Sunday, August 13, 2017

Common-Sense Solutions and Win-Win Situations

Yesterday I heard an online presentation by Paul Hawken, a long-time expert on integrating environmental concerns (particularly carbon emissions) into economics. His theme, including that of his new book Drawdown, has consistently been that solving the global warming crisis doesn’t cost; it pays. In particular, he says that the most important things we can do are things we are already doing for other reasons, and things that will save us money in the long (or short) term. Although this book has been criticized (Science, 26 May 2017, page 811) for the questionable way in which the actual numbers were calculated (no one can produce an adequate numerical summary of the whole world economy), no one disputes the general conclusion. (I have not provided hyperlinks to the Science articles, which are only available to subscribers, even the news items and book reviews.)

Here are some particularly good examples that caught my attention.

  • One of his photos showed a Bolivian woman who lives on a floating mat of straw in Lake Titicaca. She had been heating her grass hut with a kerosene lamp, which poses an obvious fire hazard. She had just received a solar panel and was very happy. She was probably not thinking, “At last, I get to do my part in reducing global warming!” The solar panel helped her life and, incidentally, helped to reduce global warming.
  • Another photo showed cows eating kelp. Apparently, this helps them grow bigger because kelp is converted to animal mass more efficiently than is grass. The cattle produce more meat and less methane. Incidentally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Another point was that by reducing food waste, and by having a diet that is more plant-centered (contains less meat), we can feed more people and be healthier, a double win. Incidentally, it also means we will produce less agricultural carbon dioxide and methane. Hawken’s calculations do not include methane from landfills where the food waste is dumped.
  • Having more efficient cooking stoves in rural India will make everyone’s lives better, because the people (mostly women) will have to spend less time gathering firewood, and they will be healthier because their huts will have less smoke. Incidentally, this also reduces carbon emissions.
  • A lot of methane emission comes from rice paddies that are kept flooded (anaerobic) throughout the growing season. But by periodically releasing the water, the growth conditions become aerobic and the plants grow better. Incidentally, the aerobic conditions result in lower methane emissions.

One proposed solution to global warming is carbon sequestration, that is, to burn fossil fuels in power plants but then to scrub the carbon out of the effluent. This was, until very recently, an expensive process, using up to 30 percent of the electricity that the power plant produces. But recent technological advances have greatly improved the efficiency. You can read about one of these on page 796 of the 26 May 2017 issue of Science. Another idea, described on page 805, is to use the carbon dioxide itself, rather than steam, to turn the electrical generation turbine blades.

And the technological innovations go on and on. In California, scientists have improved on the efficiency of algal biomass production for fuel (see the 14 July issue of Science, page 120). We currently use corn biofuels in most of our gasoline, which is a government perk that corn farmers love, but corn biofuel does not reduce carbon emissions very much. We now have improved methods of cellulosic biofuel production, for instance in switchgrass. Switchgrass and other cellulosic biofuels can be produced without cultivation, and without fertilization, in marginal land, leaving the good farmland to raise food (such as corn) for people (see Science, 30 June 2017, page 1349).

But none of this matters, because the Trump Administration has removed all incentives for reducing carbon emissions. Just when we were about to meet the goals, the goals vanish. American ingenuity down the drain.

The best example of all was that allowing women in poor countries to have access to education and to contraception greatly improves their lives because they can then have fewer children (and provide more resources and attention to the (usually) two that they do have). Their lives are vastly improved. According to Hawken’s calculations (similar to those of Michael Bloomberg, J. P. Morgan Chase, and the World Bank), helping women in poor countries is the single most significant factor in reducing greenhouse emissions.

What’s there not to like?

Win-win and common-sense solutions almost never work because, while they are in the interests of almost everyone, they are not in the interests of political and religious leaders. Political leaders think only of how they can get more power or campaign contributions. And religious leaders (such as fundamentalist Christian and Muslim preachers) actively oppose birth control. The blindness created by and parasitized by our political and religious leaders will keep us from even doing the things that would make life better for all of us for reasons unconnected to global warming. Led by the United States, the world will plunge into a global warming nightmare.

