The Technium

Where the Linear Crosses the Exponential

[Translations: Japanese]

Freeman Dyson is my favorite big picture thinker. He tackles the world with both his heart and his calculator. He enjoys entertaining suspect heresies just to see if he can learn anything from them. He’ll take an unusual position and then calculate what would happen if it were true. Do the rough numbers match with what else we know?

Dyson has just written one of the best analysis of the conundrum of global warming I’ve seen — disguised as a book review in the New York Review of Books. Using his unique ability to tease out new perspectives by estimating the physics of a phenomenon, his “review” offers three novel perspectives.

1) A speculative solution to global warming. He suggests bioengineering “deep carbon eating plants” because his calculations based on the famous Keeling chart show that plants could absorbed the extra carbon in one decade. I think this biotechnology is feasible. But I have doubts we would be able to implant them in wild species “covering one quarter” of the earth’s landmass as he figures we need to do, because these altered species would not (by design) behave or interact in the way their wild ancestors do. They would be markedly different by the very fact they are precipitating much more carbon. Maybe these deep carbon plants would work if planted at large scale in agricultural products. But to arrive at this speculation, Dyson’s summary of the problem is refreshing.

2) More interesting, Dyson has penned the best description of the new global religion, an emergent religion few others have noticed. I think he is 100% correct about this:

There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world. Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

3) But most importantly, and the reason why his essay is noteworthy for long term thinking, Dyson explains in brilliant clarity one of the key riddles for generational thinking: how much of a “penalty” today should this generation pay in order to ensure prosperity in the future?  Here’s Dyson on the riddle:

If we can save M dollars of damage caused by climate change in the year 2110 by spending one dollar on reducing emissions in the year 2010, how large must M be to make the spending worthwhile? Or, as economists might put it, how much can future losses from climate change be diminished or “discounted” by money invested in reducing emissions now?

This is called the “future discount.” Any long-term project must confront this calculation.

The conventional answer given by economists to this question is to say that M must be larger than the expected return in 2110 if the 2010 dollar were invested in the world economy for a hundred years at an average rate of compound interest. For example, the value of one dollar invested at an average interest rate of 4 percent for a period of one hundred years would be 54 dollars; this would be the future value of one dollar in one hundred years’ time. Therefore, for every dollar spent now on a particular strategy to fight global warming, the investment must reduce the damage caused by warming by an amount that exceeds 54 dollars in one hundred years’ time to accrue a positive economic benefit to society. If a strategy of a tax on carbon emissions results in a return of only 44 dollars per dollar invested, the benefits of adopting the strategy will be outweighed by the costs of paying for it. But if the strategy produces a return of 64 dollars per dollar invested, the advantages are clear. The question then is how well different strategies of dealing with global warming succeed in producing long-term benefits that outweigh their present costs.

The choice of discount rate for the future is the most important decision for anyone making long-range plans. The discount rate is the assumed annual percentage loss in present value of a future dollar as it moves further into the future.

Dyson then returns to the riddle of global warming. The two opposing views of the future discount rate in the books he is reviewing are Stern and Nordhaus.

In Stern’s view, discounting is unethical because it discriminates between present and future generations. That is, Stern believes that discounting imposes excessive burdens on future generations. In Nordhaus’s view, discounting is fair because a dollar saved by the present generation becomes fifty-four dollars to be spent by our descendants a hundred years later.

There are a number of ways to recast the same quandary. Is it okay to burn a lot of coal right now if it will lift millions out of poverty today, instead of burning less coal now and postponing poverty alleviation for later?  Will prosperity/pollution today deliver more to future generations or will environmental health/poverty today deliver more? If you were to be born of a future generation, what would you want? To be born into poverty or to be born into a clean world?

Shouldn’t we pass on both, prosperity and health? Sure, that is the goal. But what Dyson’s explanation of the future discount makes clear, there will always be a tradeoff. Almost by definition we cannot absolutely satisfy both the present generation and future generations. The needs of each — present and future — may overlap but they don’t coincide.

There is a very definite time preference for individuals. Almost without exception a person would prefer to have $1,000 today rather than $1,000 in fifty years from now.  But if you make the choice between $1,000 today and $30,000 fifty years from now, the two vie for preference. That difference between those two amounts — present and future — drives what we call interest — the amount of money someone will pay to have something now.  Some people will pay too much for current rewards, and may get stuck in a position of never being able to pay off their interest. So the rate of interest and the discount rate for the future need to be set wisely.

