Artificial Intelligence: blessing or curse?

For decades, writers and film makers have imagined a world in which computers and robots have advanced to the stage where they are, at least in some respects, more capable than their creators. Science fiction allows us to explore both the practical and moral implications of such changes, but we are now perhaps on the cusp of science fiction becoming science fact, when potential problems will become of more than just theoretical importance.

Many of the imagined worlds are dystopian and serve as a warning and we should certainly always be aware of the unintended consequences of what we do. But artificial intelligence – the usual name for the technologies that will underpin our brave new world – is likely to bring enormous benefits. The debate has started, but it’s already polarised, with some public figures (Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk among them) being deeply pessimistic about the impact of AI.

Pessimism and risk avoidance seem to be the default position of many people today, and precaution is increasingly being codified into regulation, at least in Europe. But precaution has its costs and could endanger the very innovation on which our future may depend. On the other hand, innovation doesn’t have to come from Europe or America as it usually has in the past. Many citizens of rich countries, despite real problems for those struggling on the lower rungs of the social scale, have lost the drive to improve and tackle challenges. Tomorrow’s game-changing developments may come from China, from India or from immigrants benefitting from rich country university education. But the deciding factor may be the regulatory and cultural environment, which can either foster or discourage them.

However, the factor that may still militate against stagnation and a quashing of inventiveness in rich countries is the ready acceptance both of things that improve lives and of novelty. AI has the capacity to deliver both in abundance. The problem is that, as the capabilities of AI increase, they may get out of human control in ways that we cannot conceive. Already, large computer programs are so complex that even the programmers don’t fully understand all that goes on through the intricate lines of code they have written.

When machine learning is involved, as employed by the chess- or go-playing computers that can now beat any human player, really understanding what is going on in silico becomes even more difficult. It’s easy under these circumstances to believe that we may be capable of creating something approaching artificial consciousness, with unknown consequences.

Science fiction writers have, of course, explored such issues decades ago. Perhaps most famously, Isaac Asimov put forward the three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  1. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

He later added a fourth law to precede the others (the zeroth law):

  1. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

These have been mulled over, tweaked and had their potential consequences examined in a variety of fictional situations, but the truth is that there is (as yet, at least) no foolproof way to codify programmed behaviour that is incapable of causing harm. In practice, what we define as artificial intelligence is a spectrum of capabilities which we are only now beginning to tap into. And the first embodiments will be very far from the humanoid robots envisaged by Asimov and others.

Autonomous vehicles may not be far away. Modern cars already use sophisticated software to manage their engines, and processing capabilities (effectively the speed of data handling) have evolved to the stage where cars can theoretically operate safely on public roads. There are remaining problems, of course. Some are of a technical nature, such as ensuring the control systems can detect all likely hazards and that they are fail-safe. Others offer moral dilemmas.

In particular, although self-driving cars should in principle be safer than ones driven by real people, they will still encounter hazardous situations in which some kind of damage limitation is needed. Then, it may come to a choice between protecting the occupants and avoiding harm to other road users. Whereas a human driver would instinctively try to take evasive action, computers don’t have instincts, only programmed behaviour.

If someone is badly injured or killed in an incident involving an autonomous car, public reaction would be different than if the car had a human driver. Human error is accepted, but mistakes by machines are less forgivable. The parallel is with railway travel: the safety record is much better than for roads, but the rare fatal accidents often lead to calls for expensive additional safety measures.

What we have to bear in mind is that, whatever the downsides of any particular application of AI, be it accidents involving autonomous cars or anything else, they ultimately have a human cause. People have designed the cars, built and installed the sensors and, most importantly, written the software to control everything. If something goes wrong, it is because of the unforeseen consequences of a particular program, something unforeseen by the human programmer.

And so it has always been with things we now take for granted. Because something is new, it is very difficult to foresee all potential problems. Nevertheless, we continue to make progress as a species, as long as we recognise and correct our mistakes. Identifying potential major problems with AI, as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have done, should only serve to help us avoid them. It shouldn’t stop us trying to get the best out of innovation.

