On Preserving the Patterns of the Sacred

When I walk past my local village church, a thought occurs to me. Religion suits those who are religious. Going to church; singing in the choir; participating in the local community; all these activities, when bound up with the church, suit those who 'love God'. For much of our history, religious practice and the code of ethics tied up therein provided the unifying framework - intellectually and socially- in which pretty much all of our activities made sense. These activities were justified - within the Christian faith - by belief in God and in the words of God.

Yet these activities can have a justification which stands quite apart from belief in a deity. We might say that the essential character of such activities is their unifying and communal nature. In fact, some might argue, their justification was always enmeshed with these social functions. Furthermore, the idea of God meant something quite different in days gone by than in the current time. Believing in an all-powerful creator and personal God made a lot of sense when the laws governing the universe were not well known. But such belief seems now to be difficult to sustain. Faith is backed into corners and gaps with the advance of science. The different aspects of God - the personal-ethical and the physical-creator – now seem tenuous in themselves and in relation to one an other.

Theology from an atheist point of view looks quite different from theology from the theistic perspective. Religion simply professes belief in non-existent or nonsensical non-entities. Yet the second, social point of view still holds whatever one's views on metaphysics. Whatever the guiding social ideas of an atheist community, it is possible that they would look similar to those professed by the Christian community - a set of common ethics, a time and place of coming together, reverence for the dead and for the ideals of the society; and a sense of the sacred. Since, from an atheist point of view, God either does not exist or is a nonsensical concept, the reasons given by the religious for their actions are delusions. However, there may still be a socially beneficial purpose behind religion.

Of those with non-theistic reasons for interest in Christianity, those who see it as having social purpose come closest to the notion of the noble lie in Plato's republic. The mass of people cannot understand the 'form of the good'; so the philosophers should promote a religion which symbolically represents this ineffable form.

But there is a basic problem of meaning. Which one is it? Is religion the truth? Or is it intended to be a noble lie? Our reaction to it will depend on what it purports to be. It would be best if it would settle down on one conception of itself; a conception that is in reasonable coherence with other truths that are known.

Perhaps the history of protestantism is a wish to go closer to the unadulterated truth. This makes sense for the religiously fervent, but for the doubting makes religion suicidally naked.

Even a fervent atheist might be moved by C. S. Lewis arguments1 to wish to preserve what one might term 'the patterns of the sacred'. But where does such a type of fervent atheist go? He feels disorientated because 'the desire to worship' clashes with 'the desire for truth' and his commitment to truth clashes with the theists commitment to a quite different truth. He could abandon his commitment to truth. Here are some better options:

  • He could view religion as purely ritual or traditional

  • He could try to find a meaning for the ambiguous word 'God' - perhaps finding a link to a sense of 'higher inspiration'

  • He could search for truth in philosophy and for tradition in old philosophy

  • He could find truth and beauty in art, literature, and the natural world

  • He could find communion in the community

None of these are a badge of trust; none aid discipline in hard times; none are the framing protection of a father God larger than ourselves; but together they start to make a worldly and spiritual life that makes a little bit more sense.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, http://tinyurl.com/8wa545

On Writing Well

Writing well, according to William Zinsser, is a matter of simplicity & unity. Simple writing is easy to follow and is not wasteful. Unified writing has a single purpose; uses a consistent tense and pronouns; and is a delight to read. Good writing is thus a transaction between the author and reader; it defines the audience and the capacity in which we hope to address them, expressing as simply as possible the point that is being made. Zinsser suggests that we should let our personality show, using 'I' or 'we' when possible. In this way we express our personal style and establish a connection with the reader.

Beginning and endings are important to good writing. A good beginning gives the reader something to connect with, and draws him in to read the rest. Endings can sometimes bore - Zinsser suggests perhaps ending suddenly or with a quirky quotation. Technical or scientific writing provides particular difficulties. One way to practice such writing is to describe a scientific process step by step. We are thus guided not only express our ideas more clearly, but also to think in a more logical and cogent way. We should write well in order to think more clearly.