Societies also seem to have a time preference. All things being equal they would like to have prosperity now rather than later. How much are they willing to pay to have their reward now? Would they pay the price of dirty air, and climate change, and long-term debt in order to gain prosperity right now? They may, and they may also be willing to pay too much. The “interest” rate for immediate prosperity might be something that no future generation could every repay.

Furthermore, the push of technology accentuates the weirdness of the future discount. In some projects delay vastly increases the cost in the future. Waiting to maintain infrastructure such as roads and bridges means it requires ever more money to upgrade them as decay breeds decay. Neglect can be self-accelerating so it becomes almost impossibly expensive to repair what is seriously neglected. On the other hand, take Moore’s Law. If computers are half as cheap and twice as fast every year into the future, then it makes sense to delay some very computational challenges. Many biologists suggested it made the most economical sense to delay sequencing the human genome.  You could wait a few years for the technology to evolve and then once it was cheap it would overtake the quick start as the efficiency and speed doubled each year. Thus it would be cheaper and faster to wait.

All extropic  systems — economy, nature and technology — are governed by self-accelerating feedback cycles. Like compounding interest, or virtuous circles, they are powered by increasing returns. Success breeds success. There is a long tail of incremental build up and then as they keep doubling every cycle, they explode out of invisibility into significance. Extropic systems can also collapse in the same self-accelerating way, one subtraction triggering many other subtractions, so in a vicious cycle the whole system implodes. Our view of the future is warped and blinded by these exponential curves.


But while progress runs on exponential curves, our individual lives proceed in a linear fashion. We live day by day by day. While we might think time flies as we age, it really trickles out steadily. Today will always be more valuable than some day in the future, in large part because we have no guarantee we’ll get that extra day. Ditto for civilizations. In linear time, the future is a loss. But because human minds and societies can improve things over time, and compound that improvement in virtuous circles, the future in this dimension is a gain. Therefore long-term thinking entails the confluence of the linear and the exponential. The linear march of our time intersects the cascading rise and fall of numerous self-amplifying exponential forces. Generations, too, proceed in a linear sequence. They advance steadily one after another while pushed by the compounding cycles of exponential change.

Balancing that point where the linear crosses the exponential is what long-term thinking should be about. For each generation and for each issue that equation of intersection will be different. Sometimes the immediate needs of the now will dominate, and the discount rate will favor the present. For example, the chronic use of childhood vaccines and antibiotics may prove to have long-term downsides, but their value to present generations is so great that we agree to send the cost to the future. Descending generations will have to pay the price — or to solve the problem by inventing better medicines using exponentially better knowledge and resources. Other times future generations will be so enhanced by the later exponential growth begun in a small immediate gain that we raise the discount rate. For example the yield in educating girls in any society is so great, so amplified and compounded in so many ways, over so many generations, that it is worth an awful lot to pay its costs now — even stiff costs in the face of cultural resistance and low immediate yields. Here the cost point is shifted to the present.

A timeline of where we expect these cost/benefit/risk-thresholds to fall in each sector of our civilization, or a field map of places we can see where our linear lives cross exponential change — either would be very handy to have.

  • vanderleun

    “new global religion, an emergent religion few others have noticed.”

    I deeply admire Dyson and his notice means that more people will take notice.

    However, this observation in and of itself is not new. I recall discussions on it in the beginning of 2007 and probably even before that.

    It’s not that hard to descry and hasn’t been for quite some time. Strangely enough, those who have the hardest time seeing it are the true believers. Or perhaps it is just that they are reluctant to admit it.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @ Mr. Vanderleun,

      No Freeman is not the first to notice this new religion. I’ve been writing and talking about it myself for at least 20 years. (Oringinaly in Whole Earth Review). But very few others have discerned it, and his rendition was perfect.

  • Jochen Topf

    The “future discount” seems to make a lot of sense if your are looking at small projects, like whether to buy your new car now or next year. When looking at bigger projects, like whether to build a new highway, it gets much more complicated because of the many 2nd, 3rd, … nth order effects which are exceedingly hard to calculate (and because the people profiting from the project now or in the future might be other people than the people paying the price).
    But when looking at really large projects like “fixing global warming” the whole argument breaks down. Why is a dollar worth more now than in the future? Why is the computer in the future faster than one now? Not because of some magic law making it so, but because of all our economic activity taken together: Because people buy computers *now* and make it sensible for others to build computers and invest in R&D, the computer get faster. If nobody would buy a computer today, nobody would invest in the R&D and computers would be as fast in 10 years as they are now. If everybody would stop buying things and save his money, we’d be in a recession and everybodys money would be worth less (not more)! Large projects, like the moon landing or fighting global warming, might cost a lot of money, but through the increased economic activity they actually create more value and they create the new and better technology.

