17 July 2022

Insecurity and absolutism

 First thing—if you're in Canada, you may find  https://covid19resources.ca/ of use.  It's the collective effort of a number of people with specific expertise, and while they cannot magic good information out of non-reporting provinces, they've had a remarkably effective record of successful extrapolation.  It won't improve your state of mind whatsoever but better approximations of facts lead to better decisions.

Second thing—there's lots of moral absolutism going on, independently of people's priors.

Just about everything in humans comes down to insecurity management, and while the specifics of insecurity have a great deal of cultural and circumstantial variation, there's a common pattern:  If you can't reduce the material basis of your insecurity, you may well retreat into an illusion of control.  You get the illusion by refusing to hear anything that you don't like.  Generally you do that through some morally absolute construct or other.  And as more and more people do that around you, sticking to a materialist outlook becomes more and more challenging.

Right now, there are at least five major problems—

  1. agricultural collapse
  2. economic systemic collapse
  3. climate excursion events (fire, flood, heat, etc.)
  4. plague
  5. the global theo-fascist movement
The civil power is not being exercised to solve any of these, so insecurity is remarkably high, and because it is high, people become absolutist in their outlook.  That makes things worse.

The general principle that insecurity is best managed through material change isn't great in the present circumstances—it's clear that the plutocrats aren't willing to accept that they won't be plutocrats anymore on any grounds of consequences, human extinction is preferable to not being a plutocrat anymore—but until material change to address those five major problems and happens and is seen to happen effectively, there's no prospect of reducing the retreat into moral absolutism.

In other words, it's a symptom, not a cause; deal with the cause, and the moral absolutism will substantially go away.


Display Name said...

To partially mitigate the cause of #1, can we meet some of our food requirements using chemical processes to help defer starvation?

"Coal butter" was a margarine made from coal in the early 20th century using the Fischer–Tropsch process. The process wasn't very energy-efficient, turning 60 kg of coal (at 24 MJ/kg) into 1 kg of artificial butter at 30 MJ/kg, or about a 2% energy conversion rate. However, the process also generated other useful (if inedible) produts, so it's not as if they were wasting nearly all of their inputs. As a point of comparison, cows are about 24% efficient at turning feed energy into dairy products, and 2% efficient at turning feed energy into beef. We don't need to use coal as the feedstock - we could use plastic garbage, inedible crop residues (stems/stalks/husks), sequestered atmospheric carbon dioxide, or even biogas from sewage digesters. Use renewable energy to heat your feedstock and water, react at high pressure with catalysts (adding oxygen or hydrogen as needed), separate the resulting products, and repeat until you get your desired output.

Newspaper column from 1946 about a factory making 600 tons a month of coal butter:


"Coal is made into coke, coke into gas, the gas into paraffin. By a blowing process, the most difficult part of the operation, 80 to 82 tons of fatty acid can be drawn from 100 tons of paraffin. The fats are further separated by distillation under a high vacuum. Some are edible, some are not. From there on the recipe is: Add to the pure, synthetic edible fat 20 per cent water. Add carrot extract for vitamins and coloring. Add salt. Finally, inject something called diacetyl to give the odor of butter. This mixture is whipped up in a machine and comes out the other end like a long sausage about eight inches in diameter. [...] Most of the fats that don't go into butter are made into soap"

Graydon said...

+Display Name

Well, margarine as such is a health hazard what with the trans fats, but I can easily imagine non-biological processes getting into the food loop even more than they are now. (nitrogen fixation is mostly not biological, for example.)

It's not that the problem isn't solvable; it's that the massive investment to have the solution present and running when it's needed isn't happening.

The other problem is that energy efficiency isn't the whole story; pastoralism isn't especially energy efficient in terms of producing beef, but it's a very effective way to maintain a biome. Stop maintaining the biome -- which needs some large ungulates around -- and the mass extinction gets worse.

There's a whole lot of biome maintenance that traditionally gets folded into farming; if we stop farming, as such, the biome maintenance not happening makes things worse, so some way for it to happen implies some output that can pay for it. Which is not entirely a technical problem.

JReynolds said...

It's been almost four years since Peter Watts's The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC:


in which he basically said what anybody who has been paying attention already knows: from the point of view of climate change and biosphere collapse, we are in trouble. We're in more trouble with every passing year.

None of the powers that be are doing anything to make things better. They are, however, doing stuff to make things worse.

Watts ends his article by saying that Canada as a polity may survive slightly longer than other countries, but only if the USA falls apart into fascist / anti-fascist civil war. This is meant to be tongue-in-cheek good news (for Canadians).

When I read the piece in 2018, I thought it was prescient, but hoped that (somehow) we'd avoid going down the road to ruin.

It is clear that this is not happening. We're still flooring the accelerator while driving towards the cliff. However, since 2018, we've got COVID in the car with us, not just climate change.

It's pretty hard to feel anything other than "we're doomed, and can't do anything about it." So that's my insecurity right there.


Graydon said...


It is certainly not straightforward to disprove the hypothesis that the Arctic Amplification tipping point happened around 2000.

Systems tend to maintain a stable equilibrium; when it's the wrong equilibrium, the ability to change the equilibrium may not exist.

If COVID moves the date of industrial collapse forward a couple decades and sharply cuts greenhouse gas emissions and fossil carbon extraction in consequence, it might be a net win.

(We can do lots of stuff about it, given the potentially mythological political will.)