Month: October 2017

Milling it Over

Reading the comment section of this article on recent developments in wind power was an eye-opener. What most struck me, though, was not the breathless good news about the Renewable Future that will snappily pull us free of our energy/climate tarpit—a narrative that has become a kind of received wisdom in many circles. Instead, what most amazed was how readily ostensibly “green-minded” citizens can go excitedly all-in on the prospect of covering colossal regions of the planet with machinery and building projects for energy extraction. The trick to this counterintuitive transformation, it turns out, is just to tell them it’s going to be for wind, tidal or solar power.

The technocratic glee is hard to miss. One commenter, without a trace of irony, extols how “…Better materials and designs are creating economical, mammoth, skyscraper sized windmills that will dot the Earth’s oceans. The future is now.” Others revel, surreally, in the modest proposal of building an India-sized windmill farm in the North Atlantic. After all, what’s a few measly million square kilometers of construction work in the middle of the ocean, if it lets us avoid serious questioning of our motives and lifestyle? (And of course we know from offshore oil platforms how very cheap and easy it is to maintain even a few complex machine-outposts in the ocean, right?)

The whole thoughtscape around this issue, being peppered with delusions and fervent wishes, very readily breeds false opposites. While the “new” fossil fuels, particularly fracking, are often anathema to the fashionably green-minded, the renewable megaprojects’ attitude towards the land is in some ways extremely similar. Fracking, in terms of covering the planet’s surface with machinery and extractive processes as extensively as possible, is already on the way to something analogous to covering the Atlantic in an India-sized windfarm, except we instead cover the West and Midwest of the USA with tens of thousands of square miles of pumpjacks, support equipment, access roads and tailing ponds. The amount of the earth and carbon such processes consume, “green” or not, is gigantic compared to the old types of fields, or often to “old” renewables like hydropower. There is also the continual activity necessary to offset declines—in the Permian it is currently 3/4 of the total new production per month, while windmills will have an operational life of 20 years and need continual upkeep/replacement.

There is something in this spectacle that reeks of late-stage can-doism, of the beseiged optimist’s inability to contemplate clearly the forces that threaten (or limit) his system. At large in their dreams of mega-megaprojects to save the Earth by technological feats even grander than those that caused the energy and climate problems in the first place, hardly a single one of these armchair-green warriors will bear to contemplate the points that Vaclav Smil most forcefully makes, and that should be evident to any intelligent person of even moderate probity: 1) that renewables remain massively dependent on fossil fuel energy and feedstocks, 2) that the true pragmatic/technical core of our problem is our “grossly irrational” and profligate use of energy, and hence that 3) we must first focus on using dramatically less. This just isn’t the techno-escape fantasy these people want to hear; rather, what they want and crave turns out to be just more technological dominion-over-the-earth and ever increasing luxury, in a feel-good green disguise.

Yet Smil’s caveats on renewables’ limitations, while sobering, are still centered on an instrumental or technocratic considerations, though in his favor he also notes that there is no technical solution to global warming. There is another layer even deeper than conservation, which Erik Lindberg diagnoses superbly with this crie du cour:

“…Liberal environmentalism, then, is not really directed towards ‘saving humanity’ in any of many ways this phrase might be used.[iv]  Rather, it is geared towards saving the liberal, capitalist, and consumerist world order; it hopes to preserve our freedom to consume[v] as we currently do.  The argument is only how we might best do that.  For this reason, the ‘debate’ between the fossil fuel Cornucopians and the wind and solar Cornucopians is about as interesting and relevant as the ‘less filling/tastes great’ mock argument of actors and celebrities pretending to be Miller Lite drinkers a few decades ago. The swilling will continue either way.”

None of this is to say that technologies that can reduce carbon emissions are “bad” or should not be pursued, but to entreat our consideration of a more subtle yet extremely important point: that the current emphasis and goals of the transition are as wrongheaded as ever. Quoting Thoreau, Lindberg calls this transition “an improved means to an unimproved end”. Perhaps it will all even out somehow, perhaps it is an incremental movement in the right direction. But shifts in thinking often do not happen until they are forced, especially when the old ways are propped up by the vast inertia born of vast luxuries long since taken as a birthright. Instead, it is as if for many, our energy lifestyle expectations and our stance towards nature itself cannot yet be discussed without a kind of primal terror shutting off consideration. (The Last Man blinks.)

The Shadow of Knowing-All


The inscrutability of neural networks is yet another interesting example of the vertiginous struggle we constantly face in reconciling contrasting scales of the same objects. (This is itself likely a side-effect of our basically Faustian world-view, with its preoccupation with breaking down scales and limits in search of constant expansion). Everywhere we see pieces that are not like the whole: and the more we pursue understanding through reduction and through concepts, the more we notice simple small pieces combining into much larger entities that in turn seem blissfully indifferent to the character of their constituents. Indeed we are waylaid by this same surprised, amazed uneasiness—often given the name “emergence”—in the guise of countless diverse objects and topics, from fractals and photomontages to economics, psychology and molecular biology.

In one sense, this quality of neural networks is greatly liberating and exciting, for it gives us a clue that the insistence that our concepts, reasons, and above all our words must exhaust all of reality may itself be mistaken. Every component of the network is rigorously rule-based—everywhere there is mere computation by simple and wholly determined parts—yet for all that we can make no more sense of the larger outcome than we can of a person who says, “I just like it!” There is no “explanation” of the data to be found in model, beyond the model itself (much as there is no “explanation” of an object to be found from its imprint in silly putty); it simply is what it was trained to be.

At the same time, even considering this liberating quality, neural networks may also be a dangerous example of statistical thinking as a totalizing or prejudicial doctrine, or more broadly of how the very tools we use to “understand” can by their nature blind us to anything outside of their scope. Through this doctrine, the concept of “emergence” remains rooted in a reductive understanding and so is viewed always with suspicion if not embarrassment, as if it could be banished if only we were smart enough, or if we but found new and better words. Whereas what really cries out to be discovered here are not simply “things that are too messy to reduce”, but things for which reduction cannot even be applied in principle—things wholly outside its scope, things for which “words fail us”.