  • All this discussion is so important.

    RealClimate devoted a posting to Freeman Dyson

  • I have come to believe that certain rogue extra-governmental groups operating entirely outside of ANY congressional oversight (many within the so-called “black budget” funded programs)have had “overunity” energy technology, that WORKS…for years….yet still refuse to reveal it.

    Uncovering this technology would make the whole point of Dyson’s intellectualizing and economic parsing , moot…..because energy….would be free.(and pollution free)(Google “the orionproject” and “Steven Greer”)

    Over-unity energy production solves all this hand wringing in one fell swoop.It also puts a hell of a lot of powerful companies , the ruling energy paradigm owners…….OUT of bizness.And thus , we have…the current situation…because these power holders emphatically DON’T want to be obsoleted and marginalized, and will kill…literally and figuratively , to maintain their hegomony.

    Bob Welch

  • Doesn’t the “future discount” as discussed here rather assume that the value of the tool of measurement itself (in this case the dollar, or I assume something bought with that dollar – another form of currency) retains the same cultural significance across the period between 2010 and 2110?

    Does the statement:

    “For example, the value of one dollar invested at an average interest rate of 4 percent for a period of one hundred years would be 54 dollars; this would be the future value of one dollar in one hundred years’ time.”

    hold true for any 100 year period we might pick: 1907-2007?, 1607-1707?, AD50-AD150, 2400BC-2300BC?

    For all the uncertainties about the exact effects we can expect from climate change science, do we really think that we can make more certain assumptions about the “market”.

    Will the year 2010 contain outdated concepts like the “dollar”, the “world economy”, “interest”?

  • Stewart Brand

    Good stuff, Kevin. Your last paragraph invites seeking some principles, or at least discernible patterns, for when to make to present expense (girl’s education) and when not (too much anti-biotics).

    This would be a good Long Now blog item.

  • In my 2002 science fiction novel Dance for the Ivory Madonna, I portrayed a future world (AD 2042) which solved the carbon crisis with two types of genetically-engineered plants called “scrub grass” and “buckyball algae.” These plants fixed carbon into buckyballs, very durable 60-carbon atoms shaped like tiny soccer balls, thus removing it from the atmosphere.

    In general, sf writers have been dealing with the question of greenhouse gases and climate change — not to mention questions of energy generation — for many decades.

  • I think people in the debate confuses happiness with ‘amount of money’. We know for sure that the relationship between money and happiness is far from linear, rather there is a ‘saturation of happiness’ to take into account. (The Psychology of Money is a book exploring this in greater detail.)

    The other thing to remember is that ‘life quality’ (and expectancy) as shown by Amartaya Sen is mainly dependent on social institutions like education and hospitals which are more human intesive than capital intensive. That means, even poor countries can achieve good life expectancy becuase poor countries means low salaries and so education and hospitals are cheap to run.

  • vanderleun

    Humm, come to think of it you’re probably right about that. I’ll have to find my old copies of CoEvolution in the basement and check them out.

  • Dyson has penned the best description of the new global religion, an emergent religion few others have noticed.

    I remember, back around 1989 or so, talking about how all the talk of Earth Day and “Gaia” was the begining of a new paganism … and I wasn’t alone in this. National Review (a famously stodgy publication) voiced similar thoughts around the same time.

    I think seeing environmentalism as a secular religion is, in fact, something that millions of people have noticed over the last two plus decades.

  • Of course, your 54 dollars might buy a cup of coffee in a hundred years.

  • Em

    As for the linear vs exponential, I would point out that human senses linearize external data that is by its true nature exponential. In other words, a sound that appears twice as loud as another will have four times the energy and so on. Light, of course, is the same.
    Thus, some of the problem you are pointing to may stem from the fact that human senses and intuition are to some extent masking the problem.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @Em who says: “As for the linear vs exponential, I would point out that human senses linearize external data that is by its true nature exponential. In other words, a sound that appears twice as loud as another will have four times the energy and so on. Light, of course, is the same. Thus, some of the problem you are pointing to may stem from the fact that human senses and intuition are to some extent masking the problem.”

      That is a really good point. Perhaps that is what happens over time. We humans will simply only ‘see’ linear change, even when it is exponential.

