There is a lot of despair surrounding climate change lately, because the future we had hoped for did not unfold. The despair is justified to a large degree, as a lot of things have gone terrible wrong. As an example, the Americans have decided to elect a president who doesn't want to commit to reducing carbon emissions and instead wants to subsidize the dying coal industry.
I don't feel like delving too much into the question of what causes this delusional mentality, nor do I feel like addressing the various arguments people have come up with to justify sticking their heads into the sand. Today I'd rather look at some of the things we can still do, to preserve a habitable planet. Even if the catastrophic predictions about positive feedback loops that go around turn out to be correct, it's unjustified to state that all hope is lost. There's a lot that can still be done, that people haven't adequately considered. I hope to cover some of those projects today.
Emergency interventions for threatened ecosystems
You might have seen some of the studies that came out, arguing that limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius would be insufficient to save most of the world's coral reefs. The coral reefs seem to be the most urgently threatened ecosystems out there. However, there are a number of emergency measures we can take, that would help us to buy time to prevent the coral reefs from dying.
As an example, we can emit sulfates into the atmosphere, that block sunlight. It's estimated that one kilogram of well-placed sulfates, can offset the effects of hundreds of thousands of kilogram of carbon dioxide. Studies
have been done on this subject, which found that placing sulphates into the atmosphere, would help us to prevent the coral reefs from dying. Other emergence measures for the coral reefs are discussed here
Important of course to note is that the coral reefs aren't just at risk of extreme temperatures, they're threatened by ocean acification too. However, ocean acidification can also be addressed to some degree as well. Seaweed takes up carbon from the ocean when it grows, thus locally reducing the Ph of the ocean. Studies are being done, that look at protecting coral reefs, by building seaweed farms near the coral reefs. The seaweed farms are found to be able to buy us anywhere between 7 to 21 years
Of course, it's important to note that we first need to ensure that seaweed cultivation becomes economically viable on such a large scale. A good start would be to start eating seaweed. Globally, seaweed cultivation is the fastest growing crop, growing by an estimated 8% per year. Billions of people worldwide receive too little iodine in their diet, including an estimated 70% of people in the United Kingdom. I personally try to eat a lot of seaweed. If the seaweed industry grows fast enough, costs may eventually drop down enough, to allow us to feed seaweed to our pets and to farm animals, before we will eventually use seaweed as a form of biomass for renewable energy.
The meat industry
The Japanese eat a third of the amount of meat Americans eat, but live four years longer on average, with far less obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. I think humans benefit from some animal products in their diet, but we certainly don't need as much meat in our diet as we eat in the Western world. The ideal scenario would be if we could eliminate the consumption of all domesticated vertebrates. Instead, the main meat we would continue to eat would be from shellfish.
We're approaching the point where we can grow meat in labs, at commercially viable prices. When this happens the amount of land needed to produce meat is reduced by 99%
, while greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 78-96%. Globally, the vast majority
of the land we use, is used to grow animals who end up as meat on our dinner plate.
It's clear that if lab-grown meat can be deployed on a large enough scale, large-scale reforestation of the planet becomes a viable objective to pursue. Many farms will go bankrupt, while massive migrations from the countryside towards the city will occur, as new jobs will emerge in cities, at the cost of rural lands. Governments can and should encourage this development. An easy way to encourage this development, would be to level the playing field. You don't need to subsidize lab-grown meat, we can easily stand on our own feed. Instead, get rid of your agricultural subsidies for meat production
I'm all in favor of Britain withdrawing from the EU, because the EU pumps billions of dollars every year into an unsustainable form of agriculture that puts our planet on the path towards global annihilation while filling the pockets of blue-blooded aristocrats who happen to have inherited a lot of land, most of which was simply stolen
over successive generations.
I have long been skeptical, but it's clear to me now that an economy based on renewable energy can function. It might not be easy and it may take some adaptation, but we can sustain civilization without fossil fuels. The big argument generally brought up against renewable energy is that renewable energy is an intermittent form of energy.
However, this doesn't have to be a significant problem, if we consider the simple fact that our civilization can learn to use energy on an intermittent basis. As an example, a house that's well insulated can lose 1 degree Celsius of heat, when it goes four hours without being heated. Thus, if you're dealing with intermittent electricity, excess electricity could quite easily be used to heat the house.