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Certainty breeds intolerance

Certainty is usually thought of as a virtue, and we often regard those who lack firm views on an issue as indecisive or weak. In fact, it can be a mixed blessing, with a refusal to change position sometimes leading to far more harm than good. At the extreme, the certainty that a particular ideology is right can have appalling consequences; Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot’s ostensible attempts to build perfect socialist societies resulted in terrible suffering and millions of deaths.

On a more mundane level, a failure to recognise a change of public mood can mark the end of the road for democratically elected politicians as well. Margaret Thatcher’s fight against trade union power and introduction of the right to buy council houses brought popularity (with many), but her insistence on the hated ‘poll tax’ was a step too far for the Conservative Party.

Remaining in the political arena, Aneurin Bevan’s remark that Tories were ‘lower than vermin’ in 1948 (“…no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin”) reveals a hardness of opinion still unfortunately shared by some on the resurgent Labour Left.

Not that it is only the Left that is guilty; Winston Churchill’s speech in the 1945 election in which he said that electing a Labour government and the introduction of Socialism into Britain would require “… some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance” was a serious miscalculation that contributed to the Atlee government’s large majority.

In the event, Churchill’s remark seems to have been a rhetorical overstepping of the mark rather than reflecting a visceral loathing such as Bevan’s. Churchill and Atlee worked together very effectively in the wartime National government and had a deep respect for each other. But the perception of certainty and intolerance no doubt led to greater polarisation and put the Conservatives firmly on the wrong side of history at that particular juncture.

In all walks of life, not just politics, Keynes’ dictum “If the facts change, I change my mind” should always be borne in mind. Even if the facts as known don’t really change, differences of perception or context may lead to a different interpretation. Nevertheless, far too many people are driven by belief or ideology rather than a rational assessment of evidence.

This leads them not just to reject opposing arguments but to ignore people they consider to hold the wrong opinions. A case in point is highlighted in this headline about the appointment of Neno Dimov, the Bulgarian environment minister, as president of the EU environment council: ‘Shocking’: Anger after climate change sceptic becomes EU environment chief. Mr Dimov was not elected to this position; it becomes his turn for the next six months during Bulgaria’s stint in the rotating council presidency.

Because he had previously made some controversial comments on climate change, he came in for some critical questioning when he appeared at the European Parliament: “Mr Dimov refused to discuss his opinion on climate change, saying there was a ‘political consensus’ within the EU when it came to climate change and that he would ‘keep this consensus alive’. However, he also said there was always room for ‘challenges and doubts’. Shortly after becoming environment minister last year, Mr Dimov told a television interviewer ‘climate change is a scientific debate; there is no consensus, and every part has arguments.’” 

Admittedly, this is not the only issue over which Mr Dimov has clashed with environmentalists, but in this case he should surely be judged by his actions rather than his views. Far from being the black and white issue which many activists would have us believe, the scientific knowledge behind climate change and the technology behind rational approaches to mitigate potential negative effects continue to evolve.

Just as it is clear that the more extravagant claims about both the likely future rise in average temperatures and the impact of such changes have been generally accepted to be unrealistic, so a debate about how to take sensible action as part of a ‘least regrets’ approach is now overdue. In the current febrile environment, this is almost impossible. But if, for example, greater use of nuclear energy could both reduce CO2 emissions and provide a far more secure and stable electricity supply than possible with the current generation of renewables and energy storage technologies, surely the rational approach would be to at least consider the possibility seriously.

Perhaps this intolerance of dissent on environmental issues is just a symptom of a wider malaise in society. It certainly seems like it, when even the academic world seems intent on looking at historical figures and events through the lens of modern morality and cultural norms that have changed substantially in our own lifetimes. What started with ‘Rhodes must go’ has evolved to the point where a well-argued article by Nigel Biggar, and Oxford theology professor, that colonialism was not necessarily wholly bad has been roundly condemned by his peers.

