Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Global warming’ Category

The futility of rebuilding the Virgin Islands

leave a comment »

Rebuilding the Virgin Islands (and the Florida Keys) is short-sighted. The storms are only going to get worse as global warming continues. The new and upcoming normal is worse than what we have seen so far.

Climate-change denial does not, unfortunately, have any effect whatsoever on global warming, and even if humans totally stopped putting CO2 into the atmosphere later this afternoon, the warming trend would continue unchecked, the earth getting warmer and warmer, for several decades, just from the CO2 and methane already in the atmosphere. And the hurricanes and cyclones and extreme weather are going to get worse and worse. At this point, there is no going back, and building in the hopes that the storms will not get worse is wrong-headed.

If the Islands and Keys are rebuilt, the more fierce storms to come will destroy them. Humans have ruined the habitat. It’s sad, but we had LOTS of warning and collectively decided to ignore the problem.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 September 2017 at 7:37 am

Posted in Global warming

Montana residents desperate now for clean air to breathe

leave a comment »

Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, writes in the Washington Post:

It’s late August when I get a call from a grandmother. She lives in Seeley Lake, and she’s heard we have air filters that can help with smoke. She needs one for the baby’s room. I explain we don’t have any and tell her how to purchase one. She coughs and goes silent before asking how much they cost. Almost every person I talk to in Seeley Lake has this cough. The family doesn’t have much money, she says, but she promises to order a filter for the child. The next day, the wildfire moves closer, and the county sheriff’s office evacuates her neighborhood. I wonder if the filter will be there when the family returns home. I know the smoke will be.

As an air quality specialist with the county health department here, my job is to understand air pollution, control it as much as possible and help people protect themselves from its effects. I focus on smoke management: issuing permits for outdoor burns and updates about what to expect from the smoke when wildfires send it our way. In a typical wildfire season, my smoke-related responsibilities end when I hit “send” on twice-daily media updates.

If my job were only about fires and how the smoke moves, it would be simple. Not easy, mind you: Wildfire smoke is flashy and weird, and if anyone tells you they can reliably predict its behavior, they’re lying. It’s just that purely focusing on the science would be fun for a smoke nerd like me.

But in July, thunderstorms trekked across western Montana, igniting a ring of fires around Missoula County. One by one, they started blowing up, smothering small towns in smoke. The massive Rice Ridge Fire burns directly above the community of Seeley Lake, and every night, smoke fills the valley, building by the hour and creating dangerous breathing conditions the likes of which we have never seen. To our south, the Lolo Peak Fire sends daily smoke to the Bitterroot Valley, creating frequently hazardous, unbreathable air for its residents. Never have we seen so many wildfires so close to home for so many weeks.

As with most mountain valley communities, Missoula County’s most worrisome and prevalent air pollutant is the fine particulate in wood smoke, so tiny it can enter your bloodstream when you breathe it in. It’s a cumulative pollutant: The more you’re in it, the worse it is for you. The particulate aggravates asthma symptoms and causes reduced lung function and wheeziness. It increases the risk of heart attack and stroke and can damage children’s developing lungs. The elderly, people with heart or lung disease, pregnant women, and children are most at risk. Wildfire health studies are still part of a growing science, but we know the smoke is dangerous. We know there will be more emergency-room visits, more hospital stays and, probably, more deaths. We don’t know its long-term health consequences, and no one knows what six weeks in the worst smoke we have ever seen will mean for the people in Seeley Lake.

At monitoring stations scattered around the county, we measure the mass of fine particulate in the smoke. The National Ambient Air Quality Standard for fine particulate matter averaged over 24 hours is 35 micrograms in a cubic meter of air. Our monitor in Seeley Lake is registering 1,000, as high as the machine goes. It was built without the expectation of ever measuring such concentrations.

When smoke descends on the valley, the world shrinks. Anything more than a block away disappears behind a white wall of smoke. The birds are quiet.

Smoke makes its way through door and window cracks. It follows ventilation systems into homes. Without a filtration system, the indoors provides no refuge. And in rural Montana, where air conditioning is rare, most residents open their windows at night to seek relief from the hot, stuffy summer air, even amid the smoke. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2017 at 8:38 pm

The great nutrient collapse: Global warming is diluting the nutrients in our food

with 2 comments

And not just our food: this will affect all animals, not just humans.

