Big crazy ideas / by Simmon Li

Sometimes, I have these crazy ideas that are really grand and large. Then I try to pare it down into smaller sections and I fail terribly. I've always known I was a big picture kind of guy, but, man do I ever suck at getting the details right. Full details after the jump, check it out and tell me what you think!

[Added August 26, 2010]

The Earth as a System

I think I've got it. Here is what I think are the top level components of modern life:

  • The Biosphere
  • The Economy
  • Our Governments

These three statements describe how they interact:

  • The biosphere is linked to the economy, it is an asynchronous relationship. One affects the other, and vice versa.
  • The economy is linked to our governments, and again it is an asynchronous relationship.
  • Finally, our governments are connected to the biosphere, and it is an asynchronous relationship.

In other words, everything is connected to everything. They form an interacting triangle.

The economy can be broken down into 6 main components:

  1. Food
  2. Energy
  3. Raw Materials
  4. Goods and Services
  5. Transportation
  6. Innovation

Our Governments can be broken down into four main components:

  1. Taxation
    • Funding/Incentives
  2. Policy and Legislation
    • Regulation & enforcement
    • Standards
  3. The Public Good
    • Public goods (air, water, local ecosystems)
  4. Civil Society
    • Political will
    • Culture

The Biosphere can be broken down into 3 main components:

  1. Ecosystem services
    • Waste recycling
    • Climate regulation
  2. Habitats
  3. Specimens
    • Species diversity, ensures population checks

Addressing Systemic Problems

Mr. Friedman's Solutions to Systemic Problems

  • Increased innovation by leveraging government policy & taxation
    • Efficiency as a goal, as opposed to a barrier (Porter Hypothesis, 1991)
    • Smart grid
    • Market incentive to spur innovation through price signals and tax incentives
      • Carbon tax, cap & trade
    • Mandated Federal efficiency standards
  • Manufacturing the clean energy system and export it
  • Conservation
    • Local vested interests powered by global capital

[added August 27, 2010]

I've finished reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded (will post a summary in a separate post), and I think I've summed up the big bullet points of his very enlightening book. He obviously goes into much more detail about each of these subjects, I'm doing a very bare bones reduction of the wealth of knowledge he offers (buy the book, it's fantastic!).

I like the way he focuses on the politics of the whole climate issue. From the Smart Grid to price signals (tax on carbon, etc) to conservation, he realizes that it all boils down to politics and money. In fact, he ends the book with a note on how people can change the world simply by voting.

In any case, his solution is focused on two important parts, and he goes into very specific details, and the third point he makes falls into place later on in the book. He talks about government as a market shaper, something else, and then talks briefly about leveraging America's history of manufacturing to export clean power technology to the world.

1) Legislation and government have to do a better job of supporting and encouraging sustainable energy development. The core of his argument is that without a stable outlook (low oil prices means renewables at their current scale become uneconomical, renewables are capital intense and with oil prices unstable the risk is not worth the reward), more companies will be encouraged to take risks related to renewable energy sources that can spur the kind of innovation that boosted the Internet to ubiquitous levels in the span of a decade. That's the kind of innovative power the market is capable of, but only if the outlook gives people a reasonable return on investment.  By introducing price signals (such as a carbon tax, or cap & trade system), return on investment in renewables can be reasonably guaranteed. And this next part I'm just going to paraphrase: Government seeds the innovation garden. Venture capital sees what blooms, and takes the best of the lot and tries to bring it to commercial scale. Right now, government in the US is failing to be the seed (though recent investments by Obama have helped to get them on the right track).

2) Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. This is a byproduct of all that government stuff. This is a huge point on the book, and the only reason it's short in my summary is because he provides many many great examples of efficiency that I won't go into here. Suffice to say, everything is about efficiency. Efficient production, consumption, and distribution. Now it should be noted that he is primarily talking about electricity generation (which makes sense), but I think the wider theme of efficiency is much more important. There was also a small bit on conservation as we traditionally know it (park zones, etc) and I think that these fall under "efficient land use" jurisdictions. You could argue that it's a separate point on its own, but I felt that his discussion of conservation was closely related to efficiency, so I lumped it in here.

3) Leveraging American manufacturing to make this a reality. Blue collar jobs are just waiting to be created. In this theme, Friedman talks a lot about China vying for more renewables manufacturing. Heck, they can do it, but China lacks the experienced, innovative American market. There's a reason America has been the world's growth engine for over a century.

