Friday, December 31, 2010
Thursday, December 30, 2010
The gloves are not yet off, but they could be soon, because no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from."... no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from." Think about that for a minute as you contemplate the world's dwindling resources and ever-flourishing ecological crises.
"... no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from." Yet, everyone seems sure that "growth" must come, that "growth" is the only way out of this crisis. Without getting into the fundamental absurdity of expecting continued economic growth on a finite planet, let me ask this: have we forgotten that much of this ongoing crisis was created by people in pursuit of very rapid, and therefore unsustainable, growth in profits? Why then would anyone think that we can rapidly grow our way out of this crisis? Are we thinking that we have dug ourselves into such a deep hole, that if we keep digging faster, we will emerge into daylight on the other side of the planet?!
"... no one seems sure where the growth is supposed to come from." A good place to start looking for an answer to that conundrum can be found in Prof. Ghosh's own column from almost exactly a year ago when she wrote, in the aftermath of the breakdown of global warming negotiations at Copenhagen:
But describing this as a fight between countries misses the essential point: that the issue is really linked to an economic system – capitalism – that is crucially dependent upon rapid growth as its driving force, even if this "growth" does not deliver better lives for the people. So there is no questioning of the supposition that rich countries with declining populations must keep on growing in terms of GDP, rather than finding different ways of creating and distributing output to generate better quality of life. There is no debating of the pattern of growth in "successful" developing countries, which has in many cases come at the cost of increased inequality, greater material insecurity for a significant section of the population and massive damage to the environment.How about changing that economic paradigm then? If being in the throes of such a festering economic crisis is not a great time to change paradigms, when is? Or shall we just keep on digging, hoping for light at the end of the tunnel, even though we suspect that the increasing glow is most likely from (no, not an onrushing train, but) the magma we are about to hit?
Since such questions were not even at the table at the Copenhagen summit – even a "successful" outcome with some sort of common statement would hardly have been a sign of the kind of change that is required. But this does not mean that the problem has gone away; in fact, it is more pressing than ever.
Optimists believe that the problem can be solved in a win-win outcome that is based on "green" growth and new technologies that provide "dematerialised" output, so that growth has decreasing impact on the environment. But such a hope is also limited by the Jevons paradox (after the 19th century English economist William Stanley Jevons), which states that the expansion of output typically overwhelms all increases in efficiency in throughput of materials and energy.
This is forcefully elucidated in an important new book by John Bellamy Foster. [Note: that link is broken, so I'm not sure, but I think Ghosh is alluding to his latest book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth.] Foster argues that a rational reorganisation of the metabolism between nature and society needs to be directed not simply at climate change but also at a whole host of other environmental problems. "The immense danger now facing the human species ... is not due principally to the constraints of the natural environment, but arises from a deranged social system wheeling out of control, and more specifically US imperialism." (p 105)
How does imperialism enter into this? "Capital ... is running up against ecological barriers at a biospheric level that cannot be overcome, as was the case previously, through the 'spatial fix' of geographical expansion and exploitation. Ecological imperialism – the growth of the centre of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thorough-going ecological degradation of the periphery – is now generating a planetary-scale set of ecological contradictions, imperilling the entire biosphere." (p 249)
This does not mean that the interests of people in the centre are inevitably opposed to those of people in the periphery, since both are now adversely affected by the results of such ecological imbalances. Instead, it means that it is now in all of our interests to shift from an obsession on growth that is primarily directed to increasing capitalist profits, to a more rational organisation of society and of the relation between humanity and nature.
So there is indeed a win-win solution, but one that cannot be based on the existing economic paradigm. The good news is that more humane and democratic alternatives are also likely to be more environmentally sustainable.
Happy New Year!
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Although I cringe at this fantastic Vampire Squid being described as a "living fossil"—another oxymoron that won't go away from the popular lexicon of misrepresentations when it comes to evolution—even by the estimable Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, this is an amazing video, and I like the rest of the narration. How little we know about the wonders lurking underneath the oceans! How much of it will we never discover because of what we are doing to the oceans?
