Saturday, November 13, 2010

Growing The Global Economy

You know those big steel cargo containers that cross the sea on ships, and go inland on railroad flat cars? The started out going in the opposite direction, carrying ordnance and materiel for Americans fighting in Vietnam. The containers had to come back deadhead, so the owners searched for cargoes to bring east across the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the Cold War had created electronic technology that allowed immediate communication between Asia and America. Electronics also allowed automation. It became possible to manufacture tools toys and clothing anywhere in the world for consumption at home.

Labor was cheaper outside the industrially developed world.

Americans were looking for bargains as consumers and return on investment as investors (investment was how we planned on a graceful old age).

Consider this: Consumers insisted on bargains; sellers satisfied this desire by exporting manufacturing; consumers lost buying power, and needed bargains; sellers cut costs further, exporting more manufacturing, and demanding wage concessions; buyers needing more and greater bargains took their business away from smaller retailers, putting them out of business; sellers...

Positive feedback.

Positive Feedback: Don't Push This Button!

Hold the microphone up to the speaker. It will shriek. The mic has picked up the speakers hissing and crackling, and fed it back, picked that sound up and fed it back. It does this again and again, at nearly the speed of light, until the sound is unbearably loud and high-pitched.

You could make a thermostat that raised its setting every time the temperature reached the prior setting. Eventually your house would be a sauna.

Both of these are examples of positive feedback.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dodging The Carrying Capacity Bullet

In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese had larger, stronger boats than the Europeans did, propelled by oar and sail. They got out of the sea-going business as a cost-cutting measure about seventy years before Columbus' famous voyage. Since then -- and for the moment -- it's been a European planet.

Before the Renaissance (Columbus' time), plague had wiped out a large fraction of Europe's population. This deprived Europe of hands and minds, but also spared it mouths to feed. Colonization, beginning during the Renaissance,  enriched Europe more by giving it new new continents for excess population than as a source for gold. Europe dodged the carrying capacity bullet.

By the eighteenth century, timber was reduced enough in Europe to force a fuel conversion from charcoal to coal. In 1856, the world's first oil well began pumping near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Henry Ford began mass producing Model T automobiles in 1909, but World War II showed us what oil could really do.

The New World is settled and full. We've pumped half the oil, and it will keep getting harder and more expensive to pump what's left.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What is Carrying Capacity

What is carrying capacity?

Carrying capacity is the environment's ability to provide for a population. Foxes need a certain population of rodents, whales need plankton.

Humans need...

It's interesting that primitive farmers could stay in the same place longer than hunter-gatherers, but degraded their territory more thoroughly. The farmers needed the materials and fuels for the technology they needed to farm, and because of the higher yields, there could be more of them, and all those hands were useful for farm chores.

21st century humans need...


Animals become extinct because they don't behave in way that fit the place where they live. The dinosaurs were okay for millions and millions of years, then a comet put a lot of dust in the atmosphere, and the world couldn't grow enough food to support them. Evil scientists put deer on an island where there hadn't been any, and where there weren't any animals that eat deer. The deer had it pretty good until there were too many deer, and they had eaten all the food.

Environmentalists believe that humans are like the deer on the island, sometime before all the food was gone.

Occam's Razor

In understanding what we see, we invent explanations or hypotheses, and see if they always explain what happens.

The best ones account for everything that happens, and usually don't assume more than one new idea. Rube Goldberg's machines were just the opposite.

This is called Occam's Razor -- or the Law of Parsimony -- named after a Franciscan monk who wrote something like what I just did over five hundred years ago. The razor in the name "shaves" away extra assumptions. If the cookie jar is empty, our first thought is that somebody we know is in the house, and not Martians, took the cookies.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Greenhouse Effect Theory

Is it reasonable to believe carbon dioxide from human activity warms the Earth?

Ultraviolet radiation enters the atmosphere and warms soil, rock, and so on. The warmed matter radiates infrared radiation. The idea is that the infrared escapes into space more easily if there is less carbon dioxide in the air, and stays if there's more.