The Science Media Centre

Earlier in the year (Monday 29th September) I visited the Science Media Centre, hosted at the Royal Institution.The Science Media Centre was set up by the scientific establishment after perceived failures (e.g. BSE, GM crops, MMR and autism) to communicate science effectively.
It deals with controversial science stories. It’s activities include: Briefing journalists on controversial issues, working with press officers and ’crap-busting’
  • Vision: Accurate evidence-based scientific information

  • Mission: Easier for journalists to access best science

  • Values: Reliable, fast, accurate
It improves media coverage of science by scientists doing the media better.
The main strategies employed are ’rapid reaction’ and ’Win Win’.


Henry George and Land Taxation

In his magnum opus, 'Progress and Poverty', Henry George attempts to explain the causes of recessions and of poverty. Land is a crucial part of this. George believes the most important factor in poverty this is the ownership of land, a factor of production that is fixed in supply. The result of this limitation is that, while other factors can be increased or improved; land cannot. This makes it a very efficient and equitable tax. Instead of taxing labour or capital, we should tax land instead. This is a great work too often overlooked. His basic point is very good: the owners of land gain an economic rent from so doing. Such a rent provides a good source of government income.

If you are interested in a program to implement the work of Henry George, please see the Systemic Fiscal Reform group. http://systemicfiscalreform.org/

V for Vendetta

Imagine Britain 10 years after a devastating biological strike. The levers of the state and control of the media have been taken over by a dictator, albeit one who purports to support homely British values. Into this setting, comes an unnamed masked character who takes up against the state and the status quo. His mask is that of Guy Fawkes and his calling card "V for Vendetta".

The film begins with the destruction of the Old Bailey ("Defend the children of the poor; punish the wrongdoer") and it ends with the destruction of the Houses of Parliament. The destruction of two striking physical symbols of our society makes them in effect martyrs for what they represent.

This is a gripping film; with echoes of 1984 and at times some of the moral ambiguity of Brighton Rock or The Third Man. Its power flows from depicting a reality at odds with our image of ourself and yet close enough to the present to bite, hinting at what we might easily become.

Green New Deal: Investment For Real Wealth

On Thursday 11th December, with two friends, Ii attended an event at the IPPR on The New Economics Foundation ’Green New Deal’ii. Present were Caroline Lucas, Leader of the Green party and Ann Pettifor from Advocacy International, leading light in Jubilee 2000 affair and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation.

Here are my notes: http://www.stephenstretton.org.uk/Reviews/GreenNewDeal11thDec.pdf

Here are my thoughts, mostly taking off from what Caroline Lucas said:

  1. There are as many views about Keynes as there people

  2. Keynes is about Investment

  3. Investment means real wealth

  4. Investment doesn’t happen with uncertainty

  5. What governments can do is to eliminate uncertainty

  6. If banks cease to work - recreate another layer of banks above the existing banks.

i Vivienne Raper, Freelance; Robin Smith, Systemic Fiscal Reform; Stephen Stretton, 4CMR;

Building Infrastructure

Here is Andrew Rawnsley on the response to the financial crisis:


"Rather than encourage people to squitter money on imports, the
government should build us an infrastructure fit for this century"

Well said.

New Gadgets

OK, I've just reached a state of computer-system nirvana.

On the hardware side, I'm now using an Alphasmart Dana (bought on eBay for £100). The best way to describe this is combining the simplicity of an electronic typewriter with the convenience of a Psion organizer.

On software side, I use Google extensively (Gmail and Calendar). I use CompanionLink for Googleto synchronize my online calendar with the Psion desktop/Alphasmart calendar.

In terms of editing documents, I'm using OpenOffice 3.0 which looks wonderful. This has full support for mathematical formulae, and can export to MediaWiki or Latex format. It links smoothly with (open source) Zotero, which is a Firefox plugin for bibliography management.

