are highly unlikely to choose them in an unregulated marketplace.

Energy efficiency will also decrease the price gap between the raising of livestock and the growing of plants. Considering the worst contributor of greenhouse gases is actually the livestock industry, this does not bode well for our planet.

Granted, in certain markets people’s habits do not greatly change as a result of efficiency gains. Hybrid car owners do not drive much more than regular motorists, and people who buy more efficient refrigerators are unlikely to use it more wastefully. Yet, the overall number of these machines purchased would likely increase and still cause any efficiency gains to evaporate.

If climate change is likely to cause significant problems for our civilization in the next century, we cannot expect the free market to correct the problem. If measures are not put in place to improve the competitiveness of carbon-neutral technologies, then drastic measures such as geo-engineering are inevitable.

The risks, moral hazards, and political implications brought forth by geo-engineering are going to be challenging indeed. Considering the overwhelming evidence pointing to humanity’s dangerous impact on the environment, we better prepare for this sooner rather than later. Geo-engineering must move closer to the center of the debate on climate change.

Other longer term options such as space colonization should also be considered. Interestingly, learning to live sustainably is a prerequisite for space colonization. Permaculture, recycling, vertical farming, energy efficiency, and the creation of harmonious ecosystems are key to living in space. NASA has known this for some time now, and it is time we start treating our situation here on Earth with as much foresight. Sustainability is key no matter what course we take.

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February 3rd, 2009 by Edward Miller

Decentralization is the key to the survival of humanity. This should be common sense. We all know that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are many examples one could point to. With industrial farming we are now beginning to realize that monocultures are especially susceptible to disease or changes in the environment. Fitness is a fluid concept because environmental conditions are not static. This is true on a civilizational level as well.

Fractal Blues | Fábio Pinheiro
Fractal Blues | Fábio Pinheiro
Perhaps just as important as the objective structure of our communities is our subjective experience. As Descartes proved, the existence of subjective experience is the one philosophical certainty. Cogito Ergo Sum, “I think therefore I am.” This is the rational basis for the scientific method and epistemology, and is thus the integral feature of the human condition. When we begin to take control of subjective experience, we will shake the very core of our world(s), and we will experience virtually unlimited types of consciousness. As we enter into a post-scarcity era, increasingly the universe will be at the mercy of our aesthetic preferences.

By “taking control of our subjective experience,” I mean implementing a wide variety of enhancements to our minds and bodies. On the simplest of levels, we will gain manual control of the senses we already have. We will be able to play back, turn off, or magnify our senses as we see fit. We will also gain new senses: Infrared, Heat vision, Echolocation, Magnetic, you name it. Furthermore, we will be able to induce synaesthesia between both our original senses and these new senses. We are already able to induce autistic states, giving us similar capabilities to autistic savants, but on demand.  We will likely gain control over our perception of time, and as our intelligence and working memories are upgraded, new possibilities open up.

We could gain new aesthetic intuitions. Imagine if in addition to a supercharged working memory, we were able to grok computer programming syntax and parse millions of lines with ease. This could allow computer code to be judged by its aesthetic quality, much like a poem is. It has been said Ruby programming is much like haiku. What if all the programming rules of thumb regarding such things as top-down design, parallelism, and avoiding premature optimization became as instinctive as our appreciation of rhyming or symmetrical artwork? Of course those who prefer prematurely optimized, bottom-up, serial programming can go the Jack Kerouac route if they so choose.

There are enormous ethical implications of customized realities. As discussed in an earlier post, the functions of our tools can deductively impact our value systems in ways we may have difficulty predicting beforehand.  When the mechanical clock was invented by Benedictine monks, they thought it would be a tool to help them regulate their prayer schedules, but they ended up enabling modern capitalism with its regular production cycles, hourly wages, and meticulous concern with efficiency. Perhaps people with an overabundance of appreciation for vibrations will end up enabling some sort of social structure which creates injustices that could not possibly be forseen. Nevertheless, humanity has always trudged onward to new uncertain horizons. We couldn’t ban new technology even if we wanted to, but we can take our time to critically reflect on potential consequences.

Also as discussed earlier, as our level of customization of reality grows, so does our ability to filter the information we see. When we begin to radically alter our subjective experience, we risk cyberbalkanization on a more fundamental level than ever before. With our current mental architectures we already have great difficulty communicating with one another, and often come to the conclusion that those we are debating with must be from another planet. In the famous debate between Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz, Dershowitz proclaimed that Noam must be from “Planet Chomsky.” Now, imagine what the disagreements may be like when we don’t even share the same perception of time, or if one person is harmonizing with cosmic vibrations while another is transfixed with stability. What will the outcome of such a situation look like? I believe I have a rough idea.

