Freesteel Blog » Cory Doctorow’s climate change experience

Cory Doctorow’s climate change experience

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008 at 9:31 am Written by:

I’m on a train journey to Germany, so it must be Cory Doctorow season.

The pointless good-for-nothing time-wasting Etech 2008 conference happened last March in San Diego. Instead of watching it on-line, Cory Doctorow flew all the way there to the hotel from London for a couple of days and was interviewed in the lobby by adoring fan Mitch Wagner where he raved about the keynote speech by Saul Griffith on the engineering of climate change.

Unlike all his lazy legions of fans, I’ve produced a transcript for you who have no time for this to skim through:

Mitch: So what do you see at the show that looks interesting? You’ve been here a couple of days.

Cory: I actually think the first keynote is the one that made the biggest impression on me. That was Saul Griffith’s take on climate change as an engineering problem. Basically, lets look at the parameters of climate change. How much carbon can we put in the atmosphere? What happens when we put it there? What happens when the climate changes as a result of it? If we’re going to put N tonnes of climate changing carbon into the atmosphere and no more, how many Joules does that generate in coal, how many Joules does it generate in oil, how many Joules does it generate in nukes? How many Joules are left in the ground? Just kind of running the numbers on Joules on energy, then figuring out what we need to do as an engineering problem to save our bacon.

Mitch: So what was his conclusion? Are we all going to be burning dung in the future to power our laptops?

Cory: I have a feeling that burning dung is a bad idea. Actually, his conclusions were pretty interesting. He said that most people in America are going to have to cut their consumption by 10 times, but that doesn’t mean we have to put on hair shirts. This is not a cry to ‘live simply’. As Alex Steffen from World Changing says, “We don’t need smaller footprints, we need better handprints”. We need better tools. And Saul said, “I took a look at the stuff that I wanted to do in my life. I want to commute less. I want to excercise more. I want to eat better. I want better stuff. I want stuff that lasts longer and is better made.” And it turns out that if you eat more healthfully, live closer to work, live closer to your loved ones, take more time to enjoy your surroundings, and buy better goods, your energy consumption falls by 90%.

If you live in a better house and in more comfortable circumstance, your energy consumption plummets. So, he said, basically I looked around and I didn’t need to be an acetic. I needed to be decadent. I needed to live a kind of simoritic existance where I eat delicious meals all the time and kind of took it easy, and had some leisure in my life, and spent time with my loved ones, and exercised every day by walking to work or cycling to work. And when that was all done, I would end up having adjusted my energy consumption that was sustainable for the planet.

This hand-print nonsense has been showing up in Cory’s monologue for about two years. He’s citing to this Alex Steffen blogpost where he explains how much better it would be if our lifestyle tended to heal the ecosystem rather than destroy it.

You don’t say.

It would be nice if flying latrines hurled across an east African slum grew roses, but they don’t.

The podcast of Saul Griffith’s Etech 2008 talk has just come on-line, which means we get to hear the input data of this incident — those of us who chose not to waste 4 tonnes of CO2 with a 12 tonne warming effect on this frivolous trip to a California hotel to either meet with a bunch of people who lived too far away from to work with, or had come along from home with you in the first place.

Here’s the bit of Saul’s speech which is crucial:

If you read BP’s State of The Environment Report, Exxon’s State of The Environment Report, the Stern Report, IPCC reports, they all have some page that talks about the consequences of what happens with different temperature rises. And they’re interesting to me. You’d say that all reports are written by people who don’t want to be laughed at when they hand in their homework. So they’re very conservative by definition.

So when they talk about consequences, they give very dry one-line answers, like: “At one and a half degrees we’ll lose 10% of species. At two and a half degrees we’ll lose 15 to 40% of species. At three degress, one to four billion people will face water shortages. At three and a half degrees 50% of species lost. At four degrees entire cities including London, New York, San Francisco are lost to sea level changes.”

And what I find astonishing about all the reports is that not one of them thinks one step beyond their statements. You know, 10% of species lost or 25%, starts to look like ecosystem collapse. When ten to a hundred million refugees try to walk over a border, it’s not just one line in a report. I don’t think there’s been a case in history where ten million people try and cross a border without a war.

So you could say that if anything, everyone is underestimating what’s going on.

This is true. This is predicted. Events like this have happened both in the historical and the geological past. The fact that our puny minds, warped by our wholly deranged and decadent culture, are incapable of imagining it with enough force to feel threatened to do something about it is ultimately our own downfall.

What we are going through now is leaving a mark in the fossil record that will be visible in a billion years time when all the continents are different. We do not appreciate this.

Why pick on Cory Doctorow?

Good question.

Here we have a man who wields an enormous cultural influence through his BoingBoing blog where he promotes the clear message that it’s cool to fly 200,000 miles for — as far as one can determine — nothing more than to feel the love from an audience as he rabbits on about the latest well-worn and ultimately irrelevant copyright injustice he’s just heard about.

He associates himself with the internet, yet never, ever insists that his lectures be conducted through what is now easily accessible video conferencing technology.

He has built up the social connections to be able to publish fast-selling popular Science Fiction books where he has the opportunity to help us to imagine with enough vividness the approaching and detailed future laid out for us by the scientists. But instead he wastes it on rubbish novels bunged off in two months flat that are out of date and politically ignorant of the phenomena that they portray.

He has recently had a baby who, if she is experiences a reasonably good life-span, may live to see the end of the century when the climate change consequences are really cutting in.

He writes a fortnightly column in a national British newspaper where he gets to talk about whatever he feels we need to know.

He is intelligent, reasonably enlightened, informed, and the closest thing we have to a public intellectual in this age.

And he is about the most regressive influence I can identify in our society when it comes to facing up to this challenge.

Everything converges perfectly into his character: the job as a science fiction writer (you couldn’t make this up), the provable level of knowledge, the inherited stake in the future, the lack of financial conflict of interest in terms of employment by an oil company, and the fact that so much of this man’s life is left littered around the internet that you can piece together exactly what he has to know.

In 500 years time, people are going to look back on this era, and think WTF!

This will be because as anyone who looks back on the distant past will notice that the years tend to telescope together. To us the year 1510 is indistinguishable from the year 1520, but that doesn’t mean the people in 1510 had any idea what was going to hit them in 1520, any more than we know what’s going to happen in 2018.

In 2508 I predict that human historians (if the species survives) would be wise to study the case of Cory Doctorow’s life and work as evidence to explain what is going on now. There is nothing special about him, beyond the fact that enough incidental material about is life may be preserved and could be available to rule out all the usual excuses for denial, such as conflict of interest, lack of intelligence, or unavailability of the alternatives.

Such scholars will be able to create theses and theories about the era because they will know what is coming up, and we don’t. Hopefully, they will have a better understanding of the human condition by then — in the same way that our modern scholars have a better understanding of chemistry than the people who lived in the fifteenth century.

I find it impossible to guess what is going on in Cory Doctorow’s mind in the sense that to me it is possible to resolve all the inconsistencies between what he knows and what he does.

What I do know is that if the message can’t get through to him, then it can’t get through to anybody. So his opinion is relevant.

It’s not going to happen it in time.

Because we are the Carbon Weevils.

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