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
As another year approaches its sad end, Professor Dennis Dutton, who created "complicated fiction" (as seen doing so in front of a live audience in the clip below) by combining art and literature with science and skepticism, and curated digital streams of works from across these creative realms for our perusal at the Arts & Letters Daily from the earliest days of the WWW, has died. Read this tribute, watch his funny appearance with that living work of art Stephen Colbert below, and pick up his book (at a bargain price) about how art may be a tool for propagating our species. Whether you agree with the evolutionary psychology aspects of that argument or not, the man gave us plenty to think about. RIP.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
company that sells pants. Rather expensive ones too. (Designed to fit really well, I'm told.) Is named after the one ape, our cousin, whose social life would be utterly destroyed by pants!! Huh?!
Well... at least this company is contributing some of its profits to save said cousins:
Now imagine this scene, from the very same Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary - but with pants:
Thursday, December 23, 2010
entire paper and pdf reprint available for free download), especially with the unorthodox format sans references. And you've gotta love the crayon figures, like this one:
P. S. Blackawton1, S. Airzee1, A. Allen1, S. Baker1, A. Berrow1, C. Blair1, M. Churchill1, J. Coles1, R. F.-J. Cumming1, L. Fraquelli1, C. Hackford1, A. Hinton Mellor1, M. Hutchcroft1, B. Ireland1, D. Jewsbury1, A. Littlejohns1, G. M. Littlejohns1, M. Lotto1, J. McKeown1, A. O'Toole1, H. Richards1, L. Robbins-Davey1, S. Roblyn1, H. Rodwell-Lynn1, D. Schenck1, J. Springer1, A. Wishy1, T. Rodwell-Lynn1, D. Strudwick1 and R. B. Lotto2,*
+ Author Affiliations
- 1Blackawton Primary School, Blackawton, Devon, UK
- 2Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, 11-43 Bath Street, London EC1V 9EL, UK
- * Author for correspondence (firstname.lastname@example.org).
AbstractBackground Real science has the potential to not only amaze, but also transform the way one thinks of the world and oneself. This is because the process of science is little different from the deeply resonant, natural processes of play. Play enables humans (and other mammals) to discover (and create) relationships and patterns. When one adds rules to play, a game is created. This is science: the process of playing with rules that enables one to reveal previously unseen patterns of relationships that extend our collective understanding of nature and human nature. When thought of in this way, science education becomes a more enlightened and intuitive process of asking questions and devising games to address those questions. But, because the outcome of all game-playing is unpredictable, supporting this ‘messyness’, which is the engine of science, is critical to good science education (and indeed creative education generally). Indeed, we have learned that doing ‘real’ science in public spaces can stimulate tremendous interest in children and adults in understanding the processes by which we make sense of the world. The present study (on the vision of bumble-bees) goes even further, since it was not only performed outside my laboratory (in a Norman church in the southwest of England), but the ‘games’ were themselves devised in collaboration with 25 8- to 10-year-old children. They asked the questions, hypothesized the answers, designed the games (in other words, the experiments) to test these hypotheses and analysed the data. They also drew the figures (in coloured pencil) and wrote the paper. Their headteacher (Dave Strudwick) and I devised the educational programme (we call ‘i,scientist’), and I trained the bees and transcribed the childrens' words into text (which was done with smaller groups of children at the school's local village pub). So what follows is a novel study (scientifically and conceptually) in ‘kids speak’ without references to past literature, which is a challenge. Although the historical context of any study is of course important, including references in this instance would be disingenuous for two reasons. First, given the way scientific data are naturally reported, the relevant information is simply inaccessible to the literate ability of 8- to 10-year-old children, and second, the true motivation for any scientific study (at least one of integrity) is one's own curiousity, which for the children was not inspired by the scientific literature, but their own observations of the world. This lack of historical, scientific context does not diminish the resulting data, scientific methodology or merit of the discovery for the scientific and ‘non-scientific’ audience. On the contrary, it reveals science in its truest (most naive) form, and in this way makes explicit the commonality between science, art and indeed all creative activities.Principal finding ‘We discovered that bumble-bees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from. We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. (Children from Blackawton)’.
Ed Yong (typically) has the best take, where he echoes my thoughts (so I need not bore you with more of my gushing words), and has a lot more context and background details on the study and on science education in general. Go read it. Now.