  • Monte Davis

    There’s an implicit disjunction here between “religious” and “logico-mathematical, rational economic actor” that should be looked at more critically. Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and many others have argued that the prudent, discount-calculating habit of thought itself emerged out of a specific religious matrix: a Calvinist feeling that if God’s bookkeeping is unknowable, all the more reason for us to do double-entry.

    Me, I think any drive aimed more than a generation or two ahead — establishing a park, endowing a foundation or university, avoiding CO2 disaster, working toward spacefaring or your favorite Singularity — partakes of the religious.

  • a) I’m not 100% comfortable with applying the word religion to environmentalism, as religion usually implies some supernatural element (be it God or, in the case Raelians and Scientologists, aliens). Isn’t there a better word?

    b) To find M you’d need to accurately predict what the world is going to be like in 102 years. Good luck with that.

    c) The notion of putting a dollar value of everything may be tempting, but it by no means solves the intergenerational problem. Say there’s a particular species of animal at risk of extinction. We assign a dollar figure X to its value to us, and decide that we can get more than X by letting it perish. But when our children do the same math, will they still assign X, or a different figure? Price follows value, and value is in the eye of the beholder.

    d) Having said all of those negative things, I want to say that thinking about a “future discount” is still a good idea — so long as you stick to concrete things that you have immediate power over. Things like your example of bridge maintenance. If you maintain infrastructure intelligently, you’re going to save money both today and later. After all, one of the cornerstone arguments of sustainable design is that, by redusing blatant waste, you can have your cake (savings today) and eat it too (savings later) — at least to some extent.

  • I’d like to elaborate on my earlier comment, since I did such a piss-poor job the first time around.

    The economics of deferred gratification have been worked out for individuals. So person A forfeits X now to get Y later. But does that really translate between people? So if person A forfeits X now and gets nothing in return, but person B gets Y later, what does person B think about it?

    Now turn that around. Instead of forfeiting, A spends. If it’s just him, he spends X now and pays Y (Y > X) later. But if person B gets to pay Y, then A gets a free ride. Which is why Hummers still exist.

  • Lyle Brecht

    In Freeman Dyson’s book review and reiterated in Kevin Kelly’s discussion of this review, both authors make the claim that “environmentalism is the secular religion of this day.” I assume that both authors are attempting to convey meaning by this statement. And, I assume that the meaning that is meant to convey is disparaging. First, I would like to explain that the statement as it reads is nonsense. There is no such thing as a “secular religion.” All religion, of any type exists in a sacred and secular space that is indivisible, expect by those ignorant of the faith claims of the religious. However, a religion is defined by its theology.

    Theology can be parsed as primarily sacred or primarily secular by the god that is worshiped. For example, the three monotheist religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in a God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, described in Scriptures. This is what defines god for Jews, Christians and Islam. But there are many other theologies in the world today that accept a god based on a different set of assumptions and faith. The important thing to notice is that underneath all human belief lies a god, and faith. The most prevalent and pressing “secular” theology today is capitalism. The god in this belief system is capital (money). This theology becomes a “religion” – a belief system that produces a self-reinforcing world-view – as it is practiced by the Chicago School of economics as shock therapy. Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2007) is about the free-market economic theories of Milton Friedman and his Chicago School of economists, and global political history since the September 11, 1973 coup that brought General Augusta Pinochet to power in Chile with the help of the CIA to the present Shock and Awe strategy to remake Iraq by selling its oil assets to multi-national corporations. Formal, standard notions of religion are barely mentioned. Yet, the book is wholly about the violence of the most prevalent religion on the earth today – free-market capitalism of the Chicago School variety. Of course, in this religion, money is god, but it is money appropriated in a peculiar fashion – through shock therapy. The purpose of shock therapy, in one of its current, published operating manuals based on CIA torture manuals compiled in 1963, reprinted in the 1980’s and now declassified, is to “seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perception and understanding of events” in order to achieve the goal of “rendering the adversary completely impotent” (p. 333).

    The second most prevalent religion practiced today based on a secular theology is scientism, based on a theology of human rationality where god becomes a utility defined by the community of believers in a particular, usually mathematically defined, description of universal reality. What scientism, as a belief system, does is move beyond science as a method for discerning a certain type of truth about reality to proclaiming that it has arrived at the truth and the only way to the truth. This is ultimately both a faith statement, and also a self-reinforcing world-view in that it disparages any data about the world not previously recognized as valid by this faith community. Just as Christianity has many sects, so does scientism. The most prevalent sect of scientism today may be positivism; a fundamentalist form of scientism that claims data concerning the world cannot be used to derive new theories for how the world works until an overwhelming mass of evidence is collected. A good example of this fundamentalist view are those scientists in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s who claimed that smoking tobacco had not been sufficiently proven to cause lung cancer and the few remaining scientists today who don’t believe that the abrupt climate change the earth is presently experiencing has any anthropogenic cause or potential solution.

