Big Crazy Ideas, A New Take / by Simmon Li

Contents

  1. Theory
  2. Introduction
  3. Energy
  4. Food
  5. Outline

The Earth As A System:

  • Natural
    • Environment
      • Services
      • Climate
      • Carrying capacity
    • Biosphere
      • Species Webs
      • Biodiversity
  • Constructed
    • States
      • Governments
        • Taxation
        • Policy, Legislation, and Regulation
        • The Public Good and other Public Goods
      • Civil Society
        • Culture and Social Norms
        • Political Will
    • Economy
      • Food
      • Infrastructure
      • Resources
      • Currency
      • Innovation

So, the earth breaks down into two major categories. Natural and Constructed. As they say, this is an anthropomorphic world these days, and so I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I like the way this outline is constructed, differentiating from the two main forms of our world. Further, it breaks down the constructed into theoretical and physical objects, both of which impose on nature. The central tenant is that everything is connected. Through constructed forms, we impose on the natural world in a way never before seen in history. At the core of human existence is consumption. We all produce waste from our consumption. In the context of consumption, cultural differences matter only so much as it seems to have an effect on the amount of consumption or waste that we produce. That’s not to say cultural differences are the only cause of increased consumption, but the case could be made that it plays a part in levels of consumption. I think it’s important to realize that the emergence of global culture (if there is such a thing) will play an important part in defining levels of consumption for decades to come. It seems as though improved means generates higher consumption, by way of a cultural convergence. China and India seem to prove this point, but that assertion comes into question when you consider the type of people doing the consuming in these nations. The “new middle class” of India and China tend to fit Western ideals of affluence: excessive consumption in both necessary and discretionary goods. So the question becomes one of causality. Does affluence cause a change in culture? The idea is that by adopting capitalism, you stoke greed, and greed changes the way people operate, thus changing culture. Or does a change in culture then impart affluence? The ideas of cultural imperialism are a very good parallel here. This is a very contentious issue if you ask me, considering that the Western definition of wealth is something I have reservations about. At the end of the day, a lot of these cultural and social questions lead me to wonder if capitalism really is the best system of resource allocation we have. I know we could do worse, but I feel that we could do better.

It seems to me that the important issues of our day (anthropomorphic climate change, economic inequality, food inequality, and sustainable development issues) all stem from the perversion of capitalistic ideals and philosophies. For example, utilitarianism is not a philosophy focused on the future of happiness. As far as I am aware, it’s the immediate utility of an action. The immediate problem that jumps out at me is that utilitarianism does not account for the long-term happiness of a society in the long run.

So far, there does not seem to be (in my limited and highly lacking knowledge) any viable alternative to capitalism. While I think anti-capitalists are on to something, I don’t think opposing capitalism without at least attempting to revise or propose an alternative is constructive. Anarchy, in the truest sense of the word, is not appropriate for the world as it is. I don’t think true anarchy would be very productive at all. To be fair, there are many concepts that are ascribed to “anarchy” and similarly, there are a number of different interpretations of “capitalism.”  Paramount though, is the rule of law that is inherent as a part of the liberal capitalist system. While private property rights are important to capitalism, a lot of the other laws are based on the liberal ideas of the state as a social control structure. My solution? I don’t have one. I just think that it is important in developed societies, and any sort of proposal or candidate for replacing capitalism must maintain some sort of rule of law. There are pragmatic solutions that work within the liberal capitalist system, but to me, the more important question becomes how we can do better. Capitalism is arguably the most comfortable and efficient system we have come up with for resource allocation, but clearly we can do better. Perhaps doing better entails working within the system to improve it. Perhaps capitalism, utilitarianism, and liberal markets truly are the best way to allocate resources. In theory, it seems pure (much like communism in theory, I might add) but the manifestations we’re dealing with clearly are not as theoretical as we like.

Since I don’t have an answer or conclusion to the previous point, let’s just stick with what we have. The question then moves to how you rationalize the whole system. I’ve approached it two ways. First, imagine the global system as an emergence. Second, imagine the global system as already functioning. Basically, did the global system emerge as we expanded, or have we merely discovered and institutionalized the mechanisms of basic human interaction on such a large scale? I tend to favour the first, because true global governance has not been achieved yet in an effective manner, and I think that, while we’ve institutionalized some aspects of it, there are clearly other aspects of a system that have yet to emerge.

