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Freeman Dyson – Environmentalism: The New Secular Religion


Freeman Dyson (one of our greatest living thinkers IMO) talks about Global Warming in a New York book reviewThe Question of Global Warming .

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the be-lief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.

Read the whole article here.

Offtopic (maybe): I'm not holding myself out as a proponent, but I note that CNN has a piece today called Harvesting solar power from space. Thought I'd check UD to see if DaveScot had already posted on it, which it looks like he hasn't. In the meantime, check out www.cnn.com/tech Eric Anderson
Just popping in to mention that I really admire Freeman Dyson as well for a number of reasons, and it's nice to see he makes a characteristically thoughtful appearance yet again. And I'm absolutely a humongous fan of alternative energy solutions - biodiesel (not with corn, damnit), solar, and otherwise. nullasalus
sparc Modern biology was defined as the study of living tissue. Did you not understand it or didn't bother to read it? DaveScot
mc The problem of using photosynthesis for power production is the acreage needed would impinge on food production Why would you want to make it land based when 70% of the earth's surface is ocean? Freeman Dyson’s review; I get the impression he is saying that attempts to reduce global warming would have beneficial environmental effects Dyson's opinion on global warming is that the potential downside is "grossly exagerated" and there are more important problems to address such as "Poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health". It's an opinion I happen to share with him. See here for relevant Dyson quotes. DaveScot
modern biology? sparc
M Caldwell Sadly, progress in SPS has been glacial over the decades I've known about it. The biggest problem is the cost of getting material into orbit and little has been done in developing a low-cost method of getting material into orbit. Actually, in the last few years, I've become hopeful a biological solution will be found. In principle there's no reason we can't genetically engineer bacteria that can convert water, CO2, and sunlight directly into fuel-quality ethanol. Craig Venter is working on it and I bet he gets there LONG before any other technology can become widely deployed. All the really difficult engineering work is already done for us. We don't have to invent any of the really difficult stuff like photosynthesis. Whether by God or by RM+NS the molecular machinery we need is already here. All we have to do is gather together a few existing capabilities in disparate microorganisms. Genetic engineering will change the world in ways more significant than the harnessing of fire, agriculture, metallurgy, and electricity all combined. Progress in genetic engineering has been anything but glacial. In fact it appears to me that GE is improving on a curve quite like Moore's Law of semiconductors. And the Darwin fanatics call ME anti-science. Hardly. I'm so pro-science you could call it my religion. In fact I'm so pro-science I can't stand it being polluted with useless narrative accounts of historical biology that are inspired not by the promise of practical applications but rather by stupid competing ideologies. Future biology is where it's all at and if intelligent design wasn't a factor in past organic evolution it's definitely a player now and in the future. Phil Skell, a national academy member of my personal acquaintance, put it most succinctly "Modern biology is the study of living tissue. Historical biology is the study of imprints in rocks. Historical biology does not inform modern biology in any significant way." Pass it on. DaveScot
M Caldwell Storage and distribution are significant problems for almost all conceivable energy sources. However, for solar power satellites, it's not very significant. They can deliver power, wirelessly, at any time of the day or night in any weather at any point on the earth's surface where a rectenna farm can be erected (a hundred square kilometers or so). Land underneath the antennas can still be farmed as the most cost effective antennas (85% efficiency) are just thin wires that don't block much sunlight. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_satellite DaveScot
Fusion power is already here. It's called "the sun". We just have to get better at collecting the energy. DaveScot
MC You have put your finger on a hot issue . . . The alarmism now has to be a part of the feasibility process . . . [Look on the recent flap over biofuels vs food; where simplistic analysis -- for want of a better term -- planted that idea in the public mind, when there are many factors on where food prices and availability are going. And, GWB is probably more right than his critics when he made the ratio out as follows: "85 percent of the world's food prices are caused by weather, increased demand and energy prices . . . 15 percent has been caused by by ethanol . . . "] Welcome to Plato's Cave of shadow shows masquerading as unquestionable truth, friends . . . GEM of TKI kairosfocus
Hi MC: Thanks for the kind words. On Fusion, why not look at the previously linked Wiki article? [I find Wiki can give very useful 101 level intros to many topics, once the ideological biases don't kick in. E.g. don't trust them on ID or anything related . . .] My guess is that practical Fusion is probably 30 - 50 years out; sadly, it could be 100 years, and it could be never, too. But, I incline to the 30 - 50 y window. In any case it is sufficently potentially promising that we need to look at it. In the meanwhile PBMRs are a major way forward over the next 50+ years. (If we can assess in a calm way -- a point I made just earlier this AM to a partner, on pulling together some ideas on a way to a viable energy future for one of the Caribbean's key nations.) And yes, as that suggests, I do have to keep my finger on the pulse of energy and linked issues, as part of my "day job" so to speak. On the environmentalism as secular religion theme raised by Dyson, actually I think we are looking at issues on ethics. On that my bridge is Kant's Categorical Imperative [which onward ties to the Golden Rule, though K would raise challenges on the connexion]. Fundamentally, we need to provide better and more fairly for our needs today, but without so damaging the biophysical environment, the community and the economy that we seriously damage the ability of posterity to look after their needs. (The echo of Bruntland is deliberate. Cf my remarks here.) Do to posterity as we would have had our ancestors do for us, so to speak. In that, IMO, lurks whatever is valid in the current environmental concerns. But also since this is a framework on thinking through alternatives and analysis, it leads us away from shrill rhetoric and hysteria. (Slandering those who do not sign on to the dotted line on the latest scare is fundamentally disrespectful and inconsiderate, indeed, it is inconsistent with the claim that one is concerned for others and the environment.) Maybe we can find a way forward . . . GEM of TKI PS: I am not so sure that Kyoto has a + 1 trillion net present value, as I am a bit skeptical on the climate simulations games. When they show me reliable retrodiction then I will take more seriously. kairosfocus
Dave An excellent article by Prof Dyson (a genuinely great and wide-ranging, deep thinker), one that deserves to be widely read and soberly responded to. Alas, there is far too much shrillness for there to be much prospect of that. But, I find the policy recommendations based on Nordhaus to be very helpful:
The main conclusion of the Nordhaus analysis is that the ambitious proposals, "Stern" and "Gore," are disastrously expensive, the "low-cost backstop" is enormously advantageous if it can be achieved, and the other policies including business-as-usual and Kyoto are only moderately worse than the optimal policy. The practical consequence for global-warming policy is that we should pursue the following objectives in order of priority. (1) Avoid the ambitious proposals. (2) Develop the science and technology for a low-cost backstop. (3) Negotiate an international treaty coming as close as possible to the optimal policy, in case the low-cost backstop fails. (4) Avoid an international treaty making the Kyoto Protocol policy permanent. These objectives are valid for economic reasons, independent of the scientific details of global warming.
I ad that we need to re-look at nuclear power, in the guise of the pebble bed modular reactor. [This is IMO one way forward on the breakout from fossil fuels.] GEM of TKI PS: MC, physicist here. Yes I think the PBMR is a potential breakthrough for C21 energy, at least over the next 5 decades. Beyond, I hope fusion comes online! (BTW, for links, I suggest: use angle brackets and remember to put the URL between double quotes, per HTML requisites.) kairosfocus

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