    Environmentalism, as it is practiced today in the U.S. is neither religion, nor theology, although someday it may become a religion, if it develops a theology. Generally, what is important about environmentalism today is that it is primarily a movement that questions the secular gods of the two most important and primary religions on the earth today based on secular gods: disaster capitalism and positivist scientism. From that perspective, environmentalism provides necessary balance to the discussion concerning the fate of the earth and man’s purposes for being on this earth now. But, as soon as environmentalism is used to close down discourse and convey a belief that it has a lock on the truth, it looses its legitimacy, as disaster capitalism and positivist scientism already have lost their legitimacy.

  • I’m sorry, but I have to agree with some of the other commenters here, in that I think “secular religion” is a complete oxymoron. Dyson’s use of this term just comes off as obfuscation to me. If by comparing environmentalism to socialism he means to say that environmentalism will become the primary socio-political movement in opposition to capitalism in the 21st century, I might agree with him, but this is a completely separate point. Neo-pagans, who literally “worship the Earth,” are similarly a very different case. The use of such vague terminology and fuzzy logic does not help his case.

    I also think that human beings are most certainly willing to invest in the future, even beyond our own lifespans, and I agree with the basic principle that Dyson puts forth. We have children after all, and it is in our own interest, on both a genetic level and an emotional one, to see that our descendents succeed. There is nothing inherently religious or tricky about any of this. The only question is how to measure the benefit to the future against the cost to the present, and I am not sure that $$$ is necessarily the most appropriate unit of measure.

  • Sam Walker

    While many would argue that “environmentalism” is not “a religion”, there are plenty who treat it as such: they accept ideas on faith without analysis, become emotionally invested in those ideas/explanations, and become extremely agitated when evidence is presented showing that a specific idea (that is, an article of faith) is not grounded in fact.

    ANY set of semi-coherent ideas can become religion. What makes it a religion and not just a model is how its adherents _think_ about the subject. If you are arguing about how “We should all just switch to solar and wind, man!” but can’t define the word “megawatt”, you are engaging in religious, faith-based thinking. The same goes for “scienticians”: people with an unshakable faith in the current paradigm of western science. (This does NOT include most of scientists I know. These are people with a decent understanding of what science has taught us, but no understanding of the process of science itself.) Hell, once your ideas are telling you that species extinction is _wrong_, outside of practical considerations, you are dealing with a religion. Environmentalism is a good idea because it _makes sense_, not because it is morally superior.

    But to bring this tangent back to the main thesis of the article(s), most of the non-thinking enviro-types (NOT the thinking kind) I know, that is, “those to whom environmentalism is a religion”, are ultimately arguing for mankind to achieve some kind of dynamic steady-state with the world’s ecology in general. And they COMPLETELY miss the point that Life does not work that way. Life, the general process, is continually expansive or retracting: you are growing or dying. And that’s just a particularly comprehensible synecdoche for the general undergridding principle of Life: without _change_ you have only _death_.

    We _cannot_ achieve a global homeostasis. Even the horrifying prospect of a Revolution of Lowered Expectations will only be a long, slow grind into the twilight of out species. No, the only solution is to _DEMAND MORE_!

    More energy per capita! More types of matter at your disposal. More plastics, other organics, and metals for every person on Earth. You should not demand that we all adopt a standard of living comfortable to a Pakistani brick layer, you should demand that the brick layer be raised to a level comfortable to a fat-ass lazy couch-potato American. And if you think that “There is not enough to go around!” you are succumbing to the fallacy of Malthus.

    All resources are _created_ not _discovered_. (To those saying “Huh?!”, all I can say is that you will starve to death in a field of wheat if you’ve never heard of flour).

    We are running out of oil, money, energy, and heavy metals. (The heavy metals thing is _particularly_ important. See Robert Silverberg’s recent article.

    We need to dump MASSIVE investments in materials science, space technology, and AIs/abstract mathematics. The first because it has the potential to replace a lot of the harder-to-come-by elements with unique configuration of common ones (CAR-bon… I’m looking in _your direction_…). The second to _catch a freakin’ Near Earth Orbit asteroid_, already! Once single M-type asteroid could provide enough metals to support our civilization for eons. A C-type is essentially a giant floating ball of gasoline. And BOTH have plenty of the other major group of materials. (Bonus resource: Titanium Oxide, relatively common in space, acts as a sponge for He-3, which is _easy_ to fuse for lots of energy in a Tokamak reactor and is only found in space.)

