Thursday, January 8, 2015

Unsolvable 5, Part 1

This is the first piece in a series of articles:  The initial bullet in a small hopeless magazine about the human future.

Think my tone's too grim?

Wait and see.


I'd like to believe reasonable people will agree about certain issues.  Tomorrow has a date and there's no choice in the matter.  Gravity is real, although the force isn't understood particularly well. And there are groups, small well-defined groups, who know a lot more than the rest of us. These are specialists. Their brains and years have been focused on fascinating, often narrow questions. And it's hard to argue that these people, taken together, are idiots or liars, or both.

The future is full of potential choke points.  Respected, venerable sciences are doing the work, and they aren't just pulling numbers out their asses.  There are data. Hard clean respectable and very predictable data.  Sensors in labs and sensors in the universe dance with trusted principles, everywhere and at all times.  In each field, there are proven experts who know the numbers.  The relentless, undeniable numbers.  And looking at the wealth of possibilities, these learned souls often find themselves in an important state called “bat-shit panicked”.

Yeah, scientists can panic.


And they can also drink too much beer.

Or so I've been told.

Now while we’re at it, here’s something else for us to agree about.  Something vital and inescapable:

Everything is temporary.

Our universe seems to be built on relentless, unapologetic change. And change demands destruction.  Each creation insists on annihilating some piece of what came before it.  I can’t see the future.  Not past two seconds, some days. And when I begin writing a story, from the vague thought preceding that first word, I understand that the majority of my predictions will be wrong. Many, maybe all of them will be laughably wrong.  But even if these five Unsolvable essays miss the mark--even if next week brings some curing transformation that saves the Earth and humanity--I think it is fair for reasonable people to assume that the human future will be less than eternal.

And now you know why I don’t drink.

If I started, I would never stop.




Two genuine words.  Two words with long histories and very clear meanings.  No sane voice would argue otherwise.

Carbon is an ash pulled from dead stars, and carbon happens to be an essential ingredient to almost everything necessary.  Combined with equal amounts of oxygen, and you get a house full of dead people.  But double the oxygen, and the plants grow. And if there is an increasing amount of carbon dioxide floating free, then the earth’s heat budget changes in slow, significant ways.

No rational gardener denies that her greenhouse grows warmer in the sun.  And the physics of carbon dioxide leave little room for debate.  The Earth is a really big greenhouse, and sure, trade winds can bury some of the excess heat in the deep Pacific.  And sulfur compounds can make little umbrellas in the stratosphere.  Which is why experts and pedestrians should agree: The math has wiggle room.  No climatologist would dare point to the calendar, saying that will be the day when our world is one degree warmer or ten degrees warmer.  But the numbers are relentless, the trade winds and umbrellas will falter, and the stark example of Venus proves in the abiding power of carbon dioxide.

And the situation grows even more interesting.  Combine star ash with the universe’s favorite element.  Hydrogen.  Here comes the methane.  That miracle gas can be pumped and bottled, and it can be burned.  Methane is also a remarkable drug.  It helps people feel good about themselves.  As good as beer, or better. If you don’t live with fracking beneath your feet, how can you doubt the goodness from good clean natural gas?  Don’t listen to the pollution stories.  Certainly don’t ask yourself if society can afford investing billions in buses and power plants running on stuff whose real cost is hidden.  And let’s steer well-clear of the true abundance of commercial methane, which I suspect lies outside the realm of industry projections and investor-eager PR campaigns.

Methane is a greenhouse gas with attitude.

The science of methane does not seem as simple as it does with carbon dioxide.  Yes, the gas is a fiercely effective blanket.  But how effective depends on the unit of time:  When released, a molecule of methane is a hundred times more dangerous than a molecule of carbon dioxide.  But methane combines readily with oxygen.  Methane vanishes, leaving behind carbon dioxide and water.  Which accounts for these curiously up-and-down estimates about the danger:  A hundred times worse, or twenty, or in geologic terms, negligible.

I visited London in August, 2014.  (The author’s hypocrisy is revealed; thousands of miles crossed, and our world made warmer.)  At Loncon 3, I had the bleak pleasure of listening to one of methane’s certified experts talk about gigatons and clathrates and other world-endangering concepts.  The man didn’t claim to be an optimist.  He could envision undersea avalanches throwing up notable quantities of methane.  Over time, the tundra and undersea beds would warm enough to make a difference.  But the fellow showed quite a lot of scorn for certain colleagues.  One of the oldest, least radical journals in the world of dull scientific writing is NATURE, and NATURE had the temerity to publish some very speculative, unsupported research.  Certain colleagues of his were claiming that fifty gigatons of methane were ready to burst from the sea off the northeast coast of Siberia.  It was the direst situation, so much so that if one man carelessly pissed off the end of the boat, the heat of his urine would precipitate a disaster that would quickly ratchet up the heat of the world by several degrees, costing trillions while shoving other reservoirs of methane to the brink of collapse.

Well, maybe I'm overstating both sides of this argument.  A bit.  Nobody actually talked about pissing off the boat, for instance.  But what I took away from the lecture was a palpable sense of confrontation.  One PhD didn’t agree with others.  No, he didn’t drop his pants and wag his privates at his sworn enemies.  But there was a sense of drama to his dismissal.  He disapproved of the research and its wild-eyed conclusions, and the idiots who let that idiocy get free into the idiot public deserved a scholarly dick wagging.

My point in all this?