Helena Bottemiller Evich reports in Politico:

Irakli Loladze is a mathematician by training, but he was in a biology lab when he encountered the puzzle that would change his life. It was in 1998, and Loladze was studying for his Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Against a backdrop of glass containers glowing with bright green algae, a biologist told Loladze and a half-dozen other graduate students that scientists had discovered something mysterious about zooplankton.

Zooplankton are microscopic animals that float in the world’s oceans and lakes, and for food they rely on algae, which are essentially tiny plants. Scientists found that they could make algae grow faster by shining more light onto them—increasing the food supply for the zooplankton, which should have flourished. But it didn’t work out that way. When the researchers shined more light on the algae, the algae grew faster, and the tiny animals had lots and lots to eat—but at a certain point they started struggling to survive. This was a paradox. More food should lead to more growth. How could more algae be a problem?

Loladze was technically in the math department, but he loved biology and couldn’t stop thinking about this. The biologists had an idea of what was going on: The increased light was making the algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving.

Loladze used his math training to help measure and explain the algae-zooplankton dynamic. He and his colleagues devised a model that captured the relationship between a food source and a grazer that depends on the food. They published that first paper in 2000. But Loladze was also captivated by a much larger question raised by the experiment: Just how far this problem might extend.

“What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze recalled in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

In the outside world, the problem isn’t that plants are suddenly getting more light: It’s that for years, they’ve been getting more carbon dioxide. Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow. If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae—junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack—then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?

What Loladze found is that scientists simply didn’t know. It was already well documented that CO2levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat. For the next 17 years, as he pursued his math career, Loladze scoured the scientific literature for any studies and data he could find. The results, as he collected them, all seemed to point in the same direction: The junk-food effect he had learned about in that Arizona lab also appeared to be occurring in fields and forests around the world. “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

He published those findings just a few years ago, adding to the concerns of a small but increasingly worried group of researchers who are raising unsettling questions about the future of our food supply. Could carbon dioxide have an effect on human health we haven’t accounted for yet? The answer appears to be yes—and along the way, it has steered Loladze and other scientists, directly into some of the thorniest questions in their profession, including just how hard it is to do research in a field that doesn’t quite exist yet.

IN AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH, it’s been understood for some time that many of our most important foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has measurably dropped over the past 50 to 70 years. Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.

In 2004, a landmark study of fruits and vegetables found that everything from protein to calcium, iron and vitamin C had declined significantly across most garden crops since 1950. The researchers concluded this could mostly be explained by the varieties we were choosing to grow.

Loladze and a handful of other scientists have come to suspect that’s not the whole story and that the atmosphere itself may be changing the food we eat. Plants need carbon dioxide to live like humans need oxygen. And in the increasingly polarized debate about climate science, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. Before the industrial revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century—essentially twice the amount that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors.

If you’re someone who thinks about plant growth, this seems like a good thing. It has also been useful ammunition for politicians looking for reasons to worry less about the implications of climate change. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, recently argued that people shouldn’t be so worried about rising CO2 levels because it’s good for plants, and what’s good for plants is good for us.

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth,” the Texas Republican wrote. “This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food.”

But as the zooplankton experiment showed, greater volume and better quality might not go hand-in-hand. In fact, they might be inversely linked. As best scientists can tell, this is what happens: Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight to food. This makes plants grow, but it also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc. . .

Continue reading.

The future looks pretty bleak to me, though of course the GOP denies that there is any problem at all, nothing to see, move along…

Written by LeisureGuy

16 September 2017 at 12:57 pm

Grim news: Global Ocean Circulation Appears To Be Collapsing Due To A Warming Planet

leave a comment »

Trevor Nace writes in Forbes:

Scientists have long known about the anomalous “warming hole” in the North Atlantic Ocean, an area immune to warming of Earth’s oceans. This cool zone in the North Atlantic Ocean appears to be associated with a slowdown in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), one of the key drivers in global ocean circulation.

A recent study published in Nature outlines research by a team of Yale University and University of Southhampton scientists. The team found evidence that Arctic ice loss is potentially negatively impacting the planet’s largest ocean circulation system. While scientists do have some analogs as to how this may impact the world, we will be largely in uncharted territory.

AMOC is one of the largest current systems in the Atlantic Ocean and the world. Generally speaking, it transports warm and salty water northward from the tropics to South and East of Greenland. This warm water cools to ambient water temperature then sinks as it is saltier and thus denser than the relatively more fresh surrounding water. The dense mass of water sinks to the base of the North Atlantic Ocean and is pushed south along the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean.