    That’s just the first step. After that, we’d probably need to start looking at Jupiter and the asteroids in its Trojan points.

    We need to _expand_ not contract. Else we will die. Of course, if lightspeed is ultimately insurmountable, we will have issues, but that’s still a couple/three centuries away and the question will probably look a LOT different then.

    You CANNOT conserve your way to NEW resources. Period.

  • Sam, given your definitions it would be best to call environmentalism an “ism”. It would fit well with the other isms, and no oxymorons need to be involved.

    As for the rest of your comment … where on earth are you getting the notion that we must expand or die? Lots of other species have had stable populations for extended periods of time, and they didn’t go extinct (apart from the ones we drove to extinction, anyway).

    Under the current economic model, the economy must grow or else there is trouble — but that’s growth of value, which is only loosely correlated to growth in consumption of natural resources.

  • There is so much in this article that makes me infuriated I practically see red. The whole world is being driven into the ground by this type of “exponential growth” thinking.

    What makes anyone think that just because our society has experienced “exponential growth” (in some areas), that we can assume it to hold in the future? What makes anyone assume that our technology will continue to improve at an exponential rate? How can we possibly consume more resources at an exponential rate?

    Given the weaknesses of both those assumptions, how can we possibly assume that the “world economy” will continue to accrue interest indefinitely at an exponential rate?

    It’s thinking like this that is going to make the world much worse for our descendants in 2110. The idea that we, today, don’t have a responsibility past 1 dollar on 54, is self-serving BS.

  • Sam Walker

    “As for the rest of your comment … where on earth are you getting the notion that we must expand or die? Lots of other species have had stable populations for extended periods of time, and they didn’t go extinct (apart from the ones we drove to extinction, anyway).”

    They have predators and they do go extinct on their own. The only ones that survive are those that continually try to expand. It’s one the core, fundamental operating procedures of life, and it is our heritage from 3.5 billion years of strife.

    Life expands until it hits a bottleneck. We don’t have any predators other than disease. Our bottlenecks are resources (and of course, natural disasters like an asteroid strike, etc.). So we either create/find new resources, or we will crash hard. Life doesn’t just sit still. If it looks that way it’s because of opposing forces of monumental magnitude.

  • I loved this latest post, particularly the ideas of a “New Religion” emerging, one which posits ecological sensitivity and interconnectivity as core values. I too see this sort of thing happening–after all, the image of Earth as a little blue marble floating in space is a terribly new symbol for the human race, one which is easily taken for granted and yet has not even begun to make its full impact upon the human mind–and it is as galvanizing a spiritual icon as we have ever seen.

    Though interestingly, i am not sure the new “eco-religion” will emerge as a completely new religious tradition, but will instead become a new layer in the major religious traditions that already exist–Christian, Buddhist, Zen, Hindu, Jewish, whatever–all of these traditions are able to serve as a “conveyor belt” that lead people from magic worldviews, to mythic worldviews, to rational worldviews, to pluralistic worldviews, to integral worldviews, and beyond. Of course, most religions tend to fracture at the transition from mythical to rational worldviews, at which point many people feel that they have to choose between their faith and their logic, not realizing that there can be a rational form of Christianity or Buddhism or whatever (such as in the Deist traditions). But for those who are able and allowed to bring the rational mind to bear upon their spirituality, some are able to make it to the next stage of consciousness, which is the pluralistic stage, and is the stage where ecological consciousness really begins to come online. I think it is this section of the “conveyor belt” of religion where Christianity becomes eco-Christianity, Buddhism becomes eco-Buddhism, Zen becomes eco-Zen, etc.

    Of course, the problem is (and will continue to be) the fact that it is very difficult for religions to begin taking on the self-image of being these sorts of “conveyor belts,” simply because the VAST majority of religious adherents remain at a mythic level of consciousness, which is a very exclusionary, ethnocentric, “my truth is the only truth” sort of consciousness. And this mythic worldview doesn’t just express itself through religious fundamentalism, but through all sorts of applications of black and white, us vs. them thinking: things like racism, classism, and “put a boot in their ass” nationalism. And, sadly, as long as the majority of religious adherents remain at this mythic level (or lower) of consciousness, even the healthiest forms of religion will continue to be associated with fundamentalism, intolerance, and suicide bombers.

