We are as gods and might as well get good at it

Photo some rights reserved by Michael Coté

That was the opening line of the first issue of the Whole Earth Catalogue back in 1968. Last night I went along to one of the Long Now Seminars in San Francisco — organised by Stewart Brand, the person who penned that first line — to hear astrobiologist David Grinspoon give a talk.

Grinspoon’s talk applied the principles of how we look for life and potential civilisations in the rest of the universe to the Earth. If we were alien astrobiologists looking at our planet, what would we be able to tell? Grinspoon thinks it would be obvious that we’re an intelligent civilisation rather than just simple life and that’s mainly because of the effect that humans have had on land and the atmosphere. We’d quite obviously be in an anthropocene to outside observers or a period when life is having an intentional macrosopic effect on the planet. We are, to some extent, in control.

Grinspoon is an optimist that we will eventually control climate change — we have the tools, we just need to get good at using them. He points to the way that the hole in the ozone layer has now almost been reversed as a point of hope that it is possible to reverse unintentional man-made change in the atmosphere.

Whole Earth Discipline

Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years, partly because it’s very well written and researched but mainly because it made me change my mind about some important issues.

Perhaps the easiest argument for me to accept (although I still learned a great deal) was the section on cities. It’s always made sense to me that cities are more efficient use of resources and are the driving force behind new ideas and problem solving. I’m a pretty big believer that new things happen when you bring people together who have different skills and experiences. You can either design those situations — as things like the Manhattan Project show — or you can just sit and watch as it happens in cities — the more cosmopolitan and connected the better. Of course, as cities grow they develop new problems, but they solve them just as quickly as they produce them.

The next section is about nuclear power. I think I’ve been through my own mini-version of Stewart’s conversion story. He was properly involved in the environmental movement, in fact with the Whole Earth Catalogue you could say that he, more than many people, invented it. But over the decades he’s come to be frustrated with the side of the movement which ignores science which is something I’v noticed too. For me, there is just no strong enough argument against nuclear power, especially in the UK. We have all the experience, we even have a whole bunch of sites that are already suitable and we’ve actually developed some of the best reprocessing technology in the world.

From my reading around, there is enough nuclear fuel to last us until the end of the century which should hopefully be enough to come up with something else. Chernobyl couldn’t happen again, because nobody is proposing building that type of reactor. Over the next 25 years I think it’s going to be cheaper than renewables and will take up much less space too. My only caveats would be that we should spend as much on energy efficiency as we do on new generating capacity and that all nuclear facilities should be open to the public.

Next Stewart takes on the opponents of genetically engineered crops. This is where I get a little bit more uncomfortable, but in the end he and a lot of other things I’ve learned over the past few years have won me over. We don’t know enough yet but the basic safety questions have been answered and we should find out more so I’m in favour of more field trials and in the cases where there is good safety information and economic or health benefit we should go for it.

Finally, the book turns to what Stewart admits is the most controversial topic — geoengineering. Here I’m not ready to say we should get stuck in. Research yes, but I don’t think we have any real idea what tools will work, and even if they did work whether the unintended consequences would be even worse than the problems the technologies set out to solve. I find the idea fascinating and want to learn much more but the evidence of successful approaches or of the immediate need to deploy these technologies isn’t strong enough for me yet.

It’s a great book by one of the smartest and most radical people I’ve ever come across. Well worth a read and I think should definitely be read by the new Government who are going to have to grapple with the energy issue in a much more radical way than the last Government ever did.

(I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while. This article in Wired and realising I’ll probably make it to the Long Now seminar in September prompted me to finish it off.)

My Carbon Emissions for April 2009


I’ve got quite into the idea of publishing my energy use information, partly as a way of keeping tabs on what my big carbon emitting activities are, but mainly because I’m interested in learning how easy (or otherwise) it is to work out. I’ll publish it on the blog every month. If you know better ways of working out the CO2, let me know.

For the month of April 2009:

  • I did 20 days of commuting by train and tube (22 miles each day) = 50.000 kg CO2 (Data source)
  • I drove 373.3 km in the car at 155 g CO2/km = 57.860 kg CO2 (Data source)
  • I took no flights or long-distance trains this month. Yay! = 0 kg CO2 (from Dopplr)
  • And my home electricity usage was 121 kWH = 63.575 kg CO2 (From my Wattson)

So Grand Total = 171.435 kg CO2

Things I’ve left out:

  • Heat and hot water in my flat (this is provided from our onsite CHP and I can’t get monthly data)
  • Food (I don’t know how to measure this)
  • Embedded energy in products I buy (again, I don’t know how to measure this)
  • Electricity and energy in the office (might be able to do this soon)

Going nuclear

Just a quick post on the UK Government’s decision a couple of weeks ago to give the go ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations. The decision for me is a stupid one rather than a dangerous one — I’m not anti-nuclear for safety reasons — my main objection is that the Government has just reduced the chances of an entrepreneurial set of solutions to a secure low carbon energy future.

I think they’ve pushed investment in micro and renewable energy in the UK back by a decade. It’s an industry that could grow really rapidly, providing employment and massive value but now the money is going to go to a few big firms that will — however you try to cut the figures — end up being be publicly subsidised.

Actually, my guess is that by 2020 nuclear construction will have halted. There will be court case after court case, protest after protest (and by the way, there are also hardly any trained nuclear engineers in the UK). We will end up with a set of mothballed nuclear construction sites and collapsed companies who have invested billions. Somebody is going to pick up the bill and you can expect lawyers to make tens of millions of pounds over the coming years writing the liability contracts for all this. If it doesn’t bring down the energy companies, it will bring down their insurers. Or Government will pick up the bill.

It’s an awful decision that shows no foresight and no trust in green innovation or entrepreneurialism.