Reluctantly, I'm using Microsoft Word .doc format again, just because everyone (including my Alphasmart) can use this.

This system seems to work very well, so now I'm going to use it!!

Nick Pidgeon on Risk, Climate and Nuclear Energy Psychology

On 27 November 2008 I went to a talk by Prof Nick Pidgeon of School of Psychology, University of Cardiff on the Public Understanding of Risk, particularly in the context of climate change and nuclear energy. His talk was extremely interesting in the research on the psychology of risk acceptance. Climate Change is very serious; we need education and dialogue and an 'Analytic-Deliberative' process.

Full notes stored at: http://www.stephenstretton.org.uk/Reviews/PidgeonRisk27Nov.pdf

Environmental and Social Entrepreneurship

On Wednesday 26th November Cambridge University Entrepreneurs organised an event about Environmental and Social Goals in Entrepreneurship. The talk included NICKY DEE, IAN STEED of the Humanitarian Society and TAMAS BERTENYI - R&D Director of Quiet Revolution

There was lots of useful tips for starting social enterprises. Important common point is finding out the need that you are trying to address

It was a good talk, and I've written up the event here.

Robin Williams: High Performance Rowing Coach

On Friday 28th November; Robin Williams, former CUBC and UK Rowing coach explained his successful approach. He suggested that the most important thing is a person or persons establishing a culture of success from the top down. Principles make a difference. its necessary to be realistic and be optimistic; let's set a goal and work out the first step.

'High Performance' is about doing something the best way. The process of desiring success starts with Recreation leading to Appetite and then Ambition, ending finally with Determination, with an important role for Self-belief and Will Power. Rowing is about working as a group and bonding. It takes time to establish the right culture. Coaches are a team too. Everyone has a job to do!

Where do you start? You, start with a dream, this leads to self-belief. Its necessary to focus on processes, rather than outcomes. Assess risks and, where necessary, change processes. Measure success, review and then improve. It helps to start from the basics.

Dreams can come true but the dream is the last inch. It's a series of steps. Ambition is the fuel. Appetite starts it off. Most important thing is to create a good purposeful atmosphere; a space with desire.

Life in a holarchy

Traditionally parts of the green movement have often appealed for people to reduce and cut down energy consumption, citing moral arguments. Here I suggest that we need to consider the real physical and psychological needs and desires of people first. It may be easier, politically and economically to provide alternatives than ask people to reduce their consumption by a large amount.

The philosophical background to this idea, I presented on Thursday on 'living in a holarchy*', with a 'two way contract'.
The basic argument is the following:
Smaller scale structures (e.g. individuals, nations) need to take account the correct-function of larger structures (e.g. nations, earth system) in order to have a suitable habitat to live in.
Larger scale structures (earth system, nations) need to take account of the survival conditions of smaller scale structures (nations, individuals) in order to exist politically.

I think the 'conventional' current of green thinking tends to only see one way of the contract: the need for smaller scale agents to take account of the whole, in order to have a habitat worth living in. But there is also, in my way of thinking a second direction, the need for the larger scale structures to take account of the survival needs and desires of smaller scale agents in order to /exist politically/.

In this context, I think it may be well be worthwhile to focus on a) proper global taxation of carbon based fuels, especially coal; b) new energy supplies.

Regarding (b), the cost of decarbonising our energy supplies (and similarly making each house energy efficient) can be considered positive in an economic crisis, because of the demand stimulation. For the UK, final energy consumption of 240GW at about £2bn/GW (e.g. for uk wind/ccs/nuclear/imported concentrated solar with accelerated learning) makes investment required about £440bn, or about £22bn per year for 20 years. This is less than military expenditure of c.£30bn/year; and current total capital formation (investment) £64bn/year. The investment to will pay back in reduced oil and gas bills in the future. Also having sufficient energy supplies is a crucial part of being human. Arguments over fairness may be difficult when confronted with real human desires: energy is freedom and power. How do you make it worth people's while to reduce emissions? Decarbonising the energy supply also de-links economic growth with emissions, and this is essential.

