2006/06/18

[Book] Earth in the Balance

With all the noise around Al Gore's movie, I checked out on the web some information and I was impressed. Which pushed me to borrow his book from the public library (the 2000 Hard Cover Edition). There are many things that I like in it. I did not finish to read the book, because I am leaving tomorrow for France, and I had to give it back at the public library, but here is a selection of passages I like the most. (...) people who lease the land for short-term profits often don't consider the future. From fence row to fence row, they strip-mine the topsoil and move on. And even if you own the land, it's hard to compete in the short term against somebody why doesn't care about the long term. (Introduction, p. 3) Al Gore is referring to his experience in the family farm close to Memphis, as a local example. Overexploited and losing the topsoil little by little, the land becomes dry and arid in the long term. I would add that some scientists believe that as similar thing, on a larger scale, happened in the fertile crescent: once green with vegetation, the topsoil was lost through irrigation, and deserts were created and grew. IMG_1792 Al Gore gives later many examples of the consequence of climate change that I was not aware of (p.56 and on), referring to the "year without a summer" in 1816, to drought before the French revolution, with some early speculations from Benjamin Franklin: very interesting indeed. Meanwhile, civilization now rushes ahead with tremendous momentum, and even the individual who believes we are on a collision course with the global environment will find it difficult to separate his or her course from that of the civilization as a whole.(Introduction, p.12) We need a positive feedback loop that feeds on itself in a good way and accelerates the pace of the positive changes now so urgently needed. (p. 55) The idea is that we can counter-act the feedback loops that we inadvertently started (more CO2 in the atmosphere brings even more CO2, to simplify) and which can harm us, we have to start a similar feedback loop to counter-act the first one. A bit like, after introducing by mistake the rabbits in Australia (which caused dramatic problems), introducing some diseases and predators to control the exponential growth of the rabbit's population. This leads to the theory of chaos, through fractals and strange attractors in relation to systems and ecology. I appreciate greatly the way it is exposed in this book, through several examples, at several levels. the key to reversing the current pattern of destruction and beginning the process of restoration and recovery is to dramatically change attitudes and to remove the constant pressures exerted by population growth, greed, short-term thinking, and misguided development. (p.125) This part disappointed me a bit, as I think that there is more constructive to say. I agree that greed and short-term thinking leads to wasting strategies, but rather than wishing this behavior to disappear magically, I would rather discuss how to make those strategies less efficient than long term-ones. For this, I think that we need to give the opportunity to a few people to draw profits by restoring the lands. Wasted lands are currently very cheap. There are techniques to make them productive again, but the cost of the transformation outweights the final profit of the land, so investors shy away from it and the bill is left to governments. But there is no need for the tax-payers to pay the huge restoration bill: it is sufficient to just top up the final profit of the land to make the transformation a wise long-term investment. This balancing will happen naturally anyway as productive lands progressively disappear from the surface of earth, we can only make this happens slightly earlier. Of course, a better alternative to make restoration more profitable than destructive exploitation is to heavily tax the second (instead of funding the first), but somehow this technique won't work in poor countries (where people are too poor to be taxed anyway) nor in rich countries (where destructive exploiters are in power). The whole idea is not new: I remember similar concepts being discussed about the effort required to terraform a planet, inspired by the conquest of the North-West America by settlers: land was cheap to give (as it would be on a new planet) and seen as a good long term investment. This still leaves us with the problem of excessive population growth. Al Gore does not propose any solution to that, maybe because the (inconvenient?) truth is that this problem will probably take care of itself anyway: the sensibility to diseases increases with the population density as "naturally" as the wasting of lands leads to droughts. Humanity outgrew its nest before developing wings, it needs to go on a diet or to die. The idea would then be to make sure that it does not die. I would prefer a more positive agenda. For instance, lowering the infant mortality removes one incentive to build very large families in poor countries, but it needs to be complemented with the education of women. For one thing, the way we make political choices has been distorted by the awesome power of the new tools and technologies now available for political persuasion. (...) These new technologies are not inherently bad, but they are so much more powerful than the ones we were using when our political system was created that we haven't yet comprehended their consequences for the system as a whole. (p. 167) Government, as a tool used to achieve social and political organization, may be considered a technology, and in that sense self-government is one of the most sophisticated technologies ever created. (...) in a way, the Constitution is a blueprint for an ingenious machine that uses pressure valves and compensating forces to achieve a dynamic balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community, between freedom and order, between passions and principles. (p. 171) Political system seen as a technology is a new concept to me, which I like it a lot. It makes obvious the necessity to adapt it to the improvements in related technologies, such as communication and information processing. After the push for bio-informatics and health-informatics, I don't think anyone would push for politico-informatics, but the idea is the same: progress in one technology can impact many others. I see the research in computer science on mechanism design as one push toward political system design. I don't know if there is a similar push from the fields of management and planning, but hopefully when the two fields meet and merge, something interesting will come out of it.
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