The article in question – Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history – carried the tagline Apologising for empire is now compulsory but shame can stop us tackling the world’s problems. 58 academics wrote an open letter condemning Prof Biggar, also reported in the Times (Oxford academics attack Professor Nigel Biggar over defence of colonialism). How representative they are of academic opinion is a moot point, but the fact that there was not a rush to defend him suggests that even non-signatories of the critical letter feel unwilling to put their heads above the parapet in the current climate.

This piece has strayed a bit further from science than usual, but it is unlikely we can encourage tolerance and rational argument among scientists unless as a society we become more willing to acknowledge and listen to dissenters.

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Hype and reality

It’s not often that I get an opportunity to quote Private Eye, but here goes. In a column by ‘Old Sparky’ (issue 1462), under the headline ‘Real food for thought’ is a critique of the biomethane industry in general and Good Energy (a big player in the sector) in particular. To quote: “But, as with other bio-energy, biomethane is not always genuinely sustainable. And Good Energy, the big seller of so-called green gas, is disingenuous in what it tells its customers.”

The piece goes on to explain that the anaerobic digestion process is not terribly efficient, that bulky feedstuff needs to be trucked to the digesters and that CO2 makes up 39% of the output, alongside methane. Nevertheless, if it is waste biomass being processed, then there is a good argument for turning it into usable fuel. This is indeed what Good Energy promotes, telling customers that the biomethane is made from “waste, manure, sewage, decaying food…All the organic matter we source comes from food waste.”

Except it doesn’t. Anaerobic digestion (AD) can quite legally use non-waste (ie, edible food crops) for up to half of its feedstock. The company’s major biomethane supplier, based in Somerset, already uses about one-third food crops (beet in particular) in the biomass feed and seems set to increase it. The irony is that, as more attention is put on reducing waste along the food chain, so more food crops get processed in anaerobic digesters, and biomethane makes less and less sense.

It’s not difficult to find other examples of the message not living up to the reality. Bioethanol seems like a particularly egregious one. One of the key climate change policies implemented in both the EU and USA mandates that a certain proportion of biofuel has to be included in all petrol and diesel. In the case of petrol, this is currently bioethanol, made by fermenting starch from food crops.

In America, this means maize, and a large part of the US maize crop has been sold for this purpose in recent years. At one point, this contributed to high maize prices at a time of generally raised food prices and even led to protests in parts of Central America, where corn-based tortillas are a staple food. In 2016, the last year for which figures are available, about one third of the US maize crop was converted to biofuel.

The situation is similar for biodiesel. In this case, a relatively small amount of used cooking oil is reprocessed, but the main feedstocks are edible oils, generally rape in Europe and palm oil on a wider international basis. As well as diverting grains and oils from use as food, the expansion of oil palm cultivation is controversial because of the loss of remaining areas of Asian rainforest. But while biofuel production can disrupt food markets, constraints on biomass availability mean that it can only ever hope to replace a minor proportion of conventional motor fuel.

A third very clear example of the reality being less palatable than the public message is the use of biomass to generate electricity. Small quantities of pollarded willow and miscanthus grass are grown in the UK and elsewhere as energy crops, but the bulk of biomass used in Europe in this sector is in the form of wood pellets imported from America. The Drax Group generates about 7% of the UK’s total electricity from its vast, formerly coal-fired plant in East Yorkshire. Two thirds of this comes from biomass, almost entirely wood pellets, and a large proportion of these are shipped from the USA. The group’s own American operations supply 15% of this total, and the intention is to increase this proportion.

While the message is that Drax is producing clean, green energy, the reality is a little different. As a large and relatively modern coal-fired facility, the site was an efficient and reliable generator of electricity, but the introduction of carbon pricing meant its economic days were numbered. The result is the conversion (not yet complete) to a site burning biomass instead of coal.