I do agree that per-capita is a good rule of thumb in determining an apportionment of our relative impacts on the natural world.
I think equality may suffer from an 'equality of what' problem. For example, you could say by contrast that every human should have a right to a house warmed to a certain level, and energy needs would differ. Work by Richard Starkey has indicated the lack of philosophical support for equal per-capita entitlements, despite it's usefulness.

We also need to think more in terms of management and prices than emissions quantities, because creating rights to quantities will lead to 'rent-seeking behaviour'. Institutional arrangements (e.g a world carbon bank) may be better than trying to assign per capita emissions targets to individual nations and people. If you create more property, there will be a fight to enclose it. We need to move from emitting CO2 from being something valuable to fight over to something not valuable that we need to get away from. Better to instead tax carbon heavily, and provide guarantees for investment in alternative energy sources.

* The word Holarchy comes from Arthur Koestler. meaning "a hierarchy of holons — where a holon is both a part and a whole". See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holarchy

* Compare 'Panarchy'

* I'm indebted to Cormac Cullinan, who either provoked my interest in this concept or was thinking along the similar lines independently http://www.earthjuris.org/viewpointdocuments/Wild%20Law-Cullinan.pdf

Anatole Kaletsky - A good time to spend - or invest

Anatole Kaletsky writes
"Cameron may drown in his clear blue water"
With the collapse of their poll lead, the Tories have reverted to type and adopted a thoroughly bad economic policy

Broadly speaking, Kaletsky is arguing that recessions are not a good time to put up taxes, because that risks making the recession worse. Instead it is a good time for governments to borrow to invest. Governments should be trying to counteract the fickle emotions of the markets, not running with them. A disasterous counter-cyclical approach was what originally destroyed much of Britain's industrial capacity in the early 1980s. Trust is central:

At present investors and savers seem to trust nothing except bits of paper signed by governments, be they dollar bills, bonds or banks with government guarantees. At some point the world's savers, investors and bankers will presumably decide that assets of real economic value, such as houses, oil wells or shares in commercial enterprises are better stores of wealth than paper signed by governments. But when this happens the financial crisis will, ipso facto, be over, and inflation not deflation will again be the main threat.

That will be the time to hear from advocates of fiscal prudence - but until then the right policy will be to borrow and spend.

On Disagreeing

I found this on the web about how to disagree...
There are seven 'Disagreement Hierarchy' levels from the worst method to the best.
DH0. Name-calling.
DH1. Ad Hominem.
DH2. Responding to Tone.
DH3. Contradiction.
DH4. Counterargument.
DH5. Refutation.
DH6. Refuting the Central Point.

I guess its probably unproductive to do anything below level 4.
And level 6 is best. Here is what is said about level 6.
The force of a refutation depends on what you refute. The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone's central point.

Even as high as DH5 we still sometimes see deliberate dishonesty, as when someone picks out minor points of an argument and refutes those. Sometimes the spirit in which this is done makes it more of a sophisticated form of ad hominem than actual refutation. For example, correcting someone's grammar, or harping on minor mistakes in names or numbers. Unless the opposing argument actually depends on such things, the only purpose of correcting them is to discredit one's opponent.

Truly refuting something requires one to refute its central point, or at least one of them. And that means one has to commit explicitly to what the central point is. So a truly effective refutation would look like:
The author's main point seems to be x. As he says:

But this is wrong for the following reasons...
The quotation you point out as mistaken need not be the actual statement of the author's main point. It's enough to refute something it depends upon.

However, is it productive even to disagree at all??? Of course, avoiding disagreement maybe looks aloof, but disagreeing is often extremely time consuming and doesn't necessarily create positive alternatives. Disagreeing in detail often requires an obsession to a task which may be unhealthy.