   * The physics is well understood, and can be demonstrated in a laboratory;

   *  The planet is warming;

   *  There has been a correlation between temperature (with a dip in the 1940s) and industrial production of carbon dioxide since about 1870, when consistent, global measurements began;

   * There has been a correlation between ancient temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide shown in ice cores and and mud cores taken from under the oceans;

* The atmosphere has warmed, as shown by a higher tropopause (the boundary between the lower atmosphere and the stratosphere; gases expand when they are warmed).

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why People Are Vegetarians

Some people stop eating meat. Why?

Certainly a lot of vegetarians are sympathetic with meat animals. Others have various health concerns about meat; some hold water; some don't.

The strongest argument, in my book, is that raising an animal for food requires several times more protein than that animal yields. Some people argue that we can feed the whole world on a vegetarian diet, but not a meat-based diet. People who act on this argument are called "trophic-pyramid vegetarians."

The argument against trophic-pyramid vegetarianism is that a world getting its protein from beans and grain would demand endless fields of nothing but grain and beans. I can't buy it, because we already have that to support the livestock.

I will say that, were the world to adopt an ecologically sensitive food system (call it "permaculture"), it would probably be irresponsible not to eat meat.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

You Never Prove Anything

You can never prove anything.

2, 4, 6... 8, right? How about 10? (2+4=6, 4+6=10, or because I was pulling numbers out of a hat, and those were the ones that I happened to grab)

2, 4, 6, 10... 16, right? How about 12? (2, 4, 6, skip to ten any way you want, then start counting by twos again)

There's always the possibility, if not the likelihood that something unanticipated will explain your data in a way that invalidates your theory. (Everything is a theory.)

Still, there's a hierarchy of plausibility. Nobody is going to jump off any cliffs soon, expecting to fly.

We see something, think about what might make it happen, and get some ideas. Those ideas are hypotheses. We test a hypothesis by predicting things that would happen if it were true. "Objects will not float off the table." "Objects will fall if I drop them." "Planets will maintain certain orbits around the Sun." "Because Neptune's orbit isn't what we expect, we can expect another planet (Pluto) here."

When a hypothesis has a record as a reliable predictor, call it a theory.

The Gaia Hypothesis

The Gaia Hypothesis is an idea of James Lovelock's that says that life affects Earth's environment to maintain good conditions for itself.

In the 1960s, Lovelock was a scientist contracting with NASA to figure out how to find out if there is life on Mars. Lovelock said he would look for evidence that something was working against entropy. Entropy is the tendency for systems to become less organized. Life is the exception.

Lovelock began to look at our planet the same way. He noticed that the composition of the atmosphere stays within fairly tight limits. Oxygen, for instance, remains in the narrow range between being inadequate and enabling holocaust. In his book, The Gaia Hypothesis, Lovelock cites other planetary material cycles, particularly methane, as evidence.

Negative Feedback

In a system, something that limits an output is called "negative feedback."

An example is a house's thermostat. The family uses a furnace to heat their house. They decide what temperature to keep the house, and set the thermostat for that temperature. The thermostat is simply a temperature sensor that flips an on-off switch to maintain the assigned temperature.

The police have a function similar to a thermostat's. They arrest criminals, and introduce negative feedback to crime.

Regulatory agencies introduce negative feedback to pollution, and other costs which businesses might attempt to externalize, or pass on to parts of society which don't share in their profits.

Another example of negative feedback on pollution has been offshoring of American manufacturing. Move a factory to Hangzhou, and move its pollution.

Libertarianism & Carrying Capacity

Somewhat facetious blog title. I'll keep snottiness to a minimum.

Anybody -- even liberals -- can use this as a kind of Cliff Notes for one brand of environmentalism. I'll be more likely to simply describe an idea or behavior than make a case for it. My prejudices, but I'm not pulling them out of the air, and I'm not taking them uncritically for some Green Vatican.

First try:

Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons from 1968 makes a case against libertarianism that demands consideration: A society in which individuals -- even marginally -- rationally maximize their own benefits eventually exceeds carrying capacity.