For this, Drax receives public subsidies that make it a profitable business, because it ticks the right box in terms of emissions reduction. However, wood pellets are not only less energy dense than coal (and hence more costly to transport) but actually produce about 40% more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity. The only reason they are regarded as a better option is that the CO2 emitted is nominally reabsorbed over a period of time by newly-planted trees.

While this is technically correct, it seems somewhat misleading to describe electricity from biomass as clean and green when it is actually making a greater contribution to global warming in the short to medium term than the very coal it displaces. Since we are told repeated of the urgent need to reduce emissions as soon as possible, the active encouragement of biomass use has a certain Alice in Wonderland quality.

In a completely rational world, it would seem to make more sense to continue burning coal, while planting trees to fix the carbon dioxide emitted, which would be considerably lower than the amount emitted by burning wood. The point is that only certain ways of cutting emissions are regarded as good. This is why EU targets have included mandatory targets for use of renewable energy and, in the case of motor transport, biofuels. Policy in this area is ideological rather than rational.

One unintended consequence of the complex set of rules designed to achieve the goal – defining the pathway rather than simply the target – has been the replacement of gas-fired generators by coal-fired ones in Germany, the very opposite of what we might expect. One that is perhaps even more perverse is the plan to reduce France’s dependence on clean, reliable nuclear power by expanding renewable energy capacity. Just how this can be done without increasing emissions is not yet clear.

The message is simple: when it comes to choosing ‘green’ energy, caveat emptor.

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Driving change

Anyone who experienced the oil crises of the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember Sheikh Yamani, Saudi oil minister and leader of the then dominant OPEC cartel (in the days when oil was cheap and America hadn’t started exploiting its shale deposits). He is credited with saying that the Stone Age didn’t end because of the lack of stone, and the Oil Age wouldn’t end because of the lack of oil.

You can read many things into that, but it encapsulates an essential truth: in the energy sector, one source is likely to dominate for a particular purpose until something better comes along. ‘Better’ also means at least as economic. So, coal swept away wind and water power, the internal combustion engine replaced horse power, town gas meant the end of candles and coal (and then gas) displaced wood for heating. All of these made life better and became ubiquitous as more and more people could afford them.

In the course of time, all this will change. Ultimately, the writing is on the wall for petrol and diesel, not because of the receding mirage of Peak Oil, but because something better will come along. This could be battery power, it could even be hydrogen, but the chances are it will take some form that is not yet even close to commercialisation. But in the meantime change is being forced by the only means available other than market economics: public policy.

The logic is that, since emissions of so-called greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) are pushing average global temperatures up (to an unknown degree) and such a change could ultimately cause major problems, immediate action has to be taken to reduce emissions. Furthermore, this action has to be taken using the technology currently available, whether or not it is up to the task.

Ignore for the moment the fact that it is global emissions that determine the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and, with the continued growth in particular of the Chinese and Indian economies, these are still increasing year on year. When they will peak is a moot point (although a recent projection is that global CO2 emissions to peak in 2026), but the later this happens, the greater the cutbacks needed in later years to avoid breaching the limit of a 2°C rise that modellers consider to be the point at which climate change becomes dangerous.

Ignore also the fact that we have not seriously begun to address the enormous problem of how to replace gas as the primary source of energy for heating. All that is being done so far is to reduce the CO2 emissions from electricity generation by moving from coal- to gas-fired power stations (although, in the case of Germany, perverse incentives have pushed up the use of domestic lignite in place of gas) and install increasing numbers of wind turbines and solar panels. At the same time, an ideological antipathy to nuclear power is seeing an accelerated run-down of the sector in Germany and, incredibly, the prospect of France increasing its emissions as it scales back its reliance on safe, cheap and reliable nuclear electricity.

None of this would have happened without government intervention. Free market economics are against it and so, although we talk glibly of ‘public subsidy’, it is the consumer who ultimately pays the price via higher utility bills. Similarly, we are being either encouraged or bullied, depending on your viewpoint, into buying electric or hybrid vehicles to replace pure petrol- or diesel-powered cars. By 2040, we are told we will have no choice. And, if others had their way, the transition would come sooner (Most new cars must be electric by 2030, ministers told).