This process whereby water is transported into the Northern Atlantic Ocean acts to distribute ocean water globally. What’s more important, and the basis for concern of many scientists is this mechanism is one of the most efficient ways Earth transports heat from the tropics to the northern latitudes. The warm water transported from the tropics to the North Atlantic releases heat to the atmosphere, playing a key role in warming of western Europe. You likely have heard of one of the more popular components of the AMOC, the Gulf Stream which brings warm tropical water to the western coasts of Europe.

Evidence is growing that the comparatively cold zone within the Northern Atlantic could be due to a slowdown of this global ocean water circulation. Hence, a slowdown in the planet’s ability to transfer heat from the tropics to the northern latitudes. The cold zone could be due to melting of ice in the Arctic and Greenland. This would cause a cold fresh water cap over the North Atlantic, inhibiting sinking of salty tropical waters. This would in effect slow down the global circulation and hinder the transport of warm tropical waters north. . .

Continue reading.

World-class “Oops.”

Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2017 at 11:40 am

Naomi Oreskes on the Politics of Climate Change

leave a comment »

A Five Books interview with Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University:

The risks of climate change are increasingly clear and urgent. And yet, in the United States and some other countries, policies to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not seem to be working. The US President has called climate change a hoax and pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. And about 6.5 percent of global GDP — about 5 trillion dollars a year — goes to subsidising fossil fuels. How did we get into this situation in the first place?

Scientists have known for a long time that an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases—produced by burning fossil fuel—could change the climate. By the late 1970s, it was clear that greenhouse gases were accumulating in the atmosphere, and scientists concluded that this would cause effects, probably by the end of the century. However, the observable effects came sooner than they expected: in 1988, scientists at NASA led by James Hansen, concluded that anthropogenic climate change was underway.

Hansen’s work got a good deal of attention. He testified in Congress. It was reported in the New York Times. And that same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created, in anticipation that the world would need good scientific information to inform policy decisions on the issue. Most scientists involved at the time thought that there would soon be a political response. And there was, but it was not the one they expected.

Until that time, there was no political resistance to climate science. Many climate scientists were Republicans, and throughout most of the post-war period, Republican political and business leaders had supported scientific research as strongly, if not more strongly, than Democratic leaders did. But, in the 1980s—just as the reality of climate change was being established scientifically—some people began to realise that if anthropogenic climate change was as dangerous as scientists thought, it would require government action to deal with it. In particular it would require government intervention in the marketplace, such as regulation or taxation to reduce or even eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

In this sense, it was similar to acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion, as well as to the problem of tobacco use. If you were a liberal Democrat, and you didn’t have any particular objection to government intervention in the marketplace, that wasn’t a problem for you, and there was no particular reason to object to the scientific findings. But if you were a conservative Republican who objected to those interventions, then it was a problem for you.

Some conservatives — particularly a group of Cold War scientists with links to the Reagan administration, who feared that government intervention in the marketplace was the slippery slope to socialism — began to question the science around all these issues. In our work, we discovered that they had also worked with the tobacco industry, on the grounds that controlling tobacco would lead to an increase government control of our lives in general. Today that argument is often referred to as the problem of the “nanny state,” but they thought it was much more nefarious than that. They equated government control of the marketplace with Soviet-style totalitarianism. In this, they took inspiration from the neo-liberal economist, Milton Friedman, and his mentor, Frederick von Hayek.

Working with the tobacco industry, they developed a set of strategies and tactics to intended to undermine the scientific evidence of the harms of smoking and prevent the government from controlling tobacco or even trying to discourage its use. They now applied those strategies and tactics to climate change.