 

Energy Policy

The future of energy policy is important. I think it is extremely important to start considering alternatives to combustibles, less we resign ourselves to a world in which our children and grand children will have a harder time living the lifestyles that we have given ourselves. There are a few (many) ways to approach energy policy, but I think any policy has to focus on the future of energy. There are those that will tell you we can live completely on sustainable energy, and while the vision and dream is amazing, I think it is slightly impossible to achieve that within the next 2 or 3 decades. I believe that coal will still provide a lion’s share of energy in the near future, and that any plan that claims to address our energy future must contend with coal.

How do we get there? Well first, let’s deal with coal. I don’t have so much faith in carbon sequestration. I think there are too many things that could go wrong for it to be a viable solution to the coal emissions problem. What’s interesting about carbon emissions sequestration is that it seems to be a solution favoured by many. What I see as a problem is not so much the fact that we’re putting it underground, it’s more that underground cavities can presumably only take on so much carbon. Presumably, if the pressure exceeds a certain threshold, that carbon will try to find a way out, and that’s one problem I can see that is a huge hamper on the process. The other is the ways in which we can store the carbon. I know of the process where coal is liquefied, and then burned. This helps to improve the cleanliness of it, but completely sidesteps the problem of emissions. The proponents of this method claim that the resulting emissions are much cleaner than if the coal had not been liquefied. Now, be that I have no experience in any of this, nor any practical knowledge of the chemistry and physics involved, is it not possible to liquefy the emission gasses of burning coal? Perhaps it is, but the cost is prohibited. But let’s imagine that we can, I don’t think such a solution solves anything, as we’d still have to put that liquid somewhere. We can not put it in the ocean (indeed, that would be a stupid idea, considering the acidity level is already much higher than we’d like them to be). I think burying it leads to the same problem as gaseous sequestration, not to mention the possibility of the stuff really messing with our water (which is a contentious issue in its own right). So what the heck do we do with coal emissions? Well, I think we can find ways to reuse it. Apparently, there’s the ability to use it to create jet fuel, and other kinds of combustible fuel. I think that’s a start, but the problem with that process is that it requires fuel. I was thinking along the lines of using it as some sort of fertilizer or food for an organism that can convert the stuff into something useful (like hydro-carbons), but in a way that doesn’t require more energy. Photosynthesis uses carbon. There must be some way we can leverage all this excess carbon and make that process work for us.  I’m sure people much smarter than me have considered these ideas, and so I’ll stop writing about combustibles. The point is that without addressing the emissions and burning of such materials, any energy future is unviable.