But such cars are more expensive than their conventional alternatives, even with the ‘public’ (ie, taxpayer-funded) subsidy available. This means that they will appeal to a certain section of the car-buying public, but only the more prosperous ones, and the subsidy becomes a form of regressive tax rebate. Neither should we forget that a large infrastructural investment is needed to provide charging points; someone ultimately has to pay for this as well.

This whole exercise is, of course, futile unless it achieves significant cuts in emissions. The additional generating capacity has to be low carbon (in a rational world, probably based on nuclear energy) and integrated into the grid in such a way that the electricity supply is stable and reliable. Currently, conventional backup (mainly inefficiently-run gas turbines) is needed to keep the lights on. As more renewable energy capacity is added, the difficulties of integrating it increase and the benefits in terms of emissions cuts decrease.

Despite this, there is a general feeling in the business world that the demise of oil and coal is inevitable. This being so, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that Lloyds of London to divest from coal over climate change. They are following other insurers and organisations including the Church of England in taking this stance. This is partly reputational, but as hard-nosed businessmen, the board no doubt feels that profits can be as good elsewhere with less risk. After all, climate activists continue to preach that fossil fuel reserves could soon become stranded assets with little worth.

Whatever the reasons, pressure is increasing, and not just on coal. We can also read about Big Oil, climate change and the law. In America (naturally), BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell are being sued for compensation for damage by superstorm Sandy to New York City in 2012. In California, 21 teenagers have a case against the federal government in the appeals court claiming that it “failed to protect their rights to life, liberty and property by promoting the use of fossil fuels”. And RWE is being sued in Germany by a Peruvian mountain guide because of its supposed contribution to the melting of a glacier, which is threatening his home town.

Change is being driven by government policy and campaigning pressure. So far, the general public are not generally complaining about the costs or disruption to their way of life. But all that could change if costs escalate, more changes are forced on people and no benefits are seen. If more focus was to be put on developing new technology, innovation and economics might mean that same public would willingly embrace more cost-effective changes that actually improve their lives.

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Fantastic plastic

In today’s world of blacks and whites, plastic waste is becoming a major target both of environmentalists and policymakers, and the benefits are being forgotten. This is an unfortunate trend, but typical of the highly precautionary mind-set that has put so much pressure on synthetic chemicals in general and crop protection and agricultural biotechnology in particular. Without a balanced view of risks and benefits, there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But it wasn’t always like that. As synthetic polymers became commercially available in large quantities from the mid-20th Century, they were seen as new wonder materials with a host of valuable uses. Where wood, paper, cotton, wool or glass had been the only raw materials available, polyethylene, nylon, PET, polyester and a host of other polymers came to compete.

In some cases, their claimed advantages were transitory. Those who remember drip-dry nylon shirts and sheets will not miss them. But in other cases, the changes were profound and long-term. Without polymeric resins, mdf (medium density fibreboard and its variants) could not have been made, everyday furniture would have been considerably more expensive and our reliance on mature trees much greater, for example.

There is one area in particular in which plastics have been highly successful, but also have created problems: packaging. Plastics can be moulded, shaped and printed to give packs that both protect food and other goods and make them attractive to us. However, the durability that is a plus in the distribution chain is a liability once the packaging has served its purpose. When discarded, many polymers are essentially indestructible, even if the packs they form physically break down into smaller pieces.

The particular focus today is on plastic waste in the oceans, brought into especially high profile via the BBC Blue Planet 2 series. If a national treasure like David Attenborough highlights a problem, people tend to take notice. As some marine creatures feed, they ingest tiny pieces of plastic, and these may increase the mortality of their young in particular, by diluting the nutritional value of their food. Some creatures may even become entangled in plastic bags.