Anyway, I have the following summary:

  1. Spend time understanding the central point of your interlocutor
  2. Paraphrase this point and even comment yourself. If you have the time to read something, you have the time to comment on it
  3. Suggest positive arguments yourself in the area that really matters, although not necessarily in the same post

There is a danger of all of this 'directed' advice, that danger is that your interlocutor may see this as a 'war' and this war will induce an 'arms race'. You need to move to a more cooperative state; or at least a state where there is some degree of cooperation over shared goals or rules of the game. In general, we need to focus not on how to win the argument, but on the arguments themselves. Truth and reasonableness are higher goals than momentary victory.

Online Bibliographies

Today I've been looking at systems to manage bibliographies. 
I found two that look good: Citeulike.org and Zotero.org

  • Zotero.org is a plugin to Firefox. It's open source and has lots of nice features but sharing is not yet developed.
  • Citeulike.org is a web-based interface that allows open sharing of pages.
I think Citeulike is the way forward for scholarly colaboration. 

However, it exports only in RIS (e.g. for Endnote+Word) or Bibtex (for Latex). What should I use if I want to use OpenOffice or just html for my documents?

Create a new Citeyoulike group for each document, and to simply link to that at the end of each online document.  When a paper needs to be finalised one can export the list into a completed Endnote file, and thence to the format required in the paper.

Zizek and the ideological role of eastern thought

This article has links to my own life (self-awareness/self-criticism) more than it has links to the rest of the blog. Nevertheless some people may find it interesting:

It concerns the possible ideological role of 'eastern' ideas especially in the context of 'future shock':

One should mention here the well-known concept of "future shock" that describes how people are no longer psychologically able to cope with the dazzling rhythm of technological development and the social changes that accompany it. Things simply move too fast, and before one can accustom oneself to an invention, it has already been supplanted by a new one, so that one more and more lacks the most elementary "cognitive mapping."

Here is the conclusion:

The difference between the authentic fundamentalists and the perverted
Moral Majority fundamentalists is that the first (like the Amish in the
United States) get along very well with their American neighbors since
they are simply centered on their own world and not bothered by what
goes on out there among "them," while the Moral Majority fundamentalist
is always haunted by the ambiguous attitude of horror/envy with regard
to the unspeakable pleasures in which the sinners engage. The reference
to Envy as one of the seven deadly sins can thus serve as a perfect
instrument enabling us to distinguish authentic fundamentalism from its
Moral Majority mockery: authentic fundamentalistsdo not envy their neighbors their different jouissance.

Envy is grounded in what one is tempted to call the "transcen-dental
illusion" of desire, strictly correlative to the Kantian transcendental
illusion: a natural "propensity" in the human being to (mis)perceive
the object which gives body to the primordial lack as the object which
is lacking, which was lost (and, consequently, possessed prior to this
loss); this illusion sustains the longing to regain the lost object, as
if this object has a positive substantial identity independently of its
being lost.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is a simple and radical one: Moral
Majority fundamentalists and tolerant multiculturalists are two sides
of the same coin: they both share a fascination with the Other. In the
Moral Majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the
Other's excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist
tolerance of the Other's Otherness is also more twisted than it may
appear—it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to remain
"other," not to become too much like us. In contrast to both these
positions, the only truly tolerant attitude towards the Other is that
of the authentic radical fundamentalist.

My Talk on Wednesday

To answer the questions posed in my last post, I gave a presentation at the Land Economy seminar series on Wednesday. I had a warm reception and kind feedback from my talk. I publish my slides here for your reference.

The UK Energy Crisis

What do we need to do to solve the simultaneous energy and climate crises?

What do we mean by the energy crisis?

There are various energy crises (high prices, unstable suppliers, resource depletion?). One possibly serious energy crisis is the potential shortage of electricity generation capacity.

What are the reasons behind this ’energy gap’?

Firstly there is a closing of existing capacity: both of old nuclear power stations coming to the end of their lives and of dirty coal power stations being closed down due to EU regulations: see this report p11-13.

Secondly, there is large uncertainty in the market.