In summary, the bulk of his book talks about the political deadlock and inaction with regards to climate change, and how we can solve it.

My solution

So far, I've just provided on what we need to do, without any real solutions. I think there are three large areas in which we can improve our interaction with the earth.

  1. Energy Policy (Generation, Consumption and Efficiency)
    1. Emissions-Free Solutions
    2. Infinitely Renewable Solutions
    3. Reduction in Demand
    4. Efficiency of Use and Generation
    5. Transportation Electrification
  2. Conservation
    1. Consumer Products and Realizing Complete Cycles
    2. Heavy Metals and Other Raw Materials
    3. Grey & Fresh Water, Maximizing Water Resources
  3. Social and Cultural Change
    1. Reduction of Animal Protein Consumption
    2. Reintroduction to Nature
    3. Sustainable Urban Development
  4. Government Action
    1. Political Will & Strong Leaders
    2. Long-run Vision Coupled with Short-run Sensibilities
  5. Systemic Change in Food Economy
    1. Revisioning the Global Food Economy
    2. True Market Mechanisms to Mediate Production
  6. Systemic Change in Financial Economy
    1. Redefining Wealth
  7. Global Issues
    1. Inequality of Wealth, Health, and Food
    2. Development of a Global Governance Framework
      • Reduce global democratic deficit
      • International law vis a vis human rights

[ed. I just re-did the general outline, and have to re-write all of this]

First and foremost, improve energy generation and consumption. This will trickle down into all the other aspects of the economy, from food production to transportation. Improvements in renewable energy will be paramount in moving to a clean energy system. Using a combination of solar, wind, and tidal, it is possible to provide in part some of the energy needed to sustain our current lifestyles. Now, at the other end of the coin, we need to improve efficiency so that we can actually rely on renewals completely, without resorting to things like nuclear (emissions free, but not a clean, renewable energy in any way) or even dirtier fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. By attacking this problem from both ends, we can gain the spoils of both sides at once, and in any case, they are mutually reinforcing goals. The way to spur the innovation we need for this level of investment from both consumers and producers is to implement a market incentive for people to pursue these kinds of innovative solutions on a large enough scale to make a difference. The kind of investment needed is pretty well articulated by Mr. Friedman, and he's had much better access to the people that matter than I will ever have. A shift away from the fuels from hell will certainly help us to move on and continue to prosper.

Goods & services consumption has to have efficiencies built in. From better use of raw materials, leveraging networks to reduce travel, reusable products, all the way to product end of life recycling, and synthetic materials where needed. Here is where almost everything we can do should be done. This point is mostly about responsible use of the resources we have already extracted. This is the idea of being a good (if there can be such a thing) consumer. Recycling products as much as possible, but also holding manufacturers responsible in dealing with the end of life of their product.

In terms of raw materials, one problem with the way we do things is that we're still mining the earth for metals. While there's no way we can stop doing that, I think we need to be better about it. Another way to address the issue is to take seriously the idea of using material from other sources to fuel our future growth. This is an absolutely crazy idea, but I think in the future, we will have to be relying on metals and other materials from the moon, or maybe even Mars. Eventually, the metals on earth will run out, and as I mentioned, using celestial raw materials is a bit out of reach for now, but it's something we'll have to consider in future.

Now, there is a very special raw material that I have to address on its own. It's the raw material that is most important to life, all over the world. Water. It's an issue that I think about in a very small way, but recently have realized that water is one of the limits of the next generation. In the US, the problem is that industry expends a lot of water into feed grain production, and thus when the US exports corn, in effect they are exporting their fresh water. The idea is called "virtual water". Canada actually does this too, but our industry isn't food, but pulp and paper. Now the StatsCan report (( actually organizes the water usage in a pretty odd way. The largest user of fresh water was a sector they called "Thermal-electric power generation".((Ibid. p 41)) The gross withdrawal was 66% of all water-use in Canada. The explanation of this industry states that it is used primarily for cooling for power generation.((Ibid.)) The industry did recirculate 15% of what it did withdraw (ie, re-used). Second, our industry used the next largest share at 14%. Paper and pulp was a full 45% of industry's share of water usage.((Ibid.)) The good news is that, as a whole, maufacturing reduced both water consumption AND water intake.  ((Ibid. p 43)) Very interesting to take a look at the over-all stats. I'd be interested in how well we utilize grey water for industrial purposes. I think what the report calls "recirculated" water, one could reasonably assume was grey water. Anyway, I would like to take a more detailed look at the water issue. It's not something that's getting as much attention in the whole debate as other, louder issues like climate change. Though water, and especially scarcity of it has a profound implication on the future of any system we design to grow our food, or even sustain our lifestyles of urban living, running water, and sewage lines.