How would you go about using excess electricity to heat your house? I can think of many ways, but here's an example: If your computer is using Boinc, it could quite easily be set up to start grinding once electricity prices are cheap and temperatures in your house are low. Once Gridcoin becomes a success, this will actually earn you money. Similarly, when your refrigerator is closed, like it generally is during the night, it can quite easily go a few hours without cooling. Appliances can quite easily be designed to work with the reality of intermittent electricity.
Of course I'm not suggesting here that we could cope with a world where everything runs on intermittent solar and wind, with zero storage. Fortunately, to some degree we will find ourselves able to store electricity. Electrical cars can be used to donate electricity to the grid, during moments of (looming) shortage. In addition to this, we will always maintain a source of electricity that's not intermittent: Biomass. In the ideal scenario, we will create giant seaweed farms
, where seaweed is grown that's then burned in our current coal plants. The carbon that's emitted when the seaweed is burned can then be used for various purposes, rather than being dumped into the atmosphere.
I often see the argument proposed that some solution can't be scaled. There is not enough lithium for electrical cars, there is not enough lead for batteries, there is not enough land for biofuels, there are not enough empty roofs for solar panels, etcetera. What's forgotten in these arguments, is that none of these solutions will have to stand on their own. Climate change is not an easy problem, but it's a problem that's going to be solved by applying many different solutions. Some societies will be successful at this and succeed, others will fail and become failed states. America under Trump is likely to join the latter category.
Another issue that's forgotten, is the fact that we're really spoiled, to a degree that it harms us. What would happen if Americans would suddenly have their electricity supply drop by fifty percent? If they can't learn to use electricity more efficiently, they would have to return to the standard of living they had in the 1960's. Did people die of hunger in the streets back then? As far as I can tell, they played more card and board games and went out more, rather than staring at screens. I think if we lost fifty percent of our electricity supply, we would be miserable for a few months, before we would breathe a sigh of relief and learn to deal with it. To me, the real question is whether we have the willpower to do what needs to be done, not whether it can be done or not.
I've already shown that we can free large amounts of land through lab-grown meat, that can then be used to grow enormous forests that will sequester carbon dioxide. The Amazon rainforest can be restored to its original extent, if we play our cards right.
However, it doesn't stop here. We have alternative methods of carbon sequestration available to us too. If we covered 9%
of the world's oceans with seaweed, we could sequester all the carbon dioxide we emit per year today. The reality remains that most of the ocean consists of deserts, where nothing can live because seaweed, corals and shellfish don't have the attachment points to grow and develop a rich ecosystem.
You might have seen some of the nature documentaries, where an old ship is dumped at the right location, to make an artificial coral reef. This can be done in many ways, for many different organisms. Wind farms in the North Sea were discovered a few months ago to serve as perfect places for oysters to attach to. These oysters grow there now and attract other animals, that live off the oysters.
In a similar manner, humans can grow seaweed in places, simply by creating attachment points for these plants. We're used to destroying ecosystems, turning giant forests into deserts as we have done around the world. What we're capable of doing too, is turning oceanic deserts into giant underwater forests. It doesn't require intense effort, we're already doing it by accident
, as the wind turbines in the North Sea have demonstrated.
When we grow biomass, we think of it as a carbon-neutral form of energy production. We can easily turn it into a carbon-negative form of energy production however, simply by using the carbon dioxide. There are many different forms of carbon sequestration. The most promising perhaps, is to build with carbon-negative concrete, which is concrete that's built using carbon dioxide.
Concrete production currently causes 5% of all global CO2 emissions. It's thought however, that we can produce concrete that sequesters twice as much carbon as regular concrete emits
. We would thus be able to reduce CO2 emisisons by 15%, simply by replacing all of our current concrete with this new carbon-negative concrete.
The curve of technology adaptation is becoming steeper. Whereas it took a century before most people in Western nations had cars, it took ten years
before most of us had internet. How fast do you think we can transition to 100% carbon-negative concrete? I think this can be accomplished within a few years, if we're willing to make the transition.
Similarly, in Iceland
, power plants are being developed that sequester carbon dioxide while generating energy. Of course the amount sequestered is not enormous yet, the equivalent of 150 Bitcoin transactions
, but it's a first step in the right direction.
I think this solution is important to note, even if it will seem like far-fetched science-fiction to some of you. This is ultimately a solution on which every above solution will come to depend. We're used to problems that have a singular unified solution. Climate change is not such a problem, it requires reconfiguring our entire carbon-based economy. We will find ourselves faced with a situation that may require hundreds of small solutions, rather than one single big solution. This requires intelligent people, who are capable of discovering and implementing such solutions.