Next, let’s turn attention to all the green solutions. Solar has many problems, right off the bat. Production of solar panels is extremely costly in both capital and material terms. Silicon, and other exotic materials that the production relies on (though it has massively improved in recent years, I’ve heard) make for a reliance on solar a bit questionable to me. Not to mention the fact that such a solution requires a lot of real estate. A lot of people say “Oh just put it in the desert, it’ll be fine”, but I don’t think that’s an acceptable solution for the longer term. Deserts, as in hospitable as they are, are ecosystems in their own right, and covering them in solar panels isn’t the way to go. I think the most effective use of solar panels would be to cover any created surface that otherwise wouldn’t exist: roofs are a perfect example. Here we come to a huge road block in many countries: the idea that power generation and energy generation is top down. I think our energy grid is a major hurdle to jump if we are to seriously consider improving energy consumption in suburban North America. A lot of people take for granted their ability to generate power for themselves. Think of all the roofs in North America that can bear solar panels. Is the capital cost intense? Yes, it’s an investment, but I think if the energy distribution infrastructure (the smart grid idea) implements a way for people to share and distribute their own power as well as receive power from a central generation station, it would encourage much more people to really get on board. Thinking about installing solar panels and maybe a small wind mill? Well, if you could sell excess energy back to the grid, the intense capital costs of the project would likely pay for itself over time. It would be an investment that’s for sure. I just read about “social bonds” in the Globe. The idea is that, as an investor, you put a bond out there. The government can use the money to implement some policy or initiative, and you get paid from the savings the government generates. That’s a very quick and dirty version of it, but I think the model is a good one for encouraging installation of solar panels, except instead of government paying the investor, the consumer takes the burden on from the savings they generate in energy. The scale of such a bond would have to be large to produce the kinds of return on investment that would make starting a bond useful, but I don’t think it would be a problem if people understand the mechanics of it. Is such a social bond viable? Perhaps, I think, given that Ontario is already providing assistance through the FIT program, it becomes a viable way to redirect government investment in a more incentivised way. The problem with the FIT program is that the scale isn’t very large. The scale of the program itself, though, is limited by the way in which it is set up (as a tax credit, as far as I know). The FIT program could also be tuned to encourage investment in other forms of renewable as  well (which is does already). In any case, the specific problems with solar I’ve mentioned can be applied more generally to other renewables: the cost of implementation are high, and the general consumer (ie, household) has no viable way to finance the project. There is no market mechanism to encourage this kind of investment, and the problem is that such investment remains in the “feel-good” area of spending. Without a market mechanism to ensure returns on the investment (right now, returns are heavily reliant on the government in the form of tax credits or subsidies), such improvements will not really catch on as ways to make money. Say what you want about capitalism, but behavioural economics has a lot of teach us. This brings the discussion to what I find really interesting at the moment: aligning capitalism with the greater good of our species. Some call it the public good, and I think that’s a really good way of looking at it, but that’s a discussion for another part of this analysis. In any case, shifting back to the idea of renewables: if we address the problem of an efficient power distribution system, we can also modernize the way in which traditional users interact with the central power producer. I think a smart grid will only truly be smart when it encourages users to reduce use through a combination of price controls which shape behaviour, but also the de-monopolization of production. In a bit of capitalist flourish: liberalize the energy delivery market. Why does our energy production have to rely on a central authority? In this case, an international markets analogy works very well. Instead of having the household stuck importing the whole of their domestic consumption (which is almost always a disadvantage in the markets of the real world), give them the ability to compete, and to export as well. By making such ability available, I think it encourages more adoption of renewable in a practical, market oriented way. I’m hardly anti-capitalist, as my objections stem more from the moral corruption of what we now know as capitalism, but I feel that aligning a moral goal and market goal (in this case, a more sustainable energy future and making money) is admirable and something that we should strive to do at every given opportunity.

Now, let’s move to talk about nuclear energy. This one’s a pickle. I’m for it in the short term (which I will leave undefined for now), and against it for the long term. I think it’s one of those ‘quick fix’ solutions that will be handy for us while we seek to make renewables competitive with combustibles. The problem with that vision is that for renewables to be competitive with combustibles, we really need to have a framework of energy policy that encourages such development. If any one part of the policy framework is missing, then it becomes almost impossible to leverage nuclear in the short term that I’d like to see. Without key planks in the framework, nuclear becomes a longer term solution. It might not be such a bad thing, as nuclear generation has huge capital costs, but again we run into that problem of, in a manner of speaking, an authoritarian power distribution system, which brings into question the viability of investing in nuclear before addressing the underlying problem of distribution. While I think more power is something we’ll definitely need, without addressing the grid, it would be a folly to invest huge capital in nuclear projects that will only add to our headaches down the road. So I guess I just hashed out my position on nuclear. It’s an okay solution in the short term, but not in the long term. The paradox is that the nature of nuclear power generation necessarily means huge capital costs, which relegates it (in business terms) to the “long term investment” category. Fundamentally, I have a problem with this, and the question becomes, “why not address the underlying problem of the power market with that capital?” The capital costs of a nuclear power plant would be better spent on changing the distribution market. The infrastructure is definitely a long term investment, and it also encourages a liberal market. A nuclear plant is a long term investment, but I feel is not something that will be useful in the longer term: the investment loses its utility in the over-a-decade time frame. The same is not true of a new distribution framework. It seems to me, by even discussing more centralized power production capability, we’re approaching the problem from the wrong direction. With nuclear, we’re investing in perpetuating the idea of a centralized market. With investment in a more distributed and liberalized domestic energy market, the investment means innovation, and new ways of thinking. Such an open window would likely prove to add more value in the long run than a nuclear generating plant. And notice that we’re not talking about any tangible effect on the environment here: this is purely a discussion of the market direction as far as I’m concerned. Liberalize the market, encourage innovation, and the nature of the game changes. If you ask me, changing the way the game is played is worth much more than playing the game better. In terms of capital investment, a bet on a liberalized distribution grid seems to have infinitely more potential than the nuclear generation plant.

