18 May 2009

Any Idiot

This post is a side-effect of reading about the new US auto requirements; by 2016, light trucks will be required to produce 2 MPG better performance than they do now.

It's important to remember that there's a "everybody dies" level of atmospheric CO2, and that we're about a third of the way there. The right thing to do is not to improve, marginally—about 4%!—the mileage requirements for SUVs.

The right thing to do, well, this is the "any idiot" part. Transportation and energy policy needs to produce results such that:

  1. Fossil carbon extraction stops, completely and globally
  2. Atmospheric carbon is sequestered so that the total atmospheric carbon load drops to not more than one quarter of the way to the pessimistic value for the "everybody dies" level.
  3. Extant species diversity and disparity increases, by actual measurement, everywhere. (Because "ecological collapse" and "reduced carrying capacity" don't mean "famine"; a famine ends, it's not a permanent loss of food availability)
  4. The real cost of food does not increase and the median and mean quality of available food increases
All of which needs to happen in such a way that:
  1. cities work ( = support active import replacement while being pleasant places to live)
  2. employment such that one can live and accumulated capital is the norm
  3. the century-plus of climate fluctuations we're in for don't readily crash the infrastructure; it needs to be redundant and robust
How to get there from here, well, I have various ideas, but the right thing to do with a policy outline like that is to turn it into a real quantified functional specification, work out an audit mechanism, and then get an even larger bunch of experts than came up with the functional spec to produce the list of policy objectives, which one then turns into the necessary laws. And yes, this is a mobilization level problem. Which is OK; existing social mechanisms can manage those.

The idea that trivial improvements to a fossil carbon consuming transportation infrastructure's efficiency are significant strongly suggests that what we're dealing with in terms of policy formulation isn't even an idiot.


Anonymous said...

Well, what we're dealing with, in terms of policy specification, is not a person. It's a government, which is like a committee but several orders of magnitude worse, because functionally it's trying to behave like a committee of a quarter-billion people. So it's not surprising that it operates on what appears to be an "idiot" level.

I suspect a fair bit of the reason for this particular change in MPG requirements is that governments have worse turning ability than supertankers, and incremental changes in MPG requirements have been what it's been doing since the 1970s. And it is significant, in the sense of being a significant fraction of what can be achieved as an incremental change that does not threaten to break the status quo -- which is the context under which it's working; it's significant within that context.

So I don't think the failure is that it's idiocy, so much as that it's a result of a government being very slow to change course. In the 1970s, "Use governmental regulation to continually drive automakers to improve fuel economy as much as possible without killing Detroit" looked like a good solution to the problems that were apparent then, it seems to me, and this is just that decision still being carried out. It wouldn't be a sufficient solution now, but it wasn't really a decision made now.

Graydon said...

All of which is entirely reasonable in its way, and all of which misses that this is a mobilization-scale problem, in both severity -- it's that important -- and solution -- everybody's going to have to pitch in to get it solved.

Mobilization scale problems require you to break the status quo; that's one of the reasons they're so dangerous, societies and governments generally prefer death, dismemberment, and destruction to breaking the status quo.

From a systems design perspective, there's no essential reason a government has to be inept; many are not, even.

Lastly, the people responsible for the direction of a government can justly be called idiots for not being willing to tackle the general-mobilization scale problem as what it is; they may also be having failures of vision or planning that lead to not being able to figure out how to solve it, but being willing to get up and say "this is a mobilization scale problem; everybody will have to pitch in, and things won't be the same after we've solved it" is the minimum requirement for avoiding idiocy in such cases.