There is also the sheer scale of the problem to consider. Because of the nature of ocean currents, there are some places in the open sea where waste tends to gather in quantity, with the ‘great Pacific garbage patch’ being the most widely known. Mental pictures of floating rubbish are, however, very wide of the mark. This is in effect a large area of sea in which tiny degraded pieces of plastic (and other materials) are concentrated, with little if any large pieces visible to the naked eye. But it is these tiny pieces that can be ingested and build up in the food chain.

The problem is a much more visible one on shorelines and land, where discarded rubbish accumulates until it is physically removed. This is unsightly and unpleasant but, by and large it presents little real hazard to wildlife.

At heart, the problem is one of human behaviour. A minority of people choose not to dispose of rubbish properly and drop it in the street or dump it from cars or boats. If we could eliminate this behaviour, then there would be no environmental problem. However, this is too much to hope for in most societies and, in any case, we have to find suitable ways of disposing of or reusing packaging once it has served its immediate purpose.

There are those who call for the use of plastic packaging to be ended. ‘Plastic free’ aisles may soon appear in supermarkets, and Iceland is the first food retailer to announce their intention to eliminate all plastic packaging from their own-label products. While this may sound fine in principle, in practice it would make shopping for many items much more difficult.

In many cases, when what may appear to be excessive packaging is eliminated, food waste is increased. Carefully packaged ripe fruit would be more likely to become unsaleable. Meat in a modified-atmosphere packaging would have a shorter shelf life. In many ways, food waste would be easier to deal with – it could serve as a fermentation substrate to make a range of useful products, or methane as a fuel – but the logistics of collection have not yet been devised and food waste is itself an emotive issue at present.

If there is still to be a large quantity of plastic packaging in circulation, an effective way of increasing collection rates is needed. Many countries already have a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, as well as glass ones. In the UK, deposits are rarely seen, but whether 5p on a bottle of drink would make a difference to the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about throwing an empty bottle into the hedgerow is a moot point.

In Singapore, litter-free streets are the rule because of fines for littering, which are enforced. In the UK, it is almost unheard of for someone to be prosecuted for casual littering, despite the penalties in law. But where there is already a litter problem, regular clear-ups plus education campaigns may be the only way to change public attitudes.

Although recycling rates have increased, not all plastics can be recycled and there is insufficient demand for some recycled material to make it worthwhile to recycle all of it. China has recently stopped dealing with British plastic, for example.  And ‘green’ plastics made from renewable raw materials (for example, various grades of polyethylene) do nothing for the waste problem.

In the short to medium term, we are left with just two practical solutions, neither of which is popular in today’s climate. One is landfill. Although out of favour, this cannot be completely ignored, particularly if the material buried is as inert as plastic. The other is incineration. Modern, high temperature incinerators produce clean exhaust gases and have the added advantage of recovering some of the energy inherent in plastics (and other materials) as heat. Combined heat and power plants can be very useful when situated in areas of high density housing.

The choices may not seem attractive ones, but realistically we are unlikely to see a major reduction in plastic packaging anytime soon. Given that, we have to find sensible and effective ways to deal with the waste problem. Efficient collection systems are a vital prerequisite, but in the present absence of viable ways to recycle the material, incineration must be regarded as a credible option.

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Today’s issues

Early civilizations evolved after the development of arable farming about 10,000 years ago. This enabled settled communities to grow and some people to specialise in skills other than hunting and foraging. Life was still unbelievably hard by today’s standards, but the basis for development of modern societies was established.

During the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution transformed the lives of vast numbers of people. Families moved from the land as cities grew further and factory jobs rocketed. Not all the change was for the better initially, but this phase of development was another essential component of our current prosperity.

As life became gradually less of a struggle for everyday survival, advances in public health and medicine drove further improvement. The realisation that bacteria caused many diseases and that a clean water supply was essential cut avoidable outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. The mid-20th Century development of antibiotics and widespread vaccinations finally brought many infectious diseases with high mortality rates under control.