Dieter Helm’s Burn Out (reviewed in Science, 19 May 2017, page 709) explains that our economy will shift away from fossil fuels unless, or even if, we actively try to keep it from doing so. I hope that the dedicated efforts of the conservatives does not totally prevent this from happening.

What hope can we have if, each day, we are relieved when President Trump has not yet started a nuclear war?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Intelligent Design vs. Writing a Novel

In summer, I have time to write novels. Maybe someday I will actually publish one.

Writing a novel is one of the closest experiences a human can have to being a Creator. The writer creates a world that must make internal sense, and in which something meaningful happens to characters about whom a reader can care. There has to be what one agent called a “redemptive arc,” in which the character’s struggles are resolved, even if the character dies. There has to be a balance; if I introduce some important force into the story, I have to have it as part of the resolution, and not leave it dangling. Perhaps most important, every scene must advance the plot in some way. Especially in today’s fiction market, there is no room for casual “asides.” (One famous example of an “aside” occurs in All the King’s Men, the novel about a corrupt governor in the early twentieth century, in which Robert Penn Warren inserted a totally unrelated story about adultery in the Civil War era.)

In three of my novels, I have imbedded a short story. In Edd’s Land, I imbedded Plantation Odyssey; in Nancy’s War, I imbedded Strangers in Green Hollow; and in Q’s the Name, I imbedded Seaside Alders. Each of the imbedded stories is a piece that was conceived as an independent novel but had no chance of surviving to term on its own. But I couldn’t just stick them in; I had to make them advance the main plot of the novel. In all three cases, I figured a way to do so.

In one of my novels, I realized that I needed to introduce the two main characters on page one. I had introduced one of them on page one, the other on page three; I realized this was a defective structure.

I also have a tendency to put in intellectual speeches, usually about religion and botany. But when I do so, I make sure they, too, advance the plot.

To have a careful structure that carries the reader along on a journey of understanding without confusing them or tripping them up or making them have to work hard to figure things out; most readers are tired, even the ones who seek understanding rather than cheap thrills. This is what it means to be a Creator.

But when you look at the universe, this is not what you see. I will give just one example. Genes of DNA (the genome) encodes the proteins that do the work of the cell. But in every case, the gene is broken up into fragments by introns, and separated by non-genetic DNA. As a matter of fact, the non-genetic DNA comprises at least 98 percent of the DNA in the cell! In some cases, as with the photosynthetic enzyme ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase, part of the enzyme is encoded in the nucleus, and another part in the chloroplast, before being assembled. It is a jumble of confusion. Nobody understands it. Nobody can look at the structure of genes and say, “Behold! Now I understand the mind of God.” Francis Collins tried, bless his heart, but it didn’t work. It looks like a Rube Goldberg apparatus. The only reason that gene expression works at all is that natural selection gets rid of any that do not work, and there must have been, over billions of years, a lot of failures. In addition, the genome contains lots and lots and lots of dead viruses.

In other words, God is either a Rube Goldberg, or is not a Creator in the fundamentalist sense.

Whoever “wrote” the genome of a typical human (or flatworm or tree) was not doing what a human creator does, giving it a logical or even comprehensible structure. The genome is more like a computer drive in which not only is the final document saved but also all of the fragments and editorial comments appear in the form of blockout print. Who would ever think of sending “John walked down the road This part is confusing. Why was he walking down the road toward isn’t it supposed to be towards? his destination Well where else would he be walking but his destination? Insert the scene from the beginning of chapter 3 here” to an editor?

The creation is not like a movie, even a bad one. It is like a movie in which all of the outtakes from the cutting-room floor are inserted at random places in the movie. No competent author would look to the genome for inspiration about how to write.