  • gregory

    all this thinking is based in fear …

    before metals, electricity, life involved scarcity, during the use of them, life involved scarcity, after they are gone, life involves scarcity …

    you, we, tried to avoid this unpleasant truth through overuse of the earth, the only solution is to embrace this scarcity, just like any other unpleasant truth

  • Oh man, this was such a refreshment. Thanks for this brilliant article.

    I had one rhetoric question at the end of the article:

    – “Would you sacrifice your kids or yourself to stop spoiling the next generations’ gene pool?”

  • Anthony Vicari

    The question of what the discount rate should be is indeed important when trying to weigh current costs and benefits versus future costs and benefits. But there are flaws with this model, as there are with any model.

    One is that the effects if preserving natural environments are nonlinear. How much of the projected exponential economic growth will be realized because of the undiscovered bits of nature our descendants will study? Is there a frog or something out there holding the key compounds to cure dozens of diseases? If we spend don’t spend the money to preserve the unknown, we never discover what is there, and thus we can never get the chance to evaluate it in our models, let alone take advantage of any possibilities for economic growth it might offer.

    Also, it seems a false choice to me to speak of economic benefits today or in 2110. The thing about sustainable practices, renewable energy, and technology is that they can continue to provide economic benefits every year, forever- hence the name.

    Beyond that, we must also recognize that even if we forgot entirely about economic effects beyond the next decade or so, but instead just considered all the current and short term costs and benefits of conservation, efficiency improvements, and paying higher up-front costs in exchange for lower operational costs, it would still often make sense to “go green.”

    Efficiency improvements in our buildings, cars, and manufacturing tend to pay for themselves very quickly, causing economic gains in the short term. Examples include solar hot water heaters, efficient lighting, electronics, and appliances; turning off computers, TV’s, and other standby devices at the outlet or by using a smart power strip; and for new construction, using a geothermal heat exchange system to supplement heating in winter and cooling in summer.

    On the grid today, the cheapest, most efficient, and most reliable power is not fossil-fuel based, it is nuclear. In other words, if we had switched to nuclear back in the seventies we would have cheaper, more abundant energy today. There is also several times more energy in the world’s uranium than in the world’s fossil fuels. Thorium is more abundant yet, and deuterium (not yet usable, but eventually) is more abundant still. The wind power (with modern turbines, about 8 cents per kWh versus 5 for coal) blowing over our croplands dwarfs the energy available from any of these sources, and dwarfs the energy that can be extracted by growing crops for biofuels (even if you convert the wind-generated electricity into hydrogen or another fuel that is easily transportable and can be used in vehicles, a process which inevitably incurs some loss). The solar power landing on our buildings is greater still, as a quick calculation can show. There is also significant potential for geothermal and wave/tidal power, but not nearly as much as in wind and solar- though which will be cheaper to access in the near future is open to question.

    So the potential for future exponential economic growth, assuming that this requires exponentially more energy than is available today, will require the tapping of non-polluting energy sources. The earlier we get started, the faster the exponential growth curve will be as we drive down the price of clean energy from these sources. Similarly, the supply of material resources available in the future, from paper and plastics to rare heavy metals, is dependent on how diligent we are about recycling them today- or at least keeping them somewhere safe so they don’t disappear forever under the ocean or in the atmosphere. We may indeed have the capability to mine asteroids, and it may at some point be economically favorable to do so, but I guarantee it will be cheaper to first go after the stuff we and our ancestors discarded as trash.

    I am just finishing college. The costs of the environmental degradation caused by mankind are going to hit me, in my lifetime, very hard. So it is in my own self-interest to eliminate the wasteful, polluting practices of the past in favor or longer-term solutions available now at a reasonable price. I don’t call for chasing pie-in-the-sky solutions like the Japanese government’s recent call for space-based solar power, but making use of the affordable green technology already in existence in order to generate both short and long term economic growth… yeah, we don’t need to debate that.

  • Adrian Burd

    To reiterate Richard Pauli’s, please read RealClimate’s discussion of Dyson’s essay. As much as I admire Dyson, this essay does show that he he has not fully grasped what’s happening in this instance. Most comments here, including many in the original posting, show the same. There is one key concept that most lay people miss – residence time. Many greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Let me repeat that. Many greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Even if we globally stopped all production of greenhouse gases tomorrow, what we’ve already put up there will stay there for more than a thousand years! It doesn’t matter a hoot if we use the remaining fossil fuel reserves in 50 years, 100 years or 200 years – and oil industry executives have not intention of allowing even the most meagre of deposits to stay in the ground (this is confirmed by their own words). The question is, where do want things to stop – CO2 concentrations of 400 ppm? 500 ppm? 1000 ppm?

