Saturday, March 23, 2024

The wickedest of all problems - I

Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins with the observation: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

The description fits the period we are living in very well. There are a class of problems called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time.  These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine. Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Trying to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. 

Climate change is such an issue and it is caused by our great need for energy. Society runs on energy and materials, but most people think it runs on money. As GDP increases globally, energy needs to increase in lockstep, i.e. for additional economic activity, we need more energy. Study after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year. We face increasing effort and cost to extract minerals from lower grade ores. This will have a corresponding effect on benefits to societies while increasing carbon emissions. 

As Timothy Mitchell says in Carbon Democracy, modern mass politics was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale. Without the energy derived from oil, the current forms of political and economic life would not exist. People have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. More than half the total fossil fuel consumed in the 150 years or so between the 1860s, when the modern petroleum industry began, and 2020 was burned in the four decades after 1980. 

In the early period of human civilization, human activity was limited by the muscular power of animals and the speed of regeneration of woodlands. When freed from these limits, the supply of energy began to grow at an exponential rather than a linear rate. You can think of fossil fuels as forms of energy in which great quantities of space and time have been compressed into a concentrated form. This means that organic matter equivalent to all of the plant and animal life produced over the entire earth for four hundred years was required to produce the fossil fuels we burn today in less than a year. 

A human labourer can perform about 0.6 kWh in one workday while one barrel of crude oil can perform about 1700 kWh of work. This means that a barrel of oil has the same work potential as a human working for over 9 years (taking 300 working days a year). This energy/labor relationship was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Most technological processes require hundreds to thousands of calories of fossil energy to replace each human calorie previously used to do the same tasks manually. And fossil energy is much cheaper than human energy. These fossil ‘armies’ are the foundation of the modern global economy. We didn’t pay for the creation of these armies of workers, only their liberation. 

According to modern economic theory if the price of one input gets too high, the market will develop an alternative. However, energy does not cooperate with this theory because different sources of energy exhibit critical differences in quality, density, storability, surplus, transportability, environmental impact, and other factors. For instance, there are many medium and high heat industrial processes (for textiles, chemicals, cement, steel etc.) using fossil fuels that have no current (or even under development) alternative using low-carbon technology.

One factor that would prevent any meaningful action on climate change is that it would result in changing the power relations between countries. The world’s most powerful countries are also oil states, Timothy Mitchell notes, that “without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist.” Nor would they continue to occupy their present positions in the global ranking of power. The increase in the consumption of fossil fuels in China and India has already brought about an enormous change in their international influence.

Everybody talks of climate justice. This would require a fair apportioning of the world’s remaining “climate budget.” But if the emissions of some countries were to be curbed while the emissions of others were allowed to rise, then this would lead inevitably to a redistribution of global power. From the point of view of the American security establishment that wants maintenance of global dominance, this is precisely the scenario that is most greatly to be feared; from this perspective the continuance of the status quo is the most desirable of outcomes. This was clearly stated by George Kennan, one of the architects of the postwar strategic order (quoted in The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh):

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relations which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.

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