Most readers will have lived through a time when smallpox was eradicated and polio nearly so, while most babies in the developed world are routinely protected from many serious childhood diseases. The spectre of HIV has emerged, but is now essentially under control. Viruses remain a threat and the declining effectiveness of existing antibiotics is a real concern, but the major health problems across much of the world come largely in the form of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

While we can’t pretend that life is a bed of roses for everyone, particularly in the developing world, many of today’s major problems are self-inflicted. Countries suffering civil war, poor governance or high levels of corruption cannot fulfil their potential until they are at peace and properly governed for the benefit of all citizens. Fortunately, despite a lost half century or so, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now on the road to a better future taken by much of South East Asia decades ago.

In this fortunate world, at least for those of us lucky to live in developed countries, life has been made even easier by the rapid development of IT, although what goes under the heading of social media has been a very mixed blessing. The saying that a lie can go halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes (normally, but wrongly, attributed to Mark Twain) has never been truer.

So, we find ourselves at a time in history where a large majority of citizens across the industrialised world no longer have to worry about food (except eating too much of it), shelter or clothing. This group finds itself at or near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In its original form, the top of the pyramid was self-actualisation; essentially, making the most of our potential. At a later stage, Maslow himself talked of a further stage: self-transcendence.

This is what we can see as the desire to improve society and is one of the underlying motivations for volunteer work and NGOs. After the traumas of the Second World War, it is not surprising that a recovering and increasingly prosperous world looked to improve the natural environment and protect what we see as basic human rights.

Care for the environment has become mainstream and, despite continuing bad news stories (as we know, almost all news is bad) our air and water are much cleaner than our parents experienced as young adults and conservation is an important component of what farmers are rewarded for. Large emerging economies, China and India in particular, are going through their own Industrial Revolutions and are only just beginning to tackle their severe air and water pollution, but in the West we are nearer the top of the environmental hierarchy of needs.

Big, overarching issues – climate change in particular – dominate the sector and are embedded in our psyches (to the extent that most people take them for granted and treat them as background noise to their lives). Debate, such as it is, is between relatively small numbers of people who take an active interest, for whatever reason. This present state of affairs has been a long time building, with a constant stream of messages from the IPCC and others. For much of the time, this has played out in traditional print and broadcast media, but the IT Revolution means that social media now leads the way.

This is perhaps the main reason why the focus is changing regarding matters of the environment. Climate change is still the predominant theme, but we hear less about this directly than a few years ago, maybe because this simply not a top of mind issue for most citizens. Every now and again, ocean ‘acidification’ rears its head as a likely consequence of higher CO2 levels, even if global warming turns out to be less severe than we were being led to believe.

In fact, there must be a strong suspicion that the scientific establishment has also accepted that the climate models are tuned to give projections that are too high to be consistent with observations. Is it possible that other issues are coming to the fore to move attention away from this?

Air pollution has been an issue for some time, but this has certainly come much higher up the agenda recently, probably to provide more direct motivation for the intended move away from the internal combustion engine. And over the last few months, plastics have become the number one issue; again, a problem that has been around for a long while, but now given much greater prominence.

People who believe in conspiracy theories might be tempted to think that this change of priorities is a coordinated one that is intended to move us towards the goal of a ‘low-carbon’, green future more easily than simply beating us over the head with a single issue year after year. Or, it could just be the way that social media picks up on and amplifies messages. Either way, priorities shift and messages evolve. It will be interesting to see what 2018 brings.

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The perils of pessimism

Being of a naturally optimistic disposition, I’ve often thought that the environmentalist movement has a deep streak of pessimism running through it. At the extreme, the world view is one of our species – and our species alone – being both outside Nature and with a negative impact on all other forms of life. Of course, most environmentalists don’t take nearly such a black and white position, but many still see humankind’s impact with a negative halo.


Over the Christmas period, I came across two articles that cast some light on why pessimism seems so prevalent. Why things might not be as bad as we think covers the findings of an Ipsos-Mori report called the Perils of Perception. This found that a significant majority of respondents from 38 countries thought that the murder rate had not fallen, that deaths from terrorism hadn’t fallen – both of which run counter to the evidence – and that the rate of teenage pregnancies is much higher than the reality.