 

Food Economy

From this discussion, I turn to the specific issue of the industrialized food system which is so persuasive in the modern world. Each developed nation, in general, has a central food control board, either by name or by actual power. Food, as a commodity, is kept under the watchful (or not so watchful) eye of the government, for better or for worse. It is within the context of this global food system that I want to talk about change from within the system.

First, let’s address change within the system in a more traditional sense. As you may or may not know, I was very interested in the whole idea of local, organically grown crops as a solution to feeding cities in a sustainable manner. Obviously, my research into the possibility had returned to me a resounding “no!” The intensity is just not matched by the organic system as far as investment is concerned. The turnaround time to make an organic farm from a commercial system is enormous, during which the farm suffers lower yield. I think there’s a place for such practices, but the truth is that if the world switched to organic farming completely, there would be famine (more so than there currently is). The second issue with this system is the fundamental reliance on animal protein. A lot of the larger organic operations are simply substituting organic corn for regular corn feed, thus producing “organic” “free-range” chickens. Chickens are among the most efficient grain:meat converters we have. I believe pork is slightly better. At the end of the day, the animal protein conversion rates hover around 17%. For every pound of grain, 17% of that energy is converted to edible weight. Invention of mechanical separation and other meat recovery techniques have increased the efficiency of the system somewhat, but it is still sorely lacking. Cultural change will be key in making sure that demand for the future generations will be met. Less consumption of meat will mean less grain needed, which means we can, ideally, grow less grain. This means more land for other purposes. Alas, this brings me to the next point, a considerably more radical idea, but one worth examining.

I was just introduced to some wild research on mirco-crop and micro-livestock production that I had not considered as a specific concept. I mean, I had “Sustainable development” as a point, but had not put much thought into specific manifestations of it. The result is that, not only do we have to address the problems already inherent with the industrialized food production system (industrial organic, food safety for such a system, etc), but also the possibility of a completely different system of production based on ideas of micro-crop and micro-livestock production. While this system of production would be “outside the system” of the industrial food sector, it would work within the framework of the liberal capitalist market model of society. Within the market framework, there are plenty of problems we much address. Specifically, there is a large chunk of missing regulation and oversight, not to speak of the cultural change that needs to happen for us to make the jump to eating insects for protein. Let’s address the relatively straight forward micro-crop side of the system first. Basically, the micro-level system functions in a similar way to the “macro” level system (corn is grown to feed cows, which we then eat). Algae requires much less space, is fairly easy to grow and harvest, and is much easier to manage. The key is that the foot print of algae is much smaller, as compared to wheat, especially when we’re using this feed material to sustain a population of livestock we wish to ultimately eat. The research I saw claims that not only can algae be this miracle food (this I don’t doubt), it can also clean the air and filter water! The second claim seems to be a case of overselling to me, and is worth further investigation. But let’s assume that it can marginally help in these endavours, and thus doesn’t cause us any harm. The next question then becomes regulation of such an industry if we want to scale it up to sustain populations as opposed to tribes.

First things first, because the cultural aspect of this issue is sure to cause a huge uproar (not to mention religion), there are a few important questions we have to ask. First and foremost, what kinds of food safety concerns should we be aware of? While such a concept sounds easy (partly, I think due to the categorization of “micro”), there are important health and safety considerations, and will require through insight. People have been eating insects for a long time, so it’s not so much that such a practice is “bad” for us, but rather; the reason such concerns need to be addressed stem largely from the cultural gap in the Western conception of diet. Second, should the regulation be in place first to encourage exploration of this type of food supply? While such preemptive oversight and regulatory framework will be full of holes, it will hopefully pique interest and explore the limits and implications. The problem of the chicken or the egg manifests itself handily in this issue. Without regulation, eating of insects is technically not illegal, though it is a cultural soft spot. Is it wiser to address the issue preemptively, making sure production adheres to some set of arbitrary standards which will be continually reviewed? Or would passing such legislation require the change in cultural aversion to insect eating first? Keep in mind that such scale of cultural change would be extremely hampered by the lack of exposure and some guarantee of safety, either by government institution or producer initiative. Another important aspect of legislation is important to keep in mind. Such a new food production method would have large implications for the agribusiness field. The introduction of such a radical change in food production would effectively serve to unify the quasi-dissident voices in the current food environment. After-all, an apple is an apple. In unifying the agribusiness, such an alternative system of food production faces a massive hurdle in even being considered.