At first, their arguments were taken up by conservative and libertarian think tanks in Washington, DC, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the CATO Institute, and the George C Marshall institute, who started to promote doubt and uncertainty about climate science. But soon, the fossil fuel industry was funding them. An alliance developed between powerful fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon Mobil and Peabody Coal, and think tanks such as CATO, to promote doubt about climate science and prevent government action. In the mid 1990s, it became their goal to prevent the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Although the UNFCCC had been signed in 1992 by a Republican President — George H.W. Bush — by the late 1990s nearly all Republicans had aligned against it. And things went downhill from there. As the scientific evidence of climate change became stronger, and Democrats accepted it and started to propose legislation to deal with it, Republicans became more and more entrenched in rejecting it. Things went from bad to worse, as, at first, only extremists in the Republican party went into fully-fledged denial, but by the late 2000s, climate change denial had become routine. If you look at the candidates who ran in the Republican primary in 2016, only John Kasich had a position consistent with the findings of the scientific community. Donald Trump, of course, infamously claims climate change is a hoax, but Ted Cruz propagated the canard that warming had stopped in the 2000s. So in various ways, most Republicans in recent years have taken positions that refuse to accept the scientific evidence. And here we are. There are other elements to the story too, like the various advertising campaigns that fossil fuel companies ran to cast doubt upon climate science, but that is the core of the matter. In short, a confluence of economic interest and political ideology, which came to dominate conservative thinking in the USA, has led to the wholesale rejection of the findings of climate scientists by American conservatives as individuals and by the Republican party as an institution.

You’ve recently published a paper about ExxonMobil’s communications strategy from 1977 to 2014. What do your findings tell us about the state of the politics of climate change?

It tells us that things are bad for a reason. Many people want to say that we’re in this mess because people don’t think straight, are irrational, or aren’t clear-headed about dangers that they think are far in the future. And, of course, there’s an element of that in this story, but there’s also a very big elephant in the room, which is the long history of organised systematic climate change denial. My paper co-written with Geoffrey Supran speaks to that. Other people have already written about some of the activities that ExxonMobil was involved with in the past, such as the Global Climate Coalition, a group that in the 1990s worked to prevent the United States from signing on to Kyoto by trying to challenge the scientific basis for it. We tried to do something a little more systematic than what had been done before. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Timesand Inside Climate News published a series of investigative journalism pieces in which they looked at archival documents that reflected the work that ExxonMobil had done on the issue of climate change going back to the 1970s. They showed that the company was well aware as long ago as 1979 of climate change as a risk that would affect their business and had some interesting and serious climate science research going on even within the company. They also found that company employees were collaborating with academics at New York University and in government laboratories to try and better understand the potential threat and what it might mean for the petroleum industry.

When the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News published their articles ExxonMobil claimed they were false and wrong, and that the reporters had cherry-picked the documents. On its website, the corporation issued a challenge. They posted a set of documents that they claimed supported their claims, and refuted the ICN and LA Times. And they challenged the public, saying “read the documents” and make up your own mind.

Geoffrey Supran and I took up the challenge. We read all the documents that Inside Climate News published, we read all the documents that ExxonMobil claimed refuted the Inside Climate News findings, and we also read a set of advertorials – paid advertisements – that ExxonMobil had taken out mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s. And we compared these different communications. What our comprehensive comparison shows beyond any reasonable doubt is that inside ExxonMobil there was a conversation going on that was fully consistent with the evolving science that climate change was real, that it was a serious threat, and that it could lead to oil and gas assets being stranded, but in public ExxonMobil made a decision to run a series of advertisements aimed at the American people in which the message was a message of uncertainty and doubt. Since we published our paper, ExxonMobil has continued to mislead the public about its history of misleading the public.

Your first book choice is The Great Derangement by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. Those who know him as a novelist may wonder what he has to say about the politics of climate change.

Quite a lot, as anyone who reads the book will see. It’s absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. First, we have a famous, articulate and politically astute novelist taking up the issue of climate change. I think that’s extremely important because one of the arguments that Amitav makes in this book, which I agree with one hundred percent, is that for too long this problem has been discussed as scientific question; it’s mostly been covered by science journalists and written up in the science pages of the newspapers. But it’s fundamentally no longer a scientificquestion. The science — the key scientific issues — have been resolved now for a long time, but it’s a political question because we have to do something about it. It’s an economic question because it has to do with how we run our economies based on fossil fuels, and it’s also a deeply historical question.

Amitav looks at the long history of fossil fuel exploitation and the way it’s linked to colonialism and post-colonialism, and to make the argument that if we’re going to fix this problem, we have to understand the larger historical, economic, and social context as well. The book is also an explicit call for humanists — writers and authors and novelists and others — to become engaged and think through: How did we get into this situation? And how do we get out of it? And as Amitav says, it’s a kind of derangement. We’re on a path that is going to lead to tremendous destruction — what has just happened this week in Houston and Mumbai and Barbuda is exhibit A — and yet most of us are going about our lives as if nothing particularly special is happening. And, as we know, American politicians are going about their lives still in many cases in denial about the basic framework of this problem.