Uncertainty leads to:

a) returns need to be higher or else investment won’t take place [1]

b) investment may be delayed, especially if a delay will lead to the resolution of uncertainty [2]

The problem now is that there is severe uncertainty over the future of the energy in this country. The government has assuaged some of the regulatory uncertainty by making strategic statements about the future of nuclear, renewable and fossil fuel energy. But there remains great financial uncertainty.

Each power source has its’ own uncertainties

a) Gas: the fuel is now hugely expensive, making this source uneconomic if such prices were to be maintained

b) Nuclear: nobody has built a nuclear power station in the UK since Sizewell: there are considerable price escalation and legal risks. A power station can be built in 7 years but with all the regulatory and public opinion hurdles new power is unlikely to come on stream before 2020. The government was 5 years too late in it’s decision.

c) Renewables: the Renewables Obligation, unlike the German system of ’feed-in tarrifs’ provides a highly uncertain return

d) Carbon Capture and Storage (coal or gas): again we don’t know the exact cost until the plant has been built. Any plants built by 2015 would be ’demonstration’ plants.

e) Coal. The dirtiest energy source of them all. The price of energy in the form of coal is a lot lower than the price of energy in the form of natural gas or oil. However, is the European Emissions Trading Scheme carbon price sufficient to control the price?

In this sitution, gas is ruled out as too expensive. renewables may happen if they can get through planning, nuclear is too late for 2015 but could make a significant impact from 2020 onwards. We are stuck between the rock of our climate change ambitions and a hard place of the investment response of low-carbon electricity to current ambitions. What we need is strong incentives for investment and in particular strong incentives for low carbon electricity. My next post will explain how this can be done.

[1] uncertain cashflows will lead investors to require a higher return in order to compensate for the risk. in otherwords people will invest but only if the price is right.

In otherwords, uncertainty may lead to less investment and the prices of that investment may rise to compensate investors for the extra risk incurred.

The relevant theory of this is known as certainty equivalent. Under certain conditions, an investor’s aversion to risk can be represented by a higher or ’risky’ discount rate. For a full account of the relation between the various ways of representing risk in investment decision see Rothwell and Gomez (2003) "Electricity Economics", IEEE press, NJ, USA pages 53-74

If governments make investing more risky than it needs to be, then electricity consumers (industry and the public) are likely to have to pick up the bill in higher bills or blackouts.

[2] If investment is irreversible there is a further effect. Real options theory shows that a combination of irreversibility and uncertainty can lead to investments being delayed. See for example Dixit and Pyndyck ’Investment Under Uncertainty, Princeton.

How to contain the credit crisis - Martin Wolf (FT)

Here are 4 do's and 4 do not's of Martin Wolf in the FT. At first glance my plan appears consistent with the relevant do's and the do nots. Note that Wolf suggests to find alternative methods of financing housing including land value taxation (Do not number 3), maybe as an alternative to other property taxes.

Here are four “dos” for a wise government.

  1. sustain the core financial system.
  2. if the government does end up bailing out banks or facilitating mergers, make sure it also contains the risks taxpayers are running.
  3. develop a contingency plan for a systemic bail-out of the financial system.
  4. develop a more credible set of independent institutional arrangements to replace the fiscal rules, which are about to be utterly discredited.

Now here are four “do nots”.

  1. do not pay too much attention to the financial sector’s self-interested bleating.
  2. do not change the monetary framework.
  3. do not bail out mortgage lending via government subsidies.(...) What it can do, instead, is facilitate the development of new systems of finance, such as covered bonds. What it can also do is consider land-value taxation as an alternative to other property taxes.
  4. do not panic. 