As a nation, there's an image that Canada is very water-rich, and while I don't know that to be true or false, I can say that I definitely think of Canada as a nation that doesn't suffer from water shortage. Here's an interesting page I pulled up from the Conference Board of Canada, and the numbers are a little starling. (( In the section titled "Why does Canada use so much water?" ((, the report cites similar numbers to the StatsCan report. So it is encouraging to see that from 2000 to 2005, Canada's industry and thermal-power generators reduced water use. The thing that startled me though, was the fact that Canada was almost on par with the United States in terms of water usage. Now, I can't find anything in the StatsCan report (though I could probably take some numbers and do a measurement myself), but I do have a feeling that Canada's water consumption is high because of a combination of heavy industrial use and heavy residential use. Fortunately, the report mentions the best way to control water usage: up the rates. Similar to the carbon tax, which is effectively a rate hike on a barrel of oil, increases to the price of water can breed conservation and efficiency. Now, unlike oil, water can not be replaced by the sun. I think it's imperative that we start to do more to conserve and protect our water sources. With all the other systems of nature being jerked around, we are going to be less and less able to rely on natural processes to purify and recycle our precious resource. Indeed, wetlands and other water-cleansing ecosystems are often destroyed to make way for concrete or crops.

Within the biosphere, the solution is simply to stop fucking with it. By making sure we do all that we can in the political and economic spheres, this area of life should start to recover on its own. The world of the future is going to suffer from a convergence of climate change, fresh water shortage, and biodiversity loss. Needless to say, these three problems serve as amplifiers for every other issue. Climate change can exacerbate both biodiversity loss and fresh water shortage. Likewise, without fresh water and a stable climate, we lose biodiversity, whether it's in dead soil that erodes, or due to the dwindling supply of water/reduction in water quality due to industry available to species. Biodiversity loss can lead to inefficient ecological processes for recycling such things as water, air, and other important resources that we take for granted. Additionally, these kinds of systems can help to regulate the climate. We need to become stewards of the biosphere, and not interject with the systems and webs that form and sustain the surface of the rock we have been able to thrive on.

Social/cultural change.

We need a new paradigm in food production and transportation. Electrification of transportation (both mass, consumer and commercial) would be a hugely significant gain in this respect. For electricity to be viable as a power source for transportation, we need battery innovation, which the right legislation that provides price certainty for oil will push (on top of the already mentioned cleaner energy generation tech). Food production as it currently is uses a lot of fossil fuels, and often contributes a large part of the CO2 problem. First, a lot of agricultural inputs are based on petrochemicals. So, instead of relying on solid ecology, a lot of our commercial farms use inputs that stem from a fundamentally unsustainable source. Second, the methods of farming are very destructive to the ecology of the land in more ways than one. More and more these days "no-tillage" farming is becoming popular, which not only helps the soil ecology, but actually reduces the smaller amount of CO2 emissions that are released into the air when people till. With improvements across the board from energy consumption, production, and conversion to food, we can actually start to tackle the CO2 problem in a meaningful and significant way.

With government, there needs to be more political will to defend the public good. For decades now, we have been socializing the costs of our economic progress. Allowing carbon dioxide, food-borne illness, and other effects like ground-water contamination, etc. The political will needs to be created with the proper informational campaigns. People need to stop bickering over the issues that don't matter, and start to concentrate on actual, substantive problem solving. While I know I will live to never know the massive problems that are headed our way, my child's children will definitely wonder "What the fuck. Why didn't they do anything?" Seriously, it's that close. The civil society needs to get organized, and act before a single event galvanizes us into action. Because by the time a catastrophe has hit us, it is already too late to do anything meaningful about it. At that point, we just have technology and adaptation to help us. You know what they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. Much like actual health care spending, preventive care is much more effective than reactionary solutions.