According to the article, this is because our brains handle bad news differently from good news. In essence, we are predisposed to believe the worst, because this enhances our chances of survival in a dangerous world. We may think that the relentless stream of bad news in the media causes our pessimism, but in reality newspapers are just reinforcing our natural feelings. Indeed, attempts to focus primarily on good news have always been a commercial failure, it seems.

The sub-heading of the second article, The Power of Negative Thinking, is pessimists fare better than people with sunnier dispositions. For natural optimists, that is in itself a dispiriting prospect, but there is certainly some food for thought. One argument is that taking too positive an outlook on life makes us complacent and overconfident. One example quoted is that those who underestimate their risk of heart disease are more likely to show early signs of it. We can certainly see the same tendency in smokers, many of whom will be aware of mortality statistics but think it won’t apply to them.

The benefits of pessimism apparently go further than this, though. Optimists are more likely to suffer disappointment, while a study in Germany showed that those who were less optimistic about their futures were less likely to become disabled or die prematurely. The suggestion is that a strategy of ‘defensive pessimism’ is good for us.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I would argue rather that both blind optimism and constant pessimism are equally bad and that realism should be the order of the day. Perhaps because I see my glass as half full, I see no contradiction between having an optimistic outlook on life while relying on evidence which may lead us to be negative about particular issues.

Part of the problem is that much change is seen as inherently negative. This is one of the reasons why every generation tends to see society going to the dogs as standards of education, behaviour, speech and pretty much everything else decline. In fact, what many people see as decline is simply a move away from the norms they are accustomed to. The value judgement is in the eye of the beholder.

Concern for the environment is to a significant extent a reaction to the impacts we humans have on landscapes and other species. It is surely good that we are concerned, but finding a point of balance and rationalising it is incredibly difficult. First, we have to accept that the emergence of farming and settled communities has had a major effect on the environment in many countries. Before this, much of northern Europe was densely wooded and would have had much less diverse ecosystems.

These changes over the millennia we see as largely positive, since they have created the landscapes we know and cherish today. We may worry about declining numbers of farmland bird species but, without humans, most of them would not be in the region at all. More broadly, our well-meaning attempts at conservation may be good for species in decline, but we may have created the ecological niche in which they thrived in the first place.

For example, farming provided habitat for ground nesting skylarks and partridges, while red kites flourished in the Middle Ages at least in part because they scavenged in the filthy urban streets. Flower meadows became established on suitable areas where the grass was kept cropped by livestock. The balance of species we consider ‘natural’ is one which we ourselves have played a large role in creating.

A rule of thumb seems to be, quite understandably, that we take the environment we grow up in as the norm, although our perceptions are also influenced by the memories of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. During our lifetimes, we experience great changes; the ‘good’ we tend to accept and take for granted, while the ‘bad’ we worry about.

In fact, nothing is purely black and white. IT has transformed our lives and the way we do business and has brought enormous benefits, but the downsides of what has become known as social media are also all too apparent. Things such as this make some people hark back to simpler times, but the reality of life in earlier generations was a lot harder than we sometimes realise.

The big environmental issue of the early 21st Century is, of course, climate change, and it’s here that our predisposition to believe bad news is particularly apparent. Despite the large amount of common ground between ‘warmists’ and ‘deniers’, the lack of constructive debate and knee jerk dismissal of criticism is a sign of deeply entrenched pessimism.

The projections of computer simulations based on a partial understanding of chaotic weather systems are believed more than some of the perfectly credible questioning of the sense of attempting radical reductions in carbon dioxide emissions with inadequate technology. Arguments about the need for societies to adapt to changes in climate as they have had to during recorded history are largely ignored.

There is little point in trying to change human nature, but that shouldn’t stop people pointing to hard evidence and alternative views. It may not be sensible to have Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as our theme tune, but neither should we be too ready to believe the worst.

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