    To me, it beggars the imagination that otherwise seemingly intelligent people don’t get it. We’re already on the path, we will already have to deal with it, we need to have acted 30 or 40 years ago. We’re already too late, and now all we can do is prepare for the problems and mitigate whatever problems will occur.

    The biggest problem is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. All out predictions revolve around models based on our current understanding. The fact that the models missed the rapid melting in the Arctic should give great concern to all. We (as an oceanographer, I include myself in this) missed the anomalous heat storage issues. Glaciologists missed the mechanisms leading to rapid ice-shelf collapse. What else have we missed?

    I’m sorry, but to go round babbling on about meaningless terms such as extropy reminds me of Nero.

  • John Johnson

    I’m a Dyson fan too, but I’d like an anthropologist to weigh in on this.

    The decision factors around Global Warming must include our instinctive and cultural attitudes toward unborn generations.

    Mammals, In general, accept personal costs, and risks, to nurture the next generation. Yet in some species, males will commit infanticide – jeopardizing the survival of the pack – to gain personal reproductive advantage. This is known to occur in primates, and still exists as a primal anxiety in humans. Wartime propaganda invariably includes images of enemy soldiers bayonetting babies.

    Female primates employ different reproductive strategies that tend to favor the survival of all offspring, not just their own. Female gorillas will risk the wrath of the dominant male by mating secretely with subordinate males – thus protecting their infant by creating uncertainty about who the father is.

    The current cry of, “We won’t cut back until China does”, seems to reflect the instincts of the ambitious males who would jeopardize all offspring to protect an advantageous position for their own.

    It gets personal too. Should I invest in a Hybrid car now, or save the money for my kid’s college tuition?

    I’m too broke to do either, so I drive no faster than 55 mph, with a big sign on my rear window that says, “Slow down. Leave some oil in the ground for your grandchildren.”

  • Patrick

    The laws of physics and chemistry are pretty well set, but economics is a construct of man, and can be changed with our minds. We need to get economics to account for common values like the atmosphere, fisheries and other currently unaccounted for assets.

    I find all of this rather old school- if we don’t escape the notion that the current economic model is actually viable, then we can’t really transform the society, much less the environment. The fossil fuel paradigm can’t lift even half the current have-nots out of poverty, much less the next three billion people. Other sources of energy need to be utilized. And there are lots of them available right now, without digging, without burning, without creating poisons.

    There are immediate economic benefits to turning our attention to both efficiency and production of clean – non burning – energy production. Shifting the buying policy of the federal government to the cleanest energy made available to it is sufficient market influence. Moving all incentives/subsidies for fossil fuels to non burning energy sources and investing in a grid to distribute them will resolve the energy issues. The best place for nuclear is right where it is right now- in the sky. The best place for fossil fuels is in the ground.
    We also need to stop thinking about whether or not we can succeed, and get on with trying. Tomorrow never knows. And although we will certainly know more tomorrow than we do today, that is no reason not to act on the ways we can reinvent living well right now.

  • wow! thanks for the dyson tip

  • miked

    A little late to the game here, but there’s an important point regarding the future discount argument that hasn’t been addressed. Linear growth, exponential growth, etc., only BEGIN to describe large scale, interconnected dynamic systems such as ecosystems and climate. One of the defining features of dynamic systems is catastrophic shifts from one equilibrium to another, given a sufficient disturbance. An example is eutrophication of a lake given a source of nitrogen from fertilizer runoff.

    How much is that present day dollar worth compared to some point in the future when no amount of money can reverse the environmental damage? Economics is a weak argument.

  • Natalya

    Freeman Dyson characterizes environmentalism as a religion that declares “the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible.” This description would be more appropriate for the deep ecology movement of the 1970s and 1980s than for the growing synergies between environmental advocates, scientists and capitalists as actions to mitigate climate change accelerate exponentially. The old negative bylines of “conservation” and “frugality” have long been displaced by landmark concepts such as Lovins’ “Natural Capitalism” and McDononough’s “Cradle to Cradle”. The true strength of the new environmentalism is not to be found in fruitless attempts to diminish rampant consumerism, but rather in thinking positively about creating a cyclical economy that utilizes waste products to our own betterment. Dyson’s use of the term religion is misguided, not least because it implies that global warming science is a belief system, rather than a highly developed set of facts.