an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

all renewable energy by 2050? Hang on a tick

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Sir David McKay, who died in 2016 of stomach cancer, aged 49. A great loss.

The late Sir David McKay, physicist, engineer, sustainable energy expert, Cambridge professor and Royal Society Fellow, has just become known to me through his 2012 TED talk and a lengthier exposition of the same ideas presented at Harvard. These talks were designed, to ‘cut through some of the greenwash’ and provide a realistic account of what can be done, on both the supply and the demand side, to reduce fossil fuel consumption and transform our energy economy.

As I need to keep saying, I’m far from an expert on this stuff, and I’m always impressed by the ingenious developments in the field and the promise of new technology, in batteries and other storage systems – like the compressed air underwater energy storage system being trialled in Lake Ontario, Toronto. But McKay’s contributions are helping me to think more realistically about the enormity of the problem of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels as well as to think more practically about my own domestic usage and the demand side more generally.

While McKay was no renewable energy sceptic or climate change denier, his ‘arithmetical’ view of the future poured a lot of cold hydro on the rosy idea that we’d be living in an all-renewables-powered biosphere within x decades. So I want to take a closer look at some aspects of what he was saying (he also wrote a highly-regarded book, Sustainable energy – without the hot air, available free online).

I particularly want to look at two forms of renewable energy that he talked about; wind and solar. He also talked at some length about two other energy sources, biofuels and nuclear, but I’ve never been much keen on biofuels, which in any case seem to have been largely taken off the menu in recent years, and nuclear, as McKay admits, has a popularity problem – a massive one here in Australia, unfortunately. What I say here about wind and solar will be gleaned largely fromMackay’s Harvard talk, but I’ve downloaded and plan to read his book in the near future.

Mackay has calculated that the current energy production of wind turbines in windy Britain is about 2.5 watts per square metre, and by multiplying per capita energy consumption by population density, you get power consumed per unit area, which for Britain is about 1.25 watts per square metre. This suggests that to cover the consumption of Britain solely by wind, you’d need an area, on land or sea, half the area of Britain. This is clearly not feasible, though of course nobody in Britain, I hope, was ever expecting to have all their energy needs provided by wind. The situation is vastly different for South Australia, two thirds of which is currently powered by wind. SA has vastly more land than Britain and vastly less people.

Though I’m sure it’s possible to quibble with Mckay’s figures and calculations, what he brings to the issues, I think, is a global, as well as a particular perspective that can be lost when you focus, as I have, on local success. For example, South Australia has been very successful in its deployment of wind power over a short period of time, and it’s easy to get carried away and think, if we can do it, why not state x or country y? But SA is a state with a small population and a very large area, and plenty of wind to capture. This just can’t be replicated in, say, Massachussetts, with more than three times the population, a thirtieth of the area, and little wind.

So McKay wasn’t offering global solutions, nor was he dismissing local ones. He was simply pointing out the complexity of the problem in physical and arithmetical terms of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, as well as getting us thinking about our personal responsibilities on the demand side. Solar isn’t much of a national solution in Britain, though it could be in Australia, which could be a net exporter of renewables, as Elon Musk has suggested, but to which countries, and how exactly do you export solar energy? You’d need conversion and transmission and bilateral agreements. All of this while fighting entrenched interests and upsetting long-standing arrangements. Having said this, more people are hopping on the renewables bus and it’s almost becoming unfashionable, in most western countries outside of Australia, to be dismissive of them, a noticeable change in the last decade.

So what’s the point of this post? It’s to heed McKay’s advice that we need to recognise the complexity of the problem, to keep all possible reasonable solutions on the table, to become more aware, as individuals, communities and states, of our energy consumption, and to recognise that there’s never going to be a one-type-fits-all fix. Environments and needs vary widely, so we need to find particular solutions and we also need to find ways of joining and mixing those solutions together in effective networks. It all sounds pretty daunting, but the fact is, we’re already moving in the right direction, and there’s much to be positive about. Technology and engineering are international, and those in the business are hunting out solutions across the globe and thinking of harnessing and adapting them to their own region, in the process building communication, sharing information and expertise and raising consciousness about energy supply and consumption. And another positive is the endless innovation that comes with thinking about energy solutions in new ways, like small, cheap solar panels to provide energy in developing regions, backyard or small-scale wind-turbines in suitable locations, processing waste to fuel, new developments in batteries and EVs, and so on. So, while there aren’t major, mind-blowing solutions to our fossil-fuel dependence in the offing, we are making progress, incrementally, and the effects of climate change, as they become more impactful, will no doubt accelerate our progress and innovation. We have no option but to think and act positively.

portable solar panels can be surprisingly useful, and cheap

In a future post I’ll look at the demand side, following McKay and many others. Having just moved house, and sadly leaving solar panels behind, it’s time to find out where my meter is, and check our consumption.

 

On Trump’s downfall: Fire and Fury, the overly-discussed tell-all book about Trump and the White House, is unlikely to affect Trump’s base though it will hopefully toughen the opposition. Trump’s rating remains below 40% and nothing much has happened so far this year. There’s talk of Oprah Winfrey standing for the Presidency in 2020 – please no! – but Trump will be in jail by then and Americans will have lost their appetite for ‘celebrity’ candidates. I’m looking out for Elizabeth Warren.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2018 at 9:03 am