And... c'mon! 8-10 year olds!! Published authors in a major journal!!! How can you not gush??!!
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
If you want to see how we will get there, to one of the above warmer planets, the trajectories of these two scenarios of global warming starting with (and grounded in) data from the past half century to project for the end of this century, here's a animated video version, which also shows the entire globe, not just the New World seen in the maps above:
So, which world do you want to leave behind for our future generations?
Monday, December 6, 2010
It includes one of my contributions too. Check out the whole nice compilation:
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for oversight and review of government agencies to eliminate wasteful spending, and there is no doubt plenty of wasteful spending of our tax dollars which we all should know about! It is easy to argue that you and I must be allowed to review and comment upon all kinds of government projects that you/I may not agree with. More sunshine on the whole process can only be good, right?
Isn't it interesting—and telling—then, that the very first agency this newly resurgent incoming Republican majority picks for review by the general public is the one agency that has, embedded in its very core, one of the most severe forms of review of any proposal before awarding those tax dollars: the National Science Foundation?
It is called peer review, where the term "peer" itself is employed in a much more rigorous sense than in the case of a "jury of your peers" in the legal system. My peers who will review the proposal I am about to resubmit next week to NSF will all have Ph.D. degrees earned after spending years and years in scholarship relevant to the subject of my grant proposal. They will also all be well aware of the limited tax dollars available, given that NSF's budgets haven't really seen much growth in the past decade even as the ranks of Ph.D.s have continued to swell and compete for every tiny slice of that shrinking pie. They will therefore have to not only very carefully critique and analyze the scientific worth of our proposal, but also rank it in terms of how deserving of funding it is compared to all the other proposals submitted to that particular program. Lab Spaces recently had a good post about rates of funding by NSF, if you want to try and guess what my odds might be of getting this grant (which is a revision and resubmission of a proposal that wasn't funded last year). I'm not making any guesses - but I know that there is a high probability that we will not get funded even if the reviewers really like our proposal and don't find any flaws in it! Such is the reality of the competition for grants at NSF, and I am confident that my peer reviewers will make their most honest effort to make sure that our tax dollars are not spent on some project that has no scientific merit or has a low likelihood of success. And they will let me know exactly why they think my proposal does not deserve funding - or why it does (as I hope!). The same applies to the National Institutes of Health, although that agency does have more money available because it is focused on research applied to human health.
Can you tell me, Congressman Smith (and Cantor), how many other federal government agencies (other than those involved in funding science) conduct anywhere near this level of critical review of any project that gets funded with our tax dollars? You want to put NSF grants—funded out of a budget which will amount to a mere $7.4 billion in 2011 (if approved) out of a total proposed federal budget of $3.69 trillion—under the public microscopic by your constituents? After they have already been put through the wringer by the most critical—and qualified—bunch of reviewers you can find in this country? All so you can save us... what? a tiny fraction of a penny from my taxes? After all, the entire NSF budget is not far from constituting the proverbial drop (or few) in the bucket compared to the entire federal budget (and I'm sure the average reader of this blog can figure out exactly how the proportional volume of a single drop of water in a 5 gallon bucket compares with the proportional NSF slice of the total federal budget; not so sure about your average constituent's ability to do so however—especially if you slash the budget of the NSF which is spending an increasing portion of its budget on STEM education these days).
How about opening up the much bigger areas of the federal budget to public scrutiny, if you are really serious about it? Might I suggest, for example, the Defense Department? After all, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone cost us taxpayers about 10 times the entire NSF budget - each! According to the numbers on that website, in Iraq alone, the total budget we are requesting for a 5-year project in our grant proposal is spent, on average, in a mere 3 minutes!! Yet how much time and effort went into proposing that project in the middle east, and how much time/effort did you, in congress, spend reviewing it?! How about letting me and my fellow taxpayers search through that list so we can tell you where you are wasting our money? I guarantee we can save us all a heck of a lot more money and lives there, congressman, and with far less effort.
So how about it? Show us how serious you folks really are about cutting wasteful spending, why don't you? Or is this, as I suspect, really not about cutting wasteful spending per se, but part of a rather different agenda, to squelch the very thing that has made this country the great technological superpower it is—basic science? Or are you kidding me, congressman?