The forces of natural selection will work upon the different modes of consciousness, just as they do now with ideas in the form of memes. Those modes of consciousness which are good at crowding out others will become the dominant ones. Surely some of the most effective at replicating would be like the Borg, and demand assimilation. Yet, like our current world, the dominant type might not be totalitarian in nature, but merely demanding a standardized framework of communication. Tolerant empire-systems tend to fare better. The Roman Empire realized the futility of getting everyone to accept their one religion, and thus many religions thrived during most centuries of their reign. Even Ghengis Khan was noted for his tolerance of religious freedom. The modern capitalist world-system is exceedingly tolerant, and even the theocratic Saudi Arabia is now a member of the World Trade Organization. As long as one plays by the rules of the game of the dominant system, that system has no qualm, no matter what your beliefs.

In the case of Ghengis Khan, as long as you pay your taxes to the empire, you will be fine. In the case of the modern world-system, as long as your markets are open to foreign capital, you are fine. As Frederic Bastiat once remarked, “When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” In the case of the consciousnesses of the future, I am assuming that the dominant mode of consciousness will just demand some minimal framework by which to interact with others. I am not saying that it is good that any particular consciousness framework will likely dominate, I’m just extrapolating what will likely be the case considering the law of natural selection.

Now, I would argue that in the interests of civilizational resiliency it is actually much better to allow a good deal of freedom in the modes of consciousness. This will keep us from becoming a homogeneous and vulnerable culture. While it makes the prospect for a universal utopia improbable, it also makes a universal dystopia improbable. What we will likely end up with is a multitude of weirdtopias. I look forward to the infinite variety of consciousnesses which await our species. It is the key to our long term survival, and these issues are likely more urgent than you think.

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February 21st, 2008 by Joseph Carpenter

One of the main – and one of the most criticized – features of a state is that it claims a monopoly on power. For a democratic state, this isn’t an incredible problem as it is controlled by its people, ensuring it is a public good and not one based on the interests of a few. In an autocratic state, this means that the tyrant is the only one with a legal means of self-defense – and often the power extends well beyond defense.

However, the United States has a lot of work to do until it can truly call itself a democracy. Its current system has been rightly criticized as empowering the few at the expense of the good of the many. And, with organizations(recently euphemised as “private military corporations” or similar names), largely outside of US law, elite interests certainly are more protected.

The problem with these organizations as well as the conventional police and military is that they often are shielded from public scrutiny. Steve Mann in 2002 wrote in 2002 that “secrecy, rather than privacy,” is what the true cause of state-sponsored violence, or terrorism.

Because the general public is underrepresented in this monopoly of power, something must be done to ensure it can defend itself from these largely secretive organizations. Enter sousveillance. People, equipped with cameras and other recording devices, can adequately protect themselves from threats from above – those that operate surveillance. Edward told me that a police officer recently spoke to one of his classes and said phones equipped with cameras are making police behave more ethically. Without a camera, it is often the police’s word vs. yours, and it is obvious whose word is worth more. Without documentation, actions like this could easily have been covered up:

However, not all police officers are like the one in this video. In fact, a large majority of them are good people. But if this was the only documented case of police brutality, it would be one too many. But sousveillance will also offer protection for more common harms to the individual.

If personal wearable cameras become widespread, street violence such as muggings would likely be drastically reduced. With the act nearly always caught on film, many would-be-criminals would be safely and ethically deterred from committing crime. This is the nonviolent solution to the question of personal security – there is no need for concealed weapons.

It should be imperative that each citizen carries with him some form of device whose contents can be uploaded to decentralized websites like Youtube, Flickr, Facebook, or Myspace. The information will be essential in legal cases against the odd police officer getting carried away with his baton or taser, or the mugger or pickpocket. When there is objective and undeniable evidence of wrongdoing, only then will these actions be deterred – and much more strongly than simply eliminating the immediate threat with violence.giant water slide

Also paramount is the fact that this technology should be afforded to everyone. A person that cannot pay for some type of camera is no less important than one that can. Indeed, the people that cannot afford cameras are disproportionately the targets of attack. This is a matter of public security, and the government ought to hear this argument. If you meet with local politicians, please, bring this idea up.

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