What we need right now is a cultural transition, that will lead people to take this problem seriously. When people take the problem seriously, they'll take the solutions seriously and move towards implementing them. One important thing we've noted, is that people's environmental attitude, is strongly linked
to their ability to delay gratification. People who are able to delay gratification, desire to take care of the environment they inhabit. Delayed gratification in turn, is a product of intelligence
When we look at societies where people try to take care of the environment they inhabit, we find that the people there tend to be relatively intelligent. Consider for example, the two nations where the highest percentage of the population considers climate change to be caused by human activity: South Korea and Japan
. South Koreans and Japanese people are among the most intelligent people on the planet. Similarly, Chinese people score at the top of the list
Why do Americans stick their heads into the sand? Why do they vote for leaders who pretend the problem isn't real? Why are you guaranteed to have some American numbnuts show up in the comment section of any article about climate change, insisting that we'll soon have a solar minimum that will somehow end the problem, that the climate has always changed, that volcanoes actually emit more CO2 than humans, that carbon dioxide makes plants grow, that climate change is actually caused by poor Indians and Africans who have too many children rather than by Americans, or that it only seems like the Earth is warming because of measuring stations located near cities?
The answer is, that on average Americans are simply not very intelligent people. Keep in mind, that 41% of Americans genuinely believe that Jesus will return to Earth before the year 2050. Besides lacking intelligence, they lack the ability to think critically. They're good at selectively seeking out information they already want to believe. Like a bunch of parrots in a tree they'll blindly copy whatever they're hearing and amplify each other's stupidity to soothe their nerves. We can discuss all of the various reasons why Americans are not very intelligent and poorly capable of critical thought in a later essay. It's worth noting however, that most Americans suffer from very poor health, which diminishes their innate cognitive potential.
Imagine if the whole world had the level of intelligence of Japanese or South Korean people. People there have birth rates and immigration policies that ensure their population is gradually declining. Japanese people eat a third of the meat American people eat. In addition, Japanese people emit 70% less
CO2 in transportation, than Americans.
The reality we're dealing with, is that our problem would be relatively easy to solve, if we lived on a planet with seven billion people with a level of intelligence equivalent to that of East Asians. The global overpopulation crisis we face is almost entirely caused by religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism in turn, is caused by people who lack intelligence. Intelligent people, capable of critical thinking, don't force children to carry out suicide bombings. A society with sufficient intelligent people, is one where dumb people adjust themselves to the culture of intelligent people, whereas in most societies the opposite occurs.
The solution we're looking for, is thus ultimately a form of cognitive enhancement. There are many different ways to go about this. It's possible for people to select the smartest embryo to implant
, to ensure children have a genetic potential that far outweighs their parents.
There are however, far simpler probably more cost-effective methods we can already use right now. Millions of people, even in Western nations, suffer from iodine deficiency during pregnancy. This permanently stunts the IQ of their children. Similarly, we can feed people a healthy diet with sufficient Omega 3 fatty acids, encourage breastfeeding and eliminate gestational diabetes, while reducing exposure to fluoride which competitively displaces iodine
in the human body.
If these solutions are genuinely pursued, we will raise the average IQ of the world's population, which should be sufficient to create the kind of conditions where people vote for leaders who take climate change seriously and pursue serious effort to preserve a habitable planet. We don't have to be like deer on an island
, because we will have the cognitive potential to plan ahead for the crisis that looms ahead of us.
I’m posting this as an incomplete and rather disorganized draft of an essay I’m working on. I'll will publish a longer and complete post later on (I think I'm only about 1/3 of the way through it), but I figured I share what I already have:
There’s an ethos to Bitcoin that many people find particularly hard to grasp. In this essay, I’m will attempt to take some of the more technical problems in Bitcoin and distill them into something that can be understood by a wider audience, but first I feel it’s necessary to provide some historical background about the realm of digital/electronic cash. I'll present a few hours of light reading (not required to understand the essay, but important nonetheless):
From the Cypherpunk's Manifesto:
We the Cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money.
This was written in 1993, a full 15 years before Bitcoin was conceived. So why did it take so long? Because there were other electronic money systems that were attempted and failed. In order to understand Bitcoin, I believe it's important to understand the context of these past failures.
David Chaum came up with a radical idea somewhere around 1982: “Blind signatures for untraceable payments”
. In the 6 page paper, he laid out an electronic cash system which provided the “inability of third parties to determine the payee, time, or amount of payments made by an individual.” In order to accomplish this, he came up with a beautiful system called a “blind signature.” It was secure, but it had a big non-cryptographic fatal flaw: It required a trusted third party (bank) in order to function. The third party could refuse to make or take payments and do all sorts of other nastiness. That didn't matter to Chaum because his company would be the bank, and he would not violate those ideals. Using these concepts he founded a company called DigiCash (here is the post-mortem): http://www.forbes.com/forbes/1999/1101/6411390a.html
Not to be deterred by prior failure another digital currency company was started around 1998: E-gold
. This was met with significantly more success in adoption. My theory is that E-Gold succeeded where DigiCash failed because E-gold provided a tangible good (gold) as a backing. It’s hard for a consumer to accept data as money
if they have little knowledge of what the past and current money systems are based on. Ultimately, E-gold met a different failure mode: the State (see wiki article for details). I strongly believe that had DigiCash survived to E-gold’s level of adoption, it would have either been co-opted or obliterated by this mechanism as well.
There are a number of other examples of failures which have occurred in “E-Cash” world: Beenz, Liberty Reserve, PayPal, etc. There’s a whole other story about PayPal, but for brevity we’ll just say it “co-opted” rather than “obliterated.” These numerous failures were a bit of an ideological crisis for the Cypherpunks. Many were (and many still are) of the opinion that a viable e-cash could not be created without ending in two failure modes: Co-opted (and thus neutered) by existing government/corporate power structures or destroyed because it threatened the aforementioned structures. This is something that’s played out in the physical world as well (see Liberty Dollar).
There were a couple good technical reasons why it was thought impossible, not the least of which was the Byzantine General’s Problem (further reading here and here). There were engineered answers to the problem, but none were thought to be resilient enough to withstand an open network with dishonest (and even irrationally evil) participants. Most knew that centralized solutions would fail because they had already been tried (even when created by their own). There were a few solutions that were close to solving the problem but missed the mark (RPOW), were never implemented (bit-gold and b-money), or weren’t intended to be a general solution (hashcash). Enter Bitcoin
. On October 31, 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto made a post on the Cryptography mail list presenting a copy of his paper: http://www.bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf
and the abstract. I’ll post the very first public criticism
on the list (emphasis mine):
We very, very much need such a system, but the way I understand your proposal, it does not seem to scale to the required size.
For transferable proof of work tokens to have value, they must have monetary value. To have monetary value, they must be transferred within a very large network - for example a file trading network akin to bittorrent.
To detect and reject a double spending event in a timely manner, one must have most past transactions of the coins in the transaction, which, naively implemented, requires each peer to have most past transactions, or most past transactions that occurred recently. If hundreds of millions of people are doing transactions, that is a lot of bandwidth - each must know all, or a substantial part thereof.
Reasonably, Satoshi replies with this:
Long before the network gets anywhere near as large as that, it would be safe for users to use Simplified Payment Verification (section 8) to check for double spending, which only requires having the chain of block headers, or about 12KB per day. Only people trying to create new coins would need to run network nodes. At first, most users would run network nodes, but as the network grows beyond a certain point, it would be left more and more to specialists with server farms of specialized hardware. A server farm would only need to have one node on the network and the rest of the LAN connects with that one node.
The bandwidth might not be as prohibitive as you think. A typical transaction would be about 400 bytes (ECC is nicely compact). Each transaction has to be broadcast twice, so lets say 1KB per transaction. Visa processed 37 billion transactions in FY2008, or an average of 100 million transactions per day. That many transactions would take 100GB of bandwidth, or the size of 12 DVD or 2 HD quality movies, or about $18 worth of bandwidth at current prices.
If the network were to get that big, it would take several years, and by then, sending 2 HD movies over the Internet would probably not seem like a big deal.
I want to point something out about this conversation: Satoshi does not dispute James Donald’s point that a fully deployed network at the time of publication would not be possible… he simply states that in the future it will be possible because of optimizations and technological improvements. I believe that neither are right, but Satoshi was just slightly closer to being correct. Close enough to pique the Hal Finney's (creator of RPOW) interest and the rest is history. Some other notes that I’ll be working on incorporating into a final draft of this
: Based on email provided by Wei Dai to gwern, Satoshi was known to contact Adam Back and Wei Dai before the posting on p2pfoundation or on the Cryptography mailing list. It’s interesting the lack of knowledge that Satoshi displayed regarding prior art: it seems he didn’t know about b-money, RPOW, or bitgold at the time he was directed by Adam towards the b-money concept. It makes me wonder if he would have fallen into a mental trap had he known about those concepts.
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