A Possible Solution to the Financial Crisis

A Possible Solution to the Financial Crisis

Here is a suggestion after reading Anatole Kaletsky's Article today http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/anatole_kaletsky/article4776149.ece?Submitted=true

Two new organisations need to be created to formalise and eventually commercialise the government's role as 'lender of last resort' and 'insurer of last resort' to financial institutions. I'll call these 'Bigbank' and 'Biginsure'

Bigbank's role is to lend other banks so long as the other bank is solvent.
Bigbank's lending should be to other creditworthy institutions. It should it insure the loans it makes against the risk of default where possible, by buying credit default protection in the open market.
Bigbank's role is to provide 'bridging loans' to other banks who might have temporary liquidity problems due to speculative attack.
Bigbank could (say) have around £100bn of capital. The government providing the initial capitalisation, by buying shares, or by guarantee. So long as the risks on the loans that it makes can be adequately insured, Bigbank can lend many times its' capital.

Biginsure's role is to be an 'insurer of last resort'. Biginsure will insure bigbank against it's counterparty going bust, if no other insurers can be found. Big insure could also insure against other major risks where at present. the government provides a guarantee (e.g. terrorism, natural disasters). Biginsure would be well capitalised, in order to cover quite large potential risks. Biginsure could grow (e.g from an initial size of £100bn of government-owned shares to a size of £1tr) by selling shares to the public, so spreading risk broadly.

Both institutions can act commercially, by providing loans at rates that account for the inherent (although not the speculation-induced) riskiness of lending (because now-solvent institutions might become insolvent in the future). The main role of bigbank is to offer liquidity and thus defend solvent institutions against speculative attack.

You can comment: http://climatephilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/09/my-solution-to-financial-crisis.html

Investment Banks Should Not Hold Systemic Credit Risk

Comments Welcome.

The Triple Crisis

It has been suggested on my website and elsewhere [1] that we face three fundamental strategic crises:
  • "Firstly, there is a short term economic crisis in modern economies. Our quality of life could be better than it currently is, and we need to ensure we save enough for the retirement of an ageing population. Our tax systems hold back the economy
  • Secondly, there is a particular crisis in energy and food sectors, with soaring prices and political instability in suppliers of energy.
  • Thirdly, there is a global crisis over the future of life on earth, associated with climate change, pollution and the burning of fossul fuels."
I hope to address these fundamental issues in this blog and on my website in my "Short Guide to a Secure Future".

"These crises need a robust, global and integrated response. This website will describe a set of credible and realistic solutions to these crises."

[1] e.g by others such as NEF
Also see presidential nominees: McCain's views and plans Obama's views and plans

In The Beginning

It is funny that I see my future writing essays. At school I was never so good with words. Age 11, the mere thought of an essay sent me in to a paroxysm of anxiety. Once I started writing, words might flow... but how difficult it felt to put the first word on paper! 

Today, I still have the same difficulty with starting things. What is the main task to be done in a day; where should I start? I find one very useful piece of advise is to write down one word. This reminds me of the beginning of St John's gospel: "In the beginning was the Word...". Why not start every day with a word? And what a beautiful and profound piece of writing this is!

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Thinking and Our Future

One of the purposes of this blog is to apply some of the ideas of some of the great thinkers to the great problems of our age, in particular, our energy supply and it's implications for the future of the Earth's climate. I think the particular combination of political philosophy and our energy future is severely neglected.

The limiting factor in tackling the danger of climate change is not our understanding of the physical climate. We know already that there is at the very least a credible risk of an average warming of 2 - 6 degrees Celsius above the long-term average, with a risk of severe impacts such as the melting of ice, the destruction of ecosystems and the desertification of fertile farmland. This in itself might motivate a concern to mitigate those risks.

We know the basic policies for tackling climate change; namely a price for carbon or carbon tax. However, these policies have not been implemented. This could be a communication problem or it could be something even more serious. If we accept there is a danger, we need to think about whether it is a problem which can be solved socially and politically. If not, what needs to change? More fundamentally, is there any agent or idea which can actually affect our trajectory? If we are on a road to hell, can we get off or take a different path? What are the boundaries to the emotiveness of our thoughts? Can science speak truth unto power and if so when? What is power and what language does he speak? How can you or I speak with him or her?