First, I don’t recall the details of his argument.  Specific numbers are rarely necessary to successful SF.  Try to gaze into any future, and it’s best to push aside the mathematics while relishing the imagery.  A quiet Arctic sea suddenly pierced by trillions of frantic little bubbles.  That is a nightmare in action.  The world’s atmosphere transformed overnight.  It’s an event that plays a large, almost unspoken role in my “Dead Man’s Run” series.

To me, the utter collapse of the clathrates seems less likely than the milder, slower kinds of awful that other researchers predict.  To me.  But here stands my central point.

I don’t know.

I have zero right to act as if I know.

And even among experts, nobody is sure about the methane.

Except for the carbon, of course.  We can relish any opinion we want, informed and otherwise.  But the carbon and its daughters will do what they want to do, and they might or might not give us fair warning.

Carbon has no soul and no basic decency.

Carbon just IS, and the last thing the element cares about is my little opinion.


But taxes are different.

Where elements are mindless and soulless, taxes are self-aware and possessed with a measure of decency.

Didn’t know that about them, did you?

I won’t argue this point till I’m breathless.  But consider this:  Each tax exists as an arrangement between agreeable adults.  Percentages are determined by Congress or the emperor, and certain people will cheat the taxman, and certain people, like Elvis, pay their full fair share.

Tax codes are human devices.

A universe that loves hydrogen and carbon doesn't pay much attention to the write-off privileges of a self-employed author.

Taxes are changed yearly, unless they are left alone.  But they’re always subject to review and full-scale revolution.  Maybe the Tea Party man down the street makes his living in cash. A young fellow with a strong back, and he has never paid any income tax.  Good for him. But he’s just another neuron in the tax-mind.  Maybe we give rebates for fracking in Texas and for wind power in Iowa.  But don’t be grumpy.  This is the nature of any tax, to bend according to various needs, and it has always been that way.

Taxes don’t quite think, no.  But every citizen is a conscious, self-aware player in a bureaucracy born in the proto-Iraq.

Yes, we all know people who can’t accept taxation.  Their lives and life philosophies deny the merits of government and the endless need for governmental revenue.  And yes, I agree.  Those people have excellent reasons for their beliefs.  But they number in the hundreds and live in an Amazonian rain forest growing smaller by the day.  Stone Age natives in a communal, property-free environment. What they have is what they hold, and nobody throws a surcharge on what they kill or what they give to one another.

And there are Republicans too.

Some like to shriek about government.  They want an end to the worst offenses of Washington, including most taxes.  But let’s talk about that Tea Party man down the street.  Twenty-three years from today, he has turned middle-aged. And society is going through a rough spell.  One chill winter day, a stronger, younger man comes into the neighborhood and takes away the older man’s home.  He steals the man’s guns, plus his wife and two pretty daughters.  What does a homeless, powerless fellow do in such circumstances?  He finds allies among his neighbors.  He pledges whatever he needs to pledge.  The thief is subsequently dragged into the street, and because these are grim times, the trial and sentencing are carried out by the strongest, most politically astute man in the neighborhood.  The grateful homeowner recovers what is his, minus half of his guns and half of next year's tomato crop.  And for three years, before the Great Drought descends in earnest, the grateful citizen gives tribute to the neighbor boss and the boss's new queen.  Who happens to be the citizen's youngest daughter, of course.

Isn’t that how the story always goes?


Tax carbon.

The simplest, most effective means for dealing with every facet of climate change is that.  It is to make carbon’s various children more expensive, and if possible, doing that trick as quickly and painlessly as possible.

I’m not a tax-policy geek.  I don’t have a favorite yardstick.  “This many pennies for that many tons of carbon.”  But I have great confidence in geeks with yardsticks. People can discern the best rate for a carbon tax, and its application can come over the next few years.  We should be transparent about the rates.  Some or all of the revenue should find its way back to people who don’t burn coal or leak methane.  Live fat and pay a lot more for your fun, if you want. But soon the windmills and solar panels dot the landscape, and the Chinese and Texans who don’t want to play have to endure tariffs on their carbon-tainted products.

That is the blunt simple perfect solution--a steady chemo for a societal cancer that will continue even if carbon emissions are reduced to zero.

My reading of the numbers is that climate change is a monster, and a monster with considerable momentum.

Just because we do the right thing, the world won’t stop growing warmer.

I flew to England once, and that selfish action has consequences that will play out for decades.

But with smart policies, at least the monster’s momentum will be slowed. The worst costs will be minimized. And maybe the methane off Siberia will sleep for another five hundred years.

If we let our taxes do our thinking.


At this point, the essay feels half-finished.  But the Internet frowns on endless rambles, and frankly the author needs some quiet time.  A chance to contemplate what happens when humans, obeying our nature, avoid the blunt and simple and perfect.

Not that I am completely hopeless, mind you.

I just think that what is likely will be slower and smaller and far more inevitable than the rational taxation of carbon.

There will be a muddle.

An endurable tragedy.

A story-rich environment.  That's what the future promises. Which is what people want more than anything, I suspect.

We will do anything to bring about interesting times.

1 comment:

  1. Quote: "I think it is fair for reasonable people to assume that the human future will be less than eternal".

    This is a perspective we all need to agree on. Whether the result of near-term failure to modify our behaviour (population growth, environment degradation) or the return to our recent habit of global warfare. Or the rise of AI. Or, if we're lucky, evolution to something else, here on Earth and beyond the stars.

    Too many people seem to think humankind is the pinnacle of life on Earth. Such an attitude breeds contempt for the rest of our biosphere.