You called Houston exhibit A, but if more and more extreme weather events are part of climate change one could say it’s exhibit F.

You’re right, I only said exhibit A in the sense that it’s the most obvious and immediate right in this moment in American life. But, of course, you’re absolutely right. We’ve had Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Russian fires of a few years ago, and the European heat waves of 2003, not to mention the recent floods in South Asia. There have been all kinds of incidents where we have seen what I call the human face of global warming. We’ve seen how climate change is already impacting people – causing damage and causing death – but somehow we don’t assimilate that. This is the point that Amitav Ghosh is calling ‘the great derangement’, that there is something frankly deranged about having all these things happening in front of our faces that are terrifically costly – both in terms of monetary damages and impacts on people’s lives – and yet somehow we don’t connect the dots. As you say, we could call this exhibit F and we have not connected the dots from A to B to C to D to E to F and also, I would say, to ExxonMobil and all of the fossil fuels companies that even today are continuing to explore for still more oil and gas reserves. That is a kind of craziness.

Roy Scranton, the author of your second choice, Learning to Die in the Anthropocenewrites “civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today”. He also says that “The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, whether we should put up sea walls to protect [Manhattan], or when we should abandon Miami. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, or signing a treaty…The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.” It seems a very negative place to start.

It is a very dark book and, by recommending it, I’m not suggesting I necessarily agree with everything in it or even necessarily agree with his ultimately bleak assessment, but I do think it’s an extremely important book. I say that for two reasons. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 September 2017 at 2:05 pm

Those 3% of scientific papers that deny climate change? A review found them all flawed

leave a comment »

Katherine Ellen Foley writes in Quartz:

It’s often said that of all the published scientific research on climate change, 97% of the papers conclude that global warming is real, problematic for the planet, and has been exacerbated by human activity.

But what about those 3% of papers that reach contrary conclusions? Some skeptics have suggested that the authors of studies indicating that climate change is not real, not harmful, or not man-made are bravely standing up for the truth, like maverick thinkers of the past. (Galileo is often invoked, though his fellow scientists mostly agreed with his conclusions—it was church leaders who tried to suppress them.)

Not so, according to a review published in the journal of Theoretical and Applied Climatology. The researchers tried to replicate the results of those 3% of papers—a common way to test scientific studies—and found biased, faulty results.

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, worked with a team of researchers to look at the 38 papers published in peer-reviewed journals in the last decade that denied anthropogenic global warming.

“Every single one of those analyses had an error—in their assumptions, methodology, or analysis—that, when corrected, brought their results into line with the scientific consensus,” Hayhoe wrote in a Facebook post. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 September 2017 at 4:16 pm

Yuval Noah Harari (author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”) answers some interesting questions

leave a comment »

Andrew Anthony writes in the Guardian:

Last week, on his Radio 2 breakfast show, Chris Evans read out the first page of Sapiens, the book by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Given that radio audiences at that time in the morning are not known for their appetite for intellectual engagement – the previous segment had dealt with Gary Barlow’s new tour – it was an unusual gesture. But as Evans said, “the first page is the most stunning first page of any book”.

If DJs are prone to mindless hyperbole, this was an honourable exception. The subtitle of Sapiens, in an echo of Stephen Hawking’s great work, is A Brief Historyof Humankind. In grippingly lucid prose, Harari sets out on that first page a condensed history of the universe, followed by a summary of the book’s thesis: how the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution and the scientific revolution have affected humans and their fellow organisms.

It is a dazzlingly bold introduction, which the remainder of the book lives up to on almost every page. Although Sapiens has been widely and loudly praised, some critics have suggested that it is too sweeping. Perhaps, but it is an intellectual joy to be swept along.

It’s one of those books that can’t help but make you feel smarter for having read it. Barack Obama and Bill Gates have undergone that experience, as have many others in the Davos crowd and Silicon Valley. The irony, perhaps, is that one of the book’s warnings is that we are in danger of becoming an elite-dominated global society.

At the centre of the book is the contention that what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organisation on a massive scale.

Originally published in Hebrew in 2011, the book was translated into English three years later and became an international bestseller. It ranges across a multitude of disciplines with seemingly effortless scholarship, bringing together a keen understanding of history, anthropology, zoology, linguistics, philosophy, theology, economics, psychology, neuroscience and much else besides.