Finally, there are important considers should the system be implemented on a large enough scale to warrant competition with the traditional “macro” level production of food. Immediately, images of the dystopian Soylent Green jump to my head. Such integration of the “micro” level food production paradigm would have immense socio-economic implications on society at large. Effectively, should the “micro” level production gain competitive capacity, it will create a two-tier food system. Considering that “micro” level food would be cheaper to buy due to its smaller capital and labour costs, it has the potential to split society along Marxist lines. The potential for social upheaval is incredible and should not be underestimated. So, the question of even putting such an alternative system of food production on the table becomes complicated. When one considers the hurdles that such an alternative system encounters, it is worth considering ways in which some hurdles could be eliminated.

That’s the other level to this whole micro-level crop and livestock production. Food is such a cultural issue. Attempting to implement this system of production in which the society is not prepared for it would be incredibly hard. This micro-level food production could be a very important step towards sustainable development within the liberal capitalist system that we have, but at the same time, it challenges some aspects of the culture that we have generated by sticking to this system. The idea of cultural change is interesting because in effect, it requires legislation of the grandest scale. The plausibility of this idea is not questioned, insect eating is certainly a viable way to obtain protein (as some other cultures have proven), it is just a matter of cultural malleability and adaptability.

The more I talk about these issues, the more I dislike this outline too. I keep changing the framework with which I approach the problems, and it keeps changing the outline. The best approach to issues like this seems to be a focus on specific institutions. This way, it’s possible to talk about multiple convergences of theories and manifestations of ideas. For example, this whole food system discussion includes an extensive discussion on culture, and if I had the necessary knowledge, it could entail an extensive discussion on the economics, technical aspects, and legal issues of it all as well. (Perhaps that’s something I will investigate later). So instead of talking about “Systemic Change in the Food Economy” and “Social and Cultural Change” and “Government and Citizen Action”, I’m somewhere between those three main points. I’m not sure how I should organize my thoughts, but all the important issues I want to address seem to be covered.

Politics

One of the major things that has come up recently, that I feel really needs to be addressed before any of our other issues can even realistically be addressed is the issue of politics and the means of power within the Western bloc of nations. This concern about political power in these countries stems from the fact that I live in them.

It strikes me as obvious that the incentives given for political power are no longer such lofty ideas as the "common good", though it remains heavily emphasized in theory. While that goal is most certainly noble and worthy, it's clear to me that a lot of politics in Western countries does not really revolve around the common good, but rather, in the language of serving the people, politicians increasingly appear to enrich their own private fortunes, sometimes at the expense of the common good.

 

Outline

The outline from the original post still works (as I had revised it several times, heading towards this direction), so I think I can just copy and paste it here:

  1. Energy Policy (Generation, Consumption and Efficiency)
    1. Short-term, emissions-free solutions
    2. Infinitely renewable solutions
    3. Consumer demand mediation
    4. Efficiency of use and generation
    5. Transportation electrification/mass transit
  2. Conservation
    1. Consumer products and material efficiency
    2. Heavy metals and other raw materials
    3. Grey & fresh water optimization
  3. Social and Cultural Change
    1. Reduction of animal protein consumption
    2. Reintroduction to nature
    3. Sustainable (urban) development
    4. On cultural limitations vis-a-vis food
  4. Government and Citizen Action
    1. Political will & strong leaders
    2. Long-run vision coupled with short-run sensibilities
  5. Systemic Change in Food Economy
    1. Rethinking the global food economy
    2. True market mechanisms to mediate production
  6. Systemic Change in Financial Economy
    1. Redefining wealth
    2. Moralization of the market
  7. Global Issues
    1. Inequality of wealth, health, and food
    2. Development of a global governance framework
      • Addressing the global democratic deficit
      • Development of a global legitimacy for international law