The economics of climate change is now a little less neglected, after the Stern review and the subsequent outburst of academic activity. But the political theory of climate change still seems to exist at a very basic level. Hopefully this blog will find those thinkers who are talking in the wilderness and to bring them in touch with this thread at least. If they cannot be found this blog aims to start to redress their absence.


Welcome to my blog! 

This will be my personal blog. I guess I would describe myself as a climate philosopher, where philosophy is considered in the older sense! Hope you enjoy the blog!

Complex Models and The Impact of CO2

Here is a challenge laid down by Steve McIntyre
"I think that it is important for people in the field to write out a careful “engineering quality” exposition of how doubled CO2 leads to 3 deg C in which all the key parameterizations and feedbacks are written down and described."

Modelling is on the horns of a dilemma. A simple model can't predict the detailed fluctuations.

A complex model may start to predict the *phenomena* of these detailed fluctuations (ie. You get El Nino) but may fail to predict numerically what fluctuations will take place when. As soon as you try to predict the complex details, the additional assumptions introduced will have their own uncertainty and that may well destroy the predictive power in itself.

Climate prediction is therefore astoundingly difficult *in theory*.

What the *practice* is like is a different matter; it's hard to know.

My impression of climate models is good but based on poor evidence(I haven't personally worked on climate models). Its done in the UK by the Hadley Centre, part of the Met Office who are well funded and have to make testable predictions every day. I have also been impressed by those I have seen presenting from the UK (e.g. Peter Cox).

Some have argued that all personal scientific understanding is a sort of model. See discussion of the Lucidity Principle by Michael McIntyre (Prof of Atmospheric Science at Cambridge) http://www.atm.damtp.cam.ac.uk/people/mem/

In general I think it is necessary to build up a hierarchy of models which are themselves scientific understanding, from the very simplest Stefan-Boltzmann Radiative Balance. The books I have/has (I've given some of them away) and recommend are:
  • 'A Climate Modeling Primer', which has a CD attached
  • 'Elementary Climate Physics' by Taylor
  • 'Global Warming: a complete briefing' by Sir John Houghton.
This in part is a solution to Steve McIntyre's request. He should read the books and outline a hierarchy of models himself.

NASA Climate Science "Marginalised"

An internal audit has found that the NASA press office "reduced, marginalised or mischaracterized" climate science, for political purposes between 2004 and 2006.

"On September 29, 2006, 14 United States Senators cosigned a letter to the NASA Inspector General to request a formal investigation into allegations of "political interference" with the work of scientists at NASA."
"Our investigation found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public through those particular media over which the Office of Public Affairs had control (i.e., news releases and media access)."



Here is Carl Wunsch, professor of physical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on his treatment at the hands of the makers of a documentary filmed on Channel Four. He said the film, 'The Great Global Warming Swindle', was 'grossly distorted' and 'as close to pure propaganda as anything since World War Two'[1].

Public service broadcasting is a precious flower. It's time to defend truth and integrity of our documentaries, through the public service mandate. The BBC of Lord Reith, Kenneth Clark and David Attenborough should follow, intensify and expand it's mission to inspire and educate. Other broadcasters should not forget their responsibilities. The alternatives are either a media and a society manipulated by hidden interests and characterized by a race to the bottom; or the inspiration of human civilisation and the natural world. We must be brave enough to make the choice.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/mar/11/broadcasting.science


This website is here for people who take a critical and scientific view of public discourse. Statements made in the media, in newspapers and in television documentaries should be subjected to critical review, based on how their claims stack up relative to basic physical principles. We will be casting a sceptical eye on some of the wilder scientific pronouncements made in different fields by non-scientists, focussing initially on pronouncements made about the science of climate change. We should apply the standards of the laboratory to what people say in public. And we should not be afraid to be inspired by the art of human civilisation and the natural world - in short we can be inspired by life itself.

It is devoted to the struggle against falsehood and lies, and in particular to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

"And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world - but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art."

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize for Literature, Acceptance Speech, 1970