Yet the author of this accomplished and far-reaching book is a young Israeli historian whose career, up until that point, had been devoted to the relative academic backwater of medieval military history. Apparently, Sapiens is based on an introductory course to world history that Harari had to teach, after senior colleagues dodged the task. The story goes that the major Israeli publishers weren’t interested. No one saw international stardom beckoning.

Last year, Harari’s follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,was published in the UK, becoming another bestseller. It develops many of the themes explored in Sapiens, and in particular examines the possible impact of biotechnological and artificial intelligence innovation on Homo sapiens, heralding perhaps the beginning of a new bionic or semi-computerised form of human.

Again, it’s an exhilarating book that takes the reader deep into questions of identity, consciousness and intelligence, grappling with what kinds of choices and dilemmas a fully automated world will present us with.

Now 41, Harari grew up in a secular Jewish family in Haifa. He studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed his doctorate at Oxford. He is a vegan and he meditates for two hours a day, often going on extended retreats. He says it helps him focus on the issues that really matter. He lives with his husband on a moshav, an agricultural co-operative, outside Jerusalem. Being gay, he says, helped him to question received opinions. “Nothing should be taken for granted,” he has said, “even if everybody believes it.”

One of the pleasures of reading his books is that he continually calls on readers, both explicitly and implicitly, to think about what we know and what we think we know. And he has little time for fashionable stances.

He writes and speaks like a man who is not excessively troubled by doubt. If that makes him sound arrogant, let me clarify: he arrives at his conclusions after a great deal of research and contemplation. However, once he’s persuaded himself – and he says he always leaves it to the evidence to decide his thinking – he doesn’t hold back in his efforts to persuade the reader. It makes for what Jared Diamond called “unforgettably vivid language”.

Harari is a naturally gifted explainer, invariably ready with the telling anecdote or memorable analogy. As a result, it’s tempting to see him less as a historian than as some kind of all-purpose sage. We asked public figures and readers to pose questions for Harari, and many of these ( below) were of a moral or ethical nature, seeking answers about what should be done, rather than about what has happened. But the Israeli seems used to the role, and perfectly happy to give his best shot at replying. A historian of the distant past and the near future, he has carved out a whole new discipline of his own. It’s a singular achievement by an impressively multiple-minded man.

We are living through a fantastically rapid globalisation. Will there be one global culture in the future or will we maintain some sort of deliberate artificial tribal groupings?
Helen Czerski, physicist
I’m not sure if it will be deliberate but I do think we’ll probably have just one system, and in this sense we’ll have just one civilisation. In a way this is already the case. All over the world the political system of the state is roughly identical. All over the world capitalism is the dominant economic system, and all over the world the scientific method or worldview is the basic worldview through which people understand nature, disease, biology, physics and so forth. There are no longer any fundamental civilisational differences.

Andrew Anthony: Are you saying that the much-maligned Francis Fukuyama was correct in his analysis of the end of history?
It depends how you understand the end of history. If you mean the end of ideological clashes, then no, but if you mean the creation of a single civilisation which encompasses the whole world, then I think he was largely correct.

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?
Lucy Prebble, playwright
Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.

Is there a real possibility that environmental degradation will halt technological progress?
TheWatchingPlace, posted online
I think it will be just the opposite – that, as the ecological crisis intensifies, the pressure for technological development will increase, not decrease. I think that the ecological crisis in the 21st century will be analogous to the two world wars in the 20th century in serving to accelerate technological progress.

As long as things are OK, people would be very careful in developing or experimenting in genetic engineering on humans or giving artificial intelligence control of weapon systems. But if you have a serious crisis, caused for example by ecological degradation, then people will be tempted to try all kinds of high-risk, high-gain technologies in the hope of solving the problem, and you’ll have something like the Manhattan Project in the second world war.

What role does morality play in a future world of artificial intelligence, artificial life and immortality? Will an aspiration to do what is good and right still motivate much of the race?
Andrew Solomon, writer . . .

Continue reading.

The “fictions” Harari talks about are memes by another name. Their meme character is evident from his descriptions. And I like the picture he draws of those who are so caught up in memes that they ignore the non-meme world (i.e., physical reality). As you might expect, this does the persons no good at all. They’re trapped in the meme equivalent of a Venus flytrap.

I’m not sure he sees how memes evolve independently of us.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2017 